Two of Many Women

I was inspired by a colleague this week. I watched her work with someone nearly broken, a woman who still says she cares for the man who harms her. She is ambivalent about what to do. I had thought my co-worker might be soft-voiced and exceedingly careful but was illuminated by her ways and means. They are of a different culture than I am and I had asked for assistance, her insight so I might better understand. I watched her at work.

She was first polite, with few words. But soon she became bold and frank. She was insistent while respectful in her pleading for change. She didn’t cover the truth with easy lies or elaborate good will. The reality is: this person could lose her life to domestic violence. My colleague had seen it happen and so she was clear: “Save yourself, your children. You are a good woman and you need to stay alive.”

And then there is another client I work with whose face has visited me all week. She is slipping back into a lifestyle that demands violence as a ticket to live. It is this or possibly not survive, and she mostly believes it can still work right now. It is what she knows, and it is her default when she wants to give up. With her I am calm and gentle. I have to wait. I note the signs of her anger and speak about the depression that keeps her numb and listen for the moment when she will stop fighting life, herself, me, everyone. When she will remember how much she wants a little peace, a small kindness. Then she may look at me with eyes unguarded, the door open a crack, for at least an instant. I will have to be ready to respond. It has happened before. It can happen again. I know who she thinks owns her; she is hostage to this belief. But I am not afraid of her anger , just for her weary and scarred life. I am patient as one must be with any badly wounded creature, so that she will raise her head and see a hand not to maul but to accept.

So, four women, two of whom care and want to make a difference, two of whom are riddled with confusion but have so much to offer this world.

Later when I took a long walk after work and saw the century old trees shimmer in the light and heard the birds carousing, I thought, “this, this, this wonder!” But then the women came to me with their sorrow and need and a poem made itself with each step: This this this wonder that you survive….

Two Women…

This this this!

Wonder that you survive brutality.

I see you kneel:

your heart like a cup dipped

in shallow bitter waters.

But the well is so deep

you cannot see the bottom

where light spreads itself over the universe.

You have been tricked with blindness

that dark fruit of ceaseless disregard.

Let me see you stand

and reach into the sweet unknown

pull up that mysterious power that loves you.

It speaks your lost, blameless name.

This this this

wonder that you

survive brutality.

I see you kneel,

one day will see your cup running over

I will see you rise up

with blazing-white wings

and your eyes will not weep

o yes your eyes will so shine

                                  Love should not hurt. Help stop domestic violence.

Gathering ’round the Tree of Life

I awakened this morning feeling something nameless but haunting. Familiarly rich with uncertainty. There seemed to be sunshine leaking from behind the clouds and I awaited a surge of happiness. It was the first day of my three day week-end. It was also Good Friday,  soon to be Easter, and that meant a time of gentle meditation on the death and then resurrection of Jesus. I thought of Easters past and for some reason, the memory of white patent leather shoes and floral, full-skirted dresses saddened me further.

But it wasn’t the particular day, it was me. I mused over the inhospitable territory of my thoughts and feelings as I completed my morning chores. I read over Psalm 100 about joyousness and God and thought as I scrubbed, laundered, tidied. I worried that this would be one of the rare days when I had nothing to write. Stories crept about in my mind, seeking higher ground as I toiled but still, relief was fleeting. The gloom partly diminished but my internal light was thin so I got my camera and headed out, hoping to be inspired.

The truth is, springtime, with all its extraordinary wonders, has not always been the best time for me. Growing up in the Midwest, it signified dreaded stormy weather and sent my family scurrying to the basement when tornado warnings sounded. In the Pacific Northwest, the long winter rains carry us on an upsweep of windy drizzle, tantalize with a pause or two,  then resume with a ponderous, damp trudging into April and May. The bright hyacinths and tulips sometimes seem to mock through gauzy curtains of rain.

