Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Matilda Johansen’s Help from the Postal Service

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She hesitated before signing her name, as she often did. Should it be Matilda or perhaps Tillie or the name he always preferred, Mattie? He was only the second one who ever used it. The other was her mother, who landed on it when she was two in protest that her father required his only daughter be named after his grandmother. It conjured up no nonsense pioneer women, yes, but ultimately they were someone’s domestic laborer, they worked themselves to death like his grandmother. Her daughter would be independent and more. So Mattie was also used to the name Tillie, as teachers used it in school and then school chums used it, too. But she was her mother’s Mattie at heart, despite her father’s good intentions. In secret, she supposed, she would truly just be Mattie.

Well, she thought, licking the flap of the envelope and pressing it down with slender fingers, the recipient of the letter never objected to anything she used. Mostly she signed it Mattie; once it was Tillie. And–she pressed envelope against her chest–she really wanted to sign it, “Your sweetheart.” But that was clearly not right, not now.

She put on her light rain jacket–the low grey clouds suggested another day of rain–and walked the six blocks to the post office. Mrs. Melcher was raking leaves ahead of the weather, creating a giant pile in front of her porch, but she waved at Tillie, such a pleasant young woman. Mr. Harry was rounding up his fancy poodles after a walk and sharply nodded. Other than that, the street was mostly empty of traffic and yards were vacated later in the day. The neighborhood had been calm and orderly since she’d lived there. It was a place without drama, and that was reassuring and irritating at once. Mattie wished for more in her life but was always quick to find gratitude for what she had: a little house, a teaching career, an indoor/outdoor cat that had managed to stick around ten years, two close friends and a vegetable garden.

Except she missed Alan. Still. That was why she had begun to write him. Once a week.

Mattie was a fast walker. She clutched the letter in her side pocket and thought of him, how he’d outpace her with his longer legs and then she’d speed up and they’d end up racing each other to the corners, laughing. Sometimes she won. Such a simple thing, but it was another example of happiness she’d collected like she had many discovered, common stones. They were set out on the table for morning light to wash over. Then their real textures and colors were brought to life. Just as it felt was with the plainest stones illuminated, her day was given pricks of joy with each new reveal of the more lovely past.

A big white truck honked at her twice and the man gestured crudely at her; she stepped back just in time. Thinking of Alan did that–it took her to another place so that her present world was shined up, partly recreated. She kept her eyes on the downtown traffic clotting along the street, then came to the post office. Once inside, she cheerily greeted Annie working at the window, slipped her letter into the mail slot and started toward the coffee shop. She always got a cappuccino after she mailed his letter. To sit and think over what she had shared, to wonder how he’d react. If he’d react. To imagine him there across from her, smiling so readily and with that smile, stopping the world.

******

Annie knew that the woman had had a hard time when Alan left her; who didn’t know? It was a fishbowl town. Twenty years ago they’d seemed content, but in another five the marriage crashed and burned one day. Steady Matilda Johansen was left stunned. In shock, one might even say. It had taken a long while for her to get back on top of her job teaching theater and English at Elson Middle School. Or so Annie had heard; her son carried gossip to her from school. But it was apparent whenever they met at the post office–that dull look to her eyes, the absentminded nod. Understandably/ No one married with the idea that the love of her life would leave.

Alan was the sort of guy that everybody liked, gregarious and easy going, smart but not lording it over anyone; great at his work as supervisor of the pottery plant over in Waverly but more ambitious. And good looking. Annie thought he was a little exotic looking; everyone thought he was Italian but he said his mother was French-Canadian, maybe that was it. But he had an extra something that made people want to look at him more than a minute. If he knew that, he never let on, and always talked his wife up. They had made such a solid couple, sociable, generous with food at potlucks, attending the Methodist church Annie did, engaged in several community events. Annie secretly envied them their partnership.

Then Alan got a new job in Waverly, a managerial position at a outdoor/adventure company. It required longer hours, occasional business travel. So Annie wasn’t surprised when he was absent at many events. She’d shrug, say, “It’s the cost of ambition, he loves his work and wants more”, and she’d laugh a little too fast. But they bought the house; things went along.

Until they didn’t. Someone he met at the new company, people said. Marilyn was the name. his old work buddy let it slip that she was in Human Resources, and her looks, well, they matched his. So Alan divorced his wife of eight years and moved to Waverly and married Marilyn. People shook their heads, but things could be random, good men fell, lives changed.

But the one left behind? She isolated too much, the warm sheen she shared with him wore off, and she was apparently emphatic she was done, no dating, period. But she was a devoted teacher and began to win awards; this brought her back to a much better place. Back into her old circles, a life that mattered more. The whole town was relieved for her, as she was a valued citizen.

Then she started to write Alan letters. Annie couldn’t help but notice the weekly drops of carefully addressed envelopes, even if she’d tried not to. It had been going on for a month. Why would Tillie write that man fifteen years later? He was still married as far as anyone knew. Not that they cared. No one had seen him around in all that time. he had flown the coop and word was, though, he had kids, moved up the ladder of success with that Marilyn. It was a shame for Elson Middle School’s favorite English and fine theater teacher, but such was life with its hard knocks.

******

Dear Alan,

I can’t believe the leaves are not only brazen colors already but falling as fast as they turn. The summer was gorgeous and languid and then gone. But you know autumn is my favorite time of year, air clean and musky, sharp with cooling temperatures. I sit with Ginger Lily–my cat, if you recall–on the back porch and watch the maples catch fire in the fall sunshine. I know you’d like seeing this.. And Ginger Lily looks a lot like Tucker, our long gone tiger cat. She’s getting old and settles into my lap a good hour. I’m glad of her company, though she has little to say. This house, though small, would feel empty without at least this fur creature.

I imagine you’re doing well, are so beleaguered by work that you have little time to think of me. I always knew you’d rise to the top, as the best often do. I understand. (You had a family, I heard, at least one child– but a boy or a girl? How fortunate you have been.) So I try to imagine you in your office. Head bowed as you work at the computer, hand running over the shock of dark wavy hair when frustrated or just concentrating hard. You would play with a pencil, quickly laced it between your fingers over and over. And sometimes bite your nails. I used to nag you about it but we all have our foibles. Like, I still twirl and twist my hair when grading papers. And still forget to wipe down the bathroom counter after I splash a ton of water when washing up.

I saw the Hunter’s Moon with my buddy Lydia–she loves the skies, too–but thought of you. It was enormous and so warmly hued that it looked like a giant orange masquerading as the moon. Remember how we’d go sky gazing? Willard Point and the fields out by Rossiter’s Farm and the western hills and forest where we set up our tent for a weekend away. So dark there you couldn’t see your feet when you had to get up at night.

My teaching continues on as before. Not much changes from week to week. I so appreciate my students; they work hard on crafting a decent sentence, to inhabit a role in a play, to open their minds enough that they can see the value in creativity more unleashed. Well, most of them do. But I never give up on any of them, you know that.

And I never gave up on you. I look forward to writing these letters once week. It would be ridiculous to others if they knew. But I sense you near when I write. I know you are, still. We had so much, didn’t we? It is sustenance to my soul to know this.

Yours, Mattie

******

“Every time she sends one of these, I either want to throw up or scream. This is number four. It has to stop, it’s gross!” Carly’s eyes shone with outrage, then glistened. She tore up the page of blue stationary. “It’s just lucky we keep getting home before Mom does.”

