Wednesday’s Words/Short Story (and a Note): The Shiny Surface of Things

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story (and a Note): The Shiny Surface of Things

Hello all, just a note before the story written today.

I have thought it over and yesterday decided to take a break from Wednesday’s Words posts. It has been over a decade of writing longform as well as posting photos and poetry. I greatly enjoy writing short stories and creative nonfiction as much as any genre. But this is the one posting that requires 6 to 8 hours or more of writing and revising–(and still I miss simple errors). Though usually I am quite up to writing such intenisve periods of time, there have been recent challenges to overcome. The knee injury in January has caused prolonged pain, interruption of usual routines. Now corrective surgery is at last on the horizon. I expect the procedure will restore me to health but it takes time to accomplish that. I have been tested. Despite several health hurdles in my life, the removal of daily power walks and long week-end hikes and explorations has emphasized my limitations and, many times, a lack of power to overcome them well. One learns how to surrender, even if it is not a critical thing like the heart disease diagnosis at 51–the heart attack during a hike. It worked for me, giving way to rest and recouperation, long before now so I will relearn to relent and accept. Then I get to regroup and start anew in any way I can.

Perhaps this is a good time, then, for more reflection regarding the direction I want to take this blog, as well. I have been pondering that a long time–as well as attending to a resurfacing desire to work on projects for submission and possible publication. I like changing up goals, pushing myself creatively; perhaps I have become overly content here, a tad complacent. A whole new blog or a podcast might also be an option while or after my knee mends. I will refocus my energies effectively, I hope.

I will for now continue to post on Mondays and Fridays, and occasionally on Wednesday if/when that feels good and right. I have much material gathered over the years for “Monday’s Meander” posts and won’t be off my feet for so terribly long! So I hope you stick around to further peruse what offerings I share. My mission remains the same: to highlight the active presence of beauty and renewal in this rough-and/or- ready world, to seek strength, compassion and wisdom of Divine Light, and to share my small journey as I discover more ways to still live with verve and peace as I grow older. I am a survivor of much but a student of all that is useful and ultimately healing, hopeful and invigorating for body, spirit and mind.

But if you don’t stick around, I understand, we all have priorities and agendas. All the best to you and yours. Happy Spring to you readers, to all you fine creative folks!

Blessings and good cheer,

Cynthia

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The Shiny Surface of Things

Everyone in Marionville soon knew who he was. They’d pass him and crane their necks for a closer look; take a seat nearer to his table at the cafe to hear what he might have to say; look toward his mother’s house in the hills when he wasn’t seen in awhile. If Heaven Steele accompanied him on errands they’d be stopped, people making inane conversation on the pretext of having business with her. The younger ones hardly dared look at him up close. People asked for his autograph right in the middle of the street, slowing their cars and hailing him. Walden Steele would study the ground or store shelves after offering a brief dazzling smile, perhaps a handshake if the neighbor (or intruder, he’d grumble as they went on) was introduced and seemed congenial.

Of course it was the women and girls who were most flabberghasted when he arrived. First of all, no one had realized that this famous man was the son of the eccentric artist who had moved there from Chicago, leaving her high-powered career ten years prior. Some asserted she might be psychic (per reports of those who’d had enlightening conversations with Heaven). Her name itself was irritating; not everyone was thrilled with her year around residency, rather than only a summer folk. It was impressive she was well known in the rariefied art world. But there remained those who viewed her as a stubborn wrinkle in the smooth fabric of the kingdom of Marionville, their northern Michigan town.

Well, if a patchwork of random pieces could be called smooth fabric… Marionville had never attracted a blameless or fully adaptable population–a murder had happened decades ago, and there were scandalous occurences of this and that, and attitudes that might be considered gauche elsewhere. But it tried to be a better community, worked at setting its sights higher each year. A more generous view held that Heaven was worthy and appreciated for her interest in everyone’s well being, besides which large paintings and renowned glass chimes drew more toutists. So it was admitted that Walden Steele, her offspring, was at the least a welcome distraction. And though he resembled his mother, they admitted that he must take more after his father, her ex-husband, who no one knew.

Second of all–after being Heaven’s secret son–he could not be missed if you tried your hardest to turn a blind eye. If you read magazines of the fashion type, you knew at first glance. He was a world-famous model and sometimes, more recently, actor. That walnut brown thick hair, long enough to pull into a stubby ponytail; the wide grey eyes densely lashed (someone said, “Steel grey, right? Steele, Like his mother’s–whose two eyes are completely different colors, by the way!” and people smirked); the generous masculine mouth; high cheekbones every one envied; his six feet, two inches of taut slimness. Beinn quite expressive added to his aura. When he moved or spoke he exhibited a rare engagement with his own body, as well as keen awareness of surroundings, and of others.

Walden Steele was a man who knew his power as he traversed the wilds of life and had no need to stake a claim to his space; he already owned it. Much like his mother–who was not as immediately forceful with her mellower presence. A sighting of Walden Steele shortly inspired the madness of first love in the youngest; daydreams of hopefulness in older ones and wistful sighs in the oldest. Most wanted to touch his sleeve, at least–and even throw their arms about him. Perhaps some men looked more than twice, too. Who wouldn’t, except the jealous ones? Of which there were quite a few.

But.

But: he was silent most of the time, even a bit aloof, and carried a slight, shifting air of melancholy if anyone cared to study him long enough to slip past his beauty. Maybe it was because of the world class status with the ubiqiuity of his image, his being pestered and followed. He’d cultivated boundaries, of course. He avoided looking at people full in the face, as if living life in real time and making eye contact was harder than living behind a camera. He covered his face with a repositioned hat brim, sunglasses, and even loose a neck scarf if there was a camera poised.

Something important had brought him to everyday Marionville. More than a visit to his mother’s. At least that’s what Charles “Camp” Davies thought, and he’d become something of an expert in people watching over forty-odd years of running a bar at lakeside.

Walden came into the bar one late afternoon mid-week. Theree were few patrons, just a couple aging alkies bent over a table in the corner, telling bad jokes with fake laughs.

“Afternoon,” he said, “whatdya have today?” Camp knew it was Walden–he was so clean, well dressed, very good looking– but decided to see if the young man would introduce himself.

“A beer, any beer as long as its sweaty cold,” the young man answered and swivelled on his bar stool, taking in the emptiness of the place. Visibly relaxing, he bent over his phone, then put it face down as the beer slid his way. He ran his hand down its length, wiped the moisture on his jeans and nodded at the bartender. Then he sipped it–no rush, eyes closed, turning on the stool as he did so, until he ended up facing the picture window that looked out on Lake Wenatchee.

Camp, glancing past Walden’s wide shoulders at the shimmering water, busied himself with tasks. If a person didn’t want to talk you should respect their quietness, unless there was cause to worry or you knew for sure the customer was wanting more. This newcomer did not. He sipped and took in the sparkling lake, a glowing sapphire lit by spring’s exuberant sunshine, then swivelled back to glance at a mirror behind Camp. He shook his head once at himself, then watched Camp. It seemed Walden might say something, so the bartender leaned back against a counter and waited a few, arms folded over his barrel chest.

“Good spot here on the lake,” Walden noted, offering a friendlier look.

“Best there is, keeps my pockets full enough, too.”

“I always wanted to visit my mother here–Heaven Steele?–but never had enough time. Very nice place you have. I’m Walden.” He held out his hand.

Camp shook it firmly in response. “Name’s Camp Davies.” He waited for the usual k=joke about his first name but none came. “Sure, we all know Heaven, good customer and friend. Welcome. Relax and enjoy.”

Walden smiled more easily, face softening some, eyes lit up as he sought the view once more. He wanted to be more alone, Camp felt, so he kept on with his business.

A couple men sauntered in after work, pulled out chairs from a round wooden table, threw their caps down as grimy hands smoothed back unruly hair. They were bone-tired after working in the forests, felling trees. When they caught sight of Walden, the red-haired one pointed, leaned over to whisper in his buddy’s ear. They gawked a moment, the older shaking his head, letting go a guffaw.

Walden had a good or bad effect, depending on who was looking. “Pretty boy” had been tossed at him plenty but as most concurred, he’d laughed his way to the bank. (And he wasn’t gay though if he was, it was his own business, others shrugged.)

Camp went to them. “Long day, aye? Heating up out there. The usual, boys?”

Walden slipped out the door. Camp had wanted to ask him if he wanted a burger on the house, a one time offer for Heaven’s son. But maybe men that put together didn’t like bar food; maybe they ate truffles and caviar. Still, Camp hoped he’d stop by again. There was something deeper in him, he felt, despite the shiny outer wrappings. He felt a protective impulse coming on. A tendency of his was to sense to much and want to respond. People! Bars weren’t all about drink; in fact, they were really about people.

And the guy wasn’t really a drinker–he’d left his bottle half-full.

***

After a week, the stares and comments settled some, or perhaps they became surreptitious, the admirers embarrassed by their own open adulation. Walden Steele had appeared on countless worldwide billboards flaunting the latest fashion with perfect face and body; he had been in three movies, if bit parts, and was a recurrent guest actor on a soap opera. And social media content was frequent if always mysterious, as he tended to show up alone, with little commentary and many shots of places he worked or vacationed. It was rumored his long time partner was elsewhere, but who knew? Photos from around the globe garnered front pages. How could interested readers break their gaze?–it was that sort of spell. Plus, he was a multimillionaire but lived more like a hermit–who knew where– except for fashion shoots, required appearances.

Which made him even more alluring. A small glimpse of a magnetic presence made you hungry for more. And he was right there in the flesh. In mostly dull Marionville.

***

On the hill across the road from Heaven’s house, Jasper Dye caught wind of the gossip and thought it a bunch of hogwash. A man was a man, no matter what shape or color or fast-held opinions. Everyone had the right to privacy. After all, Jasper was alone now and he’d also craved the peace that came with it, even before he’d had so much of it. Though some might say he was a loner even in a crowd. Except for Marv, his dog.

“My son is coming for a visit, Jasper,” Heaven had told him one day when they cleaned up plant debris from her back patio after a thunderstorm.

“That right? He travel all the time, still?”

“He does, but for now he isn’t.” She tossed a small pine branch over the tall cedar fence. “He’s taking a break.” heaven sighed deeply.

“Been awhile, yeah? I know you’ve visited him at least every year, wherever he might be.”