Spring has often been the time when difficulties have spiked, also. Among them were raging tonsillitis that left me helpless and lonely in the hospital as a child;  abuse becoming a complicated misery made monstrous by a teen-aged haze of drugs. There was an incandescent love that failed, making springtime the premiere time for love seem like a terrible joke. I much later experienced a second stent implant in my artery when the first one failed and after, a very slow return of fitness. And there was loss of both my parents. I recall writing a poem at around fifteen in response to the so-called glories of spring. There is one line I still recall: “Beauty bites the broken heart.” Such angst and despair were sharpened by the abundance of spring. And so each April can bring a reminder of trials as well as a plethora of creativity.

Meanwhile, the rain held off all day. I started to snap pictures randomly and kept noticing trees, their small tender leaves unfurling, their fragrant pink and white blossoms shaking in the breeze. Bulbous, mossy roots captured my attention. Lithe limbs reached toward  heavens crowded with clouds. As I took photographs, sudden blueness leapt up and danced across the sky. All shone under the fine heat of sunshine that lingered on my shoulders, face, hands.

It was being lifted, my ratty cloak of self-sorrowing. Each step brought a line of poetry, a wafting of song, a simple prayer or two–certainty that this day, this time was good and could be better: “May my hands be useful, my words be balm; may my heart be open, my soul be free. May my mind be clear, my body be true.  May I welcome life and shape it in love.”

I strode down the center of a street and ogled the arching branches above. The trees watched over me as I rambled. They always have, since the first time I bravely climbed the big maple in the back yard as a child. Everything looked better from up there. I could see the bigger picture, all the way past crisscrossing streets, across the busy tree nursery to neighbor houses, into the dazzling, ever-changing skies above. Humanity lived on while I observed and took notes. The rough maple branches held me steady and gave me a seat upon which to wait and rest as I watched, imagined, pondered, problem solved. It let me cling to its smooth and scarred skin when crying and supported me as I sought solitude. I  could speak and not be heard by anyone except the whispering maple, and so I told it my best secrets. That tree took me away from the clanging, messy, unpredictable world below. It made me stronger and more courageous as I navigated its crooks and found favorite footholds, its brittle and sturdy branches. At the uppermost limbs, I hung on with one hand and held my left, flattened hand above my eyes and squinted into the radiant light. I felt like a hearty sailor in the crow’s nest, a bold adventurer. I was a girl who knew her way or would find it. Nothing could stop me.

But, of course we know the reality: things do stop us, at least temporarily. There is a vast and complicated web of stories in this world. We often weave them without thinking and at times walk into each others without a second glance. Even at our best, we make logistical errors, utilize surprisingly poor materials. We promise completions that cannot be finished for one reason or another. And regrets can work their way in and erode the most stalwart of souls.

But still, we can always gather around the tree of life. The idea might have sprung in part from the old maple but it graces many works of art, religious texts, poems and prayers worldwide. I know it is a compass and anchor. A shelter. Touchstone. It is the font of wisdom from which I gain knowledge and find succor.  To many, myself included, it is the divine mystery but I also see it as a community of those who are united by shared strength, hope, and experience. Call it the place of gathered lessons that every person carries on their journeys, then can teach. Perhaps it is the great collective unconscious. For me, the tree of life is like finding God alive and available right here on earth, rooted in ordinary fecund soil, rising to the celestial beyond, granting us all manner of needs while sharing the elegance and drama of creation. Within and around this tree, the truth unfolds. And it  thrives within me as long as I care for it–steady light, breath of air, affirming touch, love and respect for its power.

Last week-end I went on a short trip to Seattle with my youngest daughter, Alexandra; we met her sister, Naomi, an artist who had flown in for a ceramics conference. We enjoyed ourselves, walking and talking, eating and seeing fabulous art, laughing. We went to Pike Place Market one afternoon, perusing the variety of delights. Among the flowers, fish and hand-crafted items, I found silver earrings that had as their a design massive tree. They reminded me of the pewter necklace given to me by my husband a few years ago: another immense tree. I promptly purchased the earrings. It felt right, being with my daughters and enjoying our time together. When I returned home I thought of another tree of life that adorned a table runner, and took a picture of them together which I share with you.

