Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Saving Graces of Community Centers

I am not a fan of blatant sentimentality, a saccharine nostalgia that paints a pastel-shaded Technicolor picture of a glorious world impervious to danger and distress. We all know it isn’t so. Behind glossiest scenes, troublesome things happen sooner or later, in keeping with imperfect human living.

But be that as it may, to this day I enjoy warm and cheery memories of my hometown’s community center. And I generally believe they are warranted. I enjoyed top-notch youthful experiences within the red brick walls of Midland Community Center.

I began thinking of this after this place came up as a topic on a Facebook page to which I belong. There one can share pictures, information and minor social connection for Midland, Michigan’s  current and former residents. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to engage in sharing thoughts there, as I have not been there for anything other than my parents’ funerals in 17 years. Before that, a scant few times most years, then none at all for decades. This was due to circumstance as well as by design. I was not loath to leave mid-Michigan and that small city. My life needed landscapes beyond the flat, open vista, one contoured for months by about 6 months of intense winters; a more diverse population; and different opportunities. Still, I enjoy the tidbits both historical and social that I read from my home in Oregon. One of the most interesting has been the ongoing exchange of warm memories like mine of the city’s community center–by perhaps thousands of people.

A little history first: the first community center set up there was started in 1919, Wikipedia states, “in conjunction with the very first bowling alley in Midland.” Soon other sporting activities were added as more people came. In 1955–I was 5 and had lived in Midland 3 years–Dow Chemical Company covered the $1.5 million cost of a new and modernized center and site. That makes sense as the multinational Dow Chemical and Dow Corning were and remain headquartered in the city. The center has grown, having been enlarged several times. “In 2005, MCC recorded 900,000 member visits….equivalent to 2,465 persons participating every day or the year.” (In 1960 when I was 10, Midland’s population was about 27,000; in 2017, it was 41,000.)

I am not surprised; I popped in often during the ’50s and 60s. I can’t recall what it cost to use the facilities but it was minimal, affordable for most folks. Yearly memberships were available and likely my family had one, as all five of us kids loved to be active. It yet provides activities every season, nearly every day you might want to drop in or regularly participate in a series of classes or a special event. That has been important in a place where freezing temperatures can last for months. Parents, children and single adults have all enjoyed the options, and what was once a good sized two-story building on a large corner lot now takes up a 12-acre site. I can barely imagine such changes.

So what did I most appreciate about it? Having so many choices was one. There was a huge swimming pool with even a high dive board which I thrilled to climb up, then plunge from; swimming was one of my all-time beloved pastime for years, indoors or outdoors. There were also basketball, volleyball, badminton, the last two being favorite games for me. There was a billiards room (I worked on that with my brother) and one with ping-pong (table tennis) tables ( which I loved) and a fitness room. I took a preschool rhythmics class where I wore soft suede slipper-like shoes that felt wonderful and danced all about (I still do recall it) and then beginning ballet classes, plus a few art classes. There was also gymnastics, martial arts, fencing, yoga. I read there are music lessons offered but if they were offered back then, I studied music elsewhere. Along with the rest of several teen casts I rehearsed musical theater shows there for summertime productions.

As I recall, there were also workshops for health, product presentations, lectures, small music group rehearsals, art shows, holiday bazaars, community group and church gatherings. Rooms were likely rented cheaply, if they cost anything.

Grade school kids attended outdoor summer day camps sponsored by the MCC and greater city parks and recreation department. Rainy days we would do fun activities in the center, as well. I spent a few early years in Barstow Woods with other campers and our counselors, soaking up nature’s wondrous ways, playing games, singing songs, and in Central Park right by the center) I learned to swim better in the outdoor pool. These summer camps served a couple of my children, too, when they visited my parents

And there were the Saturday afternoon dances in the gym starting when I was 13. What had reeked of sweat during regular hours was transformed into a low-lit, music-filled space. I spruced myself up a tad, met up with friends. We chattered among ourselves tried to look cool,  in sync with the scene yet disinterested. In awhile we gravitated to the dance floor with each other, did the Twist, the Monkey and all the other crazy dances we knew. The music was emboldening as we responded to blaring rock ‘n roll records. In time, some of the guys would move closer to the clusters of girls and, at some point, one then another and another would ask someone to dance a slow dance or another fast and furious one. Reputations could be cemented there or dismantled so we had to watch ourselves. But it was a pleasure to move to the beats and practice wooing a boy from the protection of our groups that made the afternoon an adventure. It was an introduction to the new world of early teen-hood.

The community center made a significant difference in other ways. I could get away from my house and the life lived there. Away from constant classical music, which I adored but my mind and heart were sometimes over-full. Away from the bungalow were stuffed with not only my siblings, parents and our friends, but students of my musician/ teacher father’s. And sometimes customers who came for my mother’s part-time seamstress and milliner creations (who also taught elementary school). The doorbell and phone were always ringing. Even though I knew nothing different and could concentrate well amid the controlled if cacophonous chaos, I yearned for private space and coveted quietness. Too, I just liked other sounds, scenes and kids who played games or learned new things with me. It was about a 4 block walk from our house to MCC and since the streets were safe, overall, I was free to ride my bike or walk alone there and back by the time I was 9 or 10. It was a good bet, however, that my friends might be going there, as well so we could meet up and head out.

I didn’t just learn to play indoor sports better, swim or dance better. Education for the young occurs in subtler forms socially. All socioeconomic and cultural groups were represented. I might not be good friends with Wally or Leslie at school but there we’d swim with each other, share a good game of volleyball or table tennis. It was far more egalitarian than most places. And I could better blend in with a number of groups and even just goof around. Not be My Father’s Daughter (a public man in several capacities) with high expectations to meet. I could also compete and work hard to win without hard feelings if my opponent or I lost–and the rules of fair gamesmanship counted. It all held more friendly neutrality than if we played in a school setting. And if there was ever a rousing argument, it was settled soon by the staff; fights were extremely rare in the MCC and those too boisterous were ushered out with warnings. Those who came wanted this to be a respite, a fun time, a place of peaceful and congenial interactions. I think not even swearing was tolerated. Clear respect for one another was, and likely remains, key.

I remember window seats. I don’t think there were cushions on them by the big wide windows but they were brick seats, nonetheless, where many could rest or wait for rides home, perhaps. There was an area beyond the front desk, a large rectangular room used for family get-togethers, meetings, catered dinners and other events. But often it was empty and still. I would take my notebook, sit with legs pulled up and write in my notebook on top of my knees, staring out the huge window now and then as I cogitated, dreamed, observed, recorded. I liked watching the weather change beyond fingertips pressed on glass: dramatic thunderstorms, blurring mini-blizzards, autumnal palettes, spring’s delights. I liked to see the people coming and going, teens walking arm in arm or parents with fussy children or an adult rushing in for a relaxing break before heading home again.

The community center was a central meeting ground of my town with its mix-and match events and numbers and kinds of people and multiple experiences on any given day or night.

An environment that is safe is important for any child or youth. It was crucial for me because I did not always feel safe, spending a fair amount of time trying to avoid, and too often failing, a (non-blood) pedophile during some earlier years. At MCC there were responsible, trustworthy adults with name tags and there were enough that every area was nicely covered. If someone got hurt, there were people to help. And the other youths were mostly those I genuinely enjoyed seeing, yet could easily avoid if I chose–the place was big and choices many. I could breathe easy, never felt lost or bored. Surely this is true of the other children that attended on a week-end afternoon or for after-school hours of fun. It was a haven for any and all as well as recreational center.

