Life, Texturized

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My head feels as though it wants different nerve endings, ones that cannot transmit this particular pain. It starts at the top of my spine, crosses to the base of my skull and thereupon spreads out like tenacious ivy overlaying my brain’s domain. I have had communication issues all day due to the fog that has made itself a barrier between internal and external stimuli. My eyes have felt like tiny balloons waiting to explode. My mind whirls and floats a bit like when I have had migraines only with less intensity. I need a new neck to hold up my head.

Last night’s sleep was heavy and tinged with dreams about visiting a hotel in a village that felt familiar, where people were vaporous yet colorful, half-ghosts or characters let loose from stage left in a play. I knew this place yet not every corner or staircase. There was also an unnamed man whose hand on mine felt familiar and vibrant. Our words meant things without spoken language as often happens in my dreams. Some of these people and rooms glowed. The furnishings were beautiful, brocade and velvet curtains, furniture to last centuries. In the end I slowly made my way out, then didn’t know where I was and asked myself, “How could I be lost?”, irritated, as though I was responsible for knowing my way around a seemingly infinite and complicated structure. But it was the architecture of dreams, an oddly cantilevered netherworld, supported by one thing only: REM sleep.

Why would I write of this today? Why not lie down nice and easy? The answer is three-fold: 1) I know many others can empathize, 2) I write daily and 3) pain is not generally a good enough reason to not do whatever I want or need to do. I have had familiarity with all sorts throughout my life due to a few chronic health issues. I know its nuances and what each kind augers, how I can best handle it as well as when to ignore it. I don’t mean deny its actual existence. I give it a nod but then deny it its fearsome and full power as long as possible. Often it dissipates when I am busy looking elsewhere.

So I wonder: why the odd dream? Why do we tend to dream of unusual spaces mingled with the common? Why do both loved and unloved, alive and passed on all appear like sudden visitors, as though they have been waiting for us to swing open the door? And they inhabit the same conversations as strangers do, making me feel there are no strangers, really. And that landscape that is so familiar to me, as though a second home… Who knows what exactly happens as we close our eyes? It is an adventure which allows us to experience things differently. Sometimes it is a revelation.

In the morning, icy air sneaked in through a cracked window. And that old companion, pain, told me I had slept askew. I took stock of the past week as discomfort drummed against sinew and bone, squinting past the quilt that wanted to be pulled closer.

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It has been a Christmas season that I would note as a “10” on the rating scale for holiday satisfaction: three of five children with their families here for various events, a perfect tree from an Elysian tree farm, food that fed us well, made us happy. A candle light service at our Presbyterian church: music sung from the core, flames casting flickering halos, communion as conduit for mysteries of faith. Not even once was perfection my goal; I wanted to share love and it happened. I embrace my family’s quirkiness: five children who include an artist/professor; a grad student who will manage a performing arts venue; a professional skateboarder/painter; a budding sociologist/activist; and a chaplain. They each are called to do service for others in some way, are strong-willed and live a bit (or more) on the edge. Five grandchildren, as well. Two daughters were visited via Skype, something I never expected when they were born. How good it was.

Actual gifts were the extras. Among other things I received three fat books to savor. One is about American residential architecture, one about exceptional children (dwarfism, autism, genius, and other traits that fascinate me), another a biography of great composers. They reflect some of my interests; my spouse knows me well. I can’t imagine a lifetime long enough to learn all I want to learn. Sometimes I gaze out a window at the scenes unfolding before me and think of it: in this sixth decade of my life there is so very little I have mastered yet I remain passionate about learning. It both distresses and thrills. The engine of curiosity thrusts me forward.

The days will proceed of their own accord and rhythm as before, now that Christmas is over. If all goes reasonably well. It is just as likely not to, I know. Last January started out with challenges including an inner ear disorder accompanied by a nagging malaise I loathed to call depression. The last half of the year I have been recovering from severe muscle toxicity due to taking a statin for thirteen years. I have to save my heart from its disease now only through beta blocker, blood pressure medicines and vigorous exercise. I can and will do the best I can. My siblings are older, too, I notice. But the world is ancient and confounding. Marvelous and horrid. Who knows what is next? It keeps me present and attentive to what matters. How swift, how tenuous life on earth can be, like dandelion fluff carried far, then no longer visible.

