Wednesdays’ Word/Short Story: What He’d Longed For

Photo by Lum3n.com on Pexels.com

Oscar took the rosewood-grained pen into both hands and turned the barrel over and over. The fine golden accents on cap and hefty body shone under the warm light of his desk lamp. He leaned back in the swivel chair with its worn buttery leather, and stilled the impulse to turn in it, side to side, as he mused. He needed to think without the usual distractions. Before him rested a sheet of grey-blue stationary, smooth and hearty enough for his pressured, rapid penmanship. His supply of writing papers was replenished a week prior, but the pen…it had been in his possession for thirty-six years. A gift, and one that did not diminish in usefulness or elegance after all this time.

It had been on his mind from dawn to midnight to write the letter ever since word had arrived from Addie. It was two days ago that he shuffled through the mail, then once more when realizing he’d had a glimpse of spare, careful handwriting, almost calligraphic. At first he thought, Another invitation to someone’s christening or wedding or who knows what else, and would have tossed it aside awhile. But there was something about the handwriting that brought him closer to the script, then held it at arm’s length to look again. To take it in.

The address label stated: Adelaide P. Trussman. From Wisconsin, of all places. The first name, yes, he got that, not the last–who else did he know with that name? No one. That place or the reason for the dispatch, no. It took him several seconds to entertain the probability that Addie–the Addie he’d known during college days, pre-law days– had written to him thirty five years after they had last communicated.

He took it to his desk immediately and stood above it, hands flattened on desktop keeping him upright, heart pounding. And then he did nothing more with it. But paced back and forth on the tattered Persian rug by his desk, glancing with each pass at the envelope as if it was a strange and risky thing to even cast his eye upon.

He then assembled a thick ham sandwich with white bean soup for dinner and sat in the long dining room, the two white candles that he usually lit staying flameless. The food went down fast, unremarkable but tasting like nothing and he wondered why he’d bothered, he was that unnerved. He was a man who indulged his appreciation of any sort of meal, and his girth testified to such, though his height was significant, as well. But he felt slightly unwell after eating.

And sleep failed him more than usual. Every time he closed his eyes he saw her: shoulder-length, ashy- blonde hair, as she herself had called it (rather than “dirty”, she’d confessed); medium-slim figure attired in her standard white button-up shirt and snug jeans; and her head thrown back in laughter, wide mouth revealing slightly crooked front teeth that showed up readily–she often smiled and laughed, with anyone or for any reason, he’d thought. Then he dropped off, unable to recall more, only to wake periodically, unsettled.

And then, on the second day after its arrival, he took his time reading Addie’s letter. He sat in the bright spring garden, and afterwards he stayed there a very long while, letter pages fluttering on the bench beside him.

And read it three times more.

Now he sat at his desk in a ruminative mood, jumbled feelings capsizing inside him. This was the day he would respond.

My dear Addie,

That was quite too familiar, wasn’t it?

Hello there, Addie!

Too casual, almost rudely so. Like John Wayne in a sexy, aggressive manner.

Hello my old friend,

That might be thought presumptuous. Were they really such great friends that one short final year of undergraduate school? Despite the fact that they fairly often studied together, shared a meal at least two times as week, went out with their buddies to theater and concerts and met up afterwards at various dwelling places to keep the party going? And got closer near the end? Not as close as he wished, but enough to linger inside his mind.

He pulled out a journal he used to write drafts of various things and on a white page he wrote with a cheap ball point rather than the fine fountain pen.

Dear Addie,

That seemed best. Keep it a cleanly simple and correct greeting, one that could be passed over without a pause.

It was indeed a bit of a shock to find your elegantly addressed envelope among the usual suspects of disposable advertisements and rancorous bills. It is seldom that one gets a real letter these days, much less arriving from someone from the past, like a ghost arising from the pedestrian and quiet landscape of life as I do live it.

Was that too much? Too revealing that he lived a more solitary life than he’d planned the days before or long after law school? He left it and kept with the momentum; he could edit later.

Your address label announced that you reside in Wisconsin, apparently a small city unknown to me. That was cause enough to look twice.

No, that would not do. It had the grating edge of criticism, even a minor threat of scorn now he thought it over. A small city in Wisconsin–as if he was shocked and in a distasteful way. Well, even if it had felt close to that… he was born and bred, now well established in the city wilds of Chicago–but wait, he did recall she loved the country. She had grown up on a ranch–Idaho, he thought–the first thirteen years of her life and had told him she missed the countryside and honest work of outdoor chores. So she may have found her Shangri-la, or close enough.

He drew a firm line through the sentences and began again.

First, it gave me pause that you are not living in Idaho or Massachusetts, after all. But Wisconsin must be a place you well enjoy; you missed more rural spaces even though you planned on being a lawyer. You did end up practicing law, too, and you do so no doubt well and diligently. This is the very good news. I practice, as well, as you must have discovered, and am now a partner at Longham, Wright and Levison. I still have to check that it is my name at the end of that line. It goes well. But perhaps we can discuss our work another time.

He reconsidered and crossed out the last line.

Oh, he’d be glad to talk about law, skip the rest, the less said that was directly personal the better and easier. Yet, in fact, that is what he longed to do, as well–talk about their last year, how much enjoyment was shared, how he’d longed to hold her much closer than a fast squeeze as greeting or farewell….well, not that, of course not, he’d not now say that.

I am glad to hear from you…was he glad, was that the word? Began again. Plunge right in feet first as Addie did, may as well get to it and get it finished. She had asked to reconnect. What did that mean in this day and age?

I was honored that you thought of me in this time of upheaval and loss. I knew you had married, of course, as you also learned of my decision to wed Jeanette, yet years absent of communication have created a yawning gap in knowledge of our experiences. My marriage lasted four years. It was meant to end from the start, perhaps; I realized I am at my best on my own and my life is full enough of events as well as my work. And Jeanette was intent on more hours spent solidifying her career in emergency medicine. Our lives rarely intersected. But we left each other with a decent, even kind farewell. And no children to bear the brunt of the ending.

I come back home to peace and pleasantries alongside my mammoth, somewhat stately cat, Titan. It is a good life I have made. I don’t regret our marriage but I do not harbor misgivings, either. I am, to my surprise, a man at my ease most of the time.

And it can get quiet enough to hear those long whiskers twitch some days or nights, Oscar thought, running a hand over forehead and balding pate. But he’d said what he meant. No sense embellishing or telling her lies.

It seems as if you have had more happy times than trying. Bruce sounds like an admirable man, someone with whom you experienced many joys as well as usual life challenges over thirty years of marriage. I’m saddened for you–that he was in the auto accident, that you lost him in such a devastating manner. It must have been harder than anything you have faced in your life. And to go on, to consider an entirely different array of elements that must now fill and reshape your life.

Was that hinging on maudlin? too personal?….Did she even want him to comfort her or was he imagining that? But he thought he felt her intention, that she need someone to talk to who also knew her back when. That shared history can matter more in hard times.

He considered it: snowy weather, icy roads, another driver fast out of control, an unavoidable hillside. Too much. Oscar would not revisit it in the letter despite wanting to know more. Was there an investigation or was it that simple? She had stated the bare details plainly and then only said she was having trouble with widowhood. As if one might ever find it not terribly troublesome. He could not imagine, not really, what she felt. But she didn’t sound as if she was drowning in tears. Well, it had been over a year. Perhaps she had gotten over the worst of it.

