Raggedy and Jonlyn Have a Chat

IMG_2515Jonlyn’s bleary eyes rested on the last bright spots of color in her yard, then narrowed at the three crows–“the three cads”, she called them–that liked to aggravate her mornings with their carrying on. But no newspaper anywhere. She rubbed her cold hands together, then went inside and pushed the heavy door shut. What was the point of printing papers if they ended up in recycling before they even got read at her table?

She cast a resigned glance over the comfortable living room, pausing at the picture atop a side table. There was her granddaughter grinning, snuggled between her parents like a jewel in velvet. Long dark ponytail, cheeks bright as berries, burnished hazel eyes looking right at her. A smile that reached into Jonlyn’s world. But Iris was living in Brisbane, Australia with her mother, Fran, Jonlyn’s daughter. And her son-in-law. Dennis. The one who took them there, and also watched over them, she admitted.

She’d been there once. Clots of palm trees, traffic aplenty and some good shops, restaurants. Lively enough. The family lived in a small chic apartment then; now they had a house on the outskirts, close to the beach. Jonlyn wasn’t a beach person; all that sand got into places she would rather not have it. She liked forests around her. It was quite exhausting and expensive to fly there. Fran said they didn’t have time to come to the States. Well, years passed. Iris was six now. Fran was forty-seven. That made Jonlyn older than she ever imagined ending up. A trick had been played on her.

As if in assent, the antique grandfather clock chimed. Jonlyn patted it in passing, then got her jacket and gloves. It was Monday; it was nine o’clock on another grey day. With the colder weather fewer people romped about the park across her street, and Jonlyn enjoyed it just as much if not more. She’d experienced scads of seasonal changes on the paths and benches.

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Hammerlin Park was like an extension of their yard, her late husband Ralph had remarked once as he was raking leaves. Only much better since they didn’t have to bother with upkeep. It had been their motivation to settle there, raise Fran. A park was a comfort.

By the time Jonlyn arrived, the dog owners, so possessive of their strip of torn up grass, had about left; the kids were in school. Excepting the ones who got kicked out or would rather skip class to smoke pot. Jonlyn walked by them at a good pace; they barely saw her so didn’t worry about being seen. She had reached that point in life. Somewhere before sixty you start to lose color apparently, finally fading into a surprising ghost. An advantage was that if she didn’t feel like dressing properly or doing up her straggly hair, she didn’t. Another perk was if she wanted to linger and eavesdrop by group, she could; no one expected she could hear much. She’d learned a surprising amount about people this way, though Ralph had cautioned about becoming a voyeur. Big word for being nosey, she’d laughed.

The ducks were quieter than she was. Jonlyn was about to take a seat and watch them glide like plump feathery ballerinas but she’d stepped on something. It was a rag doll with requisite red yarn hair, arms outstretched, a gay smile fixed on its pale face. The dress was a cheerful Christmassy mix of red and green and lit up with some yellow. A bit rumpled but in good repair. In fact, the doll was unscathed, not rumpled at all, as if its owner had just been there and Raggedy had slipped away without a fuss. Jonlyn surveyed the park: no mother and child, no errant strollers or forgotten diaper bags or backpacks. Jonlyn sat, then bent over and picked it up.

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Raggedy remained at ease in her hands, unperturbed by the damp breezes that ruffled her hair and stirred the leaves. The two black polka dot eyes stared back. Jonlyn lifted the arms up and pulled them down, then tried the legs. Sensible black shoes, she noted.

“Silly doll, forgetful mothers”, she said. “If Fran had been given this doll she wouldn’t have let go of it.”

The ducks make a gabbled sound at Jonlyn and headed toward the little island, their rumps bouncing.

“Well, that’s not true, really. Fran never liked dolls much. Planes and blocks. I guess she was meant to be a pilot.” She shuddered. “Those little private planes…fancy and dangerous.”