So I move through time on faith, flying on light wings of grace so I may engage in life’s creation of a rich warp and weft. I want my being and doings to make some difference. I sweep up this fullness of life in my arms and wrap myself in it, unfurl it like a flag, throw it around another’s shoulders, offer it as a bridge over deep chasms and use it with gusto, pain or no pain. We all suffer somehow; we all make our way as we see fit.

Ah, you see? That pain in my neck and head is lessening. Writing makes me strong. Love makes me brave. Music (today: Bach and Gilberto) grants me pleasure and peace. Spiritual practices keep me lithe of soul, unifies the pieces. And I think I’ll head to the gym or take a brisk walk to give my heart a chance to work with me better. What is it that you will nourish and honor as one day slips into another, then soon–so soon!– melds with a whole new year? I trust you are making good weavings of your own distinctive threads.

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Heart Chronicles #18: Risking Our Lives, Part 1

Lilac Farm in WA. 5-10 032For over a year–no, let me be honest, a couple years–I had been struggling through a too small entryway into each new day, legs becoming more unreliable, arms and hands slower to respond, balance off enough to make me shake my head. I had to avert falling over when stepping out of  bed and reaching for my hoodie. The hallway seemed to have contracted, leaving little room for me so that a shoulder grazed, then hit, the wall. I splashed chill water on my haggard face. Put in my contacts and blinked. Stared at myself and frowned. Another morning, another day of something… interesting. Maybe an experience gratifying in some small way at the least and at best, invigorating and even shot through with a brief mystical moment. But where was the get up and go, my genetically-derived indomitable spirit? Come on, I urged myself. Go forward. Complete shower, eat food, get organized.

And so I did. I learned from the onset of life that to fully activate one’s mind and body meant activating one’s will as well. It is the historically American way, anyway. And there was so much to learn, accomplish, and puzzle and even laugh over. Whatever the days and nights brought, a primary rule that powered my living was getting up and going despite days feeling ill or blue or just plain distracted by multiple options. I tell you this so you have the stage well set. I naturally have some less than sterling characteristics, but not sloth. A modicum of eccentricity, yes; a lack of motivation, no. A loquacious complainer at times but not a self-pitying bore when life gets bumpy. And for those of you new to my blog, it is important you know I was diagnosed with aggressive coronary artery disease at age 51. There were nearly zero risk factors for early onset of any heart issue. It seemed a mystery. (See  other “Heart Chronicles” personal essays if that diagnosis resonates.)

Anyway, by the start of 2012 I simply “acted as if”–as if I felt energetic, well, able as ever. Unworried. I addressed all tasks at hand and attended to others’ needs. After I quit my job eleven months  later (I was done with that situation; I wanted to write), I luxuriated in newfound freedom from twelve hour days as a counselor. Still, I had expected to feel better than this, to fairly leap from bed after soothing hours of sleep. I’d imagined a garden pathway that took me to–well, how cared?  Stress levels had finally decreased which was great–less cortisol production equaled less inflammation in the arteries. If I was in a quandary about my life at moments it seemed reasonable: what came after the paycheck that afforded us some nice bonuses? What came after years of assisting others because it fit me well and I, it?

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Maybe I was depressed and didn’t realize it. (I was a counselor–didn’t I know the signs by now?) But the fog that inhabited my brain increasingly harbored a voice echoing from an unknown frontier. This isn’t right! I heard, and told it to pipe down. Be calm. That was the way to do it, do anything. Patience, calmness, and thorough assessment of a problem were excellent tools, especially if intuition did not quite cover it. Brainstorming would help but it could wait a bit. Prayer was a necessary ritual. I daily clarified inner and external vision:  Dear God, most Loving Light, walk with me and guide me on the path hewn of compassion; keep me humbly grounded in Your power.

I reached for my teal mug but missed it, hand sliding by with just enough velocity to knock it over. I said a bad word. How did that happen? I stood firmly and snatched the tea towel to mop hot liquid off me, the book pile, The Writer and Architectural Digest and my daily list of goals and priorities. The damp pages and pulsing spot on my leg brought a sting of tears. I got up with empty plate for the kitchen counter: made it. I headed to the washer to start laundry. Each armload of clothing felt heavier; my arms began to ache. I turned to the dryer and the effect was forgetting where my feet were. Catching myself as I fell sideways, my hands hit the wall. Steady now.

