Attending to the Essence

DSCF7871There are surprises that occur while living with a disease that may have exclusive rights to my final demise. One is that life is still a great open stage and I can do with it what I want. And I am still granted opportunities to decide what stories to direct and participate in. This is noted despite the fact that I realize I can be struck down any moment.

I had begun to think I was a bit of a puppet, as we can at times suspect. It seemed I was not infrequently subject to the unreliable winds of life, the whims of confounding, surly natured, occasionally dangerous people who crossed my path. It appeared I shared these experiences with many others. But I wondered if I was purposely situated in poorly designed scenarios despite my goal to explore only the very best. By my late teens I decided I had been duped. Too many hard things occurred, and not only to me, to convince me otherwise. What was this being human?

Victoria Trip 7-12 398But, then, I grew up in a world of culture and classical music, Sunday dinners generally shared with intelligent, kindly people. Duly civilized and all. There was much to love. But it was also like being a hothouse flower (with a few toxic influences thrown in) and then set outdoors, exposed to the rawness of real atmospheric influences. My first visits to Detroit and Chicago were terrifying and fabulous. I suspected there was much more to learn and wanted to get to it. And gradually I figured out bits and pieces, some useful and others discarded. Then I started to lose power along the way. I misplaced that critical, pervasive sense of a life-sustaining essence. The thing that gave me both gravity and joy. One can come to doubt enough that rescue has to occur; a decision must be made to stay alive. The years seemed full of exigencies and I did not understand as much as I believed.

Not everyone is fortunate to have more than a couple of cracks at life. But people who cared, along with a few angels (reader, you know I claim them), dragged me to my feet before I went down for good. God waited until I found a better foothold so transformation could begin. I gathered clues to better living long before that forest hike commandeered my heart and took me down to the dirt. It’s a good thing I had helpful life skills because employing any victim stance again required more energy than I could squander. But it shook me up, that ton of pressure on my chest that left me reeling. I barely, with my husband’s help, made it out of the trees. I have decent intuition, sometimes very good, but it took me until the next morning to understand my heart was getting ready to kill me. And I needed a lot of mental and physical stamina to devise a new game plan. When I cold-called cardiology offices and found Dr. P., who listened and knew exactly what to do, I found liberation. A damaged heart, yes, but freedom was in the making.

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My scheme included full-on healing. Not the sort that exercise, heart medication and diet support. All very good, but not enough. I took three years off work and began to re-learn how to be fully present in my body, in the moment, in my life. Dare I say it? Prayer and surrender. Expectation of health. Call it meditation if you like, call it conscious development of an awareness of Spirit. Call it Step 3 if you attend AA. But I needed a reminder and I had gotten it: personal power begins with surrendering stupidity. Well, perhaps more accurately the tyrannical ego that is constructed from lifelong illusions. What a mess it can make.

So, if my heart was to become strong, harmonious organ, didn’t it make sense to heal it from the inside out? The bitter words still echoing in the night, regrets that soured more with time? What is the value of vilification in the end? How about the lost passionate teen-aged love that was just that–a love that served adolescence, not this time, this person? Or the worst of the lot: nightmarish assaults and a legacy of addiction that hurt my family, my several failures to thrive and achieve, the grief that bound me still to the burden of living, not the sheer joy of it. The list of things that haunt and damn us. In truth, we are missing the ancient campfire to swap our troubles and then sing it all away.

Still, you wouldn’t have seen this at a glance. You would have found a woman competent and quick, hard-working and accessible. You could count on me. Yet I was a woman also driven to exhaustion, bruised to the marrow though a believer in hope–which was given to others, not so often to myself. I had to unclench my hands and let my own tears flood them, then fall away. I had to make a nest in mercy. Room was needed for the purity of wonder left behind in childhood. Space big enough for the essence, for life-giving light. I did not want a life lived and coming undone, like ruined skin peeling off. Impotence did not appeal.