I never worked there but at least one sister and brother did. By the time I was of age to do so, other things were starting to hold my attention and I spent less time at MCC. But it helped inform who I was becoming, provided healthy pleasures, a sense of security and  instruction across a few disciplines.

I have been to a community center here and there since then. Some have been good, some are not very welcoming or useful. But all are working to bring together a variety of people–for improvement of health and welfare, to strengthen communal spirit and encourage personal growth. People coming together: so needed more and more. And saving graces, all, amid the often empty hustle-bustle, the multiple hazards of the world. For my old hometown of Midland, Michigan’s enriching community center I remain grateful, hold close rewarding hours of those times. I was fortunate to engage in opportunities for play and learning all at once.

Now I need to more often avail myself of similar community offerings in my current city–and I encourage others to do the same. Check it out. I wish you a happy volleyball or basket ball game, or swan dive off that goose bump-inspiring high board–make a big splash!

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Spoken, Unspoken

teenager-72-2 photo by Jeurgen Teller

What would she tell him and what would she keep to herself, she wondered as she trotted along the well-beaten path. Low branches snagged her sweater and bright flying hair. Wild blackberry bushes grabbed at her ankles. She made note of where they were so she could gather the last ripe offerings. How many Lil had harvested in late summer and still there were more. They hung on until the very end, fat with life, earthy and sweet. Stubbornly hanging on, those last berries. Stubborn like she was. And Quinn.

Lil was looking for him, zigzagging through the woods, up and down gentle hills but she was running from Ray and his words. Their father, more or less. He had it in for Quinn now and that meant likely Lil, too, in the end because they stuck together. The last of his words still rang in her ears.

“If that brother of yours still thinks he’s got to have his way, it’ll be a futile tug of war!”

It wasn’t a new threat, that his dominant role would insure authority. Yet the way it was said and when could mean little or much, and this time it was a warning she knew to heed. Quinn had shrugged off confrontations since he’d gotten a lot taller than Ray. If not as big otherwise. In fact, that was another thing Ray said a lot—Quinn had better grow up more if he planned on talking back all the time. And cut “that damned hair” or Ray would do something about it for him.

Lil pressed a palm to her forehead, swiped away sweat and stray hairs and something with wings that got away in time. She slowed her pace, calling out his name now and then. It was a lot of acreage, twenty acres and wooded for the most part, especially when you had to search. Quinn was fifteen, twelve months ahead of her, but he acted older, went his way as he pleased. To be honest both went their own way since their mother had died three years ago, but he’d be gone for a couple days or more, camping alone or staying with friends. She had bitterly argued against his taking off many times. Said he should take her with him, anyway.

“Why do you have to leave me here with him? He gets riled up and his mood turns sour. And he acts like I’m the only one who can make a bed or chop wood or simmer a pot of stew when you aren’t there to help us. I’m suddenly indispensable. Right in his line of vision like I’m some quarry. Well, maybe not quite that bad but still…”

Quinn always said, “If he ever hits you or anything else I’ll have to kill him.” He gave her that dramatic look beneath the fall of his hair, deep blue eyes going black.

How much he had changed, she thought, and yet not at all. Just tougher beneath his creative, pensive ways.

“Come on, you know it’s his words. They’re like rocks from a pile he hordes until he wants to throw his weight around. Ray can act mean, then he isn’t, anymore. You know, hot and cool.”

Quinn would lower his eyes, give her a quick hug, shake the hair from his face and say, “Yeah, but sometimes I have to leave before I lose my mind. Before I remind him again that Mom would never talk that way. He’s just privately a fool with a fat public job, he’s the one who needs to grow up–”

“Try to come home at night, though? I hate being in my room by yours and I can’t tap out a message on the wall because you aren’t there like before, any time I want. Lying there half-blind, listening to Ray snoring across the hall, muttering away. It’s worse when I’m alone. It makes me so want Mom back…”

Quinn calmed. “I can’t always have you with me, Lil, you know that. We just do guy stuff, we’re up too late and you have school.” He glanced at her. “I know I do, too, but it’s different for me. You were born with so much more potential.” A wry smile.

“Don’t be impossible!” She threw him a playful punch, he fended her off and they headed outdoors to Eagle River to forget the way things were. To take in unspoiled air, watch for beautiful, stealthy deer and name birds on the wing. Hope for a glimpse of the rare Sierra Nevada red fox, more silver than red one time they saw it. A lucky break, or a wilder magic.

Their talk was such a tired talk, anyway, repeated often. And she tried harder to hide her hurt from him so he wouldn’t feel guiltier, because it was true he had it worse with Ray. He took the brunt of all the grief and anger their mother’s death had poured into the man. Never mind that they had their own.

Ray was not their biological father, turning up two years after she—Surprise! Here’s Lillian Grace!–was born and their real father left with some stranger for parts unknown. Their mother was mostly okay with that, she’d said, in the end for the best, and then she met Ray in town one summer. Things rebalanced some, though he was more impatient than their own father if a steady man, a good provider, as she  let slip from her thoughts behind his back. Then she got sick  doing her own job, and left him on his own. Ray never expected to have to raise kids this way. Without the woman he adored with a doting if faulty love. And there they all were, three alone together. Except Quinn and Lil were a team, after that much more so.

It stung Lil deeply that her brother could ever leave her behind, though she understood he felt harassed, and he was older and a boy. As if that gave him extra rights.

The loamy river scent filled her nostrils as she ran. She thought of what Quinn always implied–that she’d finish school and have a chance at college. That he would not. But it wasn’t meant to be that way. Their mother had had high hopes for them both and Quinn was just as smart. Just not as motivated to learn from school books. Not these days. And Lil wasn’t that clear what she wanted to do. But she did know she didn’t want to be a nurse like their mother, catch a terrible sickness from patients, end up dying too young.

She felt a wave of relief as she lightly panted, feet slowing. There were glimmerings of reflected light on Eagle River, just beyond a scrim of leaves starting to slip off  their greenery and put on gold and rust. Surely he had to be on this stretch of the bank, another favorite area. He hadn’t been at the dock or the stony ridge at the inlet. By then Ray had stopped yelling at her to come back; she’d known he wouldn’t try to follow her. A week ago he’d hurt his knee during a fall from his truck bed. He’d unloaded a half cord of wood for their wood stove and somehow toppled. It had been one more reason why he’d steamed at Quinn, who had of course taken off in the middle of it, having heard more about his hair and friends.

It had started as usual.

“That hair will blind or strangle you one of these days, it’s always in your eyes or hanging around your neck. You need to clean up, Quinn. Get a job after school. And also leave that Wilson girl alone, she’s not in your league.”

“My hair is none of your business and it’s ridiculous you make a big deal of it. And what would you know about who’s in my ‘league’, as you put it? It’s clear you don’t think I’m good enough, just say it!”

Quinn had stomped off, gotten his bike, stirred up the dirt and dust. Lil helped with the wood. It was no big deal, not really hard, she just wished Quinn was helping her stack it so they could exchange a look, get the work done faster while Ray moaned on the couch, frozen bag of peas clamped on his knee. In two days it was better but he still limped about.

This time, though, Quinn had just wanted to go fishing. He was anxious to take off and was waiting for her to get home. As usual, Ray had things to say first.

“Your brother got caught with the Wilson girl today, I heard.”