Kendra leaned back in her chair and frowned. “Yeah, she hardly ever is home before 8. We do have to end it. Strange…But we never, ever tell Mom, right? We can handle this somehow. There is no return address but we can find out where she lives, somehow. Didn’t Dad say she was a teacher when he explained he was married before?”

Carly, a mirror image of her sister, raised arched eyebrows, eyes wide. “Hmm, right. We’ll figure it out. The Twins Shall Triumph. Again.”

They high-fived and went to their room. It took all of four minutes checking out the two schools in tiny Littleton, twenty-one miles from Waverly (an actual medium-sized city, thankfully). There had to still be a teacher with the name of Matilda Johansen. There it was…That was her full name, they guessed, though their dad had called her Mattie when he admitted he was married for eight years, that she taught kids. But then he met their mother and she swept him off his feet, and he didn’t feel too badly about it, because leaving the Mattie person meant he got to have them.

“My girls, the best in the entirety of the universe.” He said this as he grabbed both of them in a giant hug, and at 6 ft. 3 with a few extra pounds, they felt cozy and safe in his embrace.

They thought of this more than they wanted to. Or they wanted to but found it hard to think of him, period.

This Mattie was of no importance to them, not until a month ago when the letters started, and what nerve that took, sending them! It was wild that she taught English and theater. They both liked those subjects, were close to her students’ ages.

And they recalled their dad had said her name with a bit of softness in his voice, then said no more. That was two or three years ago when they had gone fishing with him….

“It all gives me the the shivers….I mean,… does she know something? And how do we find her?” Kendra said in a whispery voice. “This idea is crazy. Do we get Michael to drive us over and show up at her door?”

“No, no way. I don’t even want to see who this person is, who has to butt into our lives all of a frickin’ sudden. Let’s just call and leave her a message, threaten her a little, you know?” Carly sat up, hands balled into fists.

“No, don’t be stupid, no threats on a voice mail! In fact, how do we get her number?”

“We can… just call the school, ask for her.”

“And if she answers?”

They readjusted the pillows on the bed behind their heads and stared at the laptop, open to the school staff page. Matilda Johansen looked like a basic teacher type person, not a madwoman; she was almost nondescript, not even worth mentioning her looks. No wonder their dad left dull Mattie for their mom. And their mom was smart, practically ran the company, finally. They didn’t have to say these things aloud. They knew their mother was beautiful when younger. Sort of even at present.

But she’d changed a lot in four and a half months. They all had been changed.

“I’ll call,” Kendra said, “you’ll get way too emotional.”

Carly punched her shoulder and Kendra punched back.

“Stop it. We both want this to end. I can’t stand reading her pathetic lovesick letters. It’s so awful and wrong that she does this. And Dad would not even read them, he’d toss them from the start and tell her to get a clue, it was over at least fifteen years ago.”

Carly pulled away, gave her sister a side eye. “Would he? Do we even halfway know that is an absolute fact? Maybe he—“

“Stop it, just let me take care of this…” Kendra said with less conviction than she desired, voice wobbling. Before another moment passed, they were both crying, their arms about each other.

This was getting to be an old routine. Just mention dad and then slobber-cry.

Their parents had been fighting off and on for a year. Money stuff, petty miscommunications, the girls had to do this or that, the other parent against it. It had gotten tougher to come downstairs in the morning on week-ends, not knowing if they’d both be there or if the one who left would be back before night. Sometimes they’d wait until it was quiet, until both might have left. So they could eat breakfast in peace together.

They always had each other.

They stopped when a few hiccups subsided, finally stood up. Looked at each other, chins tilted up. It was like looking at themselves only different. Thank goodness.

“Tomorrow morning,” they said in unison.

******

“Elson Elementary and Middle School, how can I help you?” The woman spoke as if stifling a yawn.

“Ms. Johansen, please?” Kendra clutched Carly’s hand. They had under five minutes, then they had to leave for their classes in tenth grade.

“She’s in a meeting right now, can I leave her a message?”

“Can I leave it on voice mail?”

“One moment.”

“It’s ringing!” Kendra said.

“I can hear it, speaker’s on, the volume’s up!” Carly hissed.

A woman’s low voice with a melodious lilt came on. “You’ve reached Matilda Johansen’s office, and I’m away from my desk. Please kindly let me know what you need with your name and number. I will return your call.”

“Oh. Hi. I’m–well, you see, I’m calling because my sister and I need you to stop sending our father letters. Got it? Our names are Kendra and Carly Weatherford, his daughters who have a mom who loves him. And who he has… loved.” Kendra began to sniffle, then choked up so badly Carly tried to get the phone from her hand. She resisted and kept on. “Sorry for crying, this is hard to do but you just have to stop. Because–because…” she put her phone down.

Carly pried the phone from her fingers, took a deep breath. “No more writing him! Because it’s wrong. And– Alan Weatherford died last June!”

They gasped for breath as Carly hung up. They had never said those words to anyone they didn’t know. Just forming the syllables out loud hurt. But telling this crazy woman–this ex-wife of their dad’s? Why did she have to butt in and make things harder? It made them feel like they were lunging into a deeper dark pit so they grabbed each other, eyes gushing.

“Okay, we did it and now we have school,” Kendra said as she pulled away from Carly. and they wiped their cheeks with their sleeves.

Hal honked his horn three times, as usual. They counted on that. They grabbed books and coats and left, slamming the kitchen side door hard behind them, windows and door a-rattle as if in applause.

******

Matilda Johansen, Tillie to friends, Mattie to only two others (three if she counted herself), listened to that message three times.

Then she dialed the number from which it originated.

Carly answered immediately, put it on speaker as Hal drove unhurriedly. Kendra did not want to talk more.

“It’s Matilda. I guess it was you who left me that message? I knew something was wrong…Oh, no, you said–He’s…? I mean, I heard from him–the thing is, he came to me. In a dream….I guess.”

“Are you serious? How can you call us back? He was in a drunk driving accident…not him, the other guy killed him!”

“Oh no! So that’s why he walked into my room when I was staring out the window at constellations. And he did speak to me…I thought, well, he really needs something. I didn’t know what. I didn’t know how to get a hold of him but I knew his address. So I decided to write, see what would happen, that’s all. I didn’t know for sure if he was still there, still married or what…I thought they come back to me or someone would write somehow…”

Kendra bent over the phone. “Matilda. Mattie. It’s Kendra, that was Carly, my sister. He spoke to you, really? Well. What did he say?”

“Makes no sense, she’s nuts!” Carly said, poked at her sister’s thigh, looked out the window then toward Hal. he looked in the rear view mirror but said nothing. He knew when to shut up.

Kendra put the phone up to her face, as if trying to see her. “Wait a second. What could Dad possibly say to you, of all people? He hasn’t even shown up for me…us…”

Mattie cleared her throat once, twice. “He was like, foggy, you know, but I knew it was him. He said, ‘Don’t worry, Mattie, the stars and I watch over you all.'” She clamped her mouth shut with her free palm, turned away from her door where a student waited to see her. Willed herself not to lose her control. She had known it, she knew it already, didn’t she? That he was gone from the earth? She saw him, in her room.

The girls were stock still, bodies sharing a fine electric charge that ran up and down their narrow backs and triggered memories. They used to be afraid of the dark, little kids always checking under their beds, in the closet, begging for a bright night light. Their parents didn’t think it necessary to buy them one. Their dad said the stars were there to comfort them all, like shining points of love. And then, tucking them in, he’d tell them: “It’s alright, I’ll always watch over you, from here or afar.”

“Oh, yeah…” they said.