I had to change, fast, before there would be three, not just two, stent implants or worse. Work began in earnest, because that is the only way I have ever known how to live. Intensely. Now. The panoramic experiences that wanted my embrace lay before me. I felt I was asked to take a step into, at best, intriguing but hazy possibilities. And because I have always needed to see what is around the next bend, I stepped forward despite becoming unmoored from my known life. Oh, the beauty I found. The way life insinuates the fibers of our being with its beneficent force. The elegance of faith that will not shake loose despite setbacks. When in mid-stream and the water keeps rising, float. What I have found is that there is no end to what we can manage and discover and in the process of discovery, act upon and give.

I did go back to my chosen field, counseling the mentally ill and addicted. Some folks advised against it–too stressful, they said. But the truth is, it has always been a calling. It was a fulfillment of a promise made long ago to be of good use to those with too little hope and resources. After more years I stopped working and threw caution to the wind again. This time to write every day. Stories were intruding on work, or perhaps it was the other way around.

Our hearts know us first and last, beat to cavernous beat. It knows us best although we try to hide. It will remind us important things we have forgotten, secrets we thought we might never know, avenues to God and ways to live on earth in full, unadulterated color. Every moment has potential magic. I feel this in its primal rhythm as I rest, sweat, play, ponder. So when I awaken, I do wonder what scenario will unfold today. What will I bring to the fore and let recede? Maybe directing is not so much the need but narrating the story is. As a child I wrote plays and poems. I rounded up a motley neighborhood cast and crew and we threw it all together for ticketed performances, all in the name of fun. It was so easy to create and share the pleasure. So now, here, I will hold on to this recaptured essence that infuses my living, without hoarding the wonder.

Let me traverse the path with eyes wide open, unflinching; look for the whole truth which can be perfected only with compassion. I want to hold an ongoing conversation with humanity as well as the starry canopy and beyond. I care to live within the transducing power of life, its wild center, until the very last moment here. Let me not hold back one good thing.

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Where Life Begins

changing-hands-book-store-001We were wending our way through the bookstore, when out of the corner of my eye I noted a bold sign with an arrow stating: Life begins here. I kept on, thought how remarkable, then stopped and turned. Of course the sign didn’t say that, but it was worth tucking away for a pensive hour.

It was instead the start of a line for customers toting boxes and bags of well-used or unwanted books for possible resale. They might have needed quick money (though I would like to think not) or more room in a smaller habitat. Perhaps there was an ended relationship and the now-unshared books were thorny reminders. An expansive estate sale may have rendered more yellowed pages than desired. Or better yet, perhaps their cargo was meant to be circulated the world, offered to those who may not have had the pleasure of delving into a wealth of poems by Muriel Spark or escapades shared with Rumer Godden’s wise, slyly humorous characters. I had stood in that line many times feeling somewhat traitorous (weren’t these lovely books? didn’t I need a re-read?), yet relieved to hear: “Cash or store credit?” This meant I could wander the aisles more freely again.

That sign was only a directive for orderliness. Simple, yet it was a mind trick, one of those moments when language flip-flops from eye to brain and the information is altered.  In this case, I thought as I headed to the blue room (literature) and then the red room (non-fiction), the skewed interpretation made sense. I was in one of my favorite places-a bookstore-and I had changed direction in my life, having left my job.

I found myself thinking of the incident for days, starting with the line to sell books, a favorite material good of mine.

bookshelf

Books were a significant addition to the foundation of my early years. I don’t recall a good-sized bookstore in the small Michigan city of my childhood and youth, though there must have been. We didn’t buy books very frequently; we checked them out at the library. But though I can vouch for the fact that our home did not have an overabundance of books, there was a floor to ceiling bookshelf in the living room that was packed with volumes, mostly about music and composers; history such as ancient Greece; travel; scholarly studies of the Bible; a collection or two of famous art.

And Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl. I recall the last as I read it several times, mesmerized by his seafaring vessel and distant lands. (I think I fell in love for the first time looking at the brave author’s picture.) My parents read to us at bedtime when they had the time. Dad liked to read interesting paragraphs aloud at the dinner table that engendered discussion or a good laugh. My mother, not so inclined to sit and read for long, entertained us with her own stories, and I later learned she sometimes wrote them down in spiral notebooks.

