Acquisitions

DSCF3895Sela rushed into the office kitchen, excited to have a few minutes to eat a piece of chocolate cake. Heidi had saved her a portion of birthday dessert and hidden it behind drinks in the frig so no one would filch it. Sela parted bottles but it was gone. She searched the second shelf but found it empty save for an orange and an aluminum-wrapped sandwich. Disappointment squelched anticipation.

She turned to appraise Patrick who lounged at the small table. He raised an eyebrow and his black and silver mug in greeting.

“There’s superb coffee,” he said in a jovial voice. “I made it after lunch.”

“Did it go well with the cake?”

He cocked his head. “Why do you always think I swipe the treats when there are several others who enjoy them? Such as yourself.”

“Heidi made a point to save a slice for me. She even hid it. It’s gone. You ate it. You’re a laser that locates the best sweets and savories.”

Patrick rubbed a spot off a silver square–the better to see himself, she thought– took a swig, then stood. “Yes, it is a talent worthy of respect. But I doubt I can beat your skillful nose. Sorry you lost out.” Then he pivoted, smiled at her and left.

The quick smile lingered like fragrance, changing the space. He, in fact, never wore cologne but Sela had a nose for fragrances and could identify most. She found he smelled oddly of mint with a hint of basil when they sat next to each other at meetings or consults. Perhaps a natural shampoo. It was unusual; it startled. That smile, though–it was pleasant as a pipe tobacco’s smoke yet obscured the face behind it.

Patrick Windsor generally took more than he gave from what Sela could figure. One would think he’d be more generous and transparent. He was a mental health therapist as was she. A good one. Everyone said so, especially his clients. Sela had arrived only in the summer. She was not yet persuaded, and found his charm a veneer under which rumbled more; perhaps deep flaws. Not that she wanted to know. He was too good-looking, for one thing. She’d never held physical beauty in high regard. Patrick’s was so off-hand she was sure he cultivated the image of ruffled suaveness with utmost precision. An aristocrat lurked beneath the working man.
Sela had ignored his banter at first. Being professional was her priority. Heidi had given her the head’s up: Patrick was a man of many excesses, the usual plus more since he came from old money. Everyone felt that that made it worse for the guy, so were tolerant of his reputation. Well, so could she be, and determined to like him more.

He had once informed Sela once that he had “acquisitive tendencies”. They alternately amused and burdened him. She was surprised by his openness but he laughed, thereby dismissing the topic. They’d been sitting outside on a break. Her car troubles had been the initial topic.

bank-mit-pflanzen-44421287528590gV7W“Well, my habit of acquiring things has left me with too many, like cars, two of which I drive to work. One every other week as you may have noticed. Another one is in my father’s garage, useless except for my sister’s borrowing it for coastal drives. It’s an sweet old MG convertible.” He tossed the weed he’d knotted while talking. “Tough about your car, though.”

“But the MG is the one to drive. If I were you.”

He gave her a look that indicated he wasn’t so sure but impressed she had an opinion. Sela liked cars, but the mention of his “extras” gathering dust felt egregious. She’d gone back inside. He’d remained on the bench, sun worshipping. It was soon often like that, the two of them gabbing, then she became uncomfortable. There was a small divide despite his efforts.

Sela sighed now and rubbed the knots in her neck. How she would have enjoyed that cake, and it was time to work.

The next day Patrick knocked and cracked open her office door. “I have a great client for you. She’s a plane crash survivor, is alcoholic, a cocaine addict and doesn’t want to stay in treatment but her family insists. Much better match for you.”

“Have her make an appointment. I have a couple slots left this week.”

“No, I meant for her to see you now if you have a few.” He pressed his hands together, pleading for help, and pulled a face.

Sela checked her clock. She had a cancellation earlier and now had forty-five minutes before her group.

“Patrick, I hate it when you do this. And of course I’m a sucker.”

“I know but it’s for the best. Ethics issue. Name is Marty.”

As Marty slouched in the chair she wound her fingers in honeyed waves and peered from behind them with forlorn eyes. A gash above her right eyebrow was stitched up. A garish green and yellow bruise covered her cheek and eye and her left arm was in a cast.

“I need a new boyfriend. It was his error piloting it. He’s not yet divorced. Mother disapproves–too close to her age. But he’s the only one who cares, he needs me.” She glanced at a diamond and ruby ring on her right hand, then thrust it into her leather jacket pocket. “I am not going to stop drinking. Cocaine, alright. I used to be party girl. Now forty looms. But alcohol is my water.”