Mattie heard them. And knew they all realized he was doing just that.

“I will stop sending letters, of course. You’re right, it was a strange idea. But when he came to me and said that, I deeply hoped maybe he was around still, maybe he was in trouble or all alone, and I believed he needed something from me, you see. I guess it was absurd, but–“

“No. We see. I get it. Sorta,” Carly said as the car lurched to a full stop in the school parking lot.

Hal turned around, held both palms up. When they ignored him, he got out. He didn’t know what to say about their father dying. It scared him. But he waited for them to come out. He was a trusted third in their twindom.

Kendra sighed. “I think I do, too. I can’t imagine why writing–I mean, think if our mom might have found them!” She looked at Carly. “I guess you loved him, too.” Carly nodded in agreement.

“Yes.”

“Okay, then, we have to go now,” Carly said.

“Yes, alright. And I’m so very sorry that he died, girls. He was something else. But you know.”

“Thank you,” they said in unison.

******

The next Saturday afternoon Ginger Lily sat at the front door, meowing with her best complaining voice. Someone was knocking, but Mattie was in the kitchen rinsing off sweet potatoes. By the time she wiped her hands and opened the door, no one was there–only a car racing off. But there was a big bunch of potted rusty-yellow mums with a little note card.

Dear Mattie,

I think you did the right thing, writing to our place. Dad sent us a message through you. So he did need you to find us and talk to us. He really cared for you to trust you that much.

Maybe one day we’ll meet, maybe not. But we’ll remember this.

Thank you,

Kendra and Carly

Mattie picked up Ginger Lily and went to the back porch to sit awhile. The leaves were twirling down so gracefully; the big trees were shedding the old ones so fast. She knew it had to happen but she mourned the castoffs a bit. It might be a lonely fall and a slower and colder winter. But she could keep writing to Alan. She just wouldn’t have to send them anywhere. He’d know she was talking to him.

Wednesday’s Words/ Nonfiction: Learning to Relent

I had a whole other topic developing in my mind the last couple of days for this post, but I am a bit waylaid. Literally. I can’t sit at my computer desk that long today, certainly not without getting up and moving about some. The other, more involving topic will have to wait. I considered not writing, at all, but it’s a habit I love so I will give a whirl.

I live with chronic pain and have ever since my teens. Most people can’t or won’t see it, not even my husband or other family members. There are days it yanks me off a more livable plateau and won’t release its strangling grip. I know large numbers of people have this problem. Pain relieving prescriptions are a gigantic business, as are other interventions/treatment systems. And if a person suffers the complex ramifications of a severe injury or lifelong debilitating disease–well, all the bearing up, the seeking solutions, the gritting of teeth, the prayers for aid…it goes on and on. I’ve known some of those people and don’t know how they get on with life. Everyone is unique in their tolerance and self-care plan. Many finally do not get on much, at all, and become addicted to pain pills or end up couch-bound. Or worse.

I have for decades pushed against or sought detours around the most negative outcomes and still do. I mean, to live a decent life, one must often push forward, right? I tend to view my health challenges as that picture of the tunnel above: it gets so dark but I can still see the light out there–there is always some way through the strictures of suffering. You come to it, it is gotten through, perhaps even alleviated as well as it can be. Then, fresh air and sunlight are hailed once more. Until the next time. If there are no long term solutions, there are temporary stays from the worst–usually. I need to get creative, at times.

One thing I shy away from is pain medication. If deemed medically critical, the lightest type of prescription pain reliever is used at lowest milligram, in smallest doses and for a day or a night. I am in recovery from alcohol and drug dependence that began as a young woman (partly due to serious digestion issues that remain) so I am not about to go back down a more miserable path. I feel so strongly about this that when in the hospital for chest pain and my cardiologist insisted I take the IV Demerol I was adamant I would not. In frustration, he gave me something else, he didn’t explain his choice. But it was just enough until the tests were completed. On the other hand, as he has informed me assertively, pain control is important for worsening inflammatory responses and increased blood pressure– and my heart health. I got hit with heart disease fairly young, at 51. So I try to ignore it less and treat it the best I can. I don’t want to ruin all the work he and I have done.

It’s not always easy for me to even pinpoint the cause of pain, and that can complicate things. It might be a big surprise and then it can move about, am I right? Last night I had a creeping headache with sudden worsening back-of-neck pain that spread into my back. I took an OTC pain pill, then another in an hour. But it plagued me, anyway. I had to make inventory of all I had done the last few days to solve the “What” of it. I had been reading a good hour at the dining room table, which meant the bad discs in my neck got irritated as I hunched over to read, elbows on table, head bowed down. I also had half-picked up my toddler granddaughters earlier and carried fairly heavy grocery bags up stairs and into our place. And done some cleaning. All these create more stress on an already tricky backbone and spine. So I hypothesized that was it. But even as the headache decreased, it hurt when I took deep breaths. This was a little alarming, but I had no other symptoms; my actual breathing was alright, I felt fine except for pain. In time it seemed to lessen with a heating pad against the back of my good chair, a short neck massage by Marc, and one low dose muscle relaxant. In the morning I felt much improved with barest pain, then none. But after sitting, reading and then typing, there is more pain in my upper back and neck. It is kind of hollering at me so I will pause…

I am sharing this because those who have pain–or worsening pain attacks– understand this process of attention, examination, tentative conclusions, plan of action. It can be time intensive and certainly can interfere with the usual rhythms of life. How does one diagnose the source of acute or lingering pain? I have to carefully check in with my biological systems to tick various boxes: is it coming from stomach pain or gut (GERD/gastritis/colitis)? Is it those crunched or bulging discs in neck and the spinal stenosis getting worse? Is it the tricky behaviors of my heart (coronary artery disease and arrhythmias)? Is it an overreaction to my body’s cues?

Likely not the last. If anything, I have been told I underreact and under-treat. Why?

So many have been taught to be stoic. I know I was. My mother got kicked by a horse as a teen and had no professional medical treatment, and all her life she endured nearly unremitting back pain. I can still see her with an arm tucked behind her back, her fist pressed against the throbbing spot. Sometimes she lay down to rest but she always popped up and got busy again and rarely said a thing about it. She could be washing floors or dressing in brocade for the opera all the while in pain, but she kept on. My father simply ignored health matters as long as possible and loathed doctors. (They both lived into their 80s and 90s my mother longer, but may have lived longer…). A child learns by watching; I learned to minimize my physical discomforts, carry on with a smile. A good attitude could make a difference, in fact; l I had witnessed it, found it often true. Besides which, it was embarrassing to admit to weakness. Who wants to feel weak? Not me, no then, and often, not now.

I was a natural athlete as a child and teen and craved physical activity. I wasn’t into team sports–it was figure skating, cycling, running, diving, swimming, water skiing, softball, volleyball, dancing and so on. And these obviously required vigorous engagement. Even singing and playing cello required sustained output of energy and concerted efforts for long periods. One thing expected was a consistent effort to push through aches and bruises. (“No pain, no gain”–right? The American sports mantra. But it isn’t useful for some of us, at times.) It stuck with me into adulthood when ailments became more intractable, yet I still loved being active outdoors. I also began weight training and body building a few years. Plus I had five kids–so who had time to sit around? I told my kids to get up when they fell, wipe the blood off and keep going; I was naturally doing the same. Or was that such a “natural” response? My children, now adults, have significantly followed suit–they like to think they’re tough. Maybe they are–but at what cost in the end?)