But the question as my day closes–now that I am feeling realigned and more at ease– is how I can ever forget to sit at that tree, at the Master’s feet, in the magnetic compassion of God? How can I forget that there will always be shelter and direction given if it is sought?  It is what keeps me nourished. What enables me to give back. So I write this to remember once more that in this life I have the choice to create good will,  seek clarity of mind and soul. Make things a little better for me, for you.

Come, gather ’round the Tree of Life. Sit with me and rest, then climb higher up the branches. Tell me your story as we survey the lay of the land.

Girls Who Wear Roses

Night was falling over the rooftops and a chill brushed her neck and spread a web of cold under her thin cotton shirt. It had been a long walk to the park but it was a longer way back. She had to skirt the edge of the neighborhood either way but now she had to keep any eye out for Dell, her boyfriend. Or that’s what he called himself. He’d be looking for her; he wanted money. He was like a bloodhound; he always found her. But she needed to give the money to Granny Ella for the telephone. Grandpa Les needed orthotics. She could only work so many hours at the nail salon. It had been tough for a year since her grandfather had lost his job. But Jenna’s other work–the men, the dark, the sudden fear–that wasn’t so new. It had been like that one way or another a long time, and she had just turned twenty-three at 8:07 this morning.

Granny reminded her with a steaming mug of coffee and a giant cinnamon roll brought right to her bedroom on a wooden inlaid tray. Jenna was getting dressed for work, but she stopped to take a few bites,  some sips.

“What do you think, Jenna? Getting your mother up in the middle of the night?And you coming so fast we barely had time to get dressed and say a prayer for smooth passage.” Granny laughed deep and long; it sounded like it came from all the way back to Jenna’s first day. “And then we waited and waited. You looked a little like a mewing kitten, all squinty eyes and little paws, so much hair on your pretty–well, we knew it would be!–head. Yes, and the rainstorm made everything look so good as we drove you home a couple days later, and the flowers started blossoming just for you. Decorated the whole neighborhood!”

Granny put her arms around Jenna. The soft bulk of her grandmother made her think of warm pillows. Jenna wanted to stay there and breathe her dusky rose scent. She didn’t know where it came from. Granny rarely wore perfume. But she smelled sweet, as though she wore a cape of warm red roses. Grandpa Les said it was because she had diabetes, that the sugar in her blood made her exhale sweetness. Jenna thought it was her heart breathing out into the world. She was that kind of person: sturdy and sweet.

Jenna would do anything for them. They had kept her with them since she was twelve.  So she worked thirty-two hours at the salon and added to her income any way she could. She had worked two, three jobs at a time since sixteen until work got scarce.

Another way to make cash was to sell a few drugs, something she knew how to do by the time her mother disappeared. That ended when a detective came to her grandparents’ door. He took Jenna to the jail downtown where she was kept for seven hours despite the fact that she had nothing on her and he had not really seen anything. But they both knew what was going on and the whole ordeal cured her–she’d wondered if that had been the point. He had known her mother once, before she had taken a wrong turn, he’d said with a sneer.

But a third way was just selling herself, which was something one of the girls at the salon told her about, eyes averted. Then Dell showed up and Jenna thought, well, he had money and he had a good car and he knew what he wanted. What did she have? Would she ever have? A lousy story and barely enough to get by. But then it was too late to think about again. Every time Dell shoved her out the car door she turned her mind into a blank, a wall, a place where nothing happened and no one lived. Just like when she was a kid and the parties shook the house and her mother’s boyfriends smelled like whiskey and danger. It had all disappeared if she closed her eyes and thought about the starry sky outside her window. When she got a little older,  she learned about the planets and thought of them, how beautiful they were and how far away. How she might live on one someday.

By now she had learned to make time stop. Nothing that mattered dared come near the corners of her mind. She had no name. She had no past or future until she took the money. And gave it to her grandparents when they needed it. They knew only that she worked too much, too many hours and Jenna agreed, but didn’t complain. They needed to know nothing. They had lived through enough.