She had two adult children who cared about her, “a blessing, although they both live on the west coast and I see them only a three or four times a year,” she wrote. “But I have the beauty and sweat of hard work. You know how much that can fill up time and diminish any random need for more.”

Well, he didn’t have much need for more. But he could see that she did. It was a shock to lose her Bruce and now there was daily drudgery and longing as she remade her life alone.

Or so he speculated as he read between the lines.

You had said you would like to rekindle a friendship.

Oscar’s heart raced a bit once more. He stood up and shook his body out head to toe to calm himself, walked to the window. What was Addie writing to him about, in the end? A check -in after thirty-six years of nothing? They’d had something small, really not much, a warm friendship that mattered more to him than to her, he had been certain.

Outside were the huge oak and maple trees, expansive garden flourishing with its vivid carnival of blooms and texture-rich green plantings, the two benches he’d placed here and there in order to read, to meditate, to doze. He adored this home on a half acre. The historical brick house was too large, perhaps, but that didn’t bother him. He liked his meanders through the high-ceilinged rooms, appreciated the tidiness and the pleasing Shaker furnishings, enjoyed a sweep of views from each light-filled window. And Titan would pad behind him or overtake him, then disappear until the next mealtime or if he felt like rooting at the foot of the bed at night. If Oscar went outdoors, the luxurious cat would streak past to claim a cozy spot under a bush or at his feet– if not inclined to chase something else moving.

It was the most basic scenarios which gave him comfort after arduous and engaging long work days. Well, that and a good sherry; great literature or a fast thriller to entertain him; so much music to hear that he’d not be finished with it in his lifetime; an hour’s horseback ride at a welcoming stables twice a month for the sheer pleasure of learning something new; meeting with friends at the golf course whenever he was so moved. A satisfying meal three times a day. He was privileged and he admitted it to himself, and the way he felt better about it was to take pro bono cases, too. And he gave a bit of advice on the Community Free Legal Connection line.

He shook his head; he had drifted way beyond letter writing. He got lost in his ways and means, not hers, but it was good to reevaluate what he cared about, too.

I would like that. It has been so long since we shared any thoughts, it might take quite some time to reconnect. We both have full schedules and commitments to attend to, but I am thankful you let me know of the passing of your husband …but also that you are managing, anyway. It helps to have community such as you describe, with potlucks and farmer’s markets and many events for people to gather for celebrated or mourned occasions. And your important book club–that is a boon after all the years you have known the participants. We must not forget MahJong–there’s a game to engage you well, even back in college. (I haven’t yet learned it.)

Was he acting poorly? Brushing her off? After all this time…

He had wondered for years if she might turn up in his life one day, even in passing. Imagined that it would be what he had hoped as a young man, and might even culminate in a romantic and impassioned embrace. Or perhaps more. Love. Much to his embarrassment later, he’d shared that with his closest friend Grant, right after Jeanette, and Grant covered his smile with a hand and probed less. He knew it would take time for the dust to settle, his friend offered without unkindness.

Oscar was not the type for fluff or fuss, Grant told others if asked, but was a good-natured and well meaning man, a gentleman who could get a tad rowdy if encouraged, and simply brilliant at the law. And, it went without saying, supremely content as a bachelor–most of the time–while not averse to meeting with smart, like-minded women with which to share experiences. And that was close to the truth. Oscar could take intimate company or leave it; more often he left it as the years passed.

So, here was the moment Oscar had fantasized– and he was extolling the virtues of her new…independence via widowhood? Ghastly of him. Was he just a commitment-phobe, as a few had hinted or outright accused?

No, a resounding no. He was committed to living the life that he chose. It was not what he’d first anticipated by this age, but it had turned out well.

He put ballpoint to paper once more.

I am glad to offer support as you continue to sort things out. Since, as you know from the past, I have long appreciated the art of letter writing, I am glad you reached out in this manner, as well. We surely have much to catch up on and it pleases me to think of time well spent doing so. Such a correspondence seems an extraordinary thing to undertake in these virtual reality-mad times.

Please let me know if this is something you would benefit from and still may like to share. Until then, I sincerely hope you will find the coming months opening to more fascinating possibilities that help close the profound gaps the loss of your husband has created. I am certain you will.

You certainly deserve all the best in your life, Addie. I have always thought so.

Warm regards (and gratitude that I still use your graduation gift, a beautiful thing),

Oscar

He looked over the draft, made a few more changes, then picked up his rosewood pen, uncapped it and let the ink flow with his meticulous words onto the fine stationary. It was a joy to use his tools of correspondence, and more so in response to Addie. He had waited a lifetime to do so once more. But if she didn’t want to just write letters… well, then, he’d not be the one to fuss over a lost opportunity. There would eventually be other people, other letters to write thoughtfully with his cherished pen.

After he was satisfied with the pages, he slid it into matching envelope with a slow sigh and left it in the lacquered tray in the table by the front door. He patted it, then went to the kitchen to prepare fresh salmon he’d purchased earlier in the day, Titan scurrying at his heels.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Notes on A New Solitude

Trillium Lake and Mt. Hood

It is Wednesday, my daily journal tells me. Time seems malleable; it morphs from the moment I arise with a peculiar elasticity so that it might be morning or afternoon, sooner or later. And then flattens into a distant horizon I note but move past. The birds wake early, speak out, sing as they take their fill at the feeder, their wings a blur in the light between the trees branches, the cherry blossoms. The everyday dark-eyed juncos, black-cappped chickadees, wrens and robins look more beautiful each time they flit into my view. Deft, inquisitive, efficient, their bodies soft and strong.

*

Sunshine fades into a thin veil, then bursts into a soft fire as clouds scud about then stall out. The hours feel dense, thick as if sultry as the breeze cools. They hang upon the me as if in anticipation of something not always defined. The unknown is a thousand wisps of shadow. I wait. And wait. I move about, attempt to complete tasks well enough.

This time we live with now is about health and economics, also about life being lived in bits and pieces, starts and stops, then swirls into more familiar currents–as if little has changed. I live inside those groups of statistics that accumulate, fluctuate hourly. It can seem like watching from the edge not from inside. It happens like this when one is stunned.

Numbers do not stay apart from one another like we must, but bunch and crunch and spill into virtual atmosphere awhile a virus is carried across the streets, the tables in the plaza, the windows that blink, the swings that stand empty. So time takes on its own weight though I walk in and out and through it. My body takes in this day like it takes in the forest when noting the low huffing of bears: I find my way with squashed fear, heightened senses, with the caution of survival even as I still admire the sky, the trillium, small things that skitter and gobble and mate and seek cover as I pass.

*

It was a gift our parents gave us: freedom. I didn’t know it then, but reveled in it alone or with neighborhood friends.

I sailed about, melded to my rattling blue Schwinn bike, on the sidewalk, around corners of each block, up and down an empty overgrown lot’s narrow path. Into parking lots where I’d practice tricks: balancing torso across the seat, grasping handlebars with taut arms and small hands; crouching on the seat while steering with a wobble; one knee on the seat and one leg sticking out behind me a bit. I was fearless. I knew I could do these things. When I could not, it was only a bleeding knee that would scab over.

Oh, the circus. I wanted to be in one–didn’t every child of my era? I used to envision the weird mathematics of flight called trapeze artistry, and at night would dream of a guy and myself high above the circus ring, our moves enabling us to fly through the air as if we belonged there. As if we had special powers.