Maybe it’s time to take a look at all these ingrained beliefs again. Progress has definitely occurred since I went off the rails as a teen and other major dips in my late 30s into early 40s. I had to learn to stop forever charging into life. That extended to needing to slow down my well-known hard driving stride upon all surfaces whether with my boots, high heels, hiking boots or bare feet. Take a break, I had to tell myself, not every second is critical to anything or anyone... Undue or persistent stress, one’s life pressures mismanaged creates more aches and pains, thus worsening one’s health status. Seems simple.

My life is no longer all work, too much tiredness and minimal play. Well, I am retired now but believe me, early retirement was still lots of work at home. I still keep an daily agenda book filled with tasks and goals… But perfection is unnecessary, for one thing. Suffering is not always part of the deal, either. My body needs loving care as much as my mind and spirit. I finally got it by age 45, that lightbulb coming on full wattage after another divorce, more years of sobriety, fascinating work and better friendships, more frequent outdoor activities, reading for fun and not always education. Oh, and the board games and cards. I rediscovered the simple pleasure of quietly playing a few again– not to win but to…play!

Still, here I am typing away when my upper back and neck are cringing like mad. (At some point, I remind myself I also was in a bad car accident two months ago, with whiplash and other jolts that may still impact nerves and tissues.) I have gotten up and down a half dozen times as I’ve written. Had a cheddar cheese and cracker snack, made more delicious tea, threw another two wet loads into the dryer. I have stretched, shaken it all out, turned up the heat as a cold rain splatters the ground. Marc will be home soon and I think he will make dinner…it relaxes him, aggravates me too often.

Earlier I took a hilly 45 minute walk even though it hurt some. I fully believe in walking for whole health, perhaps especially for pain management of body and mind. But when I got home I called my cardiologist to set up a check up appointment soon–I usually see him once a year now but it seems a good time before holidays– took another acetaminophen, and got my cozy blanket to wrap about as I write. I may get that heating pad going next and read a bit in my best chair. Despite it being daylight and thinking I really have more to do. Must I still fight against feeling I will be giving in to getting older?

Well, Cynthia, you are getting older; the body takes a beating as it moves closer to that point. Repeat after me: it is alright to practice regular self-care and time outs.

I do know what to do now that I have learned hard lessons over time–including getting medical help when needed. So now I must end this post: I do relent. It is fine to relent. In fact, it is important to stop struggling at times, rest the painful places, allow more of nature’s healing to happen. And to ask for more help from Divine Love. There is that light at the end of the tunnel; I am going for that once more. Always.

I will check in Friday with a poem. I hope you all take care of your bodies, hearts, minds, as well.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Catch Me Falling Now

The gist of it is that as I’ve settled into Marionville, I’ve been recovering from a head injury due to a hike interrupted by a stumble that triggered disaster. So I don’t have expectations, other than getting through each day. When your brain feels permanently fogged in, that’s how it is. It could have been worse, everyone says. I suppose so. The surgeries tried to correct things. My right leg is healing from two compound fractures; my nose and forehead could look and feel even better. My left arm is now more useful though it was also fractured. It was a long fall down a very steep, tree-occupied hill. I lost consciousness for three days. My mind still has starts and stops three months later. It’s an intricate, slippery thing, the brain.

My dad–and others–always said that I err on the side of verbosity. So I guess that part of my brain is hearty because words are working better in my mind. It wasn’t that way at first; it was three weeks before things came back into moments of focus. And words worked their way out a little bit at a time. I came around, made better sense, sought more answers. But there were none when it came to the story of a long fall and a supposed rescue by a passing stranger. I was present and aware and hiking, and then I was not. I was given help, then said helper disappeared as EMTs arrived. No one could identify that person from what I had heard.

So, a mystery and I live inside it every day.

Marionville is not where I want to be. My parents long lived here, now only my dad. But it makes sense for a quiet road to recovery. I’m on leave from my radio show until I can demonstrate more communication strengths than deficits. I often have to wait a few beats before responding, making simple decisions. Actual words get confused. I have too many rehab appointments. So I get it that I need time, two-three more months. I hope.

Dad and I keep company–about fair to middling. He has his part of the house–downstairs. I have mine, a bedroom and bathroom, a second room with a desk and single bed to do whatever in. Maybe practice talking in a microphone again, working on a radio show script. Sometime… Right now I gaze out the window a lot. I can think, sort of, but decent writing seems a forbidden event and talking is a crapshoot.

Like this morning.

Dad said, “I’m going fishing, want to come, Sammy-boy?”

The endearing term caught me off guard. But fishing sounded hard. I shrugged as he turned to his array of poles in the garage.

“Guess to stand in water? Can’t pitch a damn.”

“No pitching, we aren’t up for any baseball yet,” he chuckled.

“Fitching, fishes, ya know, hoof– hook in…worms!”

I was pleased to get a part of it out right. Some sentences came out worse than others.

He swung around, studied me gravely. “Guess you can’t use that arm yet. Maybe you forgot how, sitting in a radio station all those years. So it can wait longer, Sammy.”

“I…it’s…” I exhaled tiredly.

As it he didn’t want to cause more embarrassment for either of us, he paused a half beat, then left. I would have stood in cold lake water all day if it made him happy–if he’d waited a minute. But I don’t hold it against him. Retired fireman Carl Garfield Thomas is a man of few words and little sentiment showing on his sleeve. And I do look more like Mom, do love language like she did. And it is true that now, at 77, Dad is going it alone pretty well. Though he cares, of course; he just seems baffled and annoyed by my recovery at his place.

Me, too. I miss Issaquah, just beyond Seattle. I’m in Michigan for the duration. A childhood place left decades ago. I am not in my element, anymore.

But, then, what was normal and “like me” is all screwed up now.

Why did it happen, this accident? I’m not unfit. A thirty-eight year old man, I do enough–hiking, skiing, cycling on week-ends. I love the mountains. I do hike with others but am confident on my own even in the back country. That Saturday I was alone. A bit tired–had been out the night before, but that’s often the case on week-ends. I still felt ready for the hike. But there was loose rock, massive roots, steep descents. Or did something else happen? What came when?

I don’t know. It happened too fast.

But I want to know exactly why. How. There is so much missing. It makes me toss and turn, bad arm and leg in the way, sweating in the quilt, eyes open half the night.

I need to know it all. But it’s not there.

******

Dee calls to set up a lunch visit at the Spoon and Mug for lunch, a diner at the end of Lake Wenatchee. I reluctantly agree. Dad raises unruly white eyebrows but drops me off. I haven’t seen Dee for three years. We met when my parents moved here for retirement. I visited every Christmas, some summers of falls. And we stayed friends.

“Well, come here, Sam,” Dee says with a throaty laugh.

“Dee. Here we are.”

She gently wraps both arms about me, careful of my balance since I lean on a half-crutch wrapped about my forearm. Her plumpness warmly engulfs my wrecked frame.

We settle into our chosen booth, the one we always sit in, overlooking the lake. I inhale to my toes. Ah, fragrances of burgers, French fires and onions, fruit pies and too strong coffee. I haven’t had a venison burger in awhile, and order after she does.

She searches my face top to bottom, notes my lame arm and leg. I am not nervous with Dee and know the long jagged scar across my forehead remains deep pink; my nose is crooked despite surgery,

“Still handsome, huh?” she says. “You seem to be bearing up okay, despite the ordeal. I thought I’d meet up with a quasi-Frankenstein, but I was not–truly not!– one bit afraid, my friend. You’re still Sam T. Thomas, smooth jazz with most current commentary, right? Of course you are, just waylaid awhile.” But she blinks twice, eyes glossy. “And how’s it going at ole Carl’s? Fishing any good, yet?”