He said this as soon as she was dropped off by her friend Carol and her mother and entered the house. Like he’d wanted to drop this bombshell for her ears despite Quinn standing there, too. She nodded at Quinn, eating cold macaroni and cheese from a plastic container; he tossed it on the counter and it slid, fell into the sink.

“Don’t talk about Anne.” The fork in his hand was pointed toward Ray, emphasizing each word. “And don’t imply I did something wrong.” He turned to Lil, who stood in the kitchen doorway, eyebrows raised, half-smiling. “I talk with her before and after school–you’ve seen us, right?” He tossed the fork into the sink, put the leftovers away.

Lil shrugged. “And? So?”

“Nothing, he just likes to yak at us.” He lowered his voice. “But I did get a crappy grade on that world history test. That sucks, have to do a re-take.  But now I’m going fishing. Want to come?”

“Sorry about the test.. No, not yet, I have homework. Maybe in a half hour, but then there’s dinner…”

“Let him start it, he knows how.”

Ray looked around the living room corner where he sat at a small desk paying bills. “What’s that?”

Quinn grabbed his fishing gear and left by the side door, urging her to join him. And she should have right then–didn’t she want to hang with him more? But the door banged shut and she went to her room to work on Algebra. In fifteen minutes, there was a knock on her door.

She said, “”I’m busy, Ray, homework.”

“Sorry, but we should talk.”

She ignored him, kept working.

“It’s about Anne Wilson and Quinn.”

Her pencil hovered above the paper as she considered. Was he going to just complain to her, gossip as ever, then go on his way? Or was it serious?

Ray Leger managed the historic, expensive hotel on the edge of nearby “wine country heaven” and he had long, sometimes variable hours. It must be a day off or he’d go in later, be back in the wee hours. Ray got to hear a lot of stories being the big manager there. Everyone had info to swap about residents as well as upscale visitors. The Wilsons were a family that recently moved there after vacationing in wine country for some years. She didn’t know what the parents did but Anne was popular in school now– smart enough, chatty and sporty. Lil liked her alright but from a distance. She’d been surprised her brother found her that interesting.

Lil got up to open the door. At least Ray never just walked right in, he gave them that.

“Thanks, Lillian.” He looked around for her blue antiqued wood chair, pushed off her robe and sat. “I’m hoping you can persuade your brother to stop seeing this girl before there’s more trouble. Mr. Wilson came to see me today at the hotel and he’s worried about his daughter’s reputation.”

“Really? Doesn’t he know we’re a family with a good rep? Didn’t he know and accept you before when they came down as tourists? Didn’t Quinn and I get introduced to Anne by her own mom? In fact, Mom helped out when Mrs. Wilson was ill with–”

“He saw them smoke together today, Lillian, before school.” Ray leaned toward her, his hands splayed on his thighs, feet planted on the floor. “Pot, you know. That’s not good.”

Lil inclined her head, frowning. “What? Pot? You mean Quinn doesn’t even drink, but he smokes pot from time to time and that’s the whole nasty situation?”

“Well, Jud Wilson is a chemist or something–he knows about drugs, all the affects. And he feels pot is super bad for teens and doesn’t want his daughter mixed up with it. Plus, there’s the hair issue.”

“Almost all of Oregon smokes pot, Ray. It’s legal. Where has he been?”

“They’re from Utah, originally. I think they lived in Arizona awhile.”

“Oh, they’re religious, maybe… might be Mormon? No,  that can’t be it, he and his wife love the wine here.”

“I don’t know about all that. They’re not liberal, no, and not everyone is here, you know.”

“Well, Anne should make her own decision and that should be that, right? She needs to discuss it with Quinn and her dad. We don’t have to deal with it all.”

“Wrong, he said he doesn’t want her to see him again. And he was very put off by his hair down his back, said it’s not what he’d expect from my kids…and Anne has other friends and Quinn should back off.” He spread his hands wide. “Made it clear. And I will not disappoint long-time associates….”

“How rude!” But Lil bit her lower lip hard, blinked a few times. Where was her mother when she needed her? They were her kids, not his, really–weren’t they, still? She would know what to do. Really, his associates?

“But worse, he’s bound to tell the law. You have to be 21 to buy marijuana, you know, just like for alcohol.” He shuddered ever so slightly. “And my hotel cannot afford any bad press, not of my kids not doing the right thing. It reflects on me, after all, then it gets out and it’s bad for business. It has to stop now. But he won’t listen to me!”

“Quinn already knows about being seen smoking with her?”

“No. I didn’t get that far. But they–parents and Anne– are coming over tomorrow night. Luckily, they were busy tonight. Gives us time to talk, think things out.”

Lil got up and paced. “Actually, you want me to break it to him so you won’t have to face off, right?”

“I wouldn’t say that. Thought you’d be concerned, too.”

“Or were you concerned about your job? You know he smokes. I have a couple times and you have, too, I’m sure! And you like your wine wine, drink at the hotel bar sometimes after work. I mean….both are common here, so isn’t it that this might somehow ruin appearances, us teenagers who can’t seem to toe the line?”

She felt disgusted, done with the conversation. Let him fight his own social battles and deal with Quinn himself. It was not her problem.

“No, not entirely. Maybe that’s why he isn’t doing as well in school the past year or two, have you thought of that, Lillian? Maybe he’s too stoned to care.”

Well, maybe our mother died and we still want her here, have you thought of that, Ray? she wanted to shout back. But she just sat on the edge of her bed. Saw the late day sunlight seep through blinds and paint thin bright stripes on the hardwood floor. Her feet were cold. Her hands were almost cold. It was going to start raining every day and she’d be outdoors less as temperatures dropped. Quinn and she would be trapped here with this man who didn’t even know them…well, a man who watched over them but lacked the skills and love their mother had.

Had his own worries and frustrations, sure. Hard to hate him for any of it. His own loss. Like hers, but different.

Still. She let out a long sigh.

“I do care, Lil, I really do– for both of you but he sure won’t hear that. Maybe he’ll think things over if it’s your voice saying it.”

Lil got up and went to the door. “You could be nicer to him. And you should go now. I’ll think it over.”

He looked at her without wavering long enough for her to feel pinpricks of tears. Who were they for this time? Him? Or as usual, for herself? And for her almost twin, Quinn?

But she left the room first. Ray followed a few steps, the felt the familiar sad emptiness as she bounded toward the front door to go warn her brother of impending complications.

He couldn’t stop himself so he yelled: “If that brother of yours still thinks he’s got to have his way, it’ll be one futile tug of war!”

******

Lil parted the heavy branches and there he was.

“Quinn!”

He was not fishing. He was in the river, clothes still on from what she could see. Eyes were closed tight against the world. Looked like he’d churned up the river bed. His long hair streamed over his shoulders. He must have heard her but didn’t speak. It scared her, his being so still, and she slipped into the water, too. Stood near him, unwilling to disturb his reverie further.

And for a perfect moment, she saw their mother. In his features, in the way he stood so quiet with calm face tilted toward the muddied, swirling surface. How she loved it there, fishing or swimming in it, playing “catch” with her dog, Jersey Girl, or teaching them how to snorkel and ride rubber tubes downstream after it rained and the water ran faster.

People often remarked that they looked like twins, Quinn and Lil. That they took after their  graceful mother rather than their disappeared father who was tall, mammoth-shouldered and walked heavily and confidently like the lumberman he’d been.

They both had some of her for always.

“I know,” Quinn said, “I know.”

Lil waited.

“All of it, Anne told me. Don’t ask why I jumped in, just wanted to. It feels good.”