“Yes–but it’s been almost 2 years now. That last time was in Madrid. He models, remember–clothes and stuff for ads? He’s an actor… of sorts. But he’s feeling the need to try a long pause.”

Jasper knew that meant something more, but she’d tell him if she wanted. The main thing was that Walden was coming and she was glad of it. He’d never been to her home in Marionville. It all had to be huge in her thoughts.

“Well, I’m pleased for ya but hey, we’ll need good clippers to get rid of some of this, maybe even an ax– or I’ll get my tools.” Though Jasper didn’t really want to climb up the hill again. They’d been out there near an hour and he needed a recharge, coffee and a snack, and he knew she’d offer it–after work was done. Maybe Walden could help her out some when he had a few days off to sleep in. His own aging body felt overused lately despite the fact that he’d sold his land with his small farm. He believed his tiredness might be spilling over into retirement, unfairly, but he managed, anyway.

“I’ve got it, just a minute.” She went to the shed to get clippers but turned back to him, her differently colored eyes peering at him. He never tired of those blue and brown eyes; but it was her kindness, not the eyes. “He’s not like…anyone here, you know. But I hope you like him.”

Jasper frowned. “Why not? I like you, don’t I?”

She surprised him with a quick hug. Soon they quietly worked in tandem again, old farmer and younger, sophisticated artist. An odd and steady friendship.

When they met, Walden and Jasper were uneasy but they had a fine BBQ, hung out on Heaven’s patio around the fire pit. The place looked like the refuge it was, with fountain and fire and multi-strings of fairy lights glowing against trees and sky. They soon got on well enough. Her son was a man nearing his peak, with lots of worldy experience if few simple pleasures and insights. He looked peaked and worn out. It seemed like he could sit there forever, awash in the warming glow of firelight, his striking features less pinched as evening grew softer, talk slowed. The visit would be good for him. Anyone who couldn’t feel better in this territory had serious blocks to happiness.

“I can’t get over how peaceful it is here. I’ve been countless wodnerful places but– I don’t know, all this…” He gestured with long arms sweeping about. “How cozy–is that too quaint a word?–but lovely your home is, Mom, it’s so you…I waited far too long to come.”

Heaven was pleased, just smiled to herself. She felt almost a dream that he had finally come, and didn’t think more words added anything.

Her son loosened more in a relaxed state as he gazed at the attractive, modest ranch house, the fire crackling away, the majestic trees. Then at his mother, whom he loved but from a distance his whole adult life. The glass chimes she’d made and hung everywhere released bright music as a breeze swept trhough irregular, vivid shapes, and he sighed in relief. Heaven touched his hand; he took heres and held on a long moment. Though her eyes closed, her tightening lips were telling, beset with worry that she’d tried to smile away so as to seize the night’s goodness.

Jasper Dye hoped for the best for mother and son. But he guessed her son was famous and Walden would have to get by gossip and false starts, the eyes of everyone in Marionville. He clearly needed space from his worldly affairs—tromping the woods, lazing on a small fishing boat, dozing by the fire.

As he trudged home, Jasper mused that he’d never had trouble with too many girls about. But he’d only wanted one and they’d been togther until she’d left this world for the next. He’d been lucky. Still, how fortunate Walden came to be with his family; his mother would help him get righted, along with Mother Nature. Of course, he’d be around as needed. Not much else to do these days.

***

It was late as Camp Davies cleaned the last surface, flicking his towel a last time against the counter, and then put away all the booze and glasses, ready to lock up. A moving shadow outside caught his eye. Someone walked by the picture window, casting a shadow across the yellow pool of light from a security lamp. Lots of random people and stray creatures came to the park at night, you never knew. He sure hoped no one had thoughts of topping the last one off in his bar. He was done and gone. It was Thursday, and Friday night would be hectic with a couple customers’ birthdays. But there came no knock or shout and he finished up.

As he pulled all doors shut and locked up out back, he rounded a corner and stood looking over the lake. The moon looked about as big as a silver dollar pasted in the heavens –as his father had said–but he thought it of it as pure magic, not cash. His parents had teased that he had a little poet hidden inside; they might have been right. But Camp liked the night. And he didn’t get home until late as three in the morning. He liked how it smmothed the edges of things, and dimmed human noise so you could hear any living thing that rustled or squeaked or howled. Nature felt like a second nature to him; he’d been raised within the family business, Mike and Mo Davies’ Campground, and that meant being at home outside, knowing nature’s ways. He’d balked at living indoors, hence the nickname.

He started toward his truck, backpack slung over a shoulder, then sat behind the wheel checking his cell phone for his wife’s nightly messages.

Along the lakefront there was little sound, as most were home or soon to be. A couple of night birds called out in the opaque darkness, the plaintive whoo whoo whoot of the barn owl a comfort. But there went one man, tentatively making his way to a public dock, the moon illuminating enough to help him find each footstep. Walden wobbled to the end, its well-aged creakiness a surprise as he went along. Then he managed to sit down. A bottle of wine he’d been drinking from was put down; he leaned back on flattened palms, head tilted back to depths of night.

Walden had held back discouragement and sorrow a long while. If he’d let his mother know much, her worry would creep into everything. And she’d ask for information or she’d discern it too fast and he didn’t have it in him to tell her, no, he wouldn’t speak of it, not yet. She’d need then to accept him as he was, accomodating and shiny bright on the outside, a deep well–or was it a a gaping hole?–on the inside. Of course she knew he was exhausted, that he couldn’t deny. He really was after travelling ten or more months a year for fifteen years, after pushing himself, taking on acting jobs in hopes of another career. The fact was, he was worn away from the weight of constant hard work with the barrage of cities and hotels, the pressures of success and demands of a public who never had enough. He had to smile or gaze dispassionately, with antic delight or with sensual prowess. Be charming, look immaculately fabulous, and speak out and shut up as others commanded.

To forget what he needed and who he was.

He’d not asked to have this face, this manner. It was genetics, not so much him, after all. Well, he was a fast learner, too. When it all began to happen for him, he’d been appalled by the fast craziness of the life, but there was money and admiration…he was greedy and young. His mother had warned him but by then he lived with his father. Who thought it a marvelous opportunity for his son, for himself. It all accelerated; in less than a year he was “It.”

Well, he’d had enough. Even before Mirabel left him in the middle of the night during their Icelandic getaway. He couldn’t stop her. She hired a private plane and a pilot. Just like that, three years erased with exciting, tender, intense days and nights. All he could do was stare into an immense, blameless sky and let the weeping come. And then he had another job in Berlin so, quick change artist that he was, he got right back to it.

Not that he blamed Mirabel. She was riding her own flashy star. It’s just that she needed it, she loved it, while he no longer did. He’d hoped when he saw how they fit together they’d be forever–and why not? couldn’t he have that, too?–but it began to ground to a halt when he told her he was thinking of leaving the industry. Creating another life before he would not or could not move on, anymore.

Walden could smell the urgent earthiness of spring, of water swaying just beyond and beneath him. He took off his shoes and dangled his feet in shockingly cold water. It was only May; it’d be July or August before it got warmer though he didn’t care. The lake lapped around ankles and toes with rhythmic gentleness. The owl called to him and he wondered if it was close by, watching over all, or hiding in tree branches intent on its own business. A more distant owl called back. All creatures had mates sooner or later yet he sat alone. Pushing thirty-five, old by some standards in his world. He wanted more but what? He sought solace, that was the one thing he knew was right.

“Mir-a-bel…”

Her name tasted like sweetgrass smoke in his mouth, sweet and bitter, and syllables floated like dandelion fluff over water into the greater realm of darkness. Her name had always sounded like music to him, but now it seemed like an eerie song from long ago, dissonant and peculiar if beloved. His cheeks grew wet as her name was spoken over and over, and he drank the wine, kicked his feet at the surface below.He dreamed backwards in time and forward into a perplexing present–but the future? He saw nothing.

He took a longer draught off the bottle, then it was empty. His head felt cottony, askew, and his body languid, even sleepy. Walden wasn’t a drinker if he could help it all those years out there. He couldn’t afford to be if he wanted top dollar, to look excellent every early morning call for modelling, for acting. That was one of his secrets–he stayed apart from partying scenes as much as possible. No longer meaningful to him, the old rules dissipated with each drink. Fine wine pilfered from his mother’s cabinet–as if he was a kid! was that how he acted when he wasn’t his own man for so long?– as she slept. It had tasted right for his mood. A hint of sweetness that went slowly sour, warming to belly and mind.

He scanned the black water, eyes widening, pupils large as they strained for the undulating swath of moonlight. It trembled and then shushed him. He was alone, blessedly alone. He would swim all the way to the other side if it was daytime. But maybe he’d just float. He’d mastered that when he’d had lessons at six.

Walden bent at the waist over the water and barely pulled back in time, contemplating. How cold was it, really? He’d noticed people on the lake most days but they’d been in boats, usually, fishing or enjoying races and rides. He’d like to own a boat…maybe he’d live on a houseboat…

Camp Davies got off the phone with his wife who worked night shift at the hospital one town over. Stretched thoroughly. Casting a glance around the area a last time, admiring the silver orb above, he saw something down by the dock. Coyote, an unlikely but possible bear, some deer? No, not those. A figure of–? He got out of his truck quietly then registered that a person swayed back and forth on the end of the dock. Camp broke into a dead run.

Walden tried to keep upright as he peered into water so like a black pit, yet how inviting. In a haze of wine, it seemed a place of comfort and ease; he could float a long while… all the way to Canada. Was that a song? How far was it from here, north or south? Oh, but no, a river took you places, a lake… it just held you.

He fell forward, but it felt like forever before he plunged into the expanse. It stung, he found no bottom, only a yawning abyss of water, a cold and alien tunnel, an aqueous journey to another side not yet known but beckoning. Why was he here? He fell or let himself fall. He held gulped breath; terror suddenly struck as he tried to move upward, upward as he was dragged down by his weight, his fear, diminished oxygen seeping away. He idiotically tried to push water out of the way with both arms again and again, lungs starting to burn, lips loosening.

Camp Davies ran the length of dock in a couple seconds, stripping off jacket, shirt, kicking off boots, then jumping. The sharp razor of cold sliced at him, but he thought he knew who it was before the man was submerged.

“Walden! Hold on, come here boy!” he yelled as he dove twice, came back up. It might be too late but Camp fought against that possibility.