“Funny ask. No, so far. Bum arm, leg. I not a thing, he…this or that. Long days.” I’d warned her about my speech but Dee is a patient sort.

“I imagine. You’re used to being on the move in all ways. Rough, buddy. Give it the time it requires.”

We pause to check out our orders, sip hot coffee.

“So sorry you had to go through it, Sam. I couldn’t believe it when Carmela called me after talking to your dad’s friend, Sherry….”

I stop my fork halfway to my mouth–Sherry who?–but took the bite of cole slaw.

“…and it was a shock. You know your way around a wilderness trail! But accidents…that’s just the way they go. Sudden, a weird succession of events. I was relieved to hear you’re healing, though.”

“Except–brains.”

“Your brains are good, your mouth just needs a little rest, I guess.”

She beams good cheer and I flood with appreciation. A real friend is just what I need. A few back home are busy; they have important lives to get on with.

“Can I ask–Lily? Ok? Sch–shoo—classes ok?”

“Oh, yes,” she says, “back at it and glad of it. Both of us. She’s eleven, going on fifteen in her deluded mind. But doing alright. Overall.” She takes a bite, glances away.

“Martin?” I ask. That’s why Dad’s eyebrows raised, maybe.

“Yeah. Gone. Left one morning without even his usual juicy poached egg and bitter espresso. Back in Grosse Pointe. It was bound to happen, right? He couldn’t stay put up here. We tried hard but had to give it up.”

I think of Lily, reach for her hand. Now comes a barely audible whimper. When she stays quiet on the topic, I attack my venison burger with barely retrained relish which gets her smiling again. I never liked Martin; his hair and Lexus were too important and resolved to tell her later that it will become a better life for Lily–a good kid, a bright one–and her.

Time goes by as we cover basic news we want to know, relaxing with another mug of coffee. I do not ask about Sherry’s identity; that’s my dad’s business. Dee talks about work and Lily, asks questions I answer with extreme brevity. We have a fair picture of each other’s present state of mind. She is sad about Martin but has been letting go. I feel angry and curious about my issues., somewhat resigned but am not letting go.

“So, you can’t remember what happened exactly. From start to the end….when you woke up. I keep coming back to this. Not surprisingly, it seems you want to recall the details…not keep it in the dark like so many people would. How like you to have to dig, find the bits and pieces. And I understand that need to know everything possible, being a librarian.”

“Yeah.” I slowly nod at her–she does get it. I like her inquisitive spirit, too. And the sooner I can part the pea soup fogginess–it can’t all be the concussion’s effects–the better.

She puts an arm on back of the bench seat, narrowing eyes at me, pondering. “Well. I keep thinking of Heaven. Of course.”

Of course. But I chortle–not that I don’t know what she means. Because I do know. And why Dee places so much faith in a woman everyone else calls a crazed hippie artist or a soothsayer or perhaps a mastermind hiding out from the Chicago Mafia, I don’t know. I’ve only seen Heaven Steele in passing and that’s fine with me. I don’t need Ms. Steele to tell me all I have endured. I just need one hundred percent recall.

“Dee, I not all–“

“Not all about that kind of thing, I know, I know. But what is there to lose?” she says. “Let’s go see her–she has helped people. Please?”

I grunt, hold my hands up in the air, screw up a nutty face at her.

Maybe it’s the happiness of a full belly, good talk and shafts of honeyed light drifting through the streaked windows of down-to-earth-wonderful Burger and Mug Diner. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m bored out of my fuzzy brain. And my daily headache is ramping up. But I give in.

How can I rule out something Dee recommends if I haven’t tried it? I trust her. Why not trust her artist-clairvoyant?

******

Heaven Steele’s house is nothing spectacular though apparently she has money from her Chicago life chapter. I can hear a sweet jangling of glass wind chimes she makes by the dozens to sell to tourists and online. A narrow flagstone walkway winds down the hill to an older modern one-story set above the town. I expected a full glass mini-mansion so she could view the world, maybe keep track of us below. At this moment, anything can apparently manifest per gossip about the woman. I suggest a mystique equating very little.

Dee rings the doorbell, a sound of sonorous bells. When the door opens Heaven fills the space with her height, clothed in a deep blue tunic, dark loose pants. Barefoot. She steps forward to take Dee’s hands into hers, lightly takes my one free palm.

“Hello folks, welcome to my place.”

I wonder what that means–inner sanctum, hill temple, chimes studio, crystal ball room?–but decide to withhold judgment. There is a pleasant living room with large paintings on walls and richly colored upholstery, but she leads us into a dining area, past the kitchen then through French doors–I see a partly glass walled studio to the left and big paintings– and into a large courtyard.

I pause to rest my swinging, heavy leg and take it all in. Flourishing plants, brightly hued flowers, a gurgling fountain, rainbow of lights strung from tree to tree…who wouldn’t come here and expect to hear their fortune told? Or whatever she did. It smells good, feels tranquil. It surely offers sanctuary,

When we sit down, Heaven Steele eases into a seat across from us. Her silvery hair glistens in the dappled light. Her strong hands–they just appear strong–are resting on the chair arms. She inquires after Dee and Lily. It seems they know one another better than social friends might. But I’d had no cause to think of her one way or another. Before now, to perhaps learn…something. Or nothing at all.

Taking her space in I failed to really see Heaven Steele’s face, her eyes. But now mine catch hers and it’s clear what people have noted: one eye is blue, the other greenish-amber. I know this is hereditary–a childhood classmate had the same rare condition–but this doesn’t dampen the effect. I want to look away, yet she easily holds me in her steady gaze. So I look right back, give her a semi-fake smile.

“So recently Dee informed me of the situation. Maybe I can help. I sometimes snag experiences from others. You don’t have to believe in anything I say or do. I’m sorry it happened, Sam. But it was not to be avoided, no matter what you did. Your body took over, it likely tried to save you and then…”

I am taken aback. “Save me? About k-killed-ended me…” I gesture to my face, leg, arm.

“Yes. But wait.”

She keeps me in the thrall of her gaze even as I glance at Dee’s encouraging expression and back. Heaven lowers her eyelids, breathes out a really long exhale.

Please, I thought, no mesmerizing antics.

“What did you hear before you slipped? A sharp sound? A brush of the air? Close your eyes now, follow the path.”

I think back, eyes wide. I’m not closing them, I recall so little, looking at empty blackness behind my lids won’t show me one thing.

“I know you’re anxious. But there is a slight rustle in the underbrush, among the pine trees. You hear it but think nothing of it, a squirrel, a snake, a beaver along the silvery creek. A small clearing, then deeper woods. you tire…”

There was a creek, true. A rustling, but even tiny birds rustle. Lots of things. A creek I stopped by just before taking a turn in the trail, a clearing before I went on. She must see where I was. I close my eyes.

“You feel something out there, then a shot of energy along your spine, neck prickling, but you are soon to descend the trail, head to your car. You’re tired, warm. Almost out of water.”

I am on the trail, legs pumping dutifully, feet getting sore, throat parched as water is low so I wait it out longer. The light dims as I enter a thicker grove of cedars and pines, and if I hear footsteps I think they are far behind. The birds…they are now still as I push on after four hours of hiking narrow rocky trails. Out of the corner of my eye–the barest glimpse… of what? I keep on.

“What do you see, Sam?”