The doll lay there, either agreeable or held captive by happiness with a red-stitched smile. A bit crooked, appealingly so. The person who had made this toy would be disgruntled it was so easily lost. Jonlyn mused awhile about sewing she used to enjoy, then got up, hesitant as the doll gazed up at her. Should she take it somewhere, the closed clubhouse, the restrooms were there was a wood railing upon which to lay it? She determined it was best to leave it, so she sat her up and left. But she looked back once, twice, and something about that doll pulled at her, made her feel old and sad but tender, too.

“Ridiculous,” she muttered. “I will not be undone by a silly rag doll. It’s just the holiday season creeping up on me. I can’t abide nostalgia!”

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A teen-aged girl who was smoking by the edge of the pond shot her a look, then shook her head. The old woman was a sad case talking to herself like that. Jonlyn felt her dignity pinched.

The next two days she was busy with errands and an appointment but her thoughts kept retuning to the doll. The following morning she hurried across the street and along pathways. It needed to be gone, safely back in the keeping of the one who missed the doll. She saw a hulking man just leaving her spot so approached the bench. Someone, perhaps the man, had picked up Raggedy and abandoned her again with an offhand toss so she’d landed backwards and askew on the bench.

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“Ah,” Jonlyn said and took the doll in her hands, setting it on her lap as she observed the ducks and a lone heron. “A bit messy, though. Not as bad as I expected, however.” She brushed leaf detritus off Raggedy’s feet and noted a smudge on her knee. It gave rise to the disorienting thought that maybe Raggedy had tried to get up and head home on her own.

“I used to bring Fran here every day. She chased the squirrels and wanted to fish the pond.” She chuckled. “But not Iris. She’s never had the pleasure. Maybe next year. There’s always hope, of course.”

The two of them sat there fifteen minutes, watching a couple amble by, a young man execute amazing tricks on a skateboard. A homeless woman, the one Jonlyn often saw, pushed her full cart down the walkway. A child younger than Iris came by with her father, chattering and kicking up leaves. She stopped and pointed to the doll and Jonlyn, heartened, held out Raggedy.

“Oh, here–did you lose this?”

The man shook his head. “She has a baby doll that cries watery tears and does other things we wish she couldn’t!” He laughed. “I haven’t seen one of those for a long time, though.”

The child got a closer look, then took her father’s hand as they moved on, but she looked back.

“You can keep her,” the child called out and skipped away.

Jonlyn set Raggedy on the bench and nodded at her.

“Well, you’re a popular sort. I can see why, despite your maddeningly unchanged expression. You’re soft and quite pleasant company. Wonder if you have more of a name. Tell me it’s not Ann, but something more curious like mine.”

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The ducks paddled away and the wind picked up. Jonlyn left Raggedy seated on the bench and returned to the three cads and a bowl of leftover ham and bean soup for  lunch. Two days of papers had come and she looked forward to reading.

The next day Jonlyn told herself she wasn’t going to check on the doll, and certainly wasn’t going to talk to it if she happened upon it. Parks attracted people like her, a bit aimless, lonelier than she wanted to admit. They were pretty microcosms of the city. Well, she was going dotty from increasing solitude–and the rains and cold were just beginning. It was not attractive to reminisce about “good ole days” that weren’t all that spectacular. Now her daughter was gone and Iris growing up so fast she might have to remind her who her grandmother was before long.

The clock chimed; greyness deepened and spread as the afternoon came to a close. She grabbed her jacket. Rain threatened; wind whipped her coat open. Dogs were running about and people were heading toward their cars. Her long stride hastened her to the favored bench but before she even got there she felt the doll was gone. She edged up to the back of the bench and took a look.

Empty. Raggedy had been picked up by a child who needed a playmate, or some creature, heaven forbid. Or maybe that homeless lady she often saw on her walks. That would be just fine, although she wished the young owner had found her. Who knew? She felt a huge raindrop splat on her forehead and then on her cheeks so pulled her jacket close and headed back. The lamps came on and lit the way around the park. Jonlyn felt relief come upon her and with it, a stirring of pleasure. The air was thick with a damp and leafy perfume, and a sharpness hinted at wintry days and nights. She needed to buy a ticket to Australia. And she knew just what she was making Iris for Christmas.