“And he handles his alcohol and cocaine, also?”

Her eyes turned hard and assessed Sela, then looked down. “The crash was a horror, a nightmare… and what if I’d died, been done with this whole mess?”

Later when Sela entered the common area, she found Patrick getting his coat.

“She’s suffering. A good fit for me. Are you leaving?”

His strong face had gone pallid. “Good, I dated her once–turned out badly…Look, I have to go. My father is very ill.”

Sela watched him from a window overlooking the parking lot. He folded himself into the red Porsche and sped off. Marty and Patrick? It felt too intimate a fact, and sad.

Heidi heard on the news that Mr. Allard K. Windsor of Windsor Manufacturing had barely survived a heart attack. Patrick was gone for ten days. She found herself looking for his coat or going into the kitchen, scanning the air for mint and basil or dark roast coffee. She wondered if he would return. His clients had inquired of him and were told he was on medical leave. She had seen several on his caseload and facilitated one of his groups.

Tryon-Public Lands Day 9-25-10 061One Tuesday morning she entered her office and found him sitting in the dark. She turned on the light, wondering how he’d gotten in. He looked gaunt and his eyes were glazed with sleeplessness. He didn’t smell of herbs but of sorrow and ghostly dreams and a woodsy scent that clung to him from muddy forest trails.

“He thinks he’ll manage a comeback. Jane is taking over even more work. He asked me what I’m going to do. Well, for years I had another agenda: be a carouser, a blowhard, the fool. He understood–notches on the belt and all in his mind–but he hasn’t forgiven me for not sticking with him and the company. I prefer people. I understand how emotions and addictions pair up; he has no patience.”

Sela heard the puzzle of his grief and wanted to place her hand on his, which rested on her desk inches away. She couldn’t do more than murmur. He was talking to her, letting truths out into the bald light of reality. They each were like flags raised on a mast; they had to flutter and fold in the wind as he drifted. This was only a small part of all he had kept at bay. Sela’s breath caught in her throat.

“If my father leaves us I’ll have to live with too much…not things, regrets. I need to make some choices.”

He jerked his head up and his eyes were lake blue, clean of pretense, empty of illusion. For now.

“It seems so,” she said and was shaken when tears slipped from a secret place, then receded.

He held out his hand. “I’m here for a reason. Not to work. Come with me.”

Sela stirred but did not get up.

“Please.” He dropped his hand and she rose. “And thank you for being here.”

They ran down the stairs and into thin light. Sela lifted her face to the chill air; it smelled of ice and earth, the breath of winter rain. The cold brought her a warning of stark loneliness and a promise of comforting solitude.

“Here,” he said, pointing to a happy blue MG MGB Roadster convertible. “A 1973. Not that expensive, but it’s yours for nothing.”

“What? I couldn’t possibly…you’re my teammate! Why on earth are you doing this?”

“Lightening my burdens, my friend. It’s just transportation to you, another irrelevant object for me. I’m taking a leave of absence, Sela. I don’t know what’s ahead. Enjoy it; we’ll take care of the transfer later.”

Rain erupted from the sky and pelted them. His face blurred and she gasped for air. Patrick opened her palm, placing the keys there. He brushed wet hair from her eyes. Backed away slowly.

“Wait! Where are you going–don’t you need a ride?”

But he only waved, then was engulfed by a veil of rain.

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The Table

 

After she left the place, she realized they never spoke. There had  been another free table when she arrived or Carlotta would have put her purse on the other chair and that would have been that. She knew how this place worked when business got heavy. She had a lot on her mind since arriving for work at the alterations shop. She didn’t need company, she needed a corner of solitude so she could think. Figure out what made sense in the scheme of things.

It had been four years working for Daniel and he was the same as when she started: blustery, sarcastic when he had the opportunity, and very efficient. And nice-looking, she had to admit, with longish hair that waved just enough over the tops of his ears that she had to catch herself from smoothing it down and back. That would have been the end of her. She was older than he, but he was the boss, no doubt about it. Still, they did well together, Carlotta working the register and phone, Daniel expertly handling alteration consults and the sewing machines. Business had increased the past year and he’d put a “Help Wanted” sign in the narrow window. It was a month before he liked an application and then he interviewed her twice, just as he had Carlotta.