I feel my heart race, look around, see another pale streak, step slightly off the trail as i pivot, enough that I lose my footing, the steep side of the mountain suddenly like a magnet so I am going down, sliding, my legs catching on a stump, hands grasping and missing plants and branches, flesh tearing, leg hitting rocks and roots all the way down, trying to avoid tree trunks, arm catching on a thorny bush and yanked, then I roll over and over and over, head hitting hard places, arm shrieking with pain, then my god my leg, my leg… but…nothing. Hard stop.

Then a terrifying screech.

Me? or is it a woman? What’s happening? I am overcome, engulfed in pain. I’m out.

“Sam, Sam.”

Dee is crouching before my knees, shaking me gently and I am back as fast as I fell into the past. Heaven is leaning forward, breathing hard and almost breathless, her face alert and open, eyes finding me. Compassion.

“W-wh-what?” I say, suddenly sure of what it was out there.

Heaven speaks carefully. “Yes, a cougar.”

My skin prickles, jaw drops. How can I be surprised? There are bears and cougars and deer and so much more in forested mountains. I have heard the bears, carry bear spray; have seen great elk, sidestepped a rattlesnake once, felt I saw a wolf vanish between the trees. I know cougars stalk their prey a long while, with no sound.

And that they scream. Like a screeching woman. An entirely wild thing unlike me, us.

“Surprised by one,” I say. “Oh.” I rub hands over my face, lean back and run fingers through my hair. But then: “Why…how can I be…h-here?”

It might never have been me. But it was too close to ignore or finally forget. That I am one small human being in a world of other creatures.

Heaven says, “There was another, a mountain woman who realized your danger. She trailed you and the cougar. It was her body you saw that time before you fell. Moving with a rifle in hand. The first time you saw the cougar. I barely can capture a cougar running off, then her arms and hands thrust high, her voice deafening, almost like that of the fierce cougar. What happened? Not sure except she got to her cabin to call for help. And then she went back to wait until she saw their lights. Remarkable.”

We all fall silent, considering it all.

“Sometimes we get lucky–rescue comes at the right moment.” Heaven spreads her hands out, barely shrugs. “There is nothing more. Thank you for letting me witness your trial.”

Heaven makes tea for us. I am still shaking some, as if it all just happened, unsure if i was alive. Dee puts both arms about me, reassuring me. My skin and brain feel tumbled inside out. I can still feel the sensations of rolling down head over heels and the pain and the mindless fear. Was this possible? That I might even have died one way– or the other? That a ghostly wilderness woman saved me?

The burbling water calms me. The hot tea has lavender and other things that taste soothing and feel better going into my body. All three of us are quiet. The fountain splashes and colored lights brighten in the fleeing glow of an October afternoon. After our cups are emptied, we tour her art studio. I study the immense precision of her work, take in the jewel-toned hues, clean designs. I purchase one, but she insists on giving it to me. It will be beautiful to behold as the race toward winter begins, and snowfall comes. A crystalline background for the mobiles of tinkling glass asway in the biter winds.

“Wait and see what winter brings,” she murmured as we left.

But it isn’t a matter of believing in Heaven Steele. She definitely has her skills. But it’s more a matter of facing my fears and believing in myself again. With some help.

I have to manage the coming months, the work it will take. I can heal up from inside out. Become stronger than before if I do it right, find my way to the next good thing. I will accept this country my father loves. I hope to go ice fishing with him. And then there’s the gift of language from my mother who, though long gone, seems to call me to greater renewal. Maybe that was the reason for the fall. Maybe not. I’m digging my heels in for as long as it takes to find out.

Maybe I’ll even get a chance to say: “Heck of a good morning to you, Radio Marionville, hold on to the moment because Sam T. Thomas is here and coming at ya!”


Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Check One- Spiritual? Religious?

The question for me is: can we not choose both? I can and do, but often in our roiling, defensive, divisive social milieu, it can seem wiser to keep it all to myself.

Not only these days but, honestly, as long as I have been here we’ve been offered a plethora of options for personal belief, endless pegs on which to hang our hats at doorways into various faith systems. “Step right this way!” It can be brain-stunning, considering the bombardment of ads, social media platforms and random videos. Some revolve around specific diets; some require certain forms and lengths of meditation or prayer; some involve lifestyle changes, such as leaving modern technology and possessions behind; still others insist on engagement just within that proscribed community; and often the center of it all is an allegiance to a religious–or spiritual- leader. They may ask of practitioners certain ritualistic behaviors that may be forbidden to “outside” persons.

Though there are often several cross-over elements to faiths and practices–an aspiration to enlightenment, whatever that is for the group; a belief in the wisdom of the earth; a commitment to times of ascetic, solitary devotion to core beliefs–there are also clear divides. I bump into some of these out in the world: a unique dress code followed; jewelry worn to identify a wearer as a follower of that faith; tomes read that are reflective of one’s serious study of that belief and none other; café discussions that devolve before long into arguments. And the various posters hawking this natural lifestyle or that set of soul-and-body-purifying methods, or meetings to instruct one of an avenue less travelled. They all state they lead to “a well being of wholeness.” And maybe we are a bit more fragmented in 2021…so some might be tantalizing, while others seem absurd. A few beliefs are popular in our culture; some are decidedly not. And how far can a philosophy venture before it is considered a “fringe” movement? There is room for everything out there.

Or is there? It likely depends on where you live and who you are. I can’t say being Christian is easy on the Northwest. Then again, I had not thought of it much one way or another–then it turns out not everyone tolerates other peoples’ faith affiliations… Who knew the liberal West could be that judgmental? I am a left of center sort of person but, then, there are just lots of rumors out there about what my faith means and what it does not. No one asks for my ideas or experience. I want to be nonjudgmental of the naysayers. But hope for more respectful and open discussion. As recall it really was more likely decades ago.

The one thing many people contend is that religious principles and beliefs are in opposition to spiritual ones. Distant from one another, not at all the same. Choose one or the other–but the two do not mix. Or so we are encouraged to think. Here are the first three definitions from Merriman-Webster says:

Definition of spiritual, adjective:

1: of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spiritINCORPOREAL spiritual needs

2a: of or relating to sacred matters spiritual songs

b: ecclesiastical rather than lay or temporal

spiritual authority, lords spiritual

3: concerned with religious values

Yet they remain separate to lots of people despite there being an overlap that is significant. Religion generally gets a side or back seat, if any seat, at a proverbial round table talk. Additionally, we learn early the two topics that are most incendiary are politics and religion. Humans wage wars over both–at great length and to great losses. Maybe that is why some are loathe to address actual religion. We too often tiptoe about it–that is, unless we are moved to speak up loudly/protest/rally in the name of whatever we hold dear. I grew up in the 60s so know about protesting. But when it comes to my faith, I do not unleash a humungous voice, usually. In fact I am very often quiet in most arenas. And I don’t like the sense that there is less and less choice for being able to share, to talk, to discuss openly– without penalty.

When did t his shift happen…? Over a lifetime I have sat around many tables, energetically engaged in debate that have led to insights with deeper understanding. A welcoming energy has been noticeable as ideas were bandied about. Bridges were constructed. Even with topics religious and political. Yes, there can be conflict and words one wanted to retrieve at the end of it all. But it wasn’t an exercise in disrespect or worse, cruelty.

More recently I have become more habituated to being quiet about things of the spirit unless I think present company will tolerate, perhaps enjoy, such conversation. Sometimes it is hard. My life is imbued with what matters most to me. As it is for most people–even if we are not conscious of it. We grow into such things and they accompany us on life journeys, shaped and reshaped, changed or replaced as we go. And one’s philosophy or faith is the same.