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Celebrate Ties that Bind

DSCF7458We strolled among acres of tulips, fields spreading out like a quilt of electric color. It was a Pacific Northwest spring day unlike most, sun warming our faces and magnifying bright hues of flowers. Marinell gazed over the swaths of color, a smile warming her hazel eyes. Allanya noted varieties of tulips, making a list of those she might purchase. I was clicking away, each picture a frame of transient beauty captured. Flower season is not lengthy; blossoms wither and fall. The purpose of flowers, after all, is not to last forever but to offer pollen to bees who pollinate so next year we get to witness another display of beauty. The Cascade Mountains rose above Skagit County tulip fields in a show of stark permanency amidst the temporal, echoing our shared family moments.

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My sisters and I have had a years-long tradition of allotting time together each spring,  a “sisters getaway”, generally a long week-end freed of work and family obligations. M. is thirteen years older than I am, old enough to have helped my mother care for me when I was born. She has lived in the Seattle area for twenty-five years. A. is five years older, once a squabbling partner who became an important part of my daily life since we both reside in Oregon.

Although the three of us have been only 3.5 hours apart, we see one another on average four times a year during family gatherings. Our separate time ensures our own time, doing and speaking as we please. We have travelled to other destinations, walked many paths in village, city and country, shopped, and visited museums, gardens, exhibits, galleries. We enjoy learning things, exploring new territory, sharing enthusiasm for places and people. And as we go about sharing many interests including the arts, books, nature, psychology, travel to name a few, we talk.

We swap tales of family history and how we each experienced growing up–not necessarily so much alike, as we each have our own perspective and moments. We compare and comment on our trials, errors and successes which have been thought-provoking to witness. M. has been a professional cellist. A. has been an executive director of several non-profit organizations. Since we are not all committed to the same faith practices we explore beliefs and what has impacted us spiritually. Disposed to analytical thought, we have probing discussions on everything from social issues to natural phenomena.   We often just meander from topic to topic. And in the process, we laugh readily and often. And cry, at times. We are also very good at putting up with each other as needed.

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This visit, however, was different.  We stayed at M.’s house instead of going off on a small adventure. The house, in fact, that is being put up for sale next week. She and her husband are moving to a southwestern state, closing one chapter of their industrious, fulfilling lives and beginning another. A. and I assisted in the sorting and tossing process. We each ended up with mementos, some of which were photographs of our extended family. I felt a deepening quietude as I scanned the pictures of family dinners and celebrations, lingering over images of those no longer with us. The picture of my parents’ back yard awakened my heart. Was it always so beautiful, the modest yard that hosted croquet and other games, barbeques served at the round wooden table with the umbrella, gatherings around the maple tree where we all climbed and swung on the old swing? The green shadows are dappled with playful light. Still, the life lived there, along with our two brothers and parents, was not a life without strife. Some of my memories are a blur imbued with an urgent need for peace and a longing for happiness that would not be dismantled by loss and pain. I study the pictures of my teen-age years and wonder over my seeming confidence despite secret struggles. The dining table is circled by family members who were accomplished, good-hearted and, naturally, flawed. But it was nonetheless a family life powered by the energy of love.

I studied the many decades-old portrait of M. taken a few years after she was named homecoming queen, an event that awed me as a child. A local photographer deemed her so lovely that her picture was entered into a contest and subsequently published. She had and has a humility that is noteworthy. This sister-woman who weathered a lifetime of challenges also profoundly enjoyed various fruits of her labors. I watched her as she spoke now and there it was: the same graciousness, soft but insightful gaze, a smile that emanated good humor. Her wavy hair is mostly white now, but she is the same big sister who so carefully watched over me as a little girl. Who I admired from a distance of thirteen years difference yet was lucky enough to get to know closely after growing up. Whose cello playing mesmerized me all the years we all practiced our instruments. I took up cello, too, because she did. In fact, all of us girls played cello at one time or another but she worked hardest at honing skills and considerable talent.