But really it was learning how to exert energy, allow physics to work–and let each spare, coiled, tensile person to grasp those other hands or bar. A practiced synchronicity of factors set into motion and completed. As a child, I thought: magic, that’s what it was, and that seemed sensible.

I tasted a kind of sweet power on the bike and in those dreams. But it was easy, harmless, accessible. No thought of failure. A child knows the exhilaration of boundlessness. Until she does not. But it is potent before then. We try to replicate such ease and unfettered living ever after.

I think of all this today, of how movement and precision, spontaneity and vigorous energy impacted times of victory that have been a part of my life. Expectancy of more and better. That thrust toward greater heights. And how small and ground level it has all become, wavering expectancy in the face of growing catastrophe.

But at 69, there is still a burning fire in my soul, with that mysterious nerve center that carries me into and out of each waking day and sleep-seeking night. That keeps me alert to possibility and wonder. One does not need a bonfire to keep needed warmth and energy engaged. It takes a spark well tended to illumine what is needed, what gets and can keep one going,

I must be sure to tend it, feed it with appropriate and worthy fuel. The storm that brews and rages beyond the door, these woods–it could blow it out, leave only smoke.

*

It is not that I am alone.

My husband works at his desk nearby. He takes loosening-up steps about the place, pads around in tawny leather and sheep’s wool slippers. I keep on my red wool felt slippers, the hind end of a black cat outstretched on left slipper and its front half running across right one. Held side by side they make a good whole feline. I look at my slippers more–I am sitting down more than usual and there they are, the cat that’s one or the other part made entire–and on the move only when I am. We schlep around from chore to chore, though I do put on my usual clothing, not too often giving in to lazy stretchy yoga pants which I said I’d never wear for general use–they can make me feel old. Halfway through the day I might leave a dusting of blush, add a slick of sheer lipstick; old habits die hard. It makes no sense. I see no one but the man who took me for better or worse. And vice versa. And it has worked out well enough.

But other than the split cat and peeks of Marc, I am alone. Not counting the daily check-ins with friends and family–those have increased but are from the other side of somewhere else. We know what matters when there is a lack of things to busy and distract us. We see how time leaks away faster some days and then never gets around to wrapping things up nicely. And we don’t want to lose it, these moments that keep us better, fuller.

I mean, though: I am alone with my innermost self. That isn’t such news. But now it is tinged with a deep, conscious solitariness I have not felt in decades. It is the confinement. It is the drastic curtailing of activities, the fast shut down of the country and far beyond. I look out the windows and see no one there, mostly. My neighbor with the shimmering white hair and sunflower yellow pants and bulky white sweater, her chihuahua barking like crazy at the end of its taut leash. A car with an unknown someone who unloads grocery bags at a nearby door, quick quick and gone. It is silent awhile. What about the guy who sells insanely expensive fishing equipment–is he at home dreaming of finally only fishing– some day? He does not meet our eyes. And those delivery trucks come and go, roaring up and down the hills, drivers slack- faced as the package exchanges hands, then they race to the next stop, on overtime but under pressure, at risk themselves.

Meanwhile, the natural world blooms and shivers in a ritual carnival of color and fragrance as we seek the interior life literally and otherwise. I see the bees and they see me, circling, zigzagging onward to their targets of love. I used to be afraid of bees, after a few stings as a barefoot kid. They began to seem more like heroes and heroines–those blooms, that honey. It is apt right now, the terribly frightening stings and yet still gifts of bounty, often side by side.

I stand on our balcony, pull in gulps of piney air. Watch red maple leaf buds swell, a potted geranium release a flower. I am eager to plant lettuce seeds in the rich soil of pots, to order other useful seeds. I want to purchase and care for more flowers but still have patience for the ,long wait. This is who I still am, only a woman who sniffs each new bloom with eyes closed and heart swelling, who is entranced with the elegant work and guessed-at nattering of birds. Hears a cello playing an old hymn or an Elgar concerto, both rich and soothing so that within my chest a vibration hums along and takes me to a kind of ecstasy. Who finds the soles of my feet making quick purchase of earth as my mind bobs about in search of poems, a kite tethered.

And I await the lone owl who hoots in the dark when we are all tucked in. Wait with patience, as if it is a good sign.

But it isn’t too rough, or not yet– this aloneness that holds a big place in life. I have lived essentially alone with webs and mazes of interconnected thoughts, the spiritual and emotional wayfaring for a long, long while. Have had good practice dealing with pressures of sudden crises and a lingering of repeated loss and pain. We mostly all take the brunt and puzzle it out, find ways to endure. These times are not the same as before, no, at closer look more arduous. Clearly uncertain. Yet a solitude of spirit and mind becomes more significant only if I choose.

I am never actually alone within the numinous presence of God. And I am not without kinship all over the world, if I know your names or not. Still, solitude, the living with one’s self deeply has benefits. I know myself well. I can live with who this woman is. And there is room for more in my head and heart.

And so I will these bones and sinew to stay strong as it can as I climb the hills each day. But, everything is a gamble…I say that even though I have never played Rummy much less Black Jack for as much as a penny. Chance does what chance may do.

*

Where is this God?— some are demanding. Why are we nearly abandoned once more?

Are we abandoned? Why is this not the long and dangerous trajectory of intersecting factors?

Regarding God, I have no rational answers to those sorts of questions.

I have never been able to explain what was embedded in my core from the start. At age three or four I sat at my mother’s feet while she sewed by the big window. A pleasant, unremarkable domestic tableau. But she told my sisters and father I talked aloud with Jesus and God…she found it disconcerting, my mother a lifelong believer. A mother who had more than a few foretelling dreams and could size up a person inside two minutes more often than not. Maybe she was worried I would be like her.

Maybe I am. But I don’t really remember the talks she recalled. I straddled two (perhaps more) worlds so easily then, as children are keen to do. I recall dust-filled streams of sunlight cast over her feet and my knees and hands as i p layed with scarps of fabric. And singing to myself, the whir of her machine and the snipping of threads. I recall sheer happiness. Likely God was in the mix a lot. It never surprises me that this is so.

*

I find it startling that people don’t believe God lives and moves within and among us. Here. There. There. In me, you. Outdoors, inside. In darkness and in brightness and flux of in-betweens.

We come into the world quiet or bawling, vulnerable and alone; we will leave it by and with our own selves. In the moments beyond anxiety’s fiddling with us, this surely is not a bad thing. It is the sheen of separateness that is temporary, our singularity proscribed so we might make more of less, make greater from smaller, make complete from fragments. Recognize in our own existence a map of an infinite universe at rest and at work. We are given a momentary chance to practice human creativity, find unity in an onslaught of divisiveness. Or so I have lived long with this idea; it makes more sense to me than most.

Not understanding cosmic mechanisms at work yesterday, today and tomorrow does not diminish, much less negate, the mostly unfathomable realities of the Cosmos. What we do not know, we just do not yet know.

We are separate wherever we may be, but reside in the whole together, every creature and other living thing on a very small planet. The trees know about this; they depend on one another as their roots entwine and reach beneath the teeming surface and also receive one another’s every signal above ground, transmitting helpful chemical information in return. In their great varieties and with steady growth they shelter and nourish, give clean air and life-preserving shade. They watch and know much, survive and revive decade after decade. This is not just a fancy; it is now researched facts.