Another day under the Big Top of life, where the show limped on. I was getting aggravated by it all, chastised myself for not overcoming this trial. It had to be an old vertigo resurfacing as it did occasionally. I took some OTC motion sickness medication a few times a week. It helped but not enough.

I had already injured my shoulder from a fall earlier in the new year. Climbing rocks around Pacific Ocean tide pools, jumping carefully from spot to spot, I had mis-stepped, slipped on a mossy area and could not catch myself. My arms and hands heroically rallied to stop the slide down toward the sea but too slowly. The right shoulder took it hardest. I had been stunned. Not by the pain but by the fact that this was the second time in six months I had fallen at the beach. The other time left extensive bruises that hurt for a couple weeks and a testy scrape. I should have been able to avoid both. There was a reason why I loved the outdoors, had been a figure skater as a youth, loved to dance. I had trusted the strength and agility of my body even as the decades slid by. But now nothing was paying attention to the automatic cues of my biological systems.

A shiver of anxiety, then again the thought was tucked away to ponder another time. I had a life to live and live well.

But no matter how much good rest, exercise and nutrition I got, the symptoms continued. Why was writing checks harder? I had stopped enjoying handwriting cards to friends and family. The pen would not cooperate; the letters were unpredictable, sometimes loping away from me. My daily walk habit–for my heart, for peace of mind–had become more than small adventures. It became a challenge to see how long I could go without stumbling over a tiny buckle of sidewalk, tripping on a twig, stubbing my sneaker toe and nearly falling once forward movement began. Gravity was not a reliable friend. I felt like a barely contained drunk on the loose some days, when I hadn’t had a drink in well over twenty years. I was chagrined.

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Marc, my spouse, noted the changes more often and asked me what I thought was going on. I laughed it off. See? I have great reactions ultimately so I don’t splatter all over the pavement! But he wasn’t too impressed.

“You stumble over your words more, too,” he said softly.

“Well, I don’t talk as much as I used to every day. I am not any longer addressing groups, presenting material. I write in solitude so I get out of practice, you know? Besides, I was actually in a coma for a bit there in 1986, remember? I lost some fluidity in all faculties. Took awhile to reset my nervous system.” I half-laughed. It was long ago, something I can mention without horror, anymore.

“Yeah, but you almost entirely recovered. You’ve always had a very fast mouth and a quick brain…” he noted fondly, then fell silent.

I married a bright man. He likes to create his own Sudoku puzzles, design labyrinths, solve logic puzzles. I caught him taking a Mensa quiz; I know it wasn’t that tough. He reads about statistics for fun, which strikes me as arduous pleasure. He is paid to be an expert problem solver. But I didn’t feel like consulting him one bit. He likes to think of me as in overall glowing health, for one thing. I need to stick around. I just did not want him to know the whole scenario. So we kept walking daily and hiking on week-ends. I did my exercises. And danced when alone, wheeling about the living room, feeling a bit like a top out of control. I pushed myself. When things are challenging, overcome them–that’s how human beings do it. I more often slept in later,  ate better and less, felt more relaxed than I had in years of working in the non-profit sector.

It had to be because of aging; small changes occur and then voila! you are older than you ever imagined. White hair was finally worming its way into the brown strands, making it a bit curly. Plus, as a woman with a tricky heart I knew I was already enjoying extra years. I decided to take extra care of myself and keep going. Maybe call my cardio guy if my chest started to flash me any warnings.

I embraced writing daily which feeds my entirety, every inch. I stuck to my goals, and soon my poetry began to be accepted once more for publication.

I had been adapting, I realized, to the symptoms for a long time. Rallying human that I am, I adjust a little here and there and fix my attitude. It often works well. Great health had never been a given, anyway, with one chronic ailment with me since childhood. I was writing, learning, discovering. I got to be outdoors any time I chose. I could read all day if desired, listen to music I had long missed. There were people I loved and who loved me.

I had gotten on a boat to a potentially sweeter way of living–perhaps it was “semi-retirement” or maybe a lovely detour–so I wasn’t going to turn around any time soon, no matter the obstacles or risks. I settled in. Then one day I was going up the stairs with a grocery bag in one arm. My legs felt both wavy-boneless and heavy. With a twist of terror I felt myself falling backwards, my hand catching the rail just in time as the bag tumbled down. I started to see the future. It was not looking all that kind.