Lanie was good. She could finish a pair of hems in less than half a minute, the jeans under sixty seconds. They required changing to a heavier needle and having patient, strong fingers. She knew all the fabrics backwards and forwards. If there was a rush order, rushing was like taking a stroll for her–she never sweated it, never complained. At least not to them. She was friendly enough to start but Carlotta noticed she kept her distance once she was in for the long haul. Lanie had the demeanor of a contented cat who had a bold work ethic, even when the shop was fraught with piled up orders and the phone ringing off the hook like a demon. Carlotta looked over her shoulder at the woman once and thought, Yeah, she’s like a panther, sleek and fast and quiet. It gave her pause. But five days a week the three of them worked in sync more often than not and the money came in.

It would have gone on like that if Carlotta hadn’t ever seen her at the back door, swapping cash for something in a packet every couple weeks, then more often. She knew it wasn’t buttons; Carlotta was not well-read or worldly like some people but she wasn’t naïve. But she had never seen this before, not right under her nose, so she waited. During the next two weeks Lanie met the same short, skinny guy with a dark baseball cap on backwards. Carlotta couldn’t see his face when she peered out back.

Lanie hissed at her when they passed on the way to the restroom this morning.

“What’re you always lookin’ at, Lotta? He’s my brother Tommy, I’m helping him out if you want to know, it is what it is.” She said this with the ease of one slightly annoyed neighbor to another, as if they were in conflict over a fence but could come to a reasonable understanding.

Carlotta shrugged and half-smiled, then helped out a customer. Soon after, she left for lunch, and the question on her mind was whether she should tell Daniel about her suspicions.

So when she got to the restaurant, she had a busy mind and she wanted to just eat and ponder. When the girl with the shiny long hair and pricey sunglasses looked around for an open spot, Carlotta tried to send her a thought to move away. Nonetheless, she zeroed in on Carlotta’s table as though it was critical to survival during an emergency landing, not lunch, so there had to be a place for her. Carlotta sighed and nodded at the empty chair. She was brought up to be a nice person, that was the problem. But they both had to eat.

The waitress came and went, the mediocre food put on the table and Carlotta sneaked looks at the girl on her phone. She was working that thing like crazy, like she was born ambidextrous, which Carlotta was not. She wondered if those hands made pretty things or wrote important documents or scrubbed toilets. No, not toilets, she could see that. They were manicured with a soft blush of color on each fingertip. That and her toenails probably cost half a paycheck. Once, the girl looked up from her small, undressed salad and stared through Carlotta, somewhere far beyond this buzzing, garlicky and syrupy spot that served breakfast all day long. Her eyes were a blue like melting icebergs; she blinked twice. Carlotta finished her pasta and picked up an old newspaper and thought about Lanie again.

The phone rang out like a rock song and the girl answered.

“What did they say?” Her voice was a restrained tremor. “He’s going into surgery? Now? Why? Oh!” Her hand flew to her mouth and she turned away from her dining partner. “I knew it wasn’t just the flu all this time…So, does he have, I mean…? Please. No.”

She tried to not listen, but caught fragments about lungs and breathing issues and how she had told him last month, no back in May, that he had to see a doctor. But he had said, no, it was that bug that wouldn’t shake loose. It made Carlotta wish she could turn this off, her interest in other people. Even strangers felt important.

The girl was quiet a long time after she hung up. Carlotta rustled the pages as she sipped her soda and looked at her watch. Five minutes left, then back to the shop. She read the comics and chuckled aloud. That was a mistake. The girl rocked forward. Tears started to run down her ivory-fine cheeks and she turned to face the wall, the salad pushed aside. Carlotta folded the paper and sat there, stumped. Was she supposed to say something? Should she ask her how she could help? She wanted to do the right and good thing, something that told the girl she saw her sitting there and was sorry. Was it her father entering a hospital? Lover that lived on the east coast but who she saw not long ago? People had those relationships, how, she didn’t know. Or maybe it was her best friend. She had all these questions and none were appropriate to ask. Curiosity could be so inconvenient, embarrassing, really.

Carlotta stood, checking her watch. She had to go talk to Lanie this afternoon. It would be uncomfortable, even hard, but not that hard. She grabbed her purse and saw her table partner smash the thin, white napkin to her face, staunching the tears. Carlotta hesitated, then lay her wide palm on the girl’s boney, terribly young shoulder, just for an instant, long enough. The girl turned around but the older woman was exiting, her stride long and full of resolve.