Science sometimes seems to lag behind what we intuitively know. Why do children run up to trees and hug them? Climb them no matter falls, and set up house in the crooks of branches? It is only natural. They love them, and so do we bigger people. I move among them in all seasons, see, listen, learn, gather joy. My hand upon their rough or smooth bark, my fingers skimming leaves and lichen and mosses. I embrace them gently, thankful. It is a welcome shared entirely without deceit or rancor.

Would that we lived more like trees.

I would rattle my spring leaves and arms right now, let the wind sing me, then settle in with the others who come by.

*

I learn from other people. On the way back from our walk, we saw this on a sign in a neighbor’s window:

“We choose brave love, fierce joy, and active hope for ourselves, others and the planet.”

Worth believing as best we can, even as we wave from behind panes of glass, even as we pass one another with a brief nod, gazes anxiously glancing off one another–and a real half-smile feeling more precious than a handful of precious gold. I feel rather brazen to offer a soft “Good afternoon.”

This new solitude brings solace and succor as well as the ache of separation for us social beings. But I am here, and you are there, and we are not so alone. It is, I think, an illusion, a self-centered error to assume we are that unique and on this trail of our very own. It has been trod for eons by those like us and unlike us.

*

Words, only words, I think. But words are a comfort to me. Words are one way of doing things when other tools do not or cannot. Words can transform and free and uplift. They are part of my life blood, in any case.

Words keep me in place as I, along with the rest, navigate this twilight time and try to survive an invisible power of a virus.

When we think it, speak it, pray it, we are clearer, stronger:

Hope. Courage.

Perseverance. Compassion.

*

*

As a Christian I believe in much that guides me well–and may we all seek strength and wisdom from what we each do believe:

“Be not afraid, for lo, I am with you always….”

Wednesday’s Word on Thursday/Nonfiction: Our Lives Put on Pause

Today during my daily walk through vivid green trees and other burgeoning plant life, under overarching sky that beamed with radiant blueness, my eyes brimmed suddenly. Such beauty and joy juxtaposed with a flash of longing and sadness. I was thinking of the almost one year old twins; I wasn’t able to write yesterday as I was with those glorious grandchildren. And it just hit me as I power walked: it was a good thing I was there enjoying their effervescence, their happy curiosity, the small new accomplishments, as now I will likely not see them– or our local daughters and son and their families– for some time. Of course, I suspected this might happen sooner than later-didn’t we all, in the back of our minds? The coronavirus has now been confirmed in 24 people in Oregon; half are in the county where A., my daughter and mother of those babies, works in city offices. Not even a couple of weeks ago it was “just” 11.

Portland is starting to shut things down and mandate restrictions on large group events, as is more and more of our country. The NBA? The NHL? Sports have likely never looked like this. More primary and secondary schools are closing for a period or going online. Our neighbor, Washington State and the city of Seattle, is hardest hit now and they are taking emergency measures. Many universities are going online (one daughter’s place of work, University of South Carolina, is for a time) and scores of other employees are starting to work from home if at all possible. As so many say that this all feels unreal but there it is, a conglomeration of facts adding up to more challenges than we have seen in a very long while and more to come.

What will our lives look like shortly? How do we cope with the risks and hurdles and not become fatalistic? It is a tall order these days.

A. and I chatted about things at length yesterday when she got home from work: should we now cease meeting up? She worries that she might become a carrier eventually, and even if never that ill, she then could pass it to me. She truly fears for my health and her father’s, of course. It is hardest on older adults, after all, even kills them it appears…not babies or kids or younger adults. She has been talking about this since the first cases here– while I’ve become increasingly hesitant as i decide where to shop or visit. And I conclude today, best to stay out of stores, finally shop online if needed. This is not my way of doing things. But caution and prudence and wash those hands, I have mainly thought and reminded my family: common sense practices help contain any viral spread. We are everywhere and always now inundated with this advice. Hopefully more and more adhere to it. How else to effectively fight against something so miniscule but powerful?

We are up against invisibility, when you think of it. And what a thought that is.

My husband, meanwhile, was travelling from the East Coast to Mexico to home and back the last three months. He finally asked Human Resources and his boss about curtailing work trips. And they have now, despite concerns economically, as with all businesses lately. I have even encouraged him to take off a couple weeks and relax, rest up–he certainly has that time coming and yet he has forever been and is a dedicated nonstop worker.

Meanwhile, I think of my older and only brother who has been on a photography trip to Cuba with a small group. He is used to all sorts of things happening internationally. But the fact that he has a cold now concerns me. Havana is now barring planes from the US to land. He is due back soon.

I can’t think of a time this kind of scenario has happened in my lifetime. No one my age and younger can, I imagine. Sure there have been influenza outbreaks with complications of terrible pneumonia for too many over the years–and bird flu, swine flu, anyone?–and we had SARS to worry about. I long have had to work with clients who had MRSA infections on (bandaged or not) skin and sitting not a foot away from me,and those with serious health issues of all sorts due to addiction, homelessness and poor if any health care. But this particular virus replicates so fast that avoidance and containment has to be much more immediate everywhere.

Well, I am over 65 and have heart disease. I don’t normally feel like a person at high risk; I am healthy, overall, and the cardiologists last looked in my arteries a year ago stated there was no current issue seen–as partners we’ve managed coronary artery disease very well. But I am on that watchful list, anyway, and it is sobering.

I have been terribly ill from a number of causes several times. I have been near death and did not expect to “come back” four times and lived to recall the tales. And I don’t have an insurmountable fear of dying, nor even of becoming very ill. Of course I can worry at 3 a.m., imagine what it would be like to get coronavirus, then play it out in my head…then I do fall asleep. What else to do but go on? Every one of us has worries about health, at times; this one is big. But I believe that whatever is ahead will do what it will and come and I will be able to meet that physical challenge– or I will not. It is that simple. I can do as much as I can to prepare to stay well, but the spectrum of possibility in human life creates and destroys as it does. And if I must leave this world, it will happen, I presume. Yet–I do not feel fatalistic. Only realistic.

No, what bothers me right now is that with more restrictions placed on our movements–for the good of all, yes–I may well not get to see my friends or family for…who knows how long? For their sakes or for mine and Marc’s, we have to determine choices clearly, pragmatically.

One of my dearest friends has been ill for decades with lupus, debilitating rheumatoid arthritis and a patchy liver and many other things as a a result. Brenda has been recovering from pneumonia the past 8 weeks. She is still weakened. She works as a counselor in a prison. I fear for her well being; she is not cavalier about it. When we last checked in she talked about her will, and her desire to make sure her friends know how much she cares. I listened, swallowed hard. I know this virus could kill her but, like me, she has had brushes with death before and so takes it as it comes. There really isn’t any other choice. But I have loved her a long time and I am hoping against hope she will stay safe.

Another friend of decades, Eileen, has been meeting with me for lunch or dinner plus a a movie for years. Or a tool around books stores or garden walks. I so enjoy her ready laughter and sunny spirit, her intelligence and her wit. We have a particular sort of great time together; the lack of it will be sorely missed as we wait this out. But she is to retire and move to Arizona in August. Perhaps sooner now.

It felt good when Marc and I held a family dinner three weeks ago. Even then I was thinking–when will we easily manage this again between time scheduled for other things, work, and this virus concern? Their youngest sister and her family didn’t come, though; now it will be more time apart. But it was good see them convened at the table, to update on work, activities and experiences, future plans as we shared a hearty meal–as ever it is. But I also thought of ones not here–the daughters in Virginia and South Carolina. I wished for a fuller table, a raucous house, but was deeply grateful our grown children enjoy our company, as we do theirs. I looked at them and thought: this is my clan and how lucky.