Grace A. Dow libray

I may not recall a bookstore but I do recall the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library. It was considered very modern, all sharp geometry with brick and much glass defining its lines. Built in 1953, it was designed by Alden B. Dow, a noted, homegrown architect. The moment I entered the heavy double glass doors, whatever was not right with the world was transformed, or at least quelled. The clean-lined, open floor plan invited me; there was a huge wall window at the back that looked out over lush landscaping at the edge of Dow Gardens. It encouraged dreaming. Stairways took me to ever-intriguing rows of knowledge. I took the books into my hands and my mind entered realms that challenged and fulfilled my desire to learn. There was always one more page to read, one more quiet nook to poke around. Whether for research or recreation, the books in this library enlarged and underscored the present, and heralded a future that had few bounds. I took notes for schoolwork but that wasn’t the main reason I spent hours there.

This sanctuary, which housed endless rows of bound pages almost intoxicating upon opening them, helped refine my  own fledgling stories and poems. I was another neophyte on a quest. I was a guest in a  place whose primary inhabitants were books. When it was time to leave, I was reluctant, and counted on the next chance to lean into the modern leather and metal chairs and investigate things.

It was intellectual freedom, as well as emotional, that I was given. I tried to use it wisely. The books that informed my life were a gateway to adulthood. From Kierkegaard and Sartre, to Hermann Hesse and Sherwood Anderson (whose Winesburg, Ohio is still with me); from Kurt Vonnegut to Denise Levertov’s O Taste and See: they confounded while also defined ideas and longings. Books ignited hope, assured me I was not alone, demanded a better intelligence, gave me good reasons to laugh.

Windesburg, Ohio

“Line begins here.”I have stood in these lines, arms full of worthy, seemingly necessary books. I spend a good part of my budget on books. Not all authors’ words have enthralled. Some have shown me how not to occupy my mind, how not to put pen to paper. But ignorance is not preferable to an occasional error. Besides, I can bring those shabbily written tomes back to some stores. Then I am on the hunt for more, whether in bookstore or library.

“Life begins here.” Not an original thought, yet the message stuck because I suspect my one true life–the one that gives me a thrill of discovery, the fortitude of knowledge and helpful clues for my soul’s well-being –did begin with language I could hear, speak, read, write. For some it might be another memory of earliest years, a scent or sight. I recall being held and sung to, words buoyed by lilting melodies. There were my mother’s true, astounding farm life tales at bedtime, then my own books read under cover with a flashlight or a diary written in ’til fast asleep. Most of the family took books to the table until my mother decreed no more. There were conversations in our household that originated and ended with words on paper, as well as words held aloft by our attention. Language, spoken or written, was important. It charged the mind and cradled the heart. It made bridges between people, found solutions and provided entry to secret places.

And so I have once more concluded that in order to live authentically, deeply, I have to jump in and fully utilize the language I gather and adore. I am taking back my right to this passion for  writing (and the reading, too), every day or night. It has required leaving work that mattered to give myself to the wonders and conundrums of better learning the trade of wordsmith. It’s a risky thing. But I have time for risk and its outcomes, not for inaction.

A book is a myriad things to those of us who love them, including  language given room to romp and breathe. Those words are nothing less than alchemical. They alter our sense of being and our place among others within the universe. They are keys to an internal destination we choose. At the very least a story, a book, is a meandering walk down the road, where anything can happen. Where life scintillates with the slow turning of a page.

back window wall at library

(Room with wall-sized window overlooking trees and gardens at my childhood library. Thanks, Alden B. Dow.)

Centering the Mind at the Edge of Time

IMG_2222It was the first several days following the holidays, that perpetual festival of people, feasting and gift-giving. I had looked forward to the gentler pace. In fact, I would have more time than I had in years, as I was staring January without a job and my spouse was back east on business. Peace and quiet, what we all desire in the midst of pressured lives, were enticing. I had plans: write, complete a few chores, walk daily, write, read, write. A long list of other goals was drawn up, some of which involved research and others which required dusting, sorting  and tossing. I managed the rudimentary plans.

But not quite as I expected.