If I was still a serious seeker, perhaps looking for a religion, I would likely be overwhelmed. I tend to delve in, immerse myself in ideas–the nitty gritty. Because of that characteristic, I looked into various religions as youth and young adult–as young people are apt to do. Besides, I had had multiple experiences that didn’t necessarily cohere with what I had learned of the Protestant traditional ways of faith. Long before adolescence, I had a sense of deeply holy presence in my life, and divinity alive in complex realms of nature as well as human beings. I had difficulty finding words for this as a child and teenager but it seemed endemic to all natural-made life, and it reached far greater than the world beyond mine. And before I even knew what well-honed intuition and “extra sensory perception” meant, I was familiar with it within me. It never seemed unusual or extra anything. For one thing, my mother had it and used it without explanation or fanfare. In fact, it seemed almost a family thing. So–traditional church, spirituality, sacredness, intuition, everyday applications of belief and faith…it was all wrapped up together.

Raised in the First United Methodist Church by parents who left their childhood Southern Baptist and Church of Christ affiliations, respectively, when they moved north from Missouri, I was more or less at ease. (I later realized how radical a thing they did according to their Southern/Midwest culture.) I was shown that Christianity’s hallmark beliefs are based on Jesus Christ’s teachings: of love of God, others and one’s self; mercy; forgiveness; a deep commitment to supporting human progress–for the betterment of one and all; and personal accountability and authenticity. It made basic sense to me in my childish understanding and later, as I transitioned into adulthood. I learned more as I went, but these stuck with me even when it didn’t always add up to the reality of my life.

It was a moderate sized church community in a smaller city, housed in a building that Alden B. Dow had designed; it was lovely moving through it, gazing out beautiful windows. And what I heard was what I experienced. People were congenial but much more–considerate, quick to help others in need (not just at church), generous-minded, gentle mannered but strong in the face of tragedy. I went to Sunday school each Sunday morning, then joined the family in the sanctuary. I attended church camp many summers–fun with others and nature; participated in events at Christmas and Easter; and was confirmed in the faith at 12. My father oversaw the music; my family sang or contributed instrumentally–a favorite part of services was robustly singing hymns from pews or in the choir loft.

As I moved into teen-dom I was, for a time, in a Methodist Youth Fellowship; we were active in the community helping others. But I began to diverge from known entities and ways as I grappled with trauma, increasing drug use over the next several years as I tried to cope. Yet I was not one to ignore the implacable sense of God here, there, everywhere. I wrestled with often obscure but profound meanings of existence, the greater purpose of living. I drew closer to nature’s mysteries and lessons and sought out ancient Celtic ways (some of which still resonate with me). I read books on philosophy and world religions. I sought out magazine articles of other cultures’ spiritual practices. I became interested in shamanism and poured over Kierkegaard and CS Lewis and marveled at their different views. Then Joseph Campbell’s writings on classical mythology, Native American beliefs, Christian saints and arcane writings, Buddhism and meditation, white witchcraft and paganism, Subud, Bahai, parapsychology, the uses of graphology and astrology–well, the list went on for years…Some of this seeped into me as surely as Christianity. I sorted and tossed as I began to embrace enlarged viewpoints.

Did all this worry my parents? There weren’t arguments, but there was voiced concern. They felt I was far too serious, even somber for a teen-ager; so did many of my classmates. In time, I found more friends–those in the arts, those who loved to exchange ideas. Many of us became hippies, playing folk music, aligning ourselves with natural ways and means of living. But with the advent of the anti-establishment movement we became more politically engaged. That opened up a whole other vista. Religion could pose as nearly anything, it seemed; doctrine could have many facets and faces. But not all were Christian, of course. We were busy trying to be “free spirits.”

Heady times, dangerous times, passionate days and nights and beliefs to explore and dreams and justice to fight for. I became involved with Students for a Democratic Society for three years. By then, my parents were very concerned; no doubt their prayers were more fervent for my well being; we became estranged at times. I had begun to forge my own path out of childhood and their home. By 16 I had essentially left; by 18 I had literally moved on. Many ups and downs taught me to fight my own battles, alone or with other young adults.

Except that I still believed in God. Nothing was capable of shaking that up much or for long. I might have felt alone, been literally abandoned. But I knew I wasn’t, truly. And through it all, I felt and remained Christian.

Looking back, I have no complaint about being raised in that Methodist church. I left it awhile and returned to it, have off and on attended other Methodist churches wherever I have lived as well as others. For some time it all seemed bland, too moderate for me, but that also spoke to my tumult and hunger for different experiences. I was looking for greater passion to put to use in life, more effective activism in society– and a truer response to God’s ubiquitous presence.

By my early twenties it hit me that my faith could be as strong or weak as I intended it to be. That it changed as I grew up, went on. And that it didn’t require me to attend a church, though that was good, too, if it benefitted me and, later, my family. But the priority was that I live it, daily walk it– not just talk it. I intended to try always to adhere to the chosen tenets to the best of my capability, not get messy and slack off because it was challenging at times to believe, even harder to act on them. And it mattered that I continue making my sacred relationship with God my first priority. And take to heart Jesus’ teachings which were rooted in love’s wisdom and shaped by extraordinary courage in his own vexing, turbulent times–and yet serve scores in an often tragic, angry world.

Have I been able to follow through? I have made errors in my life, some grave and damaging ones. I have failed my own expectations, yet I keep on with it. Nothing destroys my belief in the revolutionary compassion shared and taught by Jesus, his radical acts of love flowing from the eternal, powerful knowledge and grace of the ever creative, universal God. And every day I am brought closer to the certainty that nature compels us because it reflects God’s intricate and astounding work in this world and those beyond–and that it is a gift to us, to learn and cherish.

Can I even talk about this in public? I just did.

Do I have to check one box or the other? Already have checked both.

Can I try to understand other faiths, respect other kinds of believers? I can. Somehow I also believe we are all entwined in the ultimate sense.

Is it likely we become more committed to beliefs by being taught from the beginning their value? But then by way or trial and error, recurrent discouragement and hope, human fear and spiritual-religious transformation, the resilience of our souls?

Yes, and more than that, God never moves apart from us. What our earthly eyes see is only part of this story. We need to better see with our spirits. May I live and move within God’s welcoming presence and vast designs of life, now and always.

Blessings to all who seek God, and may the seeking bring more unity and charity.

Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: A Fine Crepuscular Life

(Nightjar flight in early eve)

Ian sat on his perch in frail light, watching it leak from the yard into the linear space separating this world from another. It was a habit developed the past year, after everything changed, when he began to work in the dark, tiny anteroom of the cottage. It got claustrophobic, but it served the purpose. He’d made and set up a simple desk and tidy bookshelf; the room’s one window opened to the garden so that bees or a dragonfly and winged beetles and occasionally a bird flew to and fro through the screen-less opening. The window was stuck open through warm weather; he had to muscle it shut as fall arrived. He always liked the company of nature. He was happy to glance up, see vegetables and flowers as he worked at his computer. But he got outside whenever he could.

He sat on the weather beaten bench with its cushion of mosses, small cracks in its grain snagging him with a splinter now and again. It had been set upon Jupiter Hill, one that overlooked a small canyon fifty years earlier when the cottage was built. In the deep valley below glowed hundreds of bright pinpricks of subdivision houses. The place from which he escaped three years ago when Frieda and he split up. It was the best thing for them. She travelled on, the spacious brick house she’d bought before him a mere change station for her modelling career. He quickly purchased the falling down cottage. Made it more habitable the first year, stopped renovation the second year as he liked it rustic. And then the virus invaded all and he worked at home and was glad of it. It was cramped and aged and good enough for him.