There, he saw him. Walden surfaced near his straining hands. Flailing but weakly, bobbing above water only a few feet away. Camp powered his stocky body with all his resolve and might toward him, who sputtered and coughed and spewed water, trying to float his body over the surface. But Walden no longer felt cold, only numb, too tired. His legs and trunk dipped under the water.

Camp grabbed him around his chest, pulling, tugging at him up and above the lake surface, until he managed to get him to the dock where he held on to it, breathing hard enough for them both.

“Walden, you breathing?” Fear snatched away his hope.

Before he could figure out how to get Walden onto shore and save himself, too. His breath got so small in the cold and wet, his own body started to slow, when a big hand grabbed his shirt sleeve and yanked hard. A dog barked repeatedly.

“Gotcha!”

Jasper Dye and his half-lame dog, Marv, were at the edge of the dock. The older man lay down so he could get better purchase and pulled with a burst of energy until Camp grasped him better. Jasper huffed, strained and yanked him around the length of the dock to shallower water by the bank, then dragged him up enough onto it so they were safe. Marv sank his teeth into Walden’s leather coat sleeve to help pull, shook his furry head back and forth. Jasper sprinted to his van for blankets as Camp turned Walden over and looked at him, pushed on his chest though the man was breathing with difficulty. The young man coughed harder, emitted rasping breaths, painful ones, but he was taking in gulps of night air. And shivering terribly, body twitching. Camp wasn’t warm, himself, slapped his hands and arms about himself, and then realized what had happened, felt panic spiral and rise, then fall. Before long, Jasper’s old wool Army blankets were about them both, and the whine of sirens created a jagged alarm in the night.

Walden whispered, “We–we make it? Am I alive?”

Japser and Camp put their hands on his shoulders, and Jasper replied, “Yes, you’re with us, you can rest. Not sure what sent you over but glad oyu’re here.”

Camp asked Jasper why he was even out there in the middle of night.

“Oh you know, old men ramble when they can’t sleep. Marv likes to sniff around the lake, do his business. I like the solitude and we see the world in different ways. Hobo hearts, us two, I guess…”

“You’re a kind of funny angel, Jasper. You, too, Marv.”

***

Everyone knew about it before morning, of course. The two men were checked and Camp was sent home with the advice that if he felt worse after a hour’s warm bath, hot tea and blankets to call 911. Walden was taken to the hospital fifteen miles away for hypothermia and observation. Blood alcohol was too high for swimming in any temperature. Camp’s wife, at work when the ambulance arrived, was apprised of all. She talked to her husband, then insisted on looking after the patient. He was questioned, tended to, finally deemed drunk but sane enough and ultimately recovered enough to leave. Out in a little over twenty four hours, Walden was eager to get back to his mother’s.

There were some cars waiting and cameras readied, ppointing his way. He scrunched down until they sped past then took random, frequent turns. A gravel road was the final evasion.

She drove while he remained drawn into himself.

“You might have talked to me, Walden. About things. I am always here, on your side.”

“Yeah. I know, but some things are hard to put into words.” He looked at her with those eyes that everyone said would steal hearts and they had, hers first. “Like heartache. And disillusionment…”

“Okay. But you almost…”

She pulled to the side of the back road, overwhelmed..

“No, Mom, really–I got good and drunk for once. You know I’ve long avoided alcohol though I smoke weed sometimes…but I was acting foolish. I have been ignorant a long time. Or in denial about what I need. Me, the real me, whoever that may be, has little wisdom.” He felt and saw her pain. “But it wasn’t deliberate.” And he believed that now. Last night, as he struggled with blurred consciousness and shock in the emergency room, he wasnt that clear.

He leaned his head back, eyes closed and sat listening to the rumble of the idling engine. He knew his mother was wating for more. Staring at him, her son, trying to not cry, again. The car windows were open: perfume of wildflowers in a field of fecund earth, the drone of laboring bees and cross currents of birdsong came at him like gifts of unexpected kindness.

“Good, then what do you need right now?” she asked in her low voice, soft with weariness.

“This,” he said, pointing at the scene beyond, and opening hands to her. “You, Mom. Myself. Life at a slow pace, lived with care.” He laughed and added, “I’d like my surface to get mussed up, live like a regular guy in the woods–can’t I do that?–and my mind to get healthier. Being on stage, being noticed for my appearance was useful but distracting, then a miserable thing. It’s just the surface of things, as you know, and I want to be done with all that.”

He realized she knew some of what they felt like, with one lovely blue and one brown eye, and her prematurely silvery hair and many charming mannerisms.

She chuckled, happy he had come to this conclusion, though how he could not be so attractive was unimaginable; his father’s genes had determined the best parts. “Easier said than done… this town is so nosy. But it must be doable. First you need a steaming mug of my home brewed herbal tea, something good to eat, sleep. Time.”

And that was all that was shared between them. She understood the parts that were subterranean, in any case. He knew she could see through his walls and so many others’. They drove off, her foot pressed hard to the pedal on a sunny country road as they emerged from the forest again.

It might come to be that he would draw again, his table set up in her studio as spring and summer turned into autumn and winter. They both let this happy thought unscroll within their relief. But at least they were granted this day, a new start. How astonishing it was. They rolled down all the windows, and let their free hands flap in the wind, hair flying wild in the healing spring light.


Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Library Week! The Countless Words To Guide Us

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To imagine a world without books is impossibly hard. As I look around my home I can see I never intend to do so. I haven’t once bothered–or dared–to count them. I have sorted, passed on and re-sold physical books numerous times, have bought new volumes (and read a few online). I often buy books for gifts and rarely turn down a good freebie in a streetside Little Free Library or languishing in a cardboard box by trash receptacles. It’s not that I will read anything at all…we do have our preferences…but, then again, if there was nothing at hand but an ancient census report, I would gladly read that. And read it again. I am definitely one of those who reads fine print on packaging, randomly peruses dictionaries and reads every sign that catches my fancy on a road trip. So one might conclude it is the basic act of noting letters, then reading them that “rings my bell”. Perhaps that’s partly true–it lights up that language portion of human brain instantly–but only a small part of the story.

I like to learn about almost anything. To be gathered into another’s life or informed of another culture or to ride the wave of an epic tale. I like to find the path in storyland and follow it with mind and arms open, whether fact or fiction. Books, books, books. They are friends and teachers, distractors and challengers, quiet partners in my life.

And I write of this as it is National Library Week in the USA; School Librarian Day was April 4th. And April 16 is National Librarian Day. A time to consider how fortunate we are to have books at our fingertips–or not far away. Library books are a blessing shared by the community with ever changing and diverse residents. Hopefully, this week even more people, young and older, will take advantage of it.

I have much to consider when I consider how books have helped shape and even transform my life. Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames, R.N. kept me up late with my flashlight as a 9 year old. I devoured books for fun, but I was also reading because I also was writing my own stories and plays and poems by then…I was learning by osmosis, perhaps. But later I read a variety of works by poets Denise Levertov, ee cummings, Theodore Roethke, William Wordsworth and Kahlil Gibran– as well as wide ranging writers as Hermann Hesse, Dag Hammarskjold, or Pearl Buck and John Steinbeck, for a few examples. They each strongly impacted me both as a young writer and spiritual seeeker. Books and their libraries were good escapes, yet also a deeper balm for the troubled youth I was. Reading provided me with greater perspective and stimulated more hope. More than a few times, what I sought and discovered helped me keep my head above water. They still can have the same power for children and youth.

I read as a hungry creature grazes in a field of delectable offerings, often and with excitement. I most often read not what any class reading lists recommended… and have not ever been in a book club. But I’ve made it a weekly, even daily, habit to study multiple book reviews or simply wandered through libraries and bookstores, on the lookout for the next fitting volume.

Recommendations, anyone? Let’s talk it over–I’d give it good thought. I do enjoy swapping personal preferences, such as with my neighbor today.

Public and school libraries have been particularly important because they require only a library card and my time and respect. They are ubiquitous in this country–and free! I like them so much that when we travel, Marc and I often seek out local libraries. And any ole bokstore, of course. To see what there is on offer, to experience the electric yet cocooning, amiable energy the presence of books in hands perpetuates. I’ve visited tiny, dusty libraries that have perhaps not purchased new books for years yet offer many gems. And light-dappled, multi-storied, shiny buildings I could move into with sleeping bag to spend a year or more. (The stalled novel I wrote features a country library in several scenes, so that tells me something.)

In elementary school I anticipated library hour as much or more than most other things in the school week. I lingered as long as feasible, content with browsing then slipping a book from its cozy place within the company of like-minded books. The librarians–rarely stern ones, the mythical library policers of the stacks– were eager to help aid me. And they seemed to know everything, or could find out in a flash. Best yet, I was often pointed toward resources to find out my own answers. Patient and appreciative of young, inquisitive minds, librarians were congenial and supportive watchers over children as we strove to enlargen our minds, stoke imaginations. On the way home, I hugged my “find” close, eager to get reading if only between other activites until bedtime. –It is this way even now.

I grew up in a city that was fortunate to have wonderful arts, sciences and other educational facilities. Our public library was one designed by Alden B. Dow, a protege of Frank Loyd Wright. It opened in 1955 and was contemporary by common standards, with its angularity and stark elegance and turquoise trim (or perhaps a wide flashing) right below the roof edge. It had floor to ceiling windows that overlooked lush landscaping. It had a big study space that was open to a second floor mezzanine with more rooms: more books. The smells and colors and shapes… I was transported being there.

As a kid, I made myself comfortable in the children’s ample room with a pile at my feet. Later on, I sat huddled over books read for academic needs or pleasure, soaking up the hush of a place that harbored readers and those who researched. The wooden drawers of card catalogs held more than I could begin to think of; I took my time thumbing through them, as one thing led to another. Among the aisles between tall shelving I found nonfiction sections as fascinating as fiction or poetry sections. How could there be that much to investigate? Awe, perplexity, and pleasure flooded my being.

It was a pleasure to enter the high-ceilinged two-story building and so difficult to leave. Time evaprotated. A visit might also be a ruse for meeting friends (or a boyfriend), during which we’d surround oursleves with tomes then whisper intently back and forth or write furious notes. But more often visiting the library meant a treasure trove to delve into, plus a pause from life’s ordeals and uncertainties. I felt at home in the grand but often undefined scheme of things more than in most places. The library: sanctuary, a repository of wide-ranging wisdom, a safe place for bookish entertainment, a haven for those who thirsted after curious places and peoples which lay beyond those sturdy walls.