Oceanside week-end 10-12 122I stepped into a kind of portal wherein I discovered anew that time disappears and daily living is malleable, even undefined. Where my  body took a journey and I learned patience. There was no structure that was requisite, one upon which important matters were dependent. And furthermore, the open-ended days and nights were inhabited by only myself. Nothing I did or did not do significantly impacted my immediate environment. Nothing I said or did not say made any impression on others in my abode. This struck me as both humbling and provocative. As an addictions and mental health counselor, I am used to addressing rooms full of people, as well as being attentive to individuals with trenchant pain. I am accustomed to being routinely, acutely aware of my behavior and others’.

All this ceased to matter.

First off, not having to arise at 6:30 a.m. to go to a job, I found myself glancing at the clock: 5:30, back to sleep; 6:55, (mild panic) okay, back to sleep. And so on, until at around eight in the morning I might start to embrace consciousness more willingly. But even then, it turns out one can continue to delve deep into the rabbit hole of sleep and have eccentric, vivid dreams that stream rapidly. Without the need to jump up and prepare for a day out in the world, I’d partly awaken, then grab the tail end of the last dream and join the theatre of the absurd again. I can’t say they’re all worth noting or pleasant, but I found myself choosing to readily observe and participate in them. They provided ideas for stories and rumination.

Thus, it might be after nine before I arose. Guilt briefly crept in; my sense of duty is strong. But duty to what? After a shower I read meditation books, caught up on a few pages of each magazine piled on the dining room table, looked at my list. I glanced at the clock, then looked away. I could do whatever I wanted, and despite this feeling like a mandate rather than freedom the first few days, I did not wear my watch nor pay attention to how low or high the sun was, how little or much time I had left.

I wrote. I wrote until my eyes no longer could focus on the new twenty inch computer monitor. I wrote until I had nothing interesting to say–sometimes that took an afternoon, sometimes until a small mug of tea was consumed. But I was letting words guide me and helping them rearrange themselves. Characters advised me readily on their roles in my current short story as I moved around the apartment, checking the one healthy plant I have, folding laundry. I revised paragraphs while I walked outdoors in the frigid afternoons, in misting or pelting rain, in the pallid light of mornings. I recorded poems on my phone, took photos as I skirted the neighborhoods. Late at night: reading, jotting ideas, watching a candle burn low.

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In other words, I adapted and worked for four days. Then vertigo visited me.

I have had this mysterious inner ear disorder since 1999. Labyrinthitis. Whereas then I had been very ill with resultant dizziness debilitating for months, I now manage it successfully, most of the time. The problem with balance has remained a chronic state. I maneuver well enough that no one is aware I have this problem–unless they see me teeter and fall into a wall, yet quickly recover. Or move my head a certain way, like looking high up on a shelf, at which time I will begin to fall backwards before I catch myself. It depends on the angle at which I hold my head and an unpredictable vulnerability. Learning to correct my inner and outer responses to being off-balance has taken effort, with trial and error. I always have thought it a fitting analogy for what I teach others when confronted with hindrances or stressors: life is about readjustment of our own perspective much of the time, and how we adapt.

I can tell it has decided to aggravate me more than usual even before I get out of bed. I will turn over and inside my skull everything rushes and turns, as though I am on a boat and can’t get my sea legs. Sometimes there is nausea, sometimes not. The only way to combat it is to take medicine for motion sickness, and it makes me drowsy. I keep it at bedside, as sometimes I cannot stand up and walk.

So I awakened and knew that taking medication was the first order of the day. Everything else was up for grabs. After a couple of hours, I managed to do an errand, and then I was done. I lay on the couch, tuned into HGTV to gape at lovely houses while I rested. And fell into a deep sleep. I awakened; the room was a cloudy grey and the television mumbled into the quiet. I closed my eyes. After awakening three or four times I felt able to get up. But lethargy weighted me. My mind would not clear. I longed to write something, but writing did not have the faintest interest in me. I couldn’t read yet. Walking across the floor still intimated at walking on a floating dock. I lay down, drifted but did not slumber. Nothing good came to me–just a bleak feeling of loss: of this day, of this night, of my capricious health. A loss of direction.

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When I awakened, I recalled a CD of meditation music my son had made me. I hadn’t had time to listen. He had told me, “Meditate. Don’t dance to it. Don’t do anything else. Listen to it. It’s seventeen minutes long.” Since my son has a powerful belief in self-healing that has aided him countless times and he prays for me when I am ill, to my benefit, I put on the CD. I wondered if he somehow knew I would need this healing music.