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One of the nights together we sat in her music room and looked through music, some of which belonged to our father once. There were the old songbooks of standards. She stood n ear the grand piano. It, too, would be soon sold. The thought was more than I could bear as I remembered the baby grand in my parents’ home, and the shock I felt when I came back to find it long gone. So I asked M. to play for us. She chose a couple of songs I used to love to sing as she or our father accompanied. She stopped too soon for me, the last notes echoing in the room.

How do I say “farewell, have a good and happy new life in Texas” to my oldest sister? Of course, it is what my intention is when the day arrives for leave-taking. I know she is just moving from one space to another. I understand we will all see each other here or there, that A. and I will fly down to visit or meet up somewhere in between, perhaps each spring.

IMG_2851But it somehow feels as if she is going far away, just like the day she went off to college and I stood in the doorway waving, bewildered, at age five. And this feeling rises to the top of the laughter, hearty tales of tough and triumphant growing up years, and becoming older the best way we can, with lots of grit and the force of joy. This sadness floats and spreads out over my morning and brings me tears. Nothing stays the same, I know. And there is merit in that.

Then I am saved by this: we are sisters first and last, despite the relationships that have come and gone, the changing fortunes, the  health crises that can derail us each. We are of the same family and so, also, three who share a heart.

The last night together we talked by the warmth of a fire, right into the early morning. When we were emptied of stories, we hugged one another close. M. said: “We have all survived!” meaning we have all made our way through this wilderness called life and been able to call up enough strength and gumption to stay the course thus far. We have sought God and found faith a constant flame. We have elicited and shared laughter that lights up the deepest dark. We have made it together and also apart. Life in the final analysis is very good, indeed.

We straggled off to bed, only to arise the last morning to attack more sorting and tossing. It was a chore made lighter for M., but it was all just stuff. One house is soon to be exchanged for another house and furnishings. It is people who will make the difference for her as they do for us all. For now, she had sisters working side by side with her. And the fact is, the love that binds us has no state line, no expiration date, not here or in eternity.

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Under the Baby Grand Piano

IMG_2343Under the baby grand piano was an undisturbed expanse. Sunlight brightened beige carpet and sage green walls. The legs of the piano were mammoth, at the end of which were brass rollers, in case anyone thought to move it. If I lay still and touched the wood, I could feel the vibrations of the chords and melodies brought alive by my siblings or father. I could watch feet at work on the pedals, altering the presentation of notes. I could see the underpinnings of the piano and marveled that it held everything needed for such sounds, especially when the top was propped open. If I was quiet and my father wasn’t giving string lessons, I could stay undisturbed a long while.

I brought pillows to create a miniature home within the small domain. My dolls took their seats or made their way through a maze of textured softness, to the length of curtains, behind which they would wait. They came out to converse, fume and laugh, to smile and bow. Then back they went into their pillowy house where we would listen to the piano’s bountiful voice, enchanted. Sleepy. I put them to bed with brilliant scarves my mother gave me; they doubled as dolls’ clothing and impromptu partitions. I covered my face with a floral scarf, then lay back. This was a front row seat. This was my own hidden world, and I was stage manager, director, actors.  The music surrounded me–piano joined by cello or violin or clarinet– and fluttered or blazed its way into mind and heart. My dolls had to be told what I already knew: this was simply home.

Such found spaces were the start of an obsession with dwellings that stayed with me. As a child, it was the piano space and the hideaway behind the evergreens in the back yard. It included the aging maple tree, as well, for branches could be chairs, leafy limbs could be walls and stairs to, depending on the number of climbers, the treetop look-out.