And now, the pause on meeting, sharing, hugging at will. No longer can I comfortably and spontaneously call my son, say–“Hey, I’m in the neighborhood, what’re you doing for dinner?” A pause… on visiting my only sister (in early stages of dementia) as I have done every 10-14 days, as her retirement community is barring visitors for at least a month. A pause… on getting together with my old work friend, Jim, with whom I enjoyed lunch and laughs only awhile ago.

And another kind of companion: I for the first time am loathe to keep visiting the library, and find that more sad than most changes. All those beautiful, mind-expanding books…and all those germs. Let’s face it: Whatever we touch can seem too much these days. Thank goodness I have many books waiting to be cracked open in my very home. And I am already reading them more.

It will be difficult to not see folks…to not be with grand-babies (who live ten minutes away) I am used to being with three times a week for almost a year –and what of their one year birthday in April now? This separation from family can make me ache from soul to brain and it is just beginning. It is as if we are being asked to put not only activities on hold but the chances of deep loving and living. We humans need to give and accept actual hugs, to study the face of a loved one, to be near enough to hear a soft sputter of delight or exasperation under the breath. Not send heart and flower emojis, those odd, cutesy emblems of emotion that say so little even when they do mean to say so much. Even virtual/video meet-ups don’t come close to meeting face-to-face, not really. Awkward and limiting, I always wonder what all to say. But I guess I can learn how to do it better, with more heart.

So we get ready for “the long pause” as we–individuals that are whole communities, countries–rally to respond to this serious health crisis that reaches its tentacles farther every day. To preserve more and more lives, it is a no-brainer, and social distancing as they call it, begins in earnest. We need to stay friendly, supportive in any small ways we can. So we remember we are in this together; we can pool resources and maintain a problem solving viewpoint with positive attitude to get through it, somehow.

Love, like water, must find its way, its outlet, its home; it wants to find those beloved. Humans are unavoidably interconnected at heart, that is clear. I hope the best for us all, and do pray we reach out to one another in the manner in which we each can. We can’t let fear run us over and hold us down, make us less willing to care. Better to appreciate singular moments, anticipate and plan for healthier, less strained days and nights. To do what we can with our time, talents and our will for good. Call each other on the phone for a change. Send cards and letters. Video chat and send pictures. Let neighbors know we are around, even at an arm’s length if necessary.

Blogging, of course, is a terrific way to be present despite worries, a safe place we can share our creations and ruminations. I will be right here among you all–that is still my plan!

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Songs for Better Living

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The first time my fingers felt a surrender of the strings, it was like the world was flung into outer space and I was riding it there. The sounds were tinny and screechy but the action felt so good I did it again, my left hand’s fingertips straining against light gauge steel. My right hand worked to strum and bang across the strings and as it all exploded into the atmosphere my head and chest caught vibrations on a shimmering wave.

“Naw, not good– it’s either you or the flea market guitar. Both, I’d say.”

My brother Terry was propped on his side and leaned into the edge of the top bunk bed to get a better look at me. I hit the strings again and the sound wailed through the room in search of a chord. I placed my fingers this way and that and strummed twice.

“Give it to me.”

“Dad said I could use it. And it actually is a Yamaha FG150.”

“It’s a piece of junk, you know he’s always bringing so called vintage stuff home and bragging about his deals–$200 just thrown away.”

Terry stretched himself over the edge, testing gravity. I waited for his body to slither down, giant snake of a brother. I fought the urge to remove myself but too late, he landed on his feet with a thud. Pointed at the guitar. I ignored him and tried a few more things, trying to get a feel for it in my hands, in my head. Terry sat beside me then, muscled weight causing the mattress to sink so that I listed too far, into him.

“Let me see it. Please, knucklehead.”

I shoved him away with hard shoulder against his.

“Okay, Danny, my turn!”

I gave up, my fingers raking the strings a last time. Terry got what he wanted; he was good at that, like most things.

He had studied piano since age 5 and I played the trumpet and though we both performed well, it was Terry’s capable pianist’s hands plus chestnut- curly hair and amber eyes that stole the show. Not that he loved piano; he just played it very well, so now he was in search of the next big thing he might conquer. All he needed was a guitar and his megalomania would increase by ten thousand. Everything about him screamed “star quality” by age 17, my buddy Jack once informed me with a shrug, and he noted he had a younger sister like that, center stage all the time.

I took that in as Jack tried to slam-dunk one in our driveway and of course it bounced right off. Then I got one in, if barely. We laughed as we flubbed more–all irritations slid off his back, he was easy for a friend– and went in search of food.

At 15, I was not only inches behind Terry in height but a seeming lifetime behind in accomplishments. Unless you counted billiards. At least I had that–our dad had found a billiards table with equipment and in a flash I’d found a sort of sporting call. Terry rarely beat me. And golf, I was pretty good at that. Terry complained it was too slow a game to excite him, he’d take basketball, anytime, or hockey. But then, I was always the tortoise and he was the rabbit, Mom said, and neither was better than the other, only different. Okay…I informed her it just didn’t sound good, so please quit.

As he carefully fingered the 6 strings and tried to pluck a tune, I got up and pulled the curtains back from the window. The undulating hills radiated warmth in the last of a warm caramel sunlight. Dad was throwing Riley a stick, who dutifully retrieved it and waited for the next toss. They could do that for an hour, easy. I had been the one who threw the sticks but Grey Dog, our aging, grey muzzled Labrador, died last year and since then I’d lost interest.

We’d daily walked the hills, in silence more often than not. I told him things. I even sang him songs, which he seemed to like.

I swiveled around to meet Terry’s stare as his hand took a break atop the pretty wood body.

“You done trying that out yet?” I asked.

Terry strummed away. Though it didn’t yet make much sense, he had a smart way with it like his piano notes did, clipped and sure. He shook his head and grinned. I left him to it. Fought the urge to slam the door on the way out, so pulled it to a hard close and went outside to watch Riley and Dad.

******

I played the Yamaha when I could, which was more often than expected. Terry had gradually and miraculously forgotten about it. He was cramming all the time to elevate already excellent grades–the goal was to get into University of Michigan. He and Dad had been discussing the merits of studying law, like he, himself, did before getting into global economics. I was less of a student–it bored me. I liked music, played trumpet in the orchestra and wrote things in my spare time, just loosely connected ideas and thoughts. I tried my hand at manuscript notation but found it hard, with no one to get help from; my music teacher didn’t write or even arrange music, he explained, embarrassed.

Sometimes Dad–eager to reassure me I was loved despite there being a star player in the family–I made things out of wood, our hands working with the grain, piecing pieces of a design together with respect for the trees that gave up their beauty. Like the oak coffee table for the basement rec room. I appreciated the shared hobby but it was that vintage guitar that was best. The rec room was where I usually played when people were gone. My hands were getting it, how the strings worked, how the notes felt under the less tender pads of each fingertip.

I had decided that song writing was a possibility only after I met Nance.

“I hear you play guitar,” she said after school. We’d just gotten out of chemistry class and we walked down the hall. It gave me jitters walking so close.

I cocked an eyebrow, surprised. “And–so?”

“Just think that’s cool, that’s all, you should play for us all sometime,” she said and was gone, her arm grabbed by her best friend. She looked back at me and I looked away. She was too amazing to look right at for long. And I had grown two and a half inches in the last four months and could barely walk down the hall without tripping. Besides, was she teasing me? Had Terry spread things around, made fun of me as he often did? I didn’t trust it. But I wondered about love at first sight, heretofore scorned as a real thing.