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(Please come back next week for Part 2 of this post.)

The Heart Chronicles #16: A Case of Mistaken Identity

The ocean sings a brilliant song tonight in Yachats, like a Greek chorus in full voice. I sit by the woodstove fire: the smokey scent, running waves, brisk wind coming off the ebony water inform me that I am inarguably alive. On the south central coast of Oregon I have found territories known for years and yet they seem new to me still. A four mile hike through scrubby woods to find gentle sand dunes; a climb amid volcanic rocks to discover amber agates and sea urchins; a stop in historic Florence for a meal, good coffee, and a stroll. It was there that I was called by a necklace made of brass, blue and green inks, and epoxy. It is reminiscent of a mandala, or the wheel of life. It surprised me with its vibrant symmetry and textures. The pendant reflects a sense of the eternal, much as nature does, and that is central to what matters to me.

Ten years ago this date I was awaiting surgery, as well as remarriage (after divorce many years earlier) to my husband. And before either came to pass, 9/11 happened to us all. I was up early that morning to go to the dentist when I noted that there were several messages from my oldest daughter. I got the next call. I had never heard her pierced with such anguish as she told me what was happening. And my sister-in-law was in the Pentagon when it was hit by one of the planes. We waited all day until we got word she had raced out in time, smoke and terror and chaos chasing her. Everywhere I went that day people were weeping uncontrollably. Disbelief and horror brought us to our knees at the church across the street, strangers alongside neighbors.   

Two days later we decided to go ahead with the marriage. My husband-to-be, a few family members and I set off for the courthouse for a civil ceremony. I gasped for breath from the walk up a small hill, and dearly hoped the familiar burning sensation in my chest would pass, that no clenching chest pain would disturb the event. It was a quiet group that assembled. When we stood before the judge she noted that marrying us was the best thing to happen all week. A pall covered us momentarily. I also secretly worried a bit that it might be the one good thing to happen to me for months if not years to come. It seemed a strange if beneficent thing to experience, considering what had just come to pass for our country and myself–and what was before us collectively and privately.

This is how my thinking can be when I mistake a significant event as the most defining moment of all. I suppose we each do that, and usually it is for very good reasons: a milestone, a tragedy, a turning point that is precipitated by a failure or success. But those days before and after the stent implant were molded by all of those and more. It was easy to reconsider who I was, and to conclude I was a woman forever marked by not only defeats and  triumphs over a lifetime but also by a diagnosis. Coronary artery disease. It sounded and felt decidedly like an enemy. I believed it had already changed me beyond recognition in many ways. 

The first day I went to cardiac rehab I felt anxious and alone. Everyone around me was at least ten to twenty years older. They seemed sicker, as well. Wanting only to leave, I got on the treadmill and worked up a sweat. My pulse was taken at intervals by the nurse, my chest tightened and then expanded more easily. My mind was focused on one thing only: I would not die of CAD this day. In fact, I had to get healthier. Stronger. And also grateful–for the challenge, for all I still valued. For life amidst the brokeness of the world and the frailties of humanness. I am simply one person with a health condition; it doesn’t get to dictate the whole narrrative.  

After all, as a species we are good at finding purchase again on the rockiest of paths. We mend what has been damaged. We endure, can and do regain our dignity.

Despite the progress and prayers the next couple years, the identity that wanted to persis, however, was Heart Patient. I carried all the vital information in my wallet “just in case” and saw it as more important than my name. Nitroglycerin accompanied me everywhere; it was the amulet, the lifesaver I feared living without. It took more than imagined to overcome the diagnosis and the label. I was worried it meant I was less than, weaker than,  defective and therefore not as capable. No one had warned me of these intangible side effects. I could see I needed to be fearless, to live more in faith so I set myself to the task. That is when transformation picked up speed. With each 911 call lived through, each walk and hike more demanding and pleasurable, and every important person in my life offering support, I rediscovered the core of who I was: altered but not truly different than before. For I am certain who I am. I will blink in the face of difficult times but I will not long close my eyes. Call me greedy for life: give it all to me. 