“Thanks…” the girl whispered behind a cascade of hair. She sat straighter, smoothed her forehead and resettled her sunglasses, then picked up her phone once more.

(Note: First posted in unrevised form on Patricia Ann McNair’s blog which includes journal prompts. This photo was captioned “They never spoke” and this was my response. Thanks again, Patricia Ann.)

How I am Being Alone in the Here and Now

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I flung open the louvered closet doors. The sight of colorful skirts, sweaters, shirts and pants crushed between one another made me wince. It is time to make a seasonal change, trade the winter group for spring and a few items of summer. It’s a chore, but usually painless. This year, it felt like something else: an anxious moment that brought me face-to-face with remnants of a previous way of life. The work-for-a-paycheck life.  I sorted for charities, hesitant about several pieces. Since I am no longer working four, ten to twelve-hour days at a community mental health clinic, how often would I use these?

So far, most of them remain. I haven’t given up hope of finding part-time work so that I can keep on writing more. And there are other occasions to get a little fancied up, even in Portland, the only place I have lived where one can wear jeans and sandals to a symphony concert.

I intended on working for several more years but when I became ill with vertigo I identified cause and effect. The job I had didn’t fit; stress was gaining. The answer? Time to go. I have been happy to fulfill a true calling for twenty-five years: counseling many at-risk populations including addicts, alcoholics and the mentally ill. The hardest thing was saying goodbye to my clients. I found a way to let them know I was doing what I advised them to do: taking care of myself, making prudent decisions to support my well-being. I planned on doing just that.

So what have I done the last four and a half months? I wanted to be happy with my choice, while the pretty attire seemed to accuse me of sloth as I stood there in jeans, t-shirt and an old grey sweater. And slippers covered my feet after a long walk in the damp morning. But I stopped to reassess. What constitutes work? Am I not managing household business affairs, running errands and taking care of my husband, who works in an intensely demanding position? I spend time with adult children and grandchildren as often as possible.

But there is more to be done, much more.

All those years of raising five children, getting more college credits when possible, working outside of home and then doing laundry until midnight, I longed for one thing more: time to be and do all the other things I loved. I have never been truly bored. That may have come from my history of growing up in a prodigiously active family; we did not have time to do nothing. We seem to have excellent stamina and reserves of energy. And if I even hinted about being restless, my mother told me to find something to do. I was expected to comply.

So I show up each day to fully experience and utilize my time, just as when I had an ID badge. It would be dishonest to state it has been a simple transition. I am still a person moved to be of use, to aid those in dire need and listen with unerring attention. To be centered and calm, to not derail the client, to maintain clarity of thought and keep an open heart yet not to be swallowed whole by the suffering: this takes rigorous practice. It became second nature.

So, to be without people around much of the day has been strange and hard. But here is the time I craved so long; it was either use it or lose it to something I have never known before–a lack of direction. Solitude has much to teach me. I will continue to give thought and prayer to possibilities that must be within my reach. But this is what I am doing, in between numerous household chores and seeing family:

*I read as soon as I get breakfast, starting with magazines. I have subscriptions to The Writer, The Smithsonian, Vogue, Architectural Digest, VIA, and American Craft. Oh, yes, also People and Entertainment Weekly. And I sometimes buy Glimmertrain or Tin House (literary journals), Real Simple, and Sunset and The New Yorker. I peruse Willamette Week for area events and arts offerings.
I enjoy newspapers online as well as blogs of many. I also read non-fiction and fiction off and on during the day and at bedtime. Currently I am reading The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields (a novel about author Edith Wharton), Neighbors and Wise Men by Tony Kriz (about spiritual experiences of the author), Why We Write edited by Meredith Maran, and A Book of Luminous Things (poetry anthology) edited by Czeslaw Milosz.
I read a few hours daily, more if I am researching something. I have to set a limit or nothing else will get done.

*At night I schedule my time for the following day and the bulk of my day is reserved for writing. When I write or research writing issues, time can cease to exist. The work includes: research on agents and publishers as well as lit journals both online and in paper and writing competitions, revising my work, writing blog essays and poems, working on new fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry, preparing and submitting work according to the specifications of various editors, editing my novel for the umpteenth time. I have an abiding passion for writing. I want to write pieces that will move, surprise, and engage people so that after they are done, they have something interesting to take away.