One night Terry and the parents were at a basketball game–I had to beg off, saying I had too much homework to watch him play. I started to work on a tune. It was just a few notes that sounded sloppy but then got silvery, then there came a verse with a mishmash of words, then a passable verse. I wrote the words down, revised them, tried again, again. Then a chorus came right to me. My voice had gone and changed, gotten deeper– it growled and caught but I found with less air pressure forced through my throat it could sound decent. I practiced that song for weeks, only when I was alone, but finally it came together. A victory. I told Jack but refused to perform it for him so he dropped it. He was into old rock and metal bands which was fine but it wasn’t really me. I didn’t know what I was trying to create. I just did it, then did it more.

Once I heard footsteps on the stair landing outside the rec room and kept on singing, as I was recording on my PC. But I knew they were my dad’s by the way his weight slogged up creaking steps; his pace picked up as he hurried on. I almost wished he’d come in but was relieved he hadn’t interrupted. A couple days later he stopped me on the way to the garage where he was repairing a lamp.

“You have a feel for that old Yamaha, son,” he said. “It was a worthwhile find.”

“Thanks,” I said, and that was that.

I wrote, played and sang what I could never say to Nance. She was going out with a guy already, I found out, but I still could look at her, wait to hear her speak in a hallway or class. Her voice was strong as a brass bell when excited, then rushed easy like water over a hill; it was soft as a leaf falling to ground when she whispered. Her presence filled a large part of me but all I wanted with her just became more music. I kept it all to myself. Not even Jack heard those songs. But he did like the spasms of hard, fast chords I put together for him.

There wasn’t much else I liked doing and my grades showed it. I worried the parents would take the Yamaha, at least limit me so I vowed to study more.

“You’d better get on those grades, bro,” Terry said. “You want to go to the local community college?” He popped a slice of last night’s pizza in his mouth.

I grunted, shrugged, stared out a window in my second story bedroom. A potential chorus to a new song looped around my head as clouds formed and re-formed. I needed to record a few bars. But there he was, lounging on my brown plaid love seat against the opposite wall, big feet and long legs all over as he dug in for awhile. Taking up my time.

I sat at my desk, guitar wedged between bookshelves and bed. Terry had moved to another room years before but at times stopped by our original bedroom. Which meant, I pointed out, that I’d not entirely had my own room since he just walked in as if it was his, still. No one seemed perturbed about that though Mom expressed sympathy and asked Terry to be more considerate. I had to yell at him to stay out more often. Finally he’d stopped by less and less.

“To what do I owe the honor of your annoying presence today?” I asked.

“And he did it, Terrance Michelson slipped right into U of M, touchdown, let’s hear it for blue and gold!” he announced in a bombastic sports commentator voice.

I regarded him evenly, unsurprised. He was fist-pumping the air, screaming a silent triumphal scream as air hissed from his mouth, overjoyed and proud of himself.

“Congratulations, wise ass,” I said with a fist pump of my own to be more brotherly. Fair. “A few more months and you’ll sweating it out in Ann Arbor and I’ll have this place to myself, at last.”

“And you can sing your heart out all you want, I won’t have to plug my ears but no one really cares, anyway. Maybe you can visit me sometime–I’ll get back to you on that.”

“What?” My heart thumped faster. They had all heard me? And he never let on?

“You think no one’s around. You get so into it! One of us comes home and can hear you in the basement or from up here, you don’t even know we come in. Singer slash songwriter stuff, huh?… What’s that about?”

The sneer under the words–singer songwriter stuff; I was surprised he’d gone that easy on me—told me what I already suspected: it meant little to nothing to them, it was stupid to his family. Otherwise, they’d have said something, anything by now. The trumpet, sure, that was a worthy instrument but guitar and songwriting? I flushed, studied my hands. I had great callouses now, the strings never bit flesh as they once had. My fingers fit with those strings.

Terry sat up, guzzled his soda. “You can do a lot better than that, right? I’m glad you got into the guitar, though–not my thing, too busy, anyway. Makes Dad feel good that someone uses it. ” He surveyed the bedroom, looked at me a beat or two and laughed. “A few more months, Danny boy, and I’ll be outta here!” He rolled off the couch, squashed his soda can and tossed it at me, then exited.

I shouted after him, “Guess what, it’s blue and maize, idiot, not gold– look it up!”

The room was so quiet then I already knew how it’d be when he was at U of M. Peaceful. Maybe lonely, occasionally. But I sincerely doubted that. I might let my music be heard by the parents, test it out. Maybe. I was tired of hiding what mattered most. Tired of being afraid to show who I was, not a rock ‘n roller like my brother and friends admired. I was, basically, a sort of poet who loved music, and if that felt awesome in deeper reaches of me, it was also terrifying.

And I was not going to college. I had to break this to our parents before long. I was going to make a lot more music. And make a basic living doing it. I could think of nothing else I wanted to do.

******

This stage was like every stage but smaller. Intimate, homey. The capacity crowd was cheering like every other audience, enthusiasm spilling over into manic energy, but the massive roar felt softer inside me than usual adrenaline surges in my body and mind. This time it was the hometown stage.

This time I had nothing to prove, right?

Yet even as I played as always, my head was bowed less toward the mike, there was less of my usual closed eyes–and before long rose an intensity that at times had been lacking as we toured. It was as if I needed to come home after the years of struggle, then success that I sweated to maintain. I wanted this audience to know that this–this was exactly what I had been made to do all those years when nobody knew me. When my music was kept under lock and key. The boy who was becoming the man whose music they now danced to–the kid transforming while no one noticed. Even, it seemed, my family.

I looked over the crowd, scanning, scanning as the band played and we sang out, music rising and falling. I had called my parents and we’d chatted–they were mildly supportive once they’d heard my earliest music, and more so when I started to make a decent living. I’d not gone to the house as they’d moved, it wouldn’t be the same; we were flying out early morning, too. Instead, we’d had an early dinner and a good catch-up. They’d be out there just as they had been at a handful of other concerts. “That Yamaha FG150,” Dad always said with a happy shake of his head.

I hadn’t heard from Terry in well over 2 years–he was a lawyer in Pennsylvania, married, had a son. He’d called and congratulated me on our second, more lucrative album and I’d sent kudos when he joined a good law firm–but we had little more to say.

Neither of us was to to blame. He was another kind of person, ambitious in another way– for our parents, for himself. I couldn’t share music twelve years ago; it hadn’t felt real or nearly good enough. Life felt so tentative then, made of dreams and longing, like a shaky attempt at a magic wish. Now music lived in my days and nights; it was the whole of it.

My band, Dan and the Grey Dogs, had made three albums in seven years. We had traveled thousands of miles, lost track of the countries, found ourselves with more money than we’d dreamed of having. I was doing what I had desired, and this great band had made every laborious moment and crazy dream connect and it worked. I sang out. My guitar cried and soared, quieted and called out– and the other guitar and percussion lines rose up, turned this way and that, unreeled the notes and carried the tunes into the universe.

The crowd was swaying, jumping about, calling back to us. I closed my eyes again, let my voice respond, guitar riffs reach out to grab or caress: this language that had given life to a boy’s lovelorn poems told broader, deeper stories. Stories I no longer needed to hoard or protect.