The moon was shining. It’s light sliced across her path as she darted between cars, disappeared behind Carmen’s  Coffee and the A and P, ran across the darker side streets. Jenna checked her watch: eight fifty-nine. Her grandparents would be looking out the window, worrying a little. They liked to know how she was at the end of a day when they didn’t see her, a quick check in. Tonight there would be no presents to open but they’d be waiting to share German chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream. And rainbow- colored candles. It was odd, how they still thought of her as a kid when she hadn’t felt one for longer than she could remember.

Jenna turned down the alley where all the garages were lined up behind the small, shabby houses. She could see Grandpa Les’ Chevy half-in, the red paint looking purple in the night. Her feet slowed down; she was almost there.

“Hey!”

Dell’s hand grabbed her shoulder and it shook a scream out of her. The weight of his body  dragged her down. She kicked until all the kick was gone and her back hit gravel. She saw the sky turn itself inside out and fall down around her. There was Dell’s grinning face right above her as he lifted his hand again. He smelled like good wine gone rotten. Jenna tried to push herself up from the ground but fell back. There were people barely visible behind Dell and he turned away from Jenna and stood up. They all got loud and the words split her head open, made her think of echoing canyons and each syllable felt like rocks falling on her head with alarming speed.

“Jenna, lay still!” Grandpa Les ordered. “I’m talking to Dell!”

Grandma Ella shuffled over and reached down to smooth her forehead. “There’s a girl, lie still, the police are coming, be good for grandma now, that’s my girl,” and her voice was water over wounds, strong but soft, clean and clear yet blurring the edges of everything. Jenna started to speak but the taste of roses stopped her. She put her hand to her mouth and pulled away a satiny petal.

“I’m so sorry, girl, the roses were for you, I had them in my hand when we heard  you cry out. I hit him with the roses…stupid…they’re not much good now.”

Grandpa Les’ voice was the loudest Jenna had ever heard it. “If you put one foot on this property again you’re gonna make me use this rifle, boy!”

Dell let out a low cackle. “We’re in a public alley. You don’t know who you’re trying to save, anyway. You don’t know her at all! Have you ever wondered where she gets her extra money, old man? Do you think she can pay for your bills with nothing? She’s lucky to have me!”

Grandpa Les took a step forward and slowly raised his ancient hunting rifle level with Dell’s eyes. He spoke so quietly Jenna had to listen hard and it hurt.

“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll save your breath for the cops and judge. The whole neighborhood knows what you are and you took her where she never should’ve gone. You’re the sort that people cross the street to avoid, you know that? You think being poor is the worst thing? You need some powerful help. But your time with Jenna is done, you hear me? Finished.”

The neighbors had gathered one by one to see what Ella, Les and Jenna had going on and saw that they had their hands full, so they circled around Dell, arms looped and locked. Ella wiped a smear of blood off Jenna’s face and put the girl’s head on her wide lap. The police arrived, then the ambulance, flashing lights slipping over rapt faces. They put her on a gurney and Ella and Les gazed down at her. A dozen red, white, and yellow roses were laid on her chest and one unopened bud was placed in a pale curl at her ear. The EMT frowned.

“It’s her birthday,” Grandma Ella grumbled, and he shrugged.

Grandpa Les put his arm around his wife and pulled her close. “Girls who wear roses are the best ones, you know. We thought you were something wonderful long before you liked them.” He half-smiled sadly. “We’ll make up for things somehow. I was waiting to tell you I got a part-time job at the A and P. Yeah, your ole granddad’s not out of commission yet. That was the birthday present.” He pulled out his handkerchief and turned away.

Jenna tried to say that they’d had bad times before and gotten by. That she had made mistakes that would take a long time to get over. But before she could get it all out, Grandma Ella kissed her cheek. Jenna felt the roses warm up. Their scent filled the ambulance and made her dizzy but calm. She knew tomorrow would be terrible, a day of reckoning, with likely many more tough ones to come, but for now all the fear and regret flew away to the perfect beauty of the moon.

Copyright 2012 Cynthia Guenther Richardson