*I walk or hike. Every day, rain or shine, cold or hot. The only thing that will stop me is serious illness. I walk because I love the rhythm of walking, the way it relaxes and clarifies my mind, and I so appreciate nature, architecture, people and random and surprising moments that occur. I also walk and hike because I was diagnosed with coronary artery disease at age 51 after an apparent heart attack while I was hiking in the beautiful Columbia Gorge. I don’t worry but I am aware of my “borrowed” time as heart disease does not go away. I keep the inevitable (but who among us doesn’t leave this world eventually?) at bay any way I can.

*Daily I pray, sometimes read meditations and the Bible. I think about and sense Divine Love/God in my life and others’ routinely. I cannot imagine my life without God in it daily, every second, whether or not I am fully conscious of it. I would not be alive without God, could not have endured and healed from dangerous and painful experiences, would not have stayed alcohol-and drug-free all these years, would not have the gratitude and peace that permeates my life. There are times I am not totally clear about the next step in this earthly life, but I am never uncertain of God’s eternally compassionate guidance.

*I am learning to draw and use watercolors after many years of not painting and drawing. I used to paint large acrylic paintings so this is new. It is a wondrous thing to see what pencil and paint can do on paper. It is scary because it is new but that is part of the adventure.

*I am happy when photographing things, mostly nature and architecture but also people. I have a passion for

* I either call (or text or email) my children at least weekly if not more if I am not going to see them. I talk to a sister often. I call my mother-in-law and email my other siblings. I visit with a few close friends. Despite being introspective, I have extrovert tendencies and miss people at times. So I get out in my neighborhood and enjoy shops and restaurants.

*I am thinking about taking flamenco dance classes, engaging in voice lessons so I can actually sing again, enrolling in a tai chi or QiGong class, taking more writing workshops, volunteering again, finding more botanical gardens and also forests to explore, self-publishing my novel. I’d like to make some new friends. Appreciate my family to the very fullest. I don’t know how many more days and nights I have to immerse myself in all there is to hold close, then let it go.

This is my slice of life, alone, in the here and now. I don’t think too hard about the future; it will come, or it will not. I am still a good friend to myself after all these years, but I can always learn more. It has been a slow letting go (for now) of service work. But when the heart breaks open even a little it has room for so much more life. It creates space and insight needed for change. For me, that means making more stories and sharing life’s bounties. I hope that whoever reads this can find time alone to explore all that wants to awaken and better serve your life.

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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.

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Thoughts from a Jobless Worker Bee

This is my first full day post-job. I awakened at 6:40 as usual. I showered and ate breakfast (raisin cinnamon oatmeal). I didn’t hurry up and get dressed in nice slacks, sweater and shoes because I never do that on Fridays; it is my usual day off. But I made a cup of coffee, and that was a bit alarming, as I drink chamomile vanilla tea on the mornings I don’t work. Coffee (one cup) is for working paid ten hour days; they made it pungently strong there and it got my blood flowing at top speed. I even add one-third of a mug hot water so I can get it down. Or, rather, added and could, as that occurred in the past. That was before the tough choices were made.

What somewhat older woman in her right mind would leave a job she loves in this economy? Right before Christmas? Is it arrogant stupidity to  just walk away from work that can afford extras like trips, arts events, a little help for our children and grandchildren, unecessary shoes and dinners out? My spouse has a decent job that he also likes  great deal. So I got up the courage to ask him what he thought. His reply: “Do it.”

I lingered over my newest copy of Architectural Digest and sipped my coffee. As usual, the houses I studied in the glossy pages were coolly elegant or startlingly imaginative or deeply, expensively comforting. But my vision blurred and I was right back at the meeting I had had the day before at HR. The exit meeting I had requested with the HR Director.

I had fretted about it for a week. I had written and edited what I was going to say, consulted with a few people who have been directors and managers, and determined the priorities with bold bullet points in my memory. In the end, I sat down and said,

“I am resigning after eight and a half years here, but I feel it is under duress. I love my work and have for over twenty-five years at many places, serving a variety of populations. So, I need to tell you why I am choosing to leave.”

The woman before me was calm, relaxed and chatty. She talked about my work at the agency, some of the events and changes that marked the years. She spoke with me as  though we were chatting and I knew she was talented, with a good eye for what my face was saying, a good mind for discerning the larger truth between my words. (She was another sort of counselor, and she laughed when I noted that.) And because I respected her manner and methods, appreciated her gentle composure, I forgot what I had written. I just talked.