Of course, there were magazines as well, and music, then movies and over the years surprising things (we can check out all sorts of odd and useful items at our present library). Most of which I don’t utilize, I’m afraid. My priority has remained simple book hunting.

The greatest feature: all the public is welcome. Everyone can be sparked by the thrill of learning, nourished by engaging or challenging tales. Or a quiet nook with a comfy chair within which one may doze, reading material in hand. The word library means simply a collection of books or bookshop; in Old English etymology it is a “book hoard.” Makes sense to me.

One view of part of my childhood’s Grace A. Dow Memorial Library, Midland, MI-in this shot, magazines take front and center, as does the view. Ahhh…

When Covid-19 roared into our lives and many public places became inacessible, I turned to online offerings of local libraries (and virtual bookstores). Though I greatly missed prowling the stacks of our smaller city branch, I was glad to browse and put “on hold” many titles to later pick up. In fact, I chose more books than I might have otherwise; it became a meditative experience to search and find. I read a wider variety as there was more time than ever. (I also read more and differently to further inspire my own writing; the more I read the more I always learn.) But I also enjoyed lining up with other people to get the choices in hand. We began to converse as we waited for the librarian to bring out our orders to an outdoor shelving unit. It was a pleasant ritual in otherwise worrisome months… then more months.

When our actual library doors opened again, only 5 people were allowed in fifteen minutes at a time. But what surprising happiness! I could see it in everyone as they browsed and fingered books and other items: a sense of contented relief, just for a brief spell. I am certain that those who visited libraries online or in person have felt that this has been a favored event. Perhaps it was even a lifesaver, emotionally. When all else was fraught with fear or loneliness, health issues–that loss of bearings in society at large–we could still, thank goodness, generously welcome books into our ives.

I recall once during that time that I searched for a certain novel, reportedly available, within my fifteen minutes. To no avail. So I asked a librarian if she knew the author and if the book was misplaced. She did; the author was a respected, long deceased one not often checked out, anymore. She searched further. Failing to locate the one I wanted, she announced she’d purchase the book–and two more by that author–so that I and others could have access to his work. This was said with a triumphant smile. I was flabberghasted. She was, as she noted, “here to support our patrons and provide great materials whenever I can.” And she did, and she always has done so.

So, here is to libraries and librarians. Here’s to the hours of work put in for us (work we often do not see or think about), and to their patient, knowledgeable and kindly assistance. The countless books and other materials kept track of and then offed to us have given me, for one, more freedom to roam far reaches of mind, heart and soul, to critically consider diverse notions and gather quite useful information. Books give good medicine as well as good direction more often than not.

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Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Rocky Mountain Dreams and Leanne’s Lesson

“If you can’t have what you want, then you’d better learn to want what you have.”

Her mother, Maude, had tossed those words at her like a hard ball, and by instinct, she caught them with only a passing sting in her chest. She was used to her saying things like that, her life whittled down by farm work, days of tedium and nights defined by what she did not get enough of; sleep eluded her more and more, Leanne noted the purple shadows under her mother’s bleary eyes. Her father was decent enough, he just had no talent for love. Maude once told her, when Leanne was set on getting married, that a man might set her heart alight but that fire had to grow and it took a lot of tending. Leanne didn’t know if her father ever made her mother’s heart light up; by the time she was born, three others had caused trouble enough and her parents just seemed tired out, if accepting of their lot.

Leanne leaned against the fence post. The deep meadow was thick with windswept, pale grasses waiting to be overtaken by fresh green blades. Further on was the woods, where deer hid out sooner or later and whre Randy hunted, then usually came back empty-handed. She suspected it was because he dozed in the blind or didn’t want to kill anything since leaving the Army. He said it was because they were few and wily. She was happy her eyes could scan the grasses, trees and sky– everywhere she looked. It gave her relief from the sense of being caged. But it was what she’d called home most of her life.

And she was back when she’d thought she was gone for good.

This good land she and Randy owned: ten acres with a cabin they were fixing up. It was bought a shortly after they wed, thanks to an inheritence from his grandfather. Sometimes it was like overseeing their own country out there, and ten miles from her parents. But at times it also felt like one she’d been exiled to, and protesting a life they chose was worse than useless. As restless as the day she was born bawling and beating the air, she right then wanted to row a boat downriver or take a horseback ride to a whole other state. Reall, much farther. It had gotten to a point that when she was grading papers, she saw not words or numbers but those Rockies of Colorado where they had met. Or the cities they’d visited–Denver, Albuquerque, Sante Fe. It stirred her up, those thrilling memories, that landscape of heat and red and grey rocks and high open sky. The surprise ot it all. It made her long for things she didn’t have.

What did she have to complain about? He was now a full-time forester; she taught fifth and sixth graders. They treated each other well, better than most if she thought about the sad little town, the old friends who opined that her husband was the cutest-sweetest-smartest guy around and wasn;t Leanne so lucky. Well, that was true. But he also wasn’t from there; he was from Wyoming and so this was new to him. Why he’d actually wanted to be Michigan, she didn’t understand–she had so taken to Colorado. They’d met at the state university. But neither could find decent employment there after graduation. A teaching job for Leanne became available in northern Michigan; her family–still Michiganders, still stuck– encouraged a return. And when two people meet and see something special in each other, you do what seems timely and good to build a life. It’s becomes the right way to do things–reasonable actions undertaken for each other. And when he got there, he loved the greeness, its open land bounded by forest, “A little open like the West but much more interesting–lush.” And they needed her job until he found one.

Leanne leaned forward. In the distance a deer wandered to woods’ edge, lifted nose in the breeze, disappeared again. She slowly stood, alert, and fought an urge to follow it, to enter the sheltering crowd of trees and vanish, too. If she’d had her backpack, she might have done it. For awhile. Then what? Hitch hike to Colorado? Send Randy a postcard: I left but please come…? He’d guess why: she never wanted to return here. It was the fishbowl effect of a rural town, the certainty that her parents would draw a circle around them as they had her siblings. Pull it so tight about her. She wanted her own life–their own lives. But it was convenient, it was the first job when income was crucial as he continued to look for work. She had always thought they’d go back to Colorado.. But then he found his job in soil conservation and land and forest management. He was content.

The early March wind came up, lifted her ponytail off her back, swung it about. Leanne better secured her oilskin baseball cap. Redwing blackbirds were making a sweet song of bird talk further down the fence and nearby circled two vultures, looking to stave off hunger pangs. Was that what she was doing? Looking for more nourishment?

Still, she had a knack for teaching. Her students overall appreciated her– when they weren’t complaining about the work. Randy was good at his work. He was a man given to clear action, not talk, but he was also companionable, Steadfast. And he got on well enough with her parents, a miracle–much better than she did. It was the land that tied them, the potential as well as its history and how they could maximimze its bounties, Leanne mused. She had missed out on that family gene; her siblings owned lots of land, made it work for them well. She didn’t experience land lust, that fierce pride of ownership that drove people to sdo all sorts of things good and bad. She didn’t want or need to own it. Just to love it and admire it, treat it with respect no matter what it offered– and wherever she roamed. The desire to travel and see the world dogged her night and day.

When the vultures moved on and an eagle soared beyond the treeline, she wandered to the river that was a ribbon unfurled across rolling meadow. Her legs were embraced by rustling grass as she passed, a feeling evocative of childhood when she ran around barefoot, bare legged. She sat on the damp bank, knees pulled to her chin, designs of shadow and dappled light decorating her skin and the earth.

“It’s Todd Markham, that’s the problem,” she said aloud; she talked to herself when outdoors and secluded. “He had to take over Mrs. Helman’s class right across my classroom, then proceeed to tease and torment me with tales about off-road trips, snowboarding and camping in the Rockies. He knows I loved it there and miss it–as he does despite putting on a good front. He knows Randy loves it here and now we own a piece of land and a cabin in the grip of major renovation. We’re stuck here. Todd is single…so he might be here a couple of years then move on, he admitted last week–he has nothing to lose. he can do as he pleases…”

She picked up a twig and combed her hair with it, dug in the dirt with its sharp point, got a worm wrapped around it and tossed it to a safer spot. The river talked back to her with generous and soothing song, nothing complicated, nothing foreign. This was a river she knew all her life, wide and fast in spring and narrower and gentler in summer and in winter or the remnants of winter when it was often given to an icy slab or sparkly bits. But always it sang of mysteries and wildness she could taste, see, smell, hear. It carried with it the past and moved to an unknown.

She closed her eyes. This spot was sacred. But her mind wouldn’t stay calmed.

The first time Todd had looked at her she’d looked away. It was reflexive; she was married, and his clear baby blues held a searching look. The second time she’d acknowledged him to be courteous. The third time they’d lunch together in the teachers’ kitchen and lounge, getting to know one another a little in between comments from others, bites of sandwiches. Then it was lunch three or four days of the week, and some days Sandy or Thomas joined them. But it was Todd and Leanne who conversed smoothly as maple syrup on tap, to her surprise.

Sandy admonished, “You’d better make it clear to this one who you are and what your boundaries are.”

“Oh my gosh, we’re work friends like you and Thomas and the rest of us,” she’d protested.

Sandy raised an eyebrow and shook her head but left it alone. He was only being congenial, they had a a couple of things in common–like a love of Colorado, his home state. But when she anticipated seeing him she felt a slight flutter in her stomach, as if nervous. Yes, she liked his brash descriptions of his adventures. Todd’s obvious comittment to his students best interests, especially challenging ones, impressed her. His goal was to teach at a wilderness school but an ideal job hadn’t come his way. He said she was born to teach. And he understood her interest in travelling, expanding her life. He’d been to Europe twice, why didn’t she plan to enjoy Venice and Paris, Dublin and Berlin, too?

But she was with Randy, of course; she might or might not ever leave this continent for another. It was his choice, too, not just Leanne’s.

A week before, after a parent-teacher’s conference, Todd had walked her to her car . A purplish twilight began to fall. She was tired but satisfied with her teaching results, and they chatted about experiences with the parents. Then he asked abruptly if she was “happily married, you know, are you and Randy good totgether, are you glad about how things turned out?” The question jarred her. It felt unnnecessary and misguided. She got into her car, rolled down the window and looked at him with narrowed eyes.