“Good enough for a hermit,” Freida said in her arch way when she visited just once, words clanging in the rooms that he quickly showed her.

As was usually the case. One reason they could not sustain peace. She was a fighter; Ian was… not a fighter, exactly. He was, perhaps, leaning toward becoming a spiritual warrior. He didn’t feel he had a choice in the matter, just as she didn’t feel she had a choice in her ways. It was fireworks; once done, they were spent. Besides, it was true that Ian was drawn to the energy of very early morning and early evening.

“Like a vampire or werewolf?” Frieda teased. This thought excited her. It was an erroneous idea in general and patently ridiculous when she tried to connect it to Ian. But she had a genuine all-night sort of spirit.

He found himself feeling more at ease certain periods of time, too. Just as Freida found herself awake all night, sleeping much of the day; she moved at near-warp speed when the sun went down. And not given to contemplation, she stated made things happen, chiding him on his ability to sit still.

He once told her to settle things, “Yes, crepuscular, vespertine. Matinal, too. You know this about me, I am drawn to in-between things– times, ideas.”

He spoke while avoiding her cat-like eyes, amber gemstones set in tawny skin that spoke volumes–he just wasn’t sure exactly what they were saying. She was so tall and lithe that he expected her to leap across space rather than walk, and to land on him. All that was a reason he fell for her–as likely for so many who met her. And the curious woman behind them got hold of him. The intensity and intelligence lurking behind strange beauty. For a long time it kept him there; they were opposites that sparked.

She shrugged at his scientific explanation. “Such a technical person. All that isn’t the solution to our conflicts. I defend my own lifestyle by saying I’m nocturnal but so what? We still have to make it work in our shared reality. If we have love left.”

What did that mean, Ian wondered? They lived in conflicted realities, almost parallel, and it had become taxing. Love was by then a wrong perception, though he wished her no ill will. So not long after that conversation, he found the cottage. They bid one another good bye and fare well with very little rancor. He later wondered what she was up to after the pandemic hit but there was no urge to contact her. It had been an experience; he didn’t regret it or his leaving.

But this felt right, this cottage life, sitting here on Jupiter Hill. Away from much of what he felt was false for him. Away from the hard push and pull of things. Below the hill was a life he did not understand, even when he inhabited it for all those years. Here was a pensive watchfulness with the rhythm of nature, and he felt most as ease in an unfolding of dusk, the rhapsody of sunset putting on the cool elegance of fleeting blue hour, and the coming forth of stars in great violet-black skies. Creation demonstrating its theater of mystery and magic.

He sat very still, still as a rabbit outwitting a predator. He learned to spot elusive nightjars, owls, watched flurries of bats, and savored deer grazing at edge of the neighboring woods. Coyotes appeared, stared at him, slunk off on fast feet. He had a great fondness of birds ever since he’d dreamed of flying as a child. Once he felt certain there was a bear or a cougar rooting about at the edge of he woods and he stayed rooted, a jolt of excitement rushing through him. All creatures were welcome, as they had welcomed him. Even if a bit unlikely the possibility stayed with him, a promise of great things to come if he remained patient. Open.

Ian was in his element, no longer lonely. The solitary state was perfect–a relief. He raised his whiskery beard-adorned chin to the sky, breathed the green-laden air, closed his eyes in gratitude. Heard whirr and rush of wings overhead. Drifted.

******

There came the day when summer began to fade fast. Ian now kept a sweater on the back of his leather chair for cooler days. One afternoon he looked up from his computer. A twirling brown maple leaf had caught his attention. The another and another. He had noticed small groupings scattered on the yard recently, but had been too busy working to think on it. An architect, he’d been developing plans for a community of micro housing, a new contract with the city. As wind stirred chilly-edged air he realized it was time to add to the woodpile. His woodstove required constant feeding– though the cottage had only two narrow bedrooms, a tucked away bathroom and open living area with modest kitchen. It was an old place that creaked and moaned in winter as it hummed with warmth.

In the bottom right hand desk drawer, which he avoided opening more than once more, was an oversized postcard with a view of San Diego’s bright waterfront. He’d received it from Freida earlier in the day. She had been in the balmy city for six months fulfilling several good jobs, but work had dried up and it was not looking good. Ands she hoped he was doing well on on the hill and was content. She had signed it with her stylized cat motif and flourish of her name, underscored twice. As if he had forgotten her entirely.

Ian had been puzzled at first. They hadn’t communicated in two years; he hadn’t followed her on social media. He enjoyed such basic happiness it never occurred to him that she might return to sniff about the perimeter of his life. But, then, she was becoming financially unstable. Or perhaps unstable, in general, as happened when practical matters pressed too hard upon her. He didn’t want to expect the worst; life was hard for many these days.

But he pushed the good recollections of their old life aside. Ian finally had what he wanted, or most of it.

******

He wrapped up work later than planned, then made a salad topped with smoked salmon. He settled at his bench and ate with pleasure until satiated. The wind picked up. It carried the tantalizing scent of chilled rain, though it had been a long period of drought and few believed the great rains of the past would return soon. Ian enjoyed warmth of summer but his true nature was stirred by onset of autumn and winter. That long softening greyness, cloudiness creating barest shadow that easily sifted warmer light into a twilit time. And he longed for rain; his pores felt its absence, his skin tight and textured as parchment.

He took in the ribbons of luminosity rushing over hills and valley, melded into dimmer translucent rays, that distant horizon leeching color from autumn’s brilliant dome of blue. The sun had about left. His heart raced, breath became shallower. Time was suspended, as was he. Ian stood as the late September light transformed the body of land and the air blued; his eyes narrowed to focus on changing sky, saw moths flitting about, birds on sudden wing. He longed to be there, felt the magnitude of their labors and choreography of flight. He stood taller, reached up and up with hands to the infinite expanse.

Behind him there was a shock to the atmosphere when a low growl, insistent and pure went deep. He spun around to behold her, body lithe and streamlined, eyes afire in a rapid descent of evening as it began to cling to all life.

Freida, ready to pounce, black hair aloft behind her in the gusty night, arms lifting, her feet set to send her vaulting toward him. Her aim, her desire clear in the way she was. He felt the power of who they had been, once.

And then he turned, rose up. His feet left the good earth, he was fleeing gravity as surely as sunlight fled the end of day. His body lightened to a configuration of feathers, his eyes sharp as never before, and he felt the strong lift of the changing air currents. The baritone hoot of a barred owl floated near and vibrated in his cocked ears; the clear, stuttering call of the nightjar lulled and pierced as it passed, one eye on the man who would be bird, its powerful wing grazing his shoulder as it ascended in a twilit flash.

Ian followed, rid of all disbelief or fear–while below, Freida raced to the edge of Jupiter Hill, jumped higher than thinkable with a disgruntled cry. But her strong effort failed; she was gone, no more to be seen. And Ian flew on, the world below a whirl of troubles and triumphs. He might fall to ground as befitted common man, but he was certain he was on the verge of living as he had always imagined. He could fly between this and that, here and there. His own fine zone. And would be routed to new ones, passing through thin places, into greater wisdom. He was hovering on the cusp of creative abundance with the elusive nightjar at his side, was he not? For the time being, he was wholly free.