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I grew up in a three bedroom, one bath home that housed seven persons. It was a household that welcomed neighbors, frequent visitors, or students of my father. My parents entertained regularly and fit a number of people into the modest but attractive dining and living rooms. The Michigan bungalow was less accommodating than what was preferred, especially since it was not as large as the rambling old Missouri house referred to by the street corner it was on, “Trenton and Lamb”, with its many fruit trees, breezeway and larger rooms. But the house I grew up in didn’t feel that crowded to me. The bedroom we three sisters shared was adequate. My brothers were a dash across the hall. We learned patience and fought quietly. There were ways to create space within space, with books or blankets or a closed closet door. Or a piano. And our yard and the tree nursery behind were heaven.

As I grew up I began to sketch houses as a way to challenge myself and indulge a love of design. Rooflines slanted this way and that; living rooms incorporated glass ceilings or streams; screened balconies were big enough for pajama parties in humid summer nights. I drew the houses I wanted to live in when I grew up: cottages on lakes, glass and fieldstone forest homes, habitations that hid in the sides of hills. And an old, narrow brownstone, of which I had read and thought quite exotic. Once, when I was old enough to accompany my parents to the swanky home of their arts-patron friends, I was overcome with glee when I saw a tall tree rising through the rooms, through the roof. Anything was possible, I decided. I saw what could be done, how people could match houses to dreams.

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I lived a lot of places after leaving my parents’ home. As a college student and newlywed, I once inhabited a chicken coop that was more likely a shed. It had, of course, been fully renovated but one could barely walk in and out of the tiny spaces we called rooms. At the peak of the roof in the kitchen and bathroom we could stand up full height but without elbow room to move. I can’t say I was fond of it, but it was unique, and was shelter enough for a time.

IMG_2351By age thirty or so, I stopped counting how many times I moved, either for school or work. Over time there were several children joining us. Then divorces. Buying a house seemed a far-off dream.  For someone who had grown up in one house, it was surprising how easily I adapted. I was, in fact, excited about each new city or town  and with it, the discovery process of making new friends. I had an expansive appetite for adventure; the apartments and houses were part of it, the setting for a life.

Without money to burn or a gift for either decorating or domesticity, I had a few challenges. There were my own paintings at first, then prints and photographs hung. There were ways to make things feel intimate, eclectic, homey. Candles blurred imperfections. Incense camouflaged telltale remnants of previous tenants. Books overflowing bookshelves fixed any dull spot. My cello and a few guitars looked handsome in the corner. Handmade ceramics lent an artistic, earthy feel. Colorful pillows and wall hangings (harkening back to life under the piano), children’s art work, warm color on well-used walls: it could be a place to call one’s own, if even for a short while. Add love and we were set.

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Then we were transferred to Tennessee, where we bought an A-frame house on a half-acre of land. It was built into a hill and from the road the A-shape looked deceptively like one-story. An anomaly in the small, southern town with a village green, it reminded us of northern Michigan homes. With four bedrooms, two baths and two spacious living areas it was large enough for five kids and then some. There was a murky pond which we soon found attracted snakes. There was gardening space which rendered a few good vegetables despite ignorance and weather. Insects abounded, which interested me, except for the black widows in the woodpile–but they were worth a quick look. Facing away from the road, on the ground level, were two bedrooms, a family room, kitchen, all of which looked out onto a large yard and woods. We had a woodstove to use in winter. I kept the fires going while my husband worked long hours. I loved the work, the country- modern feel of the house. I dreamed of getting a big dog but the neighbor’s German Shepherd mix visited daily. The cicadas rasped and buzzed in the deep heat of summer and we watched thunderstorms roll past our large windows. The kudzu vines that grew rapidly were mighty and strange. It was green hilly country coupled with good architecture.

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When we left less than two years later, it was the dog who made us cry. He leapt up and licked our faces as we closed the door. We left too soon, but a career called us to another place and a new start once more: Detroit. Still, we found a place in the outskirts, in a suburb that looked like a village putting on fancy raiment. It was not what we’d hoped, smaller and older and in need of a facelift. There would be changes again in a few years. And more after that.