I sat in the rocking chair, closed my eyes, and let my ears open. Open deep inside. I followed the sounds into the maze of dreaming, the labyrinth of being. The wooden flutes and clarinet, cello, the piano and voices and nature sounds all moved within and settled in my interior. I breathed slowly. Soon I saw a distant emerald shore and floated there. Billowing violet and blue mists rose and fell, somersaulted and spun, translucent swaths of energy. The air shimmered and the music was a stream which carried me. I was strong, free. I was only one small part of the endless mystery.

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Relief swept over me. Tears came. Such beauty was perfectly real, infinite. The exhaustion and dizziness diminished, then was no more. I was at ease again.

Today I feel well. Earlier I took a long walk and found it revitalizing, as ever. I began writing when the sun was brilliantly arrayed upon  many shades of green. Now night descends; the rich velvet of darkness rests on the city. I haven’t looked at the time. I don’t need to. Writing is being done. I have love in my life. I have this gift of freedom to do what I choose. It is up to me to follow whatever calls me from the unseen edge of time.

Moon Over Columbia River

Whatever Is This

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Sometimes a poem will come fully and clearly. It is startling, a spark from the subconscious or the vast peripheral consciousness. They are not always good poems but they still count. I was taken by this poem as I walked in the rain while darkness fell gently. It finished itself as I sat typing without thinking at my computer. It gave me a dreamy comfort and yet I felt alert, focused so I followed it as though a winding path. I decided not to edit it. I hope you will find something here that speaks to you. (Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get it to save in a format with paragraph breaks between every three lines just as it was written…If anyone can help, please let me know how to do that.)

Whatever  Is This

Whatever is still wears stillness as its skin.

Whatever moves finds energy uncoiling.

Whatever breathes seeks air, earth, fire, water.

Whatever cracks leaves the healing to itself.

Whatever sighs scatters petals on the wind.

Whatever falls intercedes for the beginning and end.

Whatever breaks truce barters with people.

Whatever feeds the world fills it with rust, gold, blood, dust.

Whatever lives in safety camps inside the soul.

Whatever maligns falls over the edge of heaven.

Whatever dreams disturbs science with intuition.

Whatever fades resurrects another beauty.

Whatever creates makes a loose harness for freedom.

Whatever enters the heart of power shakes fear from bones.

Whatever sings unleashes the medicine of love.

Whatever waits needs its own welcome.

Whatever knows loss enters the cellular dance.

Whatever hopes reflects a tear in the light.

Whatever seeks knows the source of all warmth.

Whatever opens disables the lock on the door.

Whatever misses wonder leaves without a backward glance.

Whatever surrenders solves the puzzle.

Whatever lives floats upon the beautiful river.

Whatever is most truly needed will answer your secret  prayer:

This.

Is.

The.

Way.

Home.

Copyright December 2012 Cynthia Guenther Richardson

What Circles At the Edges of the Story

The room was large enough to seat hundreds but there was only one more person I was seeking. I headed to the left until I spotted her name on the table. She was checking her phone. I breathed deeply and composed myself. My mind was stilled and all I could see was her blonde head. As soon as I approached, she gave me a welcoming smile, then spoke my name. As I would at any important interview, I held out my  hand and returned the favor.

But it wasn’t an ordinary interview, not the sort that might land me a nice job. It was a pitch, which essentially is a sales pitch of a writer’s book. I was attending Willamette Writers Conference for the third time; she was literary agent number five.

It had once more taken me weeks of rumination and a couple of days of intensive, systematic work to prepare a two paragraph summary of an entire plot. It had to interest her enough that her eyes would not glaze over and her mind wander. Enough that she would ask for pages to read.

I had finally boiled it down to a few choice sentences that introduce the two protagonists, Sophia and Cal, what they need and what they had to rise above to get it. That wasn’t impossible, just challenging. I know my characters so well after years of writing and revising that they live their lives vividly in my waking and dreaming. Sophia is a dancer and choreographer who stops speaking when her husband, a respected biologist, drowns one night in a lake near the village of Snake Creek. But no one knows what really happened except one witness, her dog. Cal is a successful photojournalist who returns to Snake Creek after his friend and mentor disappears in the Amazon jungle. He has lost the desire to take photographs, and lost himself in his risk-taking, globe-trotting lifestyle. Then he runs into Sophia crossing the street.