His eyes were still shut. His body was moved a little by current that ran swifter there. They both held their ground and she shut her eyes, too, just to feel it all with him. Chilly and warm as currents altered their courses; soft and strong; familiar and strange with its power.

“Okay, ” she said.

“It’ll be alright, Lil. Anyway, I know a couple other girls– Anne isn’t the only fish in the river. And I don’t like to smoke that much so stop worrying.”

She looked at him then as his eyes flashed open. He grinned at her, grabbed her arms and dunked her; she dunked him right back. Soon they were in full skirmish, laughing and gasping, swimming out of each other’s grasp. They finally gave up, fell into each other as they scrambled and slid on the muddy, stone-embedded river bank, water streaming from every limb and their dirty faces. When they reached the flatter grassy part, Lil and Quinn collapsed under a tree, more happy.

A few yards away Ray stood watching, recalling the past. Ache filled him. How he wished he had some of what they had, was welcomed into that circle as he had been when they were small. He wanted to remember her with them now. He took a step forward. But it felt too hard and he turned back to the house as the two teenagers got on their feet. And saw him thread through thickets of blackberries, then limp through cottonwood, alder, maple and fir that stood tall in a dusky autumn haze–this place that was now shared by three.

 

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Found Tent

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

In the spacious front hall closet I was rearranging toppled baseball caps, a pair of  hiking boots, three IKEA folding chairs, two camp chairs, a small storage unit for more hats/gloves/scarves and a box of Architectural Legos so a new vacuum would fit behind crammed coats when it jumped out at me: a Three Person Wedge Dome Tent snug in its plastic casing.

“Huh,” I said to no one, since I was alone. “How come this is still here?”

Never mind that the corners are shadowy even with a hall light on. It seemed nonsensical that a full-sized tent could be hiding out in there. You see, we don’t camp. The “camp chairs” are what we take to an outdoor concert, or for a restful afternoon by a lake–not for hanging out in the woods for several days. Then I recalled dishes on the shelf above, the pine green enamel service for two plus stainless pot that are good for…camping. We do have basement storage. Yet here this stuff sat.

“We don’t ever camp, likely will not camp again, so what the heck?”

I pulled it out. It almost pained me, looking at it. The tent was beautiful with its lightweight royal blue water repellent fabric and polyethylene floor, the mesh door to bar insects yet allow ventilation. It’d look great with camp chairs and green enamel ware out there in the misty cool mornings under a canopy of Oregon evergreens and big leaf maples and so on and on, with eagles soaring above in hunt mode, owls hooting in velvety depths of night, and a campfire charging up the storyteller in us, even a few songs rolling out as we sipped soup from mugs…But not to be, I mused wryly.

I used to camp a great deal, with enthusiasm. I camped out as a child when at various summer camp programs, of course. And with my parents during  my teens (though not too often) with a simple pop-up camper they towed behind their Chrysler and then the Plymouth. We even camped in Canada which was more interesting to me then the camping with parents.

My first husband, Ned, and I went “primitive”; areas we camped around northern Michigan had no electricity or flush toilets with few other tenters around. When we had a family, we took our babies along, I nursed on the go. We backpacked along overgrown trails, branches reaching down as we made our way. We scavenged kindling, chopped and split “downed and dead” logs and cooked simplest fare over an open fire. I had married a man who was at perhaps most at home in the woods and the solitude found there. I wasn’t so far behind with willingness and appreciation. At first there were more skills to learn but it was fulfilling to work alongside him. It was peaceable out there and we and our kids felt good.

My current husband, Marc (who camped as a kid on Lake Michigan during summers with grandparents), and I camped at times with our combined five kids, borrowing my parents’ camper until they sold it. We tended to do this for other purposes, i.e. we were visiting a certain person “up north”, attending a folk or bluegrass music or similar event or were on our own Canadian sojourn. It was more economical and fun to camp rather than throw away money on hotel rooms. Not all the children were thrilled–hotels were luxurious playgrounds, unlike home–but most adapted. Naomi and Joshua, my children with Ned, were at ease, happy, helpful. Alexandra, our youngest, was excited to try anything new and adventurous. My stepdaughters were more skeptical. But Cait easily embraced the beauty of nature, loved finding wild berries, cooking with us. Aimee loathed it. She insisted she was genetically programmed to be a city person and to drag her out into any wilderness–despite flush toilets, showers, electricity: near civilization–was a true injustice and perhaps neglect of our responsible parental duties. (This never changed–she adores the concrete jungle and generally avoids being in dirt or in spitting distance of bugs unless required.)

Over time camping was less and less a family activity choice. A few grandchildren still went, however, with my parents–even when Mom and Dad were in their seventies. They were good at the more comfortable style of outdoors living. My dad had talents one would never suspect when he was in his tuxedo, conducting a symphony. He’d set up camp with simplicity and speed. My mother was a farm girl-turned-teacher and organized, efficient, if not thrilled with constant dirt in her makeshift home, under her nails–hadn’t she been done with all that? But they both respected, even seemingly revered what nature offered and taught the children more valuable lessons with each trip. Among which was cooperation with others–a love of familial fellowship. Those who enjoyed those trips still recall them fondly.

The last time spent hunkering down in a tent was autumn of 2010. Marc and I bought the tent when my son, Joshua, and his family (with two dogs) invited us to join them. I was thrilled he invited us. We didn’t  have what we needed but he did. Joshua is a veteran camper and hiker, a woodsman-type like his father. He, his two children and their mother know how to manage the basic and arcane things one learns when spending much time in wilderness or close to it. By the time they were in school Avery and Asher could identify many animal signs via scat and tracks, bird calls and even wild plants. They could explain differences between poisonous and nontoxic ones for use as, say, poultices for injuries and bites as well as for teas and food. I looked this info to verify it and was stunned. And Joshua can start a crackling fire with little and no modern helps, spot a deer in the distance before anyone else, root out stones from water or earth and name the types found. He has made a peaceable connection with all bugs and even spiders, despite a few having bitten and infected him badly with venomous wounds made.

My son and I experience nature at a perhaps primitive core which also encompasses our highest sense of all things–but he knows more about the outdoor life by now. Hence, it would be good to tag along with him into Oregon’s forests in the Columbia Gorge.

If only I could  tell you it was an entirely satisfying time but our one night camping experience was rough at moments. For one, my husband snores and has sleep apnea and without his CPAP machine, even with pillows propping him up a bit…well, it was an even less restful sleep for me; he seems more adapted to his apnea. We inhabited two separate sleeping bags with thin foam cushioning beneath. Nonetheless I felt may stones, lumps of dirt and stray twigs every time I was awakened by the drone from my husband. And I sweated too much so threw off top half of the sleeping bag, then felt the chill of skin drying inch by inch.

Sightless in the seas of blackness, I listened to the wilderness’ darkened voice in between  the snores and coughs. Its enveloping presence was alternately soothing and disconcerting. Thoughts arose about cougars, my most feared (such hunting prowess with stealth and fierceness) wild thing in these parts. And bears which I knew tended to be avoidant of people if food was securely put away (it was).  I had long trusted deep forest when I’d camped before and that night it was like a familiar but also a stranger one. I had lived at the edges of a few woods, miles out in country, and rustlings and sighings and snappings and occasional unknown soundings of something, somewhere…yes, it was so recognizable. I was duly mesmerized. The trees were so alive–of course they were!–but they were so utterly alive even if sleeping–did they ever sleep?…What else was awake besides me? My blood coursed with adrenaline at odd moments despite sensible self-talk.  Heart rat-a-tat-tatted or harrumphed. Mostly I wanted to stop itching and sweating, feeling the uneven ground and hearing Marc emit snores. Wait, what was that landing on my forehead?  And why didn’t I just buy a second small tent? Pitch it on the other side of the site? Why didn’t he just find a happy pause in racket and lsnooze on? Likely scared off near anything out there.