Today I live in the inimitable Pacific Northwest, where the land itself takes my breath away. If that isn’t enough, my city offers a panorama of structures; it favors both old and new. I remain enamored of structures and gardens–of houses, in particular. I pour over good architecture magazines and books. You will find me walking our distinctive neighborhoods, eyes scanning placement of windows, finesse of a portico, the way a veranda encircles a house to bring the outdoors in but keep family and friends close. I take my camera everywhere. I don’t want to miss the odd element or small detail.

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You might be surprised: I don’t live in a wildly imaginative or beautiful home. I live simply. It is what we need for now and suits me. But I sometimes long for, even dream of just the right house. I still secretly draw, add a warm watercolor sheen, light dappling a courtyard. As we are apt to do as we get older, I wonder if becoming an architect rather than a counselor would have been a good path. Regardless, you and I inspire our dwellings, create whatever we need them to be, and they can inspire us in return. They are, as in my baby grand piano fort so long ago, our places to be fully ourselves. Home.

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Making a List and Keeping it Right

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I start to feel almost domestic around the holidays. This is no small thing, as my talents and interests do not include a burning desire to cook or decorate, sew or craft. But I experience a longing to do so at this time, and I find simple ways to compensate. This year, since I am not currently working, I got into the holiday mood before we even consumed platters of turkey, mounds of vegetables, and four delicious pies. It wasn’t about the preparation and sharing of great food; Marc, my spouse, does the bulk of that. I happily weigh in while he plans: perhaps yams instead of sweet potatoes without gooey marshmallows, stuffing without chestnuts this year, and every pie possible–that sort of thing. My usual contributions are getting the drinks and slicing the sausages and cheeses, getting them all nicely arranged with water and wheat and rice crackers on my special glass platter, the one with the graceful swans gliding on water. I also look forward to setting out the blue, rose, and clear glass candy dishes, the best ones my mother gave me. Mixed nuts, chocolates and peppermints fill them and I think of her, and how her table looked: elegant and welcoming.

I start envisioning how my table will be when everything is arranged on holiday tablecloths–usually a yellow for Thanksgiving and a red for Christmas. I look for the best deal on brilliant fall bouquets and spend a long while arranging the flowers and green sprigs in tall vases. I buy softly scented pine or cinnamon-spice candles for odd spots in the apartment, and plain tapers for the dining room table. Generally a fragrant green something adorns the front door. People shall feel cheerful entering this domain.

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After Thanksgiving the adult children choose names for gift-giving. That rings the start bell for me. I begin to scan the online shopping sites or the neighborhood stores and wait for whatever calls to me. I ask for their short lists even now, in the hope of finding something they really would enjoy or need. But the truth is, I always think of many things I want to give them. They have varied interests: skateboarding and snowboarding, art and music, fashion, food, reading everything from anthropology to religion to the natural world, all genres of fiction, poetry, and so on and on. I am cautioned by my husband to not get too enthralled, but it is hard to resist the tantalizing call of all the wonderful things–not generally expensive–I want to share with them. They are my children, after all. Then there are my grandchildren, who need surprises. Marc reminds me we have twelve to buy for at the least, often more. And I am not working this year. I get that. But I have ways to manage on any budget.

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Next I study the events that are happening about Portland. There is the ScanFair which we enjoy despite not being Scandinavian and the Grotto’s glorious Festival of Lights which is a tradition for the whole family even in the rain (an alomost sure thing). The Pittock Mansion displays all her grande dame finery. The Zoo Lights are an awesome experience for children of all ages and Peacock Lane is a whole brightly lit block of fun for the younger ones.

And the music that surrounds the holidays! We will start with a Trinity Christmas Concert, Bach for the Holidays. Follow it up with the Advent Procession of Lessons and Carols later in the month. There is The Nutcracker which we have seen a few times; I remain enchanted. There is a Singing Christmas Tree which has not yet been experienced. The symphony always has a rousing program or two. This list will grow, as music is an embodiment of what I most appreciate about this time of year.

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I am making my list as I write, but wondering how we will find the time to enjoy it all,  how we will get together all the kids and their kids, too. The unadorned truth is, we won’t. Three children live near us, and two do not. Four grandchildren live here, but one does not.