So, I tell this to the open-faced, encouraging woman sitting across from me, but with the quiet passion I feel for this story. For it isn’t just about two people who meet and become catalysts for change. It is about dreams lost and found, about the power of speaking the truth. It is about domestic violence and addiction and the myriad ways people can and do recover and heal from great loss. It was written in part because I believe that trauma and the resultant grief and pain one feels does not need to defeat people, or stop them from living happier, fulfilled lives. Instead, a process of reinvention can occur through creative activities, spiritual nourishment, and the balm of nature’s wisdom. Connection to a caring community can become a lifeline, a safety net. And forgiveness happens even though the world tends to believe justice is often tied to revenge. The justice that Sophia and Cal discover rises up from courage and compassion.

But I don’t have time to say all this. She asks me some questions and I fill in a few details, climactic scenes. And then she asks: “Why this? What qualifies you to write about these subjects?” So I tell her. It is my life work; my specialty is working with women and men who have been beaten down, even brutalized, and seek relief in alcohol, drugs and other addictions. And I have seen them get better, stronger and even laugh again.

I want to say: I, too, have been there. I know how the dark can make you blind or grant you night vision if you choose to learn and adapt, and how the faintest glimmers of light finally bring you to your feet and out of the maze of misery. But I am too circumspect and this is not the place for this, perhaps.

So I say: we all suffer. No one is immune to sorrow and rage over life and what it can bring. And yet we usually go on. It is worth writing about.

I only have ten minutes and time is running out. Still, we are suddenly talking about books we like, authors we admire, and when the timekeeper comes by, the agent with the soft smile and clear blue eyes gives me her card which I look over as she asks for twenty-five pages.

“I am intrigued,” she says, “so I want to read more. If I like those pages, I will request the whole manuscript.”

So, I left with excitement and joy in my heart, right? Not so. I left with a sense of one tiny step forward. I have gotten this far before and nothing came of it. I have submitted many stories, poems, and creative non-fiction over the years; a handful have been published. Every writer knows that it is a crap shoot, that what an editor or agent likes is likely to be something other than what you have to offer.

But this novel is another thing. I have worked on it for twelve years, in between and around other projects. After getting home from ten long hours of paid work, at night, with dinner plate by the computer. On my days off. When sick and tired. It has undergone at least ten revisions. It is still too long. I always see something that can be improved. But I do not tire of Sophia and Cal and their lives in the woods surrounding Ring Lake. Or of the village of Snake Creek, the residents’ adventures, failures and triumphs.

So why, a week after the conference, do I sit here and write a blog post instead of further cleaning up the manuscript and sending it off happily? Because it is still mine as I examine and savor it again. It speaks to me as an old companion. It came from a place deep within, where what really matters to me lives free. I have cut and tossed out parts many times, a word here, a paragraph there, using the sharp knife of a rational mind, trying to make it shine even more. I have worked with other writers for months who have given excellent feedback. But it may not be excellent enough yet. It may fail to inspire the agent enough that she has to know what really happens to Sophia and Cal and the village that shields secrets while designing hope for the future.

So there is it: in my hands this novel’s life is still safe. Once sent out into the world of the publishing business, it may falter, even sink. As I write this post, there are wraiths of doubt slinking around the edges of this novel. There is still my lack of ironclad belief that someone will read it and be glad of it, then help it arrive in print.

It seems part of the creative life, this terrible self-doubt that arrives despite hard work and denial of it. But no risk, no gain is one of the elementary rules of life learned and I know it to be true. We just keep creating. Besides, if the story was enough to keep me writing all these years, it surely will be enough for someone, some day, to take a chance on it.

I will get down to business this week-end and scrutinize the first twenty-five pages to make certain they are the very best I have to offer. Finally, I will send them off while I start work on a short story. Or a poem. A new novel. In fact, I look forward to being taken on a new journey with yet-unknown characters who are searching for something that remains hidden from me only until I place words on a clean sheet of paper. There is just no greater task–and  joy–if writing is in your blood.