Back to our dressing room. Squeezed between band members. I threw my arms around each, thanked them as always. Jokes and criticisms, relief of laughter. Beers passed around. A loud knock on the door, three times. Our manager answered as we seldom saw fans at a dressing room. I ran my hand through dripping hair, grabbed a towel for my face, took off my soaking shirt and rubbed down, leaned against the wall. Waited.

“Dan, hey-is that you?” He glanced at me, then all over the space and back to me. Stared as if surprised to see me there in the flesh at last. As was I, him.

“Terry… come on in! My brother, guys.”

They nodded at Terry, a couple slapped him on the back, then the band melted away from us.

He looked too big in the noisy, cluttered room, sport jacket folded over his arm, shifting from one foot to another as the door closed, his eyes squinting, eyebrows unsettled. He put hand to forehead, rubbed at a crease. His shoulders sagged almost imperceptibly and he began to speak, then stopped. I stepped closer, held out my hand, which he grasped hard.

“Great show!” he said to the band, then, “Good one, Danny” to me but without much enthusiasm.

“Thanks. But where’s… Iris…?” I asked as we moved to a corner, that had to be right, a flower, yes. “I knew you wouldn’t bring little Thomas if you came tonight, but maybe Iris?…I know I only met her at your wedding four years ago, but–“

“Well, that’s the thing, you never knew each other, did you? We haven’t been much in touch. And she couldn’t come.”

“Oh, okay. Sorry, I hope all is well.”

Terry looked past my shoulder. I followed his gaze. He stared into the mirror above the counter where we got a bit made up, blown dry and so on, and his eyes drifted from the strain of his face to tiredness of mine in the reflection.

“She left,” he said to my image. “Five months ago. She has Thomas–for now, not all the time, either. I asked Mom and Dad to not tell you.” He gave me a weak half-smile, as if this was all there was to it and it was what it was.

“Terry, I’m sorry, man….” My hand went to his shoulder but he stepped away, looked around again.

“I always wanted to play, you know, but I had a lot on my plate, not enough time and you had a natural feel for it….I had to be the lawyer. It’s okay, I’m good at that. Anyway. You always had more true talent.”

“Always? I did?”

“Of course, so I ignored you, at least your music. I couldn’t compete well and win, for once.” He sighed hugely. “Competition, that relentless engine that has driven me so hard.”

“It does most of us. I guess we succeed when we push on, right? And you succeeded in your work, too, so we both did okay.”

One of the guys from the band pointed at the door asking if I was going to join them at a local bar or the hotel or stay. I inclined my head–go on.

“I should go, your band is ready to pack it in.” He started to the door after the Grey Dogs.

I felt an urge to leave just as he did. It had felt very personal fast. Uneasy at moments already. Maybe it was enough that he came and said it was a good show. Enough that he shared a hard thing, the truth. But I didn’t know when I’d be back that way again or if I’d get to Pennsylvania in the next year or two. Or ever, who knew? What else would happen in our lives? When would we get to know each other as adults, anyway? There was no more bunk bed in our lives, no yelling down the hallway. Time took us down a damn big river and here we were, both mid-stream for once.

I swiped my neck again with a towel and grabbed a clean T shirt from my battered duffel bag and pulled it on.

“Hey, want to get a drink and a bite to eat at the ole Eastlake Bar and Grill?”

Terry looked at his wristwatch, said, “I guess, sure.” He tapped the gold and diamond face, “a gift I got when I made junior partner at the most financially prosperous firm in town,” he noted proudly. “Dad would love this fancy throwback of a watch, right?”

“Just what I was thinking! It’s pretty nice, bro, hang onto that. Maybe you should go see them, show it off. Now I say let’s get out of here before more fans congregate at the back door, okay?”

“Wow, impressed.” Terry gave a small mock bow but it didn’t feel mean spirited. “Please–after you, Danny boy,” he said for the first time in his life, and maybe the last but it didn’t matter, anymore.

We ran for the car, flashes going off around us, people screaming as I grabbed my brother’s arm to drag him faster along–and there was Jack hanging at the edge of a growing clot of fans, both hands waving, smile infectious as always. I strode over to greet him and thought, Lucky dog I am, lucky life.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Finding and Being Heroines and Heroes

Photo by julie aagaard from Pexels

I am almost unable to put down a nonfiction book that I had read about a few weeks ago. It’s a memoir of a woman who at the lissome age of 21 was recruited by the CIA. It is not ordinarily a book I’d be that eager to read–the CIA isn’t such a compelling topic to me (I wonder about its efficacy, actually), though I appreciate good stories (factual and otherwise) of high adventure or tales related to dangerous circumstances and, of course, accounts of bravery. But I was intrigued enough that I went in search of it.

Women (and men) who leap way past usual comfort zones to accomplish their goals are of interest to me–aren’t they to anyone? I wanted to know who she was and why she did what she did, i.e., what makes her tick. I asked the librarian since I hadn’t found it on the shelves or in “New Arrivals.” He looked it up in the system, murmuring, “Is the the real name of the author? Never heard of her–or this.” I had to admit her name was unusual. And if it was such a good book, how come the well-versed librarian in a savvy city didn’t know of it? Maybe it appealed to an obscure readership. I do like to discover off-the-beaten-path writers.

I plunged right in, as her writing grabs me as she gets right to it, her stark content underlain with deeper emotional nuance. Life Under Cover, Coming of Age in the CIA by Amaryllis Fox reveals some of her career in that agency. Quickly I’ve gotten halfway into the thick of it. I use “thick” specifically because it plumbs the depths of her astute thinking and hard choices, how it outlines rigors of her training then steps into fine surprises overlapping with the horrors of her work. She finds the training and assignments fulfilling as well as toughening. Ms. Fox is impassioned about saving human lives and helping make the world we must yet inhabit a safer place to coexist. She urgently wants to understand others, find a common humanity whenever possible even as her sole mission was to gather information to thwart terrorist plans of attack. She seems relentless about goals and mandates from the onset, and engages her considerable intellect at an early age. And I love how she is driven to find and fit together as many pieces as she can to make the picture whole, her mind a wide ranging sieve that keeps only the necessary bits. And then she embarks on more search and find. The number of data she analyzes, then utilizes, is mammoth. And she is tireless.

Did this labor shape her into an altruistic heroine? Or was it work that fulfilled a need of more selfish or ordinary dimensions? When did she know she wanted to do such work? I read on. It is a powerful narrative. Ms. Fox is brilliant but caring, someone who met grave obstacles with fortitude and persistence. That in itself impresses me. The governmental agency named CIA I’m not as clear about but am open to information and insight. I am anxious to see what transpires and how it all winds down to an end–as she is no longer in the CIA. As far as I know…this is what her bio notes.

It has gotten me thinking beyond the book. About why I am engaged by her story, what it means to general humanity that there are people who undertake these risky and difficult challenges. What does it mean that Ms. Fox offers herself to such a powerful agency when she might have helped refugees in Thailand? She changed her mind when she was interviewed by the CIA a second time.

We each might come up with our list of heroines and for different reasons, from the familiar to the famous, and who they are might inform others what matters to us. They inspire us first of all. They lead the way more often than not.

For myself only a few women, alone, would include Harriet Tubman, Madame Curie, Susan B. Anthony, Mother Theresa, Elizabeth Blackwell. There are many men and just altogether too many others to note here and now. And I would also have to name those in the arts who are movers and shakers or were once. (Twyla Tharp and Isadora Duncan, anyone? Leontyne Price, Pete Seeger; Barry Lopez, Joy Harjo; Ansel Adams, Vivian Maier.) The list goes on and on…and that is not mentioning the more obscure of the creators and doers.