Between the cost of travel and the time their work duties require, the two daughters far away will not be here this year. One is a chaplain needed by many; her son is in college and working. Another is a college professor and an artist whose art works require a lot of money and time to create and exhibit. Our youngest daughter is in graduate school in a city two hours away but will be here a few days, then return home again for more work and study. How fortunate that our only son will be here as well as a fourth daughter, both with their families.

But, oh, how I long to have all my children gathered together at one time in this home, the dozen white candles I set around the living and dining rooms pulsing with light inside the soft shadows, the tree gleaming in all its decorative beauty. I want them here talking, dozing, singing, eating, being quiet as they look around them. I want them to stop and really see one another fully as I do: deeply. See their kind eyes so reflective of souls lit from secret places. To hear what I hear: a symphony of laughter and smart ideas delivered readily. To know what I know: their great, good courage, for they each have undergone painful trials and twists of fate. Their talents of imagination,  empathy,  adventure and insight. And their unique imperfections, for who can say what they–we–would be without the rough edges of personality, those cantankerous thorny parts that make us think twice and then reconfigure things? Deficits teach us compassion; may they never forget.

I want them to have one another not just this season but every season of life to come.

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These grown up children: three were birthed by me; two were shared with me to raise. Each one has been a surprise in my life, a flurry of energy and needs, hands wide open, hands circling the breadth and depth of life. They have been bright lamps upon my winding path, made my wild heart tamer and stronger. When I make lists for the holidays, prepare for feasting and music and light shows, I am mindful of these things. How can I give enough to those whose lives have given me far more? Who I am is this aging mother-vessel filled with complicated human love. I have been mended, redefined, transformed by this life, both with and without them. Without a lot of hope of having the necessary skills to mother back in the beginning, I have learned by doing, have been taught by the giving and receiving that has happened.

In the end, what we do this season and the ones to come reflect who and what we most value in our lives. And there is another who is always welcome in my home. Long ago, two parents had a child in Bethlehem under a holy star. Jesus was embraced by them with such joy. He grew up to be a rule-breaking, radically minded revolutionary, all for the sake of perfect Love. He offered and still offers us healing, grace, mercy. May I keep my door open. Let the light shine on me, on you, the family of humankind.

Christmas Day 2011 024

A Truth on a Mountain Trail

I read a couple of articles recently about writing with honesty and being true to the essence of one’s self. These aren’t necessarily one and the same. I could write factually, historically, about what has occurred in my life, and likely there is some validity and value in that. I have lived in peculiar times; my personal decades have reflected those changes and challenges. And I have experienced a number of events that have been unusual or dangerous, insufferable yet inspiring, curious and surprisingly sweet. So why not just write about those, the unvarnished truth–put them out there and see how they do?

But usually it is another story that draws me. It is the one recalled by an inner vision, or that simply seeks my attention and pulls me like a magnet. This hideaway of stories is a vast and homely palace where who I am lives, made of bits and pieces of wonderings,  snippets of images and visions. It is a place of wonders.  It is erected and maintained in my heart and in my dreaming. Call it a writer’s way of being or maybe just a lowly pilgrim’s. But this process of seeking the whole story cracks open much of what I know as truths, at least mine.

So I will tell you a small tale about climbing up a trail in Mt. Hood National Forest to see Mirror Lake.

It was a brilliant day, the sort we have been waiting for all year in the northwest. I had heard about the trail for years. Walking and hiking are like bread for my soul and body–basic, a daily requirement, a tool in my toolkit. But I have a coronary artery disease diagnosis, and even with two stent implants to keep the blood flowing nicely,  I wasn’t certain if I could climb this trail for an hour and a half. But it is  considered relatively easy , so is popular with families. There is, after all, only a 700 ft. elevation change. And at the end of that trail, there is the reward of a lovely lake and a grand view of Mt. Hood.

These are the facts of this post so far. Now comes the rest.