But even the dogs were sleeping.

Breathe in the good magic, Cynthia, be at your ease.

It started to rain, fat drops smacking and sliding off  tent walls. A relief to hear its music. I closed my eyes and fell asleep a couple hours out of exhaustion. Dawn arrived with a whisper and sweetness that is unlike city mornings, not with a slap but a caress. And the fragrance of fire burning and oatmeal cooking and coffee simmering. I crawled out of my sleeping bag, sneaked outside and stretched sore muscles and bones, grateful for the new day. Mist hovered in the distance like a benign spirit gathering. I could hear the kids at the river, their voices soft. Joshua was tending to the fire, sitting on a log. He looked up and smiled his crooked smile. The dogs noted me, licked his hand and took off.

“It was a sort of rocky night, but glad to be here.” I wanted to be a great camper so I did not want complain to Joshua.

He chuckled quietly. “Good. You just have to get used to it again.” He gestured to the flickering fire. “I piled some wood in the tent. Found other kindling not too damp.”

I nodded, looked out into the wetness and light creeping into inside the cooled air, a persistent brightening of a dullish day. The forest was breathing its fresh breath and I took it in deeply. Damp earth radiated its musky goodness. How I loved woodlands after rainfall, how trees shook off their shower and other plants bathed and glistened. My grandchildren scampered about with muddy boots and clothes, hands full of stones and berries. I thought back to those other days when my children were their ages and life was woven of inexplicable beauty and sorrow, not unlike how it was, still. But now it was safer, freer, deeper for me in countless ways. And my son was cooking breakfast, hugging his two, quietly talking with me as I poured coffee into our mugs. I watched him and was startled, as I still always am, to glimpse his father.

Before long Marc followed his nose to join us. I held my tongue. He seemed more achy and groggy than I. He and Joshua talked wood, stones, fire building. Content to listen, I heard Avery and Asher chattering as if freed of a spell of enforced stillness. The dogs, a mess of mud and plant matter, caroused with them.

Sitting around a small sputtering morning fire, sipping hot percolated brew, hearing birds’ wings slice through a sprinkling of rain and our muted talk, I was nearly as pleased as when camping years ago. Just more sleepy and quite a bit older. But I felt perhaps even more alive than decades ago. Oh, I was flush with boundless energy and vivid talk and brave dreams then. But now…now I was more rounded at my sharp edges, more permeable, flexible. Able to welcome insights other than my own fragments. I was humbled. Enriched. In fact, I had stayed alive when more than once I thought I might not make it so long. And that was something.

Only the enormous, aged trees about us might grasp this and they seemed to lean toward me, branches graceful and strong, their lives enduring an opening of every new day and its progression in this communal place, then into nights. Events of import that seeped into them, slipped about them. I nodded at the forest and heavy sky that promised more rain.  A gratitude that filled my throat with tears a second. But, too, I wondered if I could do it again or if aging had begun to conspire against me. If I had what it took to be fearless and sturdy enough of body and soul to make a camp out there. If we would take another chance, just go out on our own s before.

We tore down our lively camp, hiked as light rain came and went. By the time we separated and said farewell, sunbeams were vanquishing soft fogginess and how it shone on us. My heart swelled with wonders even as my body griped a little.

 

I put the tent back in the closet, tuck it into its corner. Can we even think about camping again at 66 and 68? Maybe, maybe not. But I want to see it there when items need reordering or when I just want to pull it out and look it over. Or when we finally move from here. I want to know it has been done and done well enough. How it has nourished us all, made us let go and attend to the immediacy of life, venture just a little more into the wilder variations of what matters: love becoming even more visible within the realm of natural manifestations.

Still, I find myself dreaming of staking my claim to a spot amid the sentinel trees. And a sturdy blue tent–one for Marc, one for me.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: A Man, His Dog and That Two-eyed Woman

MI trip, day 5, TC 036

I.

So, I tell Rags my trusty mutt, this here is our Marionville, a nice spatter of land that sidles up to Lake Minnatchee, encased in the humming woods that crowd our eastern hillside and make a barrier along western meadows, then spreads about here and there, willy-nilly. We might call the generous sky ours, too, if we want; it lights us up, hides us in dark, too, rains and snows on everyone like we were chosen for it. Though nobody can own sky. But those stars do such tricks for us, I tell him, and he yawns as if this is old hat, get on with it. And this here, I tell him, anyway, throwing my hands out to indicate the acreage around me, this is ours because I won it from my brother Darnell when we tossed an old silver dollar for it. Damn fool, he liked the drink more than life itself. Some said it must have been luck, him being the oldest, but I know better. It was Daddy’s land, was his daddy’s. Next it came to me and that was right and good.

And that makes it not just mine but yours, I say, lightly stomping the ground with my boot to make a bigger point.

Rags looks at me sideways, lifts his graying muzzle to a bright breeze, watches another few red leaves falling and lays his furry black and white head on outstretched paws again. He makes that throaty noise that tells me he is bearing my words because he has nothing else to do but he’s tired of them already. He could chase a small, insignificant thing that rustles the grass beyond us or sniff around property edges for something good but why bother this moment. It’s a perfect Saturday morning. After our chores we are sitting pretty up here in the September heat and cool. Sometime we’ll need to go into town. We’re putting it off as long as we want.

So here’s our Marionville, I say again and it’s like some poem just saying it out loud but don’t let anyone else hear me. I’m Jasper Dye; nobody expects me to think a feeling thought even ten feet close to poetry. But things change as much as they stay the same. Even up here on the hill where I have worked the land and hunted and fished and taken care of the old place near as long as I’ve been alive and kicking. That makes it seventy-two years, if I count from start. And Ma strapped me on her that afternoon after a quick early morning birthing and we tended the corn, which she mumbled about deer getting into again. If you had been there, Rags, that could have been avoided, we both know how skilled you are. Anyway, Daddy yelled at her, she said, but I was happy swaying and hugging her chest in a worn sling of a blanket piece until he sent her back into bed and told Darnell to get to work. My brother was lazy even then.

This Marionville, we can nearly see it all from up here, save for the trees–soon they’ll open up the view as the leaves turn and go–but we know what’s there. And it’s damn good. My home. Sweeter words never spoken, I say to rags and he moves closer and licks the scuffed, dusty toe of my boot. I sit back and just breathe along with him, counting all the reasons why I am so lucky.

Then I reach for the crumpled pack of smokes in my jacket pocket. And leave it. I promised her I’d try to quit. Maybe I at least ought to really try, do you agree, Rags? No one ever put her arms around me like she can, much less asked me anything once. And so kindly. And she always brings you something good to chew. Rags, you hear me? No more smokes.

He sighs. Rags has heard me say this many times before but now I mean it. I settle into my Adirondack chair, the one my son and I built twenty years ago. It really should be called a Michigan chair, it is here, not over there. Anyway, it might need work so I can avoid splinters. For now it’s good enough. Sunlight pours on us with a rich warmth that in just a few more weeks we will sorely miss.

 

II.