Still, how does one talk about things that make no good sense or are painful, experiences that are baffling and finally dismaying? How does a counselor talk about a business that is supposed to be helmed and served by dedicated individuals providing compassionate and ethically excellent services–but has failed in some crucial ways? If I was writing fiction I could tell the tale in all its surprising details; the anxiety would bleed out of it, and the anger would be easily dispensed and dispelled. But simply summarizing the facts?

But M. listened well. She asked the right questions. She responded with empathy, dismay, insight, support. She, in fact, understood so well and knew so much more than I expected that it suddenly felt as though she was on my team. She, too, clearly advocated for others, clients and staff. And even though I was blowing a whistle, she took my words and gave them more stoutness, and put them in a neat row to further examine. And said: “I am so sorry.”

A note here: I am hardly the silent one in a roomfull; I have a habit of nearly always speaking my mind, for good or ill. If difficult things still get swept under the rug, I lift it up and pull it back out more often than not. I abhor unethical behavior, actions (or inaction) that deliberately harm others, ignoring the truth even though it is messy, choosing to deceive which is the coward’s way out. I want us all to be accountable, myself first of all, and even after a lifetime of knowing that isn’t always going to happen, I am willing to take a risk and say either “I am at fault” or “you may well be.” There is nothing safe about this. I am not an adrenalin junkie; I don’t crave drama. I just want things to work out well,  if at all possible– for my clients, and for those I work with. And myself. And if things are not set completely right, then made better. Much better.

I was clear of purpose when I decided to leave my position for reasons of safety, both emotional and environmental. But when I told my clients, it became stickier. The working environment is one thing. But my clients are another. They have fewer choices that I have. They have very big problems: addiction and mental health, housing and economics, domestic violence, health and legal issues. Can I say this? I have loved them, each and every one, in some way. I made a decision when I was twenty, sitting in a place that fully resembled hell, to be of merciful, steadfast service, an advocate for others if I made it out alive. I promised God, to be truthful. And I made it out. Fifteen years later I walked out into the world with my paltry work history (but a mother of five) and nagging sense of failure and I was given the gift of a little job that was the start of making good on that promise. I was ecstatic to be able to watch over wounded, ill and otherwise challenged adults in an adult day care for minimum wage. From that start I began a career.

I haven’t looked back, though the work has morphed in many ways. Each day has brought me the chance to be of some use, and to hold their lives up to them in the light of hope, tell them they can recover and heal. Create solutions, inaugurate change. Grow stronger, be even braver. And they have and they do. I listen with great appreciation of their efforts, as they are more often than not heroic beyond imagining.

So saying good-bye to them was tough. Hearing their responses to the news took me to the brink of tears a few times, although I reassured them other counselors who would be just as helpful. I am clear that I am not the only one who cares–human service workers are innumerable, working in many difficult, even dangerous conditions. I know this because I have worked alongside of them.

So why did I leave? Sometimes you just know when it is best to exit. Sometimes you need to take a break, even though it seems an extravagant and risky thing to do. For me, it came down to the fact that needed changes could have happened, and yet did not; issues that sent an alarm within me after all these years were ignored by people who might have addressed them. And maybe I need to do other work, even work that has no monetary reward. Or just rest.

But back to M. and me.  She was attentive and heard me and was distressed, too. I am amazed. She took many pages of notes. She assured me that something would be done to address the concerns. And she suggested that if I still wanted to work there, I might reconsider. I should stay in touch with her. But it is not the right time to rescind the resignation. My voice had been raised for months and it had seemed to come to nothing until this hour. I was fortunate to have a chance to share it with someone who had power and I trusted her. We shook hands. I left with her good words in my ear. As I walked away, I waved to three other employees with whom I had worked over the years. I wanted to stop and say,”Hey, you have been great to work with–but I’m outta here.” But I smiled and went on my way.

Later, I listened to Yo-Yo Ma play his vibrant, expressive cello and I cried.  For myself, for things that have no clear lexicon. But I can tell you this: validation is a vindication as sweet as it gets, especially when you least expect it. And yet it is humbling, too.

Now it is the end of the day. I did all the things on my list. I don’t have one for tomorrow. I look out over a momentarily work-free (for pay, that is) horizon and I know something will happen that is interesting. That piques my curiosity. It always does. And I will be writing about it and wondering over it.