“Todd, you need to get out there, date more, you know that? We’re friendly co-workers. If you need more than a pleasant friendship, look elsewhere.”

And she drove off too fast without looking back to see what he made of it. How dare he question her marriage? What did he think she was capable of here? But she felt the discomfit of guilt rising from the time spent with Todd Markham. It had not been, after all, a right choice; they could not be easy friends but friends who might skip over that line, it seemed. At least he imagined so. What a foolish idea, and how selfish she had been to want even that with a single man, new to town. All she needed was for gossip to come above ground and sully life.

The following day he avoided her; the next day he barely nodded at her in a meeting. They didn’t share lunch hour the following days. Sure, his spirit and its reflection of Colorado life had been fun and intriguing. Leanne’s uncertainty about living once more in Michigan, the uneasiness over what she and Randy were going to build together had shaken her up, made her vulnerable to wishful thinking. But it had never been about Todd Markham but a broader wistfulness. A naive daydream, a wanderlust.

On the other side of the river there was a blur of motion, and Leanne looked up in time to see the deer’s ears rise above bushes and brush between tree trunks. A lovely ear flicked, perhaps at a bug. She held her breath and stared hard, looking for its eyes, one of which barely shimmered in a golden slash of sunlight. The head came up into full view. When their eyes met for a split second her whole being tingled with delight. The white tailed doe scampered off with barely a sound. All was still except for a woodpecker, and the distant screech of a jay.

“I am crazy about this land,” she whispered, throat tightening with emotion. “I just want more…adventures with Randy before years pass in a blur, before life takes more than we can spare. Before we ever come close to forgetting how much we love each other. I do not ever want to end up in a rut, worn out like my parents seem to be as they get old…”

The river listened. It always bore her words patiently. It knew this was a young one with heart but also ignorance and simply saved by sincerity, curiosity. It gave her nothing but songs of beauty, constancy, clarity. All she had to do was live with honor, live by her spirit’s deeper wisdom.

She was ready to go home; she more than anything wanted to hold her husband. Work with him diligently on their cabin at the edge of the welcoming woods. Make their place much more of a home, a happy refuge, welcoming others into their lives. Maybe for five or ten years–maybe for a lifetime.

And they lived close to sprawling Canada; they could travel there as she had as a kid twice. Randy hadn’t even been there yet so it might seem like a whole new destination as they explored together.

******

She ran up five steps to their broad porch, thinking of the chicken stew with dumplings she wanted to make for dinner and if they had any brownies left for her quick snack.

Her mother met her at the door as she burst in, face scrunched in worry.

“Leanne, where have you been? We tried to call and call but there was no service! You’ve been gone for hours–it’s Randy!”

“I was at the river–what do you mean, it’s Randy?” Panic engulfed her.

“He got hurt, honey!”

Her mother’s words cut as she was yanked into their bedroom, heart pounding. Her father sat beside a supine Randy, his hooded eyes watching over him. When she crouched close to her husband she saw the blurry outline of blood seepage on a thick swath of protective bandage taped about it. His wounded hand–and fingers?–looked gigantic as it rested on his chest. Randy’s reddened face was lined with pain, sweaty below the wascoth that served to cool him. He breathed in slow breaths, eyes half-closed as he barely gazed up at her.

“Whatever happened?… Randy?”

“My Leelee…damned chainsaw kicked, not good….” he said, slurring his words. “Accident, guess my turn…”

Maude said, “Stitched his hand up at ER in Petoskey, saved his thumb for now but barely, another finger hurt. It may not heal right, honey….we have to make sure it’s cleaned, he takes all antibiotics–“

“He can live without a thumb if he has to, better than a whole hand. Galen Gilliam got his leg ripped up bad, might lose it… Randy here tried to help and got hurt, too,” her father said quietly. He patted his son-in-law on the shoulder and vacated the chair.

“Oh, Galen..and Randy’s body?” she asked.

“Luckily okay, just a hand.”

“He’s all drugged up, he’ll rest better, start his healing,” her mother added extraneously, then left the room as did her father, closing the door behind them.

Leanne’s mind emptied of thoughts; her body was stripped of a sense of balance as she sank into the chair, cradling her face in both hands until the spinning slowed. Her heart was melded with his. Fear was followed by dread, then it drained away as she looked him over. His wide forehead, sandy colored hair long at ordinary ears; his neat reddish beard was shaggier. She touched it wiriness with one finger, then his chapped lips. Kissed him. His eyelids didn’t flutter; he was asleep already. He’d trusted emergency interventions just as he trusted the earth and his friends and her–with faith in an essential goodness, a courage that was rooted deep from all she had seen in just three years. Now he rested. Her own breath evened, and her stomach unclenched as relief flowed through her. It was only a damaged hand, maybe loss of a thumb, maybe nerve damage but they’d figure things out. They could live with that much harm. She could attend to his regret or anger, even depression if that was what it was to be. But Randy was a born optimist, just as she was a born wanderer. And yet she’d not leave his side, just as he’d not give up.

His work shirt had been changed, maybe cut off by a nurse or her mother. The navy T-shirt he wore was clean and “Colorado Dreaming” was stamped across it with pine green letters strewn against jagged mountain peaks and bright blue sky. His muscled arms were strong but now slack, defenseless atop the bed clothes. She put her head on the patchwork quilt-covered bed and let tears flow, and all she longed for was him, husband and best friend. Randy, Randy, oh Lord. A fervent prayer for healing spilled into their room.

All she understood at that moment was that they’d arrived alone and vulnerable in the world, and then they’d found one another. But how much more helpless they could be made in an instant. They had to hold each other up, and be–or act–brave, come what may. They had to stand and face life together and when things got too much, they’d be wise to kneel together, too. It was how a life shared was created: moment by moment. Within peace and abundance, surely, but also with difficulty or uncertainty yapping at their heels. They had to handle the bad times, and use them, too, when linking together wants and needs, plans changed with sudden surprises to make room for greater dreams. Who knew where they’d end up? Maybe the Rocky Mountains were just a moment they had shared; they were older now, moving on. For the foreseeable future, Leanne was staying right there, in the middle of their home. Her hand on his free hand, her breath matching his as needed, as ready as she could be for what came next.


Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: The Conversation

(Photo by SevenStorm JUHASZIMRUS on Pexels.com)

He went to the park, early, to be alone while availing himself of the company of others; they trickled in as time passed. There was a bench he’d long ago chosen and managed to hold onto in winter–there were fewer grabs for seating then. His bulk settled into the generous curves of wood–newly replaced and varnished last summer–and thin light wrapped coolness about the cliffs of his shoulders. The warmth would come later as long as precipitation didn’t, or a wild wind. A woolen fedora covered his head, the large head his parents thought meant bad things but, in fact, meant nothing other than intimate his body type and stature. He kept it covered since he no longer sported luxurious waves of black. Pride is a thing quite useless and thus disposable, he told himself as he glanced in the morning mirror. His balding pate winked at him in the flourescent light.

It happened that he could be more at ease with himself at the park and occasionally cheery. Much more so than at his building on Northwest 32nd. Having less corwded conditions gave way to more comfort. Even when the days and nights warmed, groups came and went like human murmurations across grassy expanses. He could walk or not walk and without commentary; his clumsy leg jimmied with nuts and bolts made no difference to strangers. At Mistral Manor, occupants seemed beside themselves with eagerness to include him. Or cast looks his way that were questioning. Or questionable. He understood they were intimidated by 6 feet 5 inches coupled with significant girth. Some were unsettled by his misunderstood silences, the off-kilter gait. He preferred his charcoal grey tweed overcoat, the effect courtly perhaps when topped by his hat, a foreign garb to those who wore sweatshirts, sneakers and often shorts, even in the drenching winter. He was not from around there. And when he opened his mouth to respond politely, what a shock. It appeared difficult for people to be civil or perhaps kindly dismiss him and go on their way.

How could it be so different from Chicago? He ought to know better; he had travelled extensively, even other countries. But now he lived somewhere new, a far cry from visiting.

Ah, but the park. He pulled out his newspaper and began to read, squinting in winter’s skimpy sunlight. Beside him was a thermos of black coffee, strong, almost bitter, and steaming hot. In his pocket was a napkin-wrapped hard biscuit just in case he got hungry or, if not, the birds came begging as was likely. He was an easy mark. An hour or so on the bench and he might walk the park some, though the four block distance from the Manor was enough of a work out these days.

He considered himself a man visited by enough good fortune that the other times were significantly improved in his memory. And that would have to do. Sitting on a park bench like the old man he would before long become did satisfy something. He was relieved to be among collective humanity and not be daily affronted by confounding life matters. He’d grown less fond of the future during the last couple years, it was true. Living with a challenged body after having been plucked from disaster, he’d had to make choices and deal with society in whole new ways. Especially with those who barely knew him.

When the seagulls circled ’round he shared his biscuit. It was the right thing to do; he had more at the apartment. He could accomodate amiable, even bold birds.

******

It went on for him that way for a few months, as he’d hoped, though now and then there might be someone else sitting at his spot and he’d move on to another. He wasn’t proprietary about the bench; that is, he wished to be civilized about it as it was a public park. But when he spotted a red hat atop a young woman who wore two yellow rain boots, he halted on the sidewalk, his handsome walking stick rising then falling with a staccato double thunk on the cement.

He had not seen her there before. First impulse was to leave the area. He was not without other choices at seven-thirty in the morning. He liked to savor the park in solitude as long as feasible. She pulled up her legs and crossed them like a yogi with each foot at a hip so the marred boots soiled her baggy sweatpants, and leaned her head back and closed eyes, arms dangling at sides like a rag doll’s. Another warning sign that it best to move on. Still…she took up little space, and his leg had been gripped with pain all night and into morning. He continued a slow pace to the bench and sat as far as he could at the other end. He didn’t look at her but if he did he’d have noted her eyes fluttered though closed. As he unscrewed the thermos bottle’s top– a cup for his coffee–fragrant steam reached her nostrils. Eyes opened in a flash and she looked right at him. He blew across the cup, then sipped. He glimpsed the boots: a good half muddy. As if she had been tromping about in sludgy puddles on the way to the bench.

“Heavenly,” she said, gesturing at the coffee thermos.