The 1986 Ford F-250 truck rattles its way down our dirt road, then calms down on the pavement as I turn the corner and go toward town. The hill is steep here and I slip it in neutral. Rags sticks his head out the open window and his ears go flying, his tongue lolls, eyes go squinty and he’s happy. He used to ride in the back but now he’s getting older like me. I spoil him some.

We reach Marionville sooner than I’d like. It used to take me at least ten, fifteen minutes. But houses have cropped up along the county road in recent years. Big ones, take up so much space us wonder how many are in such families, don’t we, Rags? First one, then another, then more. The sounds of earth movers and chain saws and carpenters at their jobs, it used to grate on me, and Rags you’d bark at the din like a crazy boy. Enough chaos to put us both in an early grave. Now they’re here and that’s that. And some trees were planted to make up for bare spots they made. Still, look at ’em, too big, waste of space and supplies–those summer and winter week-enders, right? But good for the building trades. Thing called progress has its bad and its good. I mostly think poorly of it. I’d rather be like before. Undisturbed.

I ruffle his head now that he’s sat down and looking out the windshield again, at the bugs that hit and fallen summer and early fall leaves that fly off. I don’t get out as much as some think I should. My truck’s tank can be full a long while. Unless I go further north to hunt and that happens soon, eh, Rags? A saving grace for winter coffers. If I bag my whitetail this year. If Shawn goes along we should do okay, but that son of mine, he’s gotten away from it. Let’s check out my bows and arrows tonight, in case he wants to go out with his old man. You know he’ll tell me I don’t have what it takes, anymore. Ancient, that’s what I’ve become! We will see. Last three years I’ve missed but you never know, we can get blessed again.

Rags ignores me. He’s over my rambling, perks up at first sight of the busy streets. Unlike me, he loves to visit civilization, as they call it. Everybody chats with him and gives his rubs, and so many smells. I slow down, put it into second, then first and Rags barks cheerfully at passersby and cars and stores, brash hellos. The main street is inviting as far as town streets go, that hasn’t changed too much, we all want the charm of it to stay. Colorful awnings now, freshened paint, businesses booming more than not. The lake draws lots of people, is decorated with boats and moving bodies until it starts to freeze up. Then there’s ice fishing. Skiing not too far off and more. Marionville, though, is a place you search for. Once you find it, you don’t care to leave. Unless you’re Jasper Dye as I  surely am and you’d rather admire it from the wooded hill.

I park and we get out, head to the hardware. Don’t need a leash, Rags is good at minding. If they make me get one–there’s talk of one of those leash laws–we won’t be coming down but once a month or less.

Here comes Hank Butler, his thick body moving like a freight train toward us. His long red nose is a warning of his approach; it shines today in the sun. We try to ditch him, stepping over and lowering our heads.

“Jaasss! My man, long time no see, what’s up?” He thrusts out a paw to me. I ignore it. Rags sniffs his leg and backs off. “Hey there, good seeing you, too.”

“A few nuts and bolts is all.” I start to go on.

“Got a new grand-baby, another boy,” he says, all puffed up.

“Okay, nice for the others.” I nod at him, make to move forward but he blocks me.

“Yeah, now there’s five. Ellie and me are pleased as all get out. Still, she hangs in there for a girl baby. Let me show you the picture. ”

He pulls out his wallet, then the picture, holds it right before my eyes like I’m a blind man. I nod at the wrinkled infant. Seen one seen ’em all in the Butler line, anyway, and I have to hold back from saying it.

“Okay, there you go, good for you, Hank. Gotta go.”

“What about Shawn? He ever getting married? I seen him with Melissa Everlin again, he’s going out with her, right? What’s he now, thirty-some?”

“Can’t say. Better ask him about any gal.” I step around the nosy hulk and Rags trots along. “Regards to Ellie, see you around.”

“See you at Fall Fest pig roast and bonfire?”

“Might at that.” I touch the rim of my baseball cap so he can’t say I’m terrible rude, then finally hurry off. Tough guy I am thought to be, I still do my manners unless provoked beyond the usual.

That’s what I get for being a silent type. Old-time loner, one of the few left around here, and Shawn says I’ve alienated folks along the way. Alienated? I said. Really, Shawn.  He’s gotten fancy on me. Says it almost like I went out of my way to put off people. Maybe I do, sometimes. I don’t worry over none of it.

I’m about to step into Mike’s Hardware when my eye catches sight of someone else. Rags runs over to a woman with silvered hair, who wears a long skirt with boots, black fleece vest over a red shirt. Her large wire and blue stone earrings sway as she walks. I bet she made those–she can create anything, I suspect.

“There goes Jasper Dye,” she calls out in that soft but firm voice she has. Her steps lengthen as she moves down the sidewalk, a shopping basket hooked over her arm. “I was thinking of you today. How’s it going up the hill? Mister Rags, a pleasure.” She squats to smooth back his rough fur and he licks her hands, then she stands again and her earrings make clinking sounds as all parts shimmy.

I let her hug me, give it back. Only her, outside of family. Because we are friends. And she always asks me the same thing despite knowing my answer. It’s how we talk if we haven’t seen each other face-to-face in a spell. Like we know but don’t know things.

“Well, now, Heaven Steele. I see your house and more day and night, across the road and right above you. And it’s all still good.” I smile, that is, I show my teeth and my lips curl up a little. “You were gone awhile.”

“I was, and I’m back, gratefully. Come by for tea tomorrow if you can. I’m off to the bookstore.”

“I might do that. ”

Of course I’ll make time. Rags and I wave goodbye. We head into Mike’s Hardware for the nails I need to fix my leaning fence.

 

III.

Ten years ago I didn’t like her anymore than most when she moved in across the road, down the slope a little. Her name for one: Heaven Steele. Who carries such a name? And that house she bought belonged to Millie and Carroll Johnson, neighbors forever before they retired to Florida. Snowbirds. Just had enough of winters like more and more do. But it was harder to deal with when she built an addition on the pretty ranch house, a studio space nearly as long as the original house.

She scared people right off. Not hard to see why.

The scuttlebutt was she was a divorced artist from Chicago, had money and seemed purely different, kinda strange. Two strikes against her (didn’t care about strangeness)–three counting her renovating my neighbors’ house. It was big enough already, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living and dining room, expensive kitchen (Millie was some cook), a big side yard and patio that were good to look be in. Land about her, a wooded acre total. Why did she need a huge addition if she was alone? More trees downed, that racket. I could hear and see it unfold.

It was for making her paintings and her chimes. Glass chimes. They sell all over the world and she makes a good living between those and her paintings. And those chimes make sounds like you’ve never heard when the air moves over them. Like from another planet or farther out. So I learned that chimes aren’t all equal. But I’m a plain sort of man, an everyday person, and that isn’t what got me.

First, I should say, are her eyes. Everyone says that, can’t help it. One is blue, for seconds can seem blue-violet; another one is maple brown. A fluke of nature, she says when people stare at her too long, shows up in less than one percent of babies born. Then there is how those eyes have their way of looking at you. Steady, straight into yours. You want to look away long before she does, and I think she knows that so tries to not stare much. And then there was gossip that she was one of those woo-woo people. A psychic lady. Really, they said she was near-crazy. Artist plus those eyes makes up a person that makes people cringe. Wonder. The psychic part she laughed at from the start but lots argue it. An artist is all, that’s enough, she still says, never mind mismatched eyes, they work the same. She didn’t say never mind how she looks at you. Never mind how she can read you. It’s something just her way. I don’t notice it now.

But what she is actually like is another thing.