The heat dallied, then gradually seeped out of the deepening forest but it was quite warm enough. I was good with sandals and jeans rolled up, a light t-shirt. I climbed with Marc, my spouse, and as we pushed forward l sought to turn out all thought and let nature envelop me. In fact, the goal here was to fully empty my mind–and find refuge from stress.

This is the hard part. It has been a rough start of summer, ragged ’round the edges. Many changes in my family and more to come. Some of it has brought pain, the sort that needles me unless I surrender to work or the joys and passions which overflow the flexible parameters of my life. The harder life becomes, the harder I tend to work, as though I can tame it, put all the unruly things back into their corners. Or smooth out the creases with a strong and steady hand. And in the midst of the work, find solace and release. I have great energy and will but sometimes it seems small match for this adventure we call human life.

I kept on. The trail curved and steepened. I was breathing harder, so paused. Beads of sweat had sprung up on my forehead and neck. I studied others who passed. They looked cool, relaxed. Nearby was a stream which swirled and tumbled, its music buoyant. I examined soft moss that clung to logs crisscrossing the water, then started again.

Each step brought air that was thinner in my lungs, to my brain. My breathing was labored. Perspiration snaked its way down my chest and back; it was as though tears fell from my pores while my eyes stayed clear. My heart, at moments syncopated, began to settle, and beat well if quickly. Clusters of people came and went with their enthusiastic children and lively dogs. How far could it be to the top?

I let many pass, in need of more communion with nature. I was closer to that vivid moment when all falls away and life becomes again harmonious, within and without. Treetops shimmered in the swish and sigh of breezes. Looking up, I felt dizzy with warmth and pleasure. My mind began to recalibrate. My soul sat up.

The ascent went on like that for me, climbing as long as I could, the sweat dampening my skin but my breathing steadier. Then a long pause. My legs were heavier but moving as demanded, and my arms swung so that I fell into the rhythm of it, feet sure, knees a bit cranky but doing their job well. And the forest kept beguiling me with its perfumes and beauties and odd asides.  We admired plants, bugs, berries; watched ground squirrels scamper; wondered over cougars and bears. We were moving into the wilderness, though well-travelled by humans there. I kept on, heart shifting smoothly,  lungs filling with redolent, clean air. I was well challenged, more attuned. Heartbeats took oxygen to blood and brain; my senses sharpened.

We were nearing the top. Light spilled into shadows. The trees encroached less, patches of sky were more often visible. We gazed out over Zig Zag Valley, an exquisite scene. Such heavenly blueness, like an infinite cape.

When we arrived at Mirror Lake I heard, then saw, adults and children splashing and laughing. They were relieved and happy to be cooled by an alpine lake, with sunshine hot and golden on their backs. I felt that feeling I always have when seeing a body of water like this: a great dash of joy, a familiar peace.

It reminds me of childhood summers in northern Michigan where only good things were allowed if at all possible, like boating and swimming and laying in a chaise lounge and reading all day. Sitting around a fire and roasting marshmallows. Listening to birds and catching fireflies.

There was a feeling of being brave back then, and of life so rich with possibilities. And even when the bad times came (which they did, as they do, with a vengeance), there was that muscular power to my belief that all could be overcome. Endured. Healed. It was the feeling of an ancient and eternal love made visible in sky and water, in the mellifluous sounds of life. Way back then, as a child, it made its way into the cells of this body, the synapses of this brain so that I am, unapologetically, a believer. In the supreme design. In God alive. Here. Now.

Mirror Lake may not be the most breathtaking lake I have ever seen. But imperial Mt. Hood reigns if you walk to a grassy spot on one side of it.  There, in the brazen mountain sunshine, is the reflective quality that gives the lake its name. I like how it spreads gently among forest and rocks. As we sat in the shade my mind was clarified. The sharp stings of my difficulties had left no poison behind. I was small here at the top of the trail, and yet had my place.

How can I forget that the pain I hold too close slips away when my heart opens wide? I was given gratitude at the top of this trail, in the center of a summer day. This is much of the truth, the real story that sooner or later finds me.