He was forced to look up and quickly took in a narrow face with pointed chin, almond eyes. The handmade red knit hat snugged over hair and ears. An easy smile was offered but he looked at his large, well-heeled feet, the leather thoroughly-oiled against Oregon winter.

“I hope you don’t mind me sitting here. I’m waiting for a friend–she’ll come this way.” When he didn’t respond, she added hopefully, “It won’t be long. She’s at a dental appointment right down there–” she pointed east–“and hopefully she’ll be able to eat breakfast with me.” She sat up and stretched, legs and feet loosening; next she twisted her torso side to side, shook out her hands.

He hoped she wasn’t unhinged–to talk to a stranger so easily. Then he wondered if she was a gymnast or a yoga fanatic, but that was alright. The idea intrigued if also disconcerted as he imagined her in a pretzel shape. She was quite young, that was it. He’d once had full control of his own body, rather superbly so.

“How nice to be meeting a friend,” he said, then unfolded his paper.

She gawked at him, then was embarrassed by that startled response. It was his voice, of course, he surmised…the unexpected basso sounds rumbling and rising and released from cavernous chest. It always startled, one of a few reasons he tended to quietness around unknown people. He was the subject aof taunts as a young man–his size and voice, kids saying he was some weird monster, calling him names until they learned better. Until they admitted his talents.

Surely she would move on to another spot, he hoped, so he could sit in peace. But she half-turned to him, legs now relaxed.

“I’ve actually seen you here a long time. I used to catch the 73 bus on the way to work and since there’s a stoplight by it–” and she pointed to the very bus stop–“we’d wait and I’d notice you here, under the big oaks. You always come to this bench if you can, am I right?”

“Well.” He felt affronted by the fact that she had seen, even watched him for such a time and unbeknownst to him. He’d not given thought to the possibility that others might watch him as he watched them. Not seriously. And not from a passing bus each morning. “How odd…as you say, it is my established habit. You go to work; I come to the park.” he scowled at that truth.

“Makes sense to me,” she said and stretched out her legs, dangling them over the bench edge. Her booted toes, which she pointed the best she could, just touched the ground. “Anyway, when I saw you today I thought I’d wait here by you. I don’t care to be in the park alone for long or so early with few others around.”

He found this extraordinary. A little flattering, strangely. She didn’t even know him, after all. Or perhaps she did a bit since she’d observed him awhile– and yet. “How long have you been watching me?”

She let go a big laugh that belied the compactness from which it erupted. “Oh, not watching you as in stalking or something! Just casually, you know? I’d briefly observe that you come here, read your paper or drink coffee for about…” she put a finger to chin–“six months. For maybe five minutes each morning on the bus.” She blinked at him. “You’re kind of hard to miss.” Her smile dimmed. “But not the last month; I haven’t been on that bus much.” She saw him looking her way calmly, and sighed. “I wasn’t sure you’d still be coming. Much has changed lately.”

Now he felt himself drawn in despite his natural resistance to unplanned dialogues. Should he ask what changed? If she lost her job? No, far too personal. They were unknown quantitites sitting in the park. he rustled his paper as if to end the conversation.

“I often wondered what sort of work you did,” she continued, “what your life is like. You know, ordinary curioisity. People see each other all the time, sitting by each other, pausing on the same routes, but never ask what’s going on with someone else. I guess I might not have, either, before my life becasme interrupted.” Her hands were fidgety and reddened by the cold as she glanced down the street. Wishing her friend would come soon. Wondering if this was wise to continue.

He was suddenly compelled to answer so any concerns she had were allayed. She clearly took a chance and sat there in purpose, quite the surprise.

“Three years ago I retired from…the music industry. I remained in Chicago where I had friends and colleagues for thirty-five years. I was, to be frank, in a bad train accident accident right during an initial semi-retirement.” She might have heard of it, let it please be enough that he just stated the fact. He gently tapped his leg with the walking stick to emphasize its injury. “When my son, an only child, asked me to come and see if I liked it here, I reluctantly agreed. I came last spring. Only temporarily. I am not convinced it’s for me.”

That ought to cover it, he thought, shocked by all he’d revealed. But why not? They’d part ways soon.

“Oh, I see.” She stared at traffic beyond a row of trees, noting the old bus stop, thinking of old times. “We never know, right? I’m a dancer. But I have lupus. It took over my life finally so I can’t dance with my old modern dance company. It affects many aspects of my health. At least for now.”

He said nothing, not certain what was reasonable to say. He was not one to display emotions except on stage. She sat very still.

The pigeons and seagulls were crowding up to them. He took out a biscuit–he baked a dozen once a week–and crumbled it up, gave a chunk to the young woman, and then they tossed bits to the ravenous birds.

She said softly, “You might sing, or I imagine.”

His heart contracted hard; it trembled. His chest almost heaved as he struggled to gain control of himself. How could she know that? Why should she dare speak what she imagined? Hadn’t he said enough to occupy her attention while she waited?

And then out barked a laugh.”Well, that’s so much nicer to hear you say that a radio DJ or news announcer or a power-driven lawyer!”

“Why, I can imagine those, too!”

“But, yes, I sing. Sang. Opera. Classical art songs.”

“You are a singer, that doesn’t change. Like I’m a dancer forever.”

And with that they said no more as rain started to fall from thickening clouds, then pelt them with darts of wetness. No umbrellas. The day had started partly cloudy and dry, milder than usual; he’d left his behind.

“Do you want to duck into the coffee shop across the street?” she asked. She pulled a rain jacket out of her large carryall, yanked the hood up.

He might. But a man in his mid-sixties and a woman in her–perhaps–early thirties hunkering down in a coffee shop within a half hour of meeting? Who would know but themselves and why should he fuss over it? His face dampened, his fedora dumping rivulets.

“I get it if you can’t. My friend is delayed, she’s 20 minutes late already so I’ll wait it out there, text her my location. I’m getting hungry and need a nice hot latte.”

“I might eat a scone.”

They stood up with some difficulty, neither of them seeking aid nor offering it. They went to the corner–his heavy stumping along, her graceful movements hiding her pain– where her bus had stopped for so long, where she had gazed out a window. Noted the big man’s existence, constant and curious.

******

The burst of air as they entered was warm, redolent of pungence and sweetness. They found two stools facing the big front window after ordering. She texted her friend of her whereabouts.

The brightness that had teased at the park seemed suddenly swept away by a gusty wind. People hurried down sidewalks, embarked and disembarked from buses, taxis, cars. Few had umbrellas; this was the Northwest, and umbrellas were for tourists and those unused to rainy weather. He usually carried one since he was that visitor, unsure if this place might become home. He missed snow. Felt at such a loss being so far from his friends, his old invigorating lifestyle. Music with the stages, pressures and rewards–the applause. The singular fulfillment his passion enabled him to experience.

“How did you become a dancer” he asked, nibbling his maple scone as he waited for the drenching rain to let up. Then he’d go to his one bedroom apartment for the rest of the day. His books and music. Not a house like he’d shared with his wife until the divorce, not the townhouse he’d bought fifteen years ago on a coveted stretch of shoreline along wild, majestic Lake Michigan. No lake views to be lost in–only the city’s business, its madness.

“I learned the usual way–from an early age: study, study, practice, perform, audition over and over, then finally joining three different companies. I came to the Myra Duvall Dance Project seven years ago and I love it.” She sipped coffee, chewed on a portion of pumpkin bread. “I knew something was wrong off and on, but it took awhile to figure it out. It has been mostly affecting my joints and, just a bit, my kidneys. Not helpful when you’re a dancer. In fact it stinks.”

“I’m sorry to hear it. I have a dear friend who has it. She has flare ups then periods that are much better, so then she goes forward with her life. She’s been doing well for a couple of years. I understand it’s different for each person.”

“Yes..but every day I’m miserable since I can’t dance. My joints are too inflamed, the pain. I might have to resign.” She looked up at him a foot and a half above on a stool which seemed barely able to hold him. But he looked secure and steady. “And by the way, I’m Maya. Maya Kwan.”

He swivelled a little, held out a squared palm and shook hers. “Anthony Keating.”

“Okay, Anthony! Or Mr. Keating. Oh, yeah, I remember that catastrophic train wreck in Chicago…. I assume that was it? You lived through that! And so you didn’t sing after that?”

“Certainly it is next to impossible to practice, rehearse– much less hope to perform when you have multiple surgeries on a leg and internal injuries to heal….as you might, perhaps, understand. But I fully retired after crucial healing occurred. I simply felt it best to let things end at a good peak. I had a fine career, it was a joy. But the pleasure went out of it.” He put hand to heart, heavy with that truth.

“I still hope you will sing, you really must.”

“We shall see how things develop,” he said, touched that she’d suggest he might keep on with it, at all. If only his dignity was not at stake, if only he could embrace other possibilities. Time, more recouperation in every way. And practice, practice, practice–for goodness’ sake, it was critical to any movement forward musically. Particularly at his age. One had to build a way of living based on an envisioned design, didn’t one, and then trial and error. The rest was up to sheer chance. He leaned toward her a bit. “And perhaps there is still dancing in your future. Somehow you might make things work, if just differently.”

Their eyes–her wide dark ones, his pale crinkly ones–connected a moment. And in that breif span of time they recognized and understood one another: a giant of an aging, introspective white man with sonorous voice of a seasoned opera singer in transition; and a strong, graceful Chinese-American woman deeply yearning to keep dancing despite hurdles. Artists, creators, seekers. Human beings trying to do what they could with what they were given. It seemd so small a thing. And so daunting.

They were thrown off suddenly by the realization they’d barely met, then talked in this way, spoke truth. They retreated into thoughtful silence.

Outside the big coffee shop window a woman slowed, pushing sodden hair from eyes while peering inside.

“Oh, there’s Janelle!”

Maya stood to go greet the woman; Anthony stood, as well.

“This is where I say good-bye to you, Maya Kwan. I’ve enjoyed our conversation, despite not being thrilled that a bus passenger kept an eye on me!”

“Oh, let’s not say good-bye, let’s say until next time,” she said. She raised her hand above customers to beckon her friend. “I’m glad I finally got to meet you–a man I saw day in, day out. It meant something to me that you were always there–the man in a fedora feeding birds and reading his paper. Now it seems something better.”

“I’m glad,” he said, as they pushed past the coffee line.