One day after a year of her living there, remodel complete and business booming, I was slumped in my chair on the rise of my front yard. Dozing. Feeling dark and weighted with misery like the skies above. Even Rags couldn’t make it better. It was early May, cold still, and had rained recently. I found myself longing for more flowers, which was a clue to how bad I felt. I never tended flowers, my wife did. Her passion and pleasure. That was the day that marked twelve years since she passed. I was sick with the absence of her. Her easy talk and deep silences. Her chicken and dumpling soup and pork chops and whipped herb and butter potatoes, her flaky fruity pies. Softness of her skin when I sought her across the bed, the creaking sound and lightening of the bedstead as she got up early to wash up and get out to the chickens. How she accepted me. Laughed out loud. I was too empty of her goodness. All she shared with me.

It was Yancy–an obedient, lame German shepherd mix I had then– who heard her moving up the slope, over the road and up my hill. She waited by my stand of  birch trees, almost invisible but not to Yancy. He slunk over to her, a low growl held in his teeth. She moved through light fog, silver hair crowned with it. She made quiet sounds to my dog. They came over; she sat next to me, uninvited. Was quiet ’til I looked right at her, not friendly. She had nerve.

“I was making new chimes, and felt like I should come over, say my hello. You’ve been out here a long time. It’s damp and cold. And you are heavy with it, too sad…. Come, let me make tea for you, and I made brownies earlier. I’ll give you a tour of my studio, we can sit in my new garden.”

I was more than surprised. I admit it, some scared off. Her knowing my feeling from down in her studio. Her welcoming me. The unasked-for kindness. Her realness went deep  and like that it was a sudden light turned on me. I went along with her, down the hill, over the road, into her house where she showed me what she did. Then we sat at her table awhile. She wasn’t at all nosy, just gave me mint tea, chewy brownies. Me, sipping on tea. Nibbling brownies made by an unknown woman. Young enough still to be my little sister, an idea that came to me later. A crotchey farmer-archer and an arty chimes maker (and something else), like family.

It’s changed me a little. Week by week, we were better friends. Heaven, Jasper. We couldn’t get along without each other now, the three of us. Right Rags? We watch over her place and all from up here; really, talk doesn’t matter. She watches over us in her ways. We now understand each other.

Rags puts his head on my lap and I scratch that one spot he loves scratched. We watch a big moon sit just right in the fall night sky. I say again, This is our Marionville, old boy, a decent smudge of land, water, trees, people coming in, going out. Kindness restored more often than not. It’s home, Rags, all we need.

 

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Stuck in a Blue Room (with Escapes)

Photo by Naomi Falk, Sunset Rain Sky, 2013,

I awakened a recent morning and stretched well, squinted at the window to ascertain what the sky was up to, then lay still again, as has been usual. Just coming back into this world. Through half slits of myopic eyes I scanned the soft blur of an inviting, comfortably large space around me. A thick warm dullness weighted me inside and out, and words arrived: stuck in a blue room.

I closed my eyes, drifted, wished for gold, wished for amethyst or vermilion or sage or flamingo pink.

The walls of my bedroom are painted a tender sky-in-lake blue. The quilt is Wedgwood blue. The bedroom light appears a sheer silvered blue early mornings, a soft navy at night. My mind, too, generally seems blue as I lay in bed. This usually reflects a peaceful ease, but it can also emphasize variable sadness or restless worry. Also, this blueness is a celestial dreaming that carries me, or a threshold to cross that reveals a poem or story that arrive unbidden. Then I must write and the blueness morphs into a span of colors–I use the word loosely here, color can be more than actual color– that rise and fade under my pencil.

Stuck in a blue room…

Blue is the way I live when at repose–not engaged in living with greater amounts of physical energy and movement. Those activities are differently colored. Though it may seem odd to others, this is what it is for me. Color means life. There is no such thing as colorlessness to me. White, after all, is all colors that show themselves on earth. Each reflects more, is a vibration of energy, physics made mystical. They can telegraph to me an active emotion, a deeper expectation or a simple state of mind. I accept these with delight –until it bears down, makes me think hard. Color, then, signals clues to life as I know it.

So that morning it meant something other and more. If blueness is a state of being I walk into when I open the bedroom door, it is familiar and I accept it’s character. It is the color always chosen for my bedrooms. But there are times it can feel oppressive, close around the edges. It can be such density of blue, creating a wide boundary beyond which I feel less able to experience fullness of life. If I was a long and languid sleeper, this would seem reasonable, I’d gladly succumb, but I am not,  by nature. I am used to jumping up and getting going. I prefer to not waste much time in that state.

But lately I often find myself captive in this blueness, and the room, for more than a little extra time. Floating amid watery light that fills the space.

I want out of there faster, more easily. I tell myself this as I lie there, let my eyes drink of this rich tone of palette, see early autumn’s cooler light chime its way in.I am not restive but becalmed.

I remind myself: it is grief, nothing more or less. I have been here before. My days and nights have not shown up the same since my brother got so ill and died late spring after a conversation with him shortly before. His gentle kiss stayed on my cheek a long time; I still can recall it. Then a sister-in-law who had my respect and friendship. Actually, it has been since four family members in total that have passed in three years. Like my world is shrinking. Rooms are emptied even as I sense presences. Just there…weren’t they….then not there at all.

Not that life should be the same as before. We lose parts of ourselves a little each time someone we love dies. They are not here for us to rebound off, to connect with, to herald similarities. Laugh with and be frustrated by. Those certain familiar meals/conversations stop. That part of my identity, of being sister and sister-in-law—only as I could be with them and they with me–has dissipated.

I get it. I don’t much like it. Nor the tears that rise and spill as I smell a familiar fragrance, hear a piece of music, catch sight of their images. Or just see a child reach for an extended mother’s hand: exquisite tenderness of blood with blood. Or read of more sudden deaths in the greater world. Such fragility  and rawness of life stun me anew; I want to turn away even as I want to wrap my arms about it, hold all close. It is a magnetic thing, human life. But it also can repel us when we have had enough for awhile. When we need a rest.

I thought today (as I power walked, admired green if drier rustling leaves) that if I still drank, if I still harbored that desire, I might be a little drunk by evening. Instead, I drink tea with my breakfast and an iced tea or coffee in afternoon. But there was a time when I’d dose my morning cup with a dab or two of whiskey. It made the hard, the tedious or loathsome qualities of living less damaging, I imagined. Way back then I couldn’t find the right effective remedy for that stuck state of mind–or perhaps I was too worn out to keep trying. But alcohol was a generous giver and soothed my fighting ego/wounded soul/aggravated heart/sleep-hungry body. My housewife boredom. Overwhelmed motherhood. The woman with displaced dreams. Well, just tamp it down and carry on. Put on a good show–but first, have a small drink.

It was the sweet escape discovered later than many (age 27) and when I did it was: Amazing, it’s not illegal, expensive or lethal and also is socially acceptable. Not many years after, I gained a more vicious experience in time. But meanwhile it was handy, it worked pretty well on inner and outer kinks, scars and blockages I’d wrestled with for so long. Or rather, the illusion of aid was convincing. One little sip was good, three big drinks or wine glasses were better or finally why not the entire blasted half pint of liquor…and more, who’s even counting. Somehow I carried on with life for a long time, so thought I fooled everyone. That thinking led me down an escape route from which it took a long time to safely emerge and when i did, I was blinking like a captive creature turned into brittle sunlight.

Alive by the skin of my teeth. That’s what alcohol does to some: strips us down to the core and then abandons us to try to survive in the human wilderness, anyway.