But beyond famous people, who can we say deserves to be designated as hero or heroine–someone willing to sacrifice much, to go to extraordinary lengths for the betterment of life, of others– whether it is family or community or the masses around the world? What is the call to serve about? How can we answer it, if and when it comes? Some felt–and many presently do feel– they were or are simply doing their duty–to family, to country, to any greater cause they devote themselves to daily. They’re not even interested in being honored or pegged as “exceptional.” That sort of humility comes from trying and doing despite failing that eventually brings wisdom, I’d think.

“The greatest man or woman is a humble person,” my father intoned when praised for his own musical and educational work. And to many he was worth lauding not only the work but his genuine kindness, added to a dedication of his life to providing youth with musical opportunities that they took far into their lives thereafter. They have shared their thanks to him, even decades later. I grew up with this knowledge and watched my parents give themselves to the community–from teaching to volunteer work to donations to various causes, to their church, neighbors and family. In a sense–as it is for every child and in this case, because my parents were held in deep respect–they were a hero and heroine to me if in a mild mannered way. They had come from poorer upbringings yet made much of their lives. They had such interest in learning and people. So it was natural to think of helping others, of just being of good use. But how?

What I loved was the performing and fine arts–and nature and figure skating. I felt a passion of wanting to make the world a better place, too. I wrote of it, thought of it, read about it from an early age. I watched people engage in their chosen paths with sharp minds and burning hearts, both at home and in the world via television. I listened to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and their songs triggered a deeper longing to be part of something that added to positive changes. I did not dream of being anyone’s bona fide heroine. To contribute to the greater good in some meaningful manner was a current that ran through me, even the worst of times.

I grew up in the sixties. We were nothing if not mobilized by a momentous desire for change that benefited human beings more inclusively. “Power to the People” was a common (if not so original) slogan and chant and although it has been criticized by some over time, to me it meant that power should be shared, that everyone was born with a basic right to dignity that included shelter, food, equal opportunity, education, justice. I debated, marched, wrote and sang of it.

I have gotten lazy over time. My fire for social justice began to cool as I became entrenched in my private struggles mentally, physically, spiritually. When I had children, I thought teaching them to be compassionate, fair, open minded–to ask “Why” and to critically think things through rather than be blindly led would help them, so I set about doing that even as I worked on my own issues. And they grew up as thinking, feeling people as hoped.

But I was never again involved in a political movement. I was certainly not even dreaming distance from embarking on an international and dangerous mission. I knew people who knew people who knew others…well, that was back then. Time passed. I was in my thirties. Then I stumbled into a career in human services, but instantly latched on to the work. First, working with home-bound elderly or others who suffered from brain injuries or were otherwise disabled; then addicted, usually homeless, mostly already having been incarcerated and/or gang-affiliated male and female youths; then mentally and socially high-risk adults. It suited me, despite not ever considering doing counseling for work (did handwriting analysis count…?).My mission was to create art of some sort, reaching out that way. Writing by then had overtaken all other modalities. So now this different direction pulled me. And it turned out that it required creative brainstorming and action of many sorts.

To be truthful, I can’t say there wasn’t danger involved working with those for whom violence was second nature and the primary defense for survival; who had known little in life but mistreatment; and who had spotty guidance if at all in better ways to be. Every day held a possibility that I might be attacked–it wasn’t a secure jail but a dual diagnosis rehab. Eventually I was a couple of times and police arrived to haul a kid off, to my unhappiness– and there came, still, threats.

Even the quite elderly who suffered from many problems…one never knew what I’d be in for when a door opened during my home visits– a naked ninety year old man standing and grinning in the doorway or a demented woman with hammers in her hands. Completely at odds with what clients called a “Miss Junior League” persona, I had developed a reputation for being unshaken by most anything but not, either, too hard. I sure didn’t know how I did it; I just went by my gut and I wanted to be there, do the work, give an ear to their complaints, be a voice for their needs.

But I sure was not anywhere near becoming a Ms. Fox, a woman who risked life and limb to protect a nation’s security every day–and millions more people beyond. I wasn’t interacting with arms dealers in a dark cafe or weaving in and out of narrowest alleyways to elude someone or protect myself. It was all pretty tame and after about 30 years, it seemed like far too little was accomplished. How many clients–people I had come to know quite well–had relapsed or even died despite how I had tried to help them, to insure they might stay alive? And I don’t mean the frail elderly who were closer each day to their timely end. Far too many over the decades. One feels like too many. One alone sears the heart.

Since all that–I retired several years ago–I know I’ve become more nonchalant. Selfish. I will be in my seventh decade and I could have been volunteering, getting out there to aid a child in reading or writing, or filling food boxes (though I did both years ago). I might be helping via church channels but haven’t found one here with whom I want to share my efforts. I could be engaged in politics–this is the year to do it, of all years–or I could work on a drug hotline or just shelve books, for crying out loud. I look for inspiration, pray for opportunities: what next can I do? I am a long way from being unable to be of good use in this world, even if not anywhere near becoming decent heroine material.

Instead, I do other things, like at last reading a heck of a lot. Learning about CIA undercover agents. Lessons of insects and seasons. My own endurance as life gets harder in some ways when I hoped to experience more ease of joy, peace of mind.

And I write, write, write. That is what I stick with all I’m much good for , it seems. It has been my calling since I was a child, too, and has not quieted within me. But am I yearning to be published more? Not really, not enough to get to it more. Am I coveting a book jacket with my name as the author on it? No, it no longer occurs to me that it is critical. My need is to simply be a writer, and to write what I understand as my truth, then offer it to whoever may read it. That is: persevere against all odds; love despite knowing love can often wound; seek answers even when it appears there are few to none; seek God in the mysteries of nature and humans for God inhabits all. It takes a little courage to share what I do though not all that much, not the sort I admire heartily. But I suppose it has become my kind of activism, nonetheless, just this in my now-quiet way.

It seems to me that we each do what we can do, and that if we find ourselves moved to be helpful in a minor way even that can be enough. It all gathers force and has meaning as intent plus action combines to strengthen–and moves change forward another small step. Our lives can be propelled by energy of life focused on doing good, just as they can be propelled by doing less than what is good. Or becoming inert, opting out of life’s rollicking, vivid stream, becoming aimless.

We have to be our own heroines, at times. We can also remain on the lookout for chances to not walk away, to not avert our eyes, to not say “no, not at the risk of throwing off my well-preserved image” or “no, I don’t have extra time” or “no, that is not for me to do.” Why not? If others are risking their lives for us, why can we not risk our time, alter priorities and do better?

Some people are meant for fancier or bigger or unusual things. I don’t think I could ever have become an Amaryllis Fox “wanna be.” She has had more fire, more boldness of body and mind, and her very special talents have been put to use in such specific ways. According to her book jacket blurb, she now offers analysis for global news outlets and speaks on peacemaking–so she has met changes with more invention. Peacemaking! I would like to hear her speak of this, for how we need peace to be made. I would like to thank her for being a perhaps unsung heroine of a certain unique order, and for writing a book that informs and, beyond this, moves me to care even more for the welfare of others. I, for another, would appreciate if we can agree to be more brave and empathetic in the face of uncertainties and strife. What else will help us find and share answers most needed? That is the sort of everyday heroics I would like to more often count on seeing and doing.