As a harried Janelle came closer she stopped, mouth open.

“No…Mr. Keating?”

Maya looked at her, then him. “Wait, you know each other?”

“Ah, yes, number 46, second floor, Ms. D’Angelo. A small world, indeed…” He touched the brim of his hat, nodded at them, and hurried out the door. Too small, he thought, then chuckled. At least she hadn’t gawked then made stupid jokes about his size or surprising voice. They’d exchanged niceities in the elevator a few times.

“You know Antony Keating?” Janelle asked, incredulous.

“A chance meeting. Or serendipity.”

“Well, give me the story. He’s a quiet, rather sullen man; no one can figure him out. You may bump into him again at Mistral Manor when you visit.”

“Yes, I suspect I might,” Maya agreed.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Growing up Lost, Finding the Way

(Photo by Joshua Abner on Pexels.com)

When I began my job at the residential youth facitlity, a co-worker immediately coined a nickname. “Hey, Miss Junior League”, she’d say, and I’d have to look twice to see if she was annoyed with me or just being rude. It often was both; we were opposites and we were doing the new acquaintance dance. There was an energy of boldness around her and I knew she likely took charge of anything at all. The tremendous volume of her wavy golden brown hair was enough to give pause. I either laughed or ignored her until she approached me with basic respect since we were equals on staff, more or less. When she sought to entertain people with off-kilter humor in the charting room or office, I obliged her with another snort of a laugh, then came back at her. I knew how to trade jabs that weren’t lethal and saw this was an easy game of sarcasm. I hadn’t expected it to be part of work behavior. But I was new to the workplace though I was not backing down; I needed that job and was there to stay. I understood the odd “Miss Junior League” moniker. I came by it honestly. Well, by upbringing if not by lifestyle. I knew how I seemed, especially in a new environment–we do what is natural without thinking. And then we adapt better and hopefully fast.

She’s been there perhaps a year. And she also “had been there, done that”, as she said, and also got how to handle teenagers that were high risk and full of high drama. I kept quiet and observed her and other counselors the first weeks. The Recreation Coordinator/alternative school’s teacher assistant job was new for me. I’d worked with high risk populations– geriatric and disabled clients. I was a manager in a subruban Detroit, MI. senior center, in addition to other positions. But I was intent on starting over in Oregon–this was the first interesting job available. When questioned as to why I’d want to work with gang-affiliated, drug-addicted, traumatized, often homeless teens, I could only answer, “Because I want to be of service to others–I have a solid history of doing that and I learn fast. I can find and provide good resources. And I can keep calm when things go haywire, usually.” The manager might have sensed I held back much that might impact his decision one way or another. But he took a chance–maybe better a warm body than nobody at all, I imagined. I couldn’t say: I’m desperate to pay my bills and change my life–I have to start somewhere. The work didn’t pay well but intrigued me.

The mistake my co-worker made at first was one we all make: stereotyping based on my clothes (I dressed in nice outfits, pretty flats, not jeans and tshirts…), perhaps my demeanor. She accurately deducted I was raised by white, middle-to-upper middle class, educated parents who provided privledges most of our young charges in treatment had never known. The truth, though, was that I had left that external security with its sense of assumed–if superficial–worth long, long ago. (The nice nice clothes were from old jobs; an articulate way of speaking was taught to me early on, then practiced for moving through the world; my reserve arose from introspection and distrust. My armor and shields.) My new co-workers just didn’t know it, and they likely never would. But they did know I was in recovery from substance dependence, and since I met that job requirement I was included, more or less. If they’d known I had married (for a long year) but was plotting to leave (if I kept the job) a man who was clean and sober, too, but still not kind nor finished with criminalality, they’d have been stunned. I dtill had much to learn about men and being a woman.

But even the kids accepted me based on my addiction and sobriety, alone–in time. Some thought it was a ruse. They had no idea who I was, found me a rule keeper and quiet but with a tad rough edges that began to show up now and then. I could hold a line, was not intimidated by fist fights as well as explosive emotional disturbances. I figured out ways to engage them in learning (like poetry writing); show them new ways to enjoy life’s offerings. In time the greater circles gave me access. I learned how to use my counseling skills with teenagers who believed anything positive or different was another demand they had to resist on principle. Or because it was stupid and irrelevant. They had no reason to believe what I offered was worthwhile. I had to prove it. I was determined to take them to the opera and ballet, museums and nature parks–not just play an explosive game of volleyball outside the facility.

I was naive, perhaps, but I had few qualms so just did it, calling sports event arenas and arts organizations and persuading them to give us free tickets, And no copping out by the kids was allowed. To everyone’s surprise the clients were curious, gradually more open, interested, sometimes well impressed and said so. (Opera became a big hit as was pro basketball.) Most all learned to appreciate experiences outside of former comfort zones, and to reconsider a few suppositions about the world and others in it. They found that something weirdly foreign could be exciting, even pleasurable–while staying sober and clean. They discovered they liked learning, after all–at least at times, under certain conditions. I was relieved to see that. But never let them see it could make me cry a little.

Some counselors shared personal life stories to try to bridge wide gaps between them and clients. I didn’t have that urge. First, I was an intensely private person (back then) and perceived as reserved. Calm in demanding situations, I came to be called upon for crisis intervention. But I also just believed that work was work, my personal life was my own, “and never the twain shall meet.” Let the youth interpret my words and silences. I tried to share some of myself obliquely, responding in ways that said more than language, I thought.

If I had been willing to share my own adolescent troubles with them, they might not have believed any of it. Or perhaps they saw through me in a short time. I caught some looking at me as if they “got it”– that looking and speaking in certain ways didn’t ever mean there wasn’t major hardships. (Though in time I dressed way down, let speech lapse into easier rhythms and it was better to be less conspicuous.) Kids are remarkable in their ability to percieve what we think hidden. They sense things, and those who survive what my clients had also know when you are lying or telling it straight, if you are phony or for real. It’s survival to get the lay of the land right and fast. We managed together moment by moment, even if they sneered at me behind my back or acted out with violence in word and deed as they pushed back at my growing authority. But there were plenty of clients who slowly connected with me–and others–as well.

I stayed in that position for about five years, long after other staff left. It was not the job for anyone who had stars in their eyes or were arrogant about personal power to salvage human lives. It was tough work to just keep the kids going, staying alive, open to change of any sort; it took long days and nights. I loved those lost and sometimes found youths; I liked the work far better than I’d expected. I think my attitude and behaviors spoke enough; I just wasn’t an open book or a bleeding wound with the kids–or adults. I felt that either was unseemly, uncalled for and even unethical. And not so helpful. Sure, I felt my heart open to those kids but lost any naivete fast–it was demanding work shaped by a droning background of impulsivity, resistance, loud eruptions of rage. I was humbled. I became committed to a persistent compassion put to work.

But if they had known any of my truth….For what they had within those simple spaces full of enriching treatment was exactly what I did not have when I needed it.

By age fifteen I was placed in a psychiatric facility in a big city for self harm behaviors. And signs and symptoms of drug use. There were no drug and alcohol treament centers or dual diagnosis programs in the 1960s and 70s. There were psychiatric units for everyone, no matter what the issue was. (Mine, I learned not then, but some years later: PTSD– and, of course, obvious substance dependence.) After that I was to have been placed into a halfway house for youth in Detroit so I could attend a fine performing arts high school and continue therapy. I was thrilled and anxious about such a change. If my parents agreed. They did not. So back home I went, then later was placed in temporary foster care a few months, then got kicked out (smoking pot, not vacuuming or washing dishes enough) of that upright home which I couldn’t bear–put with strangers against my will again. By the time I was almost 17 and still in high school, I was set up in an apartment by a well-meaning or perhaps incompetent psychologist I saw once every two weeks–with a young woman, aged twenty-one, who was deemed responsible and willing to look after me. (I discovered later she was a child of my parents’ friends.) I liked her but we happily seldom saw each other. That lasted until parties I threw included illicit drugs–and police came to our door, took me to the station for interrogation for nine hours. I never made that phone call you are supposed to make. I was terrified and was dropped back off by a narcotics detective at my parents. They stood in the doorway and stared at me, eyes filled with sorrow and heated by anger, their bodies looking as defeated as they felt. Well, so was I. So they let me in again.

They could think of little to nothing else to do with me. I can imagine they did all they could in their way and in those times. They did not avail themselves of family counseling; that was not popular where I grew up. In fact, it was all an embarrassment. I was the source of their embarassment. Deeply held secrets damage people but that was not their view. It was put the best face forward and arry on with denial. But they knew very little of my reality, and seemingly didn’t want to know. They were public people; thy were respected and loved by many. They had talents they shared generously in the community as well as t me and money. I by then understood what becoming mute meant, the essential necessity to all including the threatening perpetrator, even though he had left years before. His threats of family harm, even death, were believed from age 7. (He finally ended up in prison with multiple child sex abuse convictions.) But I loved my parents; they were good people who knew little of things beyond their scope. And beneath that current of frustration and despair, they did so love me. But I didn’t believe it then.

I barely made it through high school-not that my grades weren’t good, somehow I managed–but I profoundly resented having to be there. Except for English class and all arts opportunities. I wanted to pursue my passions in the arts, learn about nature and engage in many outdoor adventures. I was bored to tears. And angry, wounded by the earlier abuse, plus a foiled rape at 14 as I walked one afternboon along city railroad tracks, and fought for what felt like my scarred and yet still valuable life. Someone had to and I beat off the strong teen, who had followed me for blocks, with every ounce of fierceness I had. That took its toll despite my basic enthusiasm for life’s wonders and the goodness still to be found. One begins to think: is there truly any left?

I inhabited a state of clasutrophobic loneliness despite having many friends (and smart, well brought up boyfriends, a requirement of my parents before I brought them by–what irony that was to me). If only I could get out of that restrictive house, away from my provincial hometown. I wrote everything I could, huddling over notebooks or typewriter into the night; read books beyond my depth that were enthralling and wise or confusing; played and created music. Prayed alot, daily, for help. Weeping and praying, singing away at the baby grand as I dreamed of being a composer. Hoping for rescue. What a strange life. The outdoors and and trusted friends helped, not therapy though I did gain a few insights. I held onto nibs of hope for one more day, one more night– with the aid of substances, the lovely escape they provided a time. (I didn’t, surprisingly, drink those years; that came later.) After all, I had a ready pipeline to prescriptions from our family doctor.That’s how they helped people then. It was the time of the tranquilizing, addictive valium; big barbituates for sleep; and dexamyl to wake up. I knew how to get other drugs I wanted. (I also knew I’d figure out how to survive on the street if really neccessary. But I felt I would never do that–until years later, I had to awhile.)