So I don’t drink. Not for decades now. I have far better coping skills. I seek spiritual help, pay attention to what feels (as in instinct) best and actually works. But at times I long for escape. Not with the old avarice for oblivion. Just a kindly breather. Another trail to traverse. A better vision to replace what I have. My story redesigned so that I fit it better–or it, me. I want to be happier again, and I want to be more useful to others. To feel more worthy of each day’s arrival. To slip these bonds of grief, the depression of the sorrowful.

Single out the spark in daily discoveries once more.

Is it so much to hope for? Maybe I was born rather too lucky…I have always felt able to find replenish-able joy despite the miseries that informed and bordered my life too soon. So when taxing times hang about I am still shocked like a foolish innocent who finally realizes the world is as it is. Like I have forgotten that this is part of it, we cannot be safe from it , and no one gets off easy even when it appears otherwise. Every time I ponder how it can be so sorry on this earth. And at times in my own life, which I used to feel was fabulous. Not me, but simply being alive– despite evidence otherwise. I know that heartaches reach and twist innards even as they teach us, and so deepen us at the seams,. Make us stronger and more aware.

I long ago created a life motto: Courage, Strength, Tolerance, Determination (“CSTD”, I said over and over to myself). I was 12 or 13 and decided it had to be that for me or sink. But before each challenge ended I’d experience resistance to being courageous, would rather claim my basic life joy in all its permutations. I think it’s human nature to shrink from and even fight off tribulations even as we rise to meet them head on.

So I still have to root about for it, dig deep and seek far until I can locate it– that shining thing, whatever emanates possibilities–then bring it close, spread it about for a look. I have to get out of bed, that room of waiting/dreaming/perseverating, out of that eternal blueness. The room inside me which offers a small protection. But not enough of what I realistically need otherwise. Right now.

Writing does this for me, as might be obvious. Who–if he or she is a writer or reader– can resist the cure of language that carries one inside other characters’ lives and their landscapes, creates a whole new, eventful territory? The horizon shimmers, tantalizes. Such force within the explorer words. Writing for me is the proverbial silver cord that attaches me to God. But also to earth and much that matters to me.

Any creative pursuit can provide remedial action. I am taking a world music choral workshop once a week for two months. I’ve learned a Zulu song (I haven’t mastered words yet) and a Native American-derived song. I like the people, how easily they sing out and share talk afterwards, though I sing with self-conscious reluctance (I am yet rather too blue) and it will take time to feel more chatty. I intend on taking a drawing or painting class this winter. When the hand moves the mind quiets, focuses, awakens to visualization of ideas that are freeing. I need to dance beyond my living room but also need to choose wisely how to expend such energy. One woman I met at choir noted she’d belly danced for 18 years. I try to imagine it… but am likely to do interpretive dance or Latin styles or perhaps Zumba again. To each our own.

I walk. Every day whether tired out or in poor weather. For my heart to stay better and become  stronger. To get out of the blue rooms of mind. To reconnect with nature’s potency. I hike in forests and on mountain trails, with or without my husband. Every walk cures something, a surly mood or a medium headache. Realigns my soul. Last Sunday Marc and I spent a couple of hours in Portland’s fine Japanese garden, enchanted at every step as I took photographs and breathed in the forested air. So much better than the blueness alone.

Reading is a favorite way to get me out of a confining head space, such an easy escape. I read several articles and pages of books every day. Recently my landlord had to check a window in my bedroom and I was a bit embarrassed by the two walls covered in full to overflowing bookshelves as well as neat stacks of books near bedside. Also, my dining room table tends to look as if designated for massive paper and print, but it feels like home to see it. I flip a page, am entertained but also instructed, moved, irritated, thrilled, shocked, healed. Given sustenance.

Movies and television serve a prime purpose of escape–last night it was the last of an Agatha Christie mini-series and a baking show. Tonight it may be a house renovation show or a wildlife documentary. Even a reality show, lowest of the low culturally, yet it can grab my attention a bit. I recently attended the fine film “The Wife” with one of my best friends, after which we went out for a great Italian meal. She prefers to escape into movies. I am happy to go along with her. Inhabiting another story, marveling at the artistry of film–a pleasure that broadens horizons.

This week-end we are attending the concert of glorious classical songstress Renee Fleming. Next week-end I am attending a musical based on Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” with another dear gal friend. Escape with intention of gaining intellectual nourishment.

I am fortunate to have these options, I know. It is a good thing I have them. I drank before, yes, and at a younger age also seriously abused drugs. But I have never escaped into gambling and my shopping is not much or pricey. I am far past the sexual hunt mode. No food addictions beyond intense desire for chocolate that visits me suddenly (I will pay well for superior quality). I am not a “techie” who buys lots of gadgets or even a fancy computer. Collecting items other than books or maybe t-shirts (so comfy) is not on my agenda. My love of music is upheld by fairly cheap transmitters such as radio and CD player plus a few concerts each year. Well, I do have a Sirius XM subscription for my car.

I could become a board game addict–a real draw for years, and I still love a competitive Scrabble game. I am as already noted quite enamored of frequent physical movement–hikes and walks, dance, exercise with out without weights, just wiggling about. I could see that taking up ore time. Exciting, aye? My escapes are manageable these days, and that works for me.

Travel has become more attractive though I tend to be reluctant initially. Last night Marc said he is longing for travel soon. Which is interesting as he travels too much for work. But now it needs to be for fun once more. So it seems we are escaping somewhere for a week or so. There is my being lately stuck and so slow to want to leave. Yet as he noted, travel can re-set or refresh the self, the body. It might be a way in which we both benefit after the year’s memorials, tears–and a fresh batch of questions about our family’s future. (We have several children, grandchildren and extended family and there is always another concern now or later no matter what  family.)

All escapes noted are fleeting, of course. They are still effective coping mechanisms. Far better than nothing. And without a doubt more effective than the drink (or other distraction that is problematic) that leads to greater losses. Healthier entertainment escape routes bring forward the relief desired. Or they are the beginning of small movements inside us, leading to inspiration, a glimpse of new viewpoints, an expansive moment shared.

Other people can steer me away from myself. Thank goodness and it is mostly good. I appreciate others’ ideas and experiences. People are a wealth of fascinating things, of wonders more often than not. And if I can be of assistance, so much the better.

When there are significant concerns about people it can get sticky. That’s a reason for tossing about in bed at night, counting the long list of “why life needs to be kinder” and naming names of those whom God must watch over even more, if God may please use my advice. In the morning I may awaken with residual memory of adrenaline spikes or tears, images of loss wallpapering my mind. Words of discouragement can erupt and tackle me like an adversary. I need them to stand down if I am to have a decent chance at making it a good day. I try to open to clues, to wisdom that floats from Divine Spirit to me. To us all. Because I know we are not left alone, even in blinding dark, echoing valleys.

So I get up at last, absorb the blissful blue of the walls, then watch how daylight shifts and illumines books and quilt and drifts over my bare legs, hear birds trill in an old tree and balcony chimes sway and speak into breezes. My heart ratchets up a few beats per minute as I exit through the first door into the new day, released from my haven, that small box of day and night, homey bluest of rooms. As my mind sharpens there are prayers for well-being and guidance, and the power to inhabit life as well as can be done this coming 24 hours –mine and others’.

I set out to discover what is good and true, whether in sadness or joy. It’s required, isn’t it, to go on, to hold onto another new morning. To be readied for what comes this way. To yet hope when all hope seems so small.