I knew about many coping skills. Study, drugs of various sorts, creative projects in dance, music, art and theater, being outdoors; good friends and falling in love and prayer as I always believed in God, sometimes without seeming reason. (I entirely shied away from sex.) Then, after the foster care and apartment experiments failed, my parents gave me a one way plane ticket to Seattle at 18. My sister and a friend lived in a rusic cabin on Lake Washington. She was happy to have me stay a year and see how it went. I didn’t know her well; she is five years older. But I could hardly believe my good fortune. A geographical salvation, a way to find independence!

Freedom! As soon as I arrived, I believed I’d left the torments of my past and found paradise. Or had I? That year was wonderful with the Northwest’s vast natural marvels and some good times with my sister…then it became a repeat of the past I’d run from: violations, regrets, loss. Falling “in love” with a much older drug dealer who took me places and did things unknown before, and who also gave me lots of drugs. And then a fun but reckless motorcycle guy. Realizing my big sister, a teacher who also smoked pot heavily, was not in such great shape, either. But the dense forests and shimmering, undulating waters of the lake outside our door saved me by virtue of constancy and beauty. I would sit and stare and try to think things through–how to get better, to grow up into a whole human being and at last liberated from negative experiences? How, how, how. But I did learn the value of working at a busy local A and W drive-in, making cash while having a good time. Seattle was a fantastic city to explore. I grabbed a bus ride for the first time, roaming the streets with friends. I also vowed to move back to the Pacific Northwest one day to hike more mountains, make it my home.

It was not the very worst of years but it was a bold departure in a way. But I was too clueless in a much wider world of “regular” life with its temptations and perplexities. I revelled in options at first. Except they didn’t differ enough to improve my life…at all. Freedom suddenly unlocked is akin to releasing a devilish genie out, at long last. It all finally defeated me when a young man, charming and friendly saw and followed me on the road fall the way home. Then he later broke into the cabin when I slept alone. Afterwards, I felt it a miracle I ended up only a little harmed. But it was the final straw.

I returned to my parents determined to begin college. That went well–I was good at learning from books– except…I had over the years become addicted to barbituates and speed, knew pleasures and perils of smoking peyote and opium, had farily often dropped mescaline and LSD. I could not stay clean that year. I could not control the damages of addiction. In time I ended up in a huge, gothic, ugly, prison-like institution for four and a half months. I turned 20 there, and deeply wished I might die.

There were others of us there who were able to think much straighter after goping trhough withdrawals and staying clean of drugs (except for thwta they pumped into us). There were also pot smokers placed by angry, distraught parents. Alongside us were severely mentally ill people who’d been there for years, decades–whose empty presence brought me to tears as I tried to talk with them. Some of the most nighmarish experiences I’ve ever had happened there. The stay consisted of a kind of slave labor provided by lucid patients, surprise harsh treatments and various humilations every day. (I still cannot share those specifics, as well as other things from the trying strangeness of my past.) But treatment for PTSD? Compassionate aid? Those months compounded pain and fear, were felt as punishments every moment. I learned to leave my body, and my imagination flew me to scenarios that could make my life sweeter someday. I could close my eyes any time to see the Northwest mountains, and breathe again. And I learned to ally myself with others who could still walk, talk, speak and make sense–when we were rarely allowed to gather and speak. I held on.

I maintain that no person should have to endure such a place. It was closed a few years after I left. I wept in gratitude for all who avoided its terrible power, a hell of badly treated souls, the imprisoned who had lost all bearings, their eyes empty, their mouths slack, silenced forever.

Yet it was there, in a small corner of a dark room, that I prayed with fervor for God–wherever God was–to help me survive it all and leave one day intact somehow. To be miraculously released. I was afraid I would never walk out, nor stay quite alive any more time there. So I made a bargain: someday when I was able to do so, I would help others, anyone God guided me to help with courage and compassion–if God would only get me out of there. And I felt a little peace stir, lifting my spirits just enough. I wasn’t certain, but I thought for the first time it was possible to survive, to escape.

It happened within two weeks. I didn’t know my parents were working with a lawyer. I was put on a chair, upon a raised platform and questioned at length by a half dozen “experts” for what seemed many hours but must have been a mushc shorter time. I kept my wits about me; I spoke out clearly and thoughtfully. Whatever it took I was going to persuade those who’d offered me nothing of help, nothing of simple respect or kindness. And it was decided I was fit to leave. I got sprung, and the world seemed bright, fresh–and intense and changed. It was I who had changed, had lost more, but I would recover. It was enough to be able to walk in the world at liberty, to not live in constant fear and loathing. To be among bees and flowers, to warm under the glow of sunlight. I had been placed there in mid- April. It was early August and the summer sang out. I stopped taking any medication and felt finally awake, aware and coherent, my mind clicking along again. I behaved reasonably and felt more at ease than I had in aeons though it took awhile to get in sync with society and other people.

I went on and lived a life that became more and more ordinary, with no drugs in my system, though trials still came as they do (and had to conquer late onset drinking later, by a simple surrender to God’s direction again). I had returned to college, worked some, had surprising children and after more time welcomed stepchildren. I had married, divorced, married and so on. Relationships are not a fluid thing, not so comfortable at first for abuse survivors, yet they are possible. I kept trying. I would say well, I liked being married so I did it alot… (I’ve now been married for decades to the same guy.)

But I was restless as my children grew up; I missed the old dreams of a more creative life, apart from mothering. I felt useless in the old, deeper way– so I relapsed after many years sober. A wise therapist told me in no uncertain terms to stop whining and get a job, preferably helping others–to get out of my hothouse of a brain. It made no sense at first–what could I do?– but was fired the same day I applied to work at a large, bustling senior services center in Adult day Care. In months I was promoted to the Home Care department manager for elderly and disabled folks. I provided services to 350 clients at the center and in the community; I enjoyed training and hiring about 150 home care workers. My liquid nutrition program for the very ill homebound garnered a Presidential Point of Light Award, It was a surprise that such work fit me and I, it –that I enjoyed it so much. I kept at it until I left Michigan once more, after another divorce, and planned to return to the Pacific Northwest. I had gained health and confidence, but I was still not able to enjoy a well-rounded, solid marriage.

I had almost forgotten about the bargain I’d made at the end of my teen years. It was going to come back to me soon.

It wasn’t until I was truly sober for more time that things changed completely, and for the long haul. I moved with two teenaged children to Oregon at 42 and applied for a position working with youth at a mental health and addictions treatment facility. At first I thought it absurd to even try, but I could find no job comparable to the one I had left in Michigan. I had minimal qualifications for Recreation Coordinator/Teaching Assistant. Still, it struck me: this may be it, this might be what I promised God to do with my life decades ago…. Though I emotionally resisted it even after I started work, that job got me going in a career that was stimulating, challenging, creative, satisfying. I’d found my calling in service to others alright, to those lost in ways I intimately understood.

But did I really want to do it? I hadn’t once longed to work in counseling services and certainly not with the addicted, homeless, criminal and traumatized. I had had quite enough of all that, I told myself, and the messiness of human struggling, the breathtaking heartbreaks. But, of course, too, the heroics of those who had to choose between grueling emotional work and giving up. I took a leao oif faith.

It has always been a rich if arduous process. I have been allowed to be a witness to many hundreds of tender and tough lives. It was the right thing to engage in a profound give and take between human beings searching for spiritual wholness, emotional health. And God, I have no doubt, was there watching over me and all others, just as is true now. I didn’t ever save one person. But I have to say: I have felt God’s mercy, God’s light moving through me as the young people there and elsewhere (and later, scores of adults) learned how to save themselves bit by bit. If they did not make it, then their valiant attempts still counted for something good in my estimation. Those hearts and souls–what an immense risk taken. What a dangerous thing to dare to have hope. And yet people do it every day, taking a chance on life. On themselves.

If I could have shared anything with those youthful clients of mine, what would it be? I’d have said I undertand some of who you are but even if you do not believe my story, the main thing is to just fight for your freedom–from abuse and from fear, rage and pain, from long shadows of sorrow. The fight is really a smart surrender; it goes far easier if you let love in to walk with you, if you put fists and bitter words down. Anything can be endured in this life if you learn that love is everything, the only thing. You then are never entirely alone; it reveals a path out of the ruinous maze. It will guide you in all work and play and connections.

And some of those kids tool the new ideas into them enough that their whole way of being started to alter. Did it last beyond treatment? I’ve lost many who tried but could not stay alive or avoid old ways. I’ve run into clients who remember and who have gone forward. In most cases, I will never know. But that was not for me to worry over. I could only do what I could do. I have been given the gift of journeying with each, in any case.

Was I actually caring for my own youthful self when I took that job? Perhaps, in part, that is what pople do when they suffer through something–they might help heal others of similar wounds. But at the center of my committment was fulfilling a promise made all those years before in a corner of a terrible place and time. Freedom informed by compassion requires patience and accountability; it is a responsibility. I was still learning how to live well. And it continues. We can never stop trying, will never stop growing when we take chances to break open our minds, hearts and spirits and discover greater possibilites.

This is part of the story of an abused and addicted life. I claim it but there are countless others out there who have lived or still endure these sorts of travails. But it is not the end of my story. Much good came to me incrementally and also in generous amounts. I write about those times and the present peace I enjoy, too.

I bet you wonder about my old co-worker readied for barbed exchanges–the one who nicknamed me “Miss Junior League”. She’s still around, feisty and outspoken and funny. That mane of hair still waves about her like a brazen flag in the breeze as she walks and talks with me. She became and remains one of my closest friends. Thirty years of us learning and living through stuff. Though I retired at 64, she’s ten years younger and continues to work even with health issues and other demands–in a women’s prison treatment program. I continue to admire her insights and courage, her golden soul shared with the unloved, weary and lost. She has become alot softer. I have become much happier. We still butt heads at times, and share hugs and tumbling laughter. As she would say, we’re not amateurs, we’ve got this, all and all–and it’s always worth it no matter what seems to be coming at you.