When I mistook myself for a minor invalid, the specter of self-pity hovered and made the task of living well that much more daunting. Stepping out and away from the familiarity of my losses cracked open my world and the wiser world we share. The dynamic beauty of it infused me with numinous energy once again.  Who we are is who we want–and choose–to be.

My sister-in-law seems near tonight although she is with the Washington Chorus, along with my brother, performing at a commemoration at Trinity Wall Street sancutary and St. Pauls’ Chapel, New York City. She survived the heinous attack. Truly, she is a humble, heart-centered and joyous being. Both she and my brother are  examples of what we can do with what is given.

Here in Yachats, the Pacific Ocean is a constant symphony of wonder on a gentle night. I am filled with quietude. Blessings on everyone, both here and gone.   

 

Why I write–and live–despite the odds

I have been home from work since eight-thirty, for an hour and half, and I have eaten dinner at the desk while typing. There is a writing contest submission deadline I am trying to meet. 

Rita, my protagonist, hopes to steal away from Maggie’s tea cups and chat and make her way to the upstairs medicine cabinet. There is a bottle of pills there, and Rita wants them. Needs them. She hadn’t exactly intended on stealing them, but there they are and here she sits. Nerves on fire, stomach jumpy, sweat rising at the base of her neck. She knows she has little to complain about–a good man and home,  excellent career. But she  needs those pills to supplement her own. To get through the next few days.  Maggie, her neighbor, an older woman whose ill husband rests nearby, won’t miss them. Will she? She’s just going to borrow them. Or is she? Can she do that to Maggie? Is Rita really a thief and an addict? Or is she a woman ready for change?

I keep writing, glance at the clock. Close to midnight. I have to get up in the morning and go to work. I figure I have three more nights to work on the short story, get it down to 3500 words and submit it by midnight 9/1/11.  The story is saved and I head to bed. The next night and the next I labor, eyelids heavy, mind weary but bursting with ideas and characters. I awaken in the night and keep company with Rita and her worried, stalwart husband, Wade, as well as kind Maggie and her failing spouse, Jonathan. The story nags at me at work each day. Is it good enough yet? What needs revising? What are the real odds of it being published in a big glossy magazine? Maybe I should just scrap it and start over. But there is no more time.

The night it is due to be emailed to the magazine, I go over it a last time, but as I decide it is worth submitting I am struck with a frightening thought: the midnight deadline is likely not Pacific Time. I look at my watch. It is nine fifteen.  I check the submission rules. The time is Eastern Standard Time. I am too late.

The first reaction is to toss the notebook I fill with first lines, titles and ideas as I say things I hope the neighbor can’t hear. Then it dawns on me: I have spent two weeks working on a short story that will not have a chance in a contest that meant something to me because I was too stressed about getting it done. I somehow neglected to get the time right. I am overcome with disappointment in myself; tears reduce me to wordlessness. Well, it probably wouldn’t have gotten chosen, anyway, I think, as self-pity threatens.

The contest theme was to write about something that reflects an aspect of women’s lives today. One thing I know affects women’s lives and can write about is addiction, since I make a living helping those who struggle with it. And I also have known something of it’s dazzling magic, its nefarious lure and damage.  Having survived experiences that can scatter and destroy a woman’s will and dreams, I have been an intimate of those detours beyond the known road, the netherworlds. More was given at great cost to a substance dependency that was accidental, even avoidable, than I can accurately tally. It dragged me through my youth and demanded my life more times than I like to recall. At age twenty I cut a deal with God: help me out and I would do the same for others. In time, the promises came to pass. I am one of the fortunate. I have had at least three lives and the one I live now has only grown happier, richer, broader. Standing on some rubble affords a decent view.

There are millions of alcoholics and addicts in this country. A significant portion of them are women who are often unseen and unheard. Many of those substance dependencies begin with a prescription or two for legitimate reasons, then become an illusory panacea for many other ills.  Or perhaps two or three glasses of wine after dinner each night to quell loneliness or fear become a couple of bottles or more in order to feel normal, to get by.

I just meant to get out the message once more: there is freedom from that bondage. There can be a voluptuous renewal after a ruinous life. With help, the healing can make one warrior-strong at the innermost core. Writing is one way I may be able to offer hope.

The women and men, youth and children I write about, then, often emerge in complex patterns from the warp and woof of my own life. There are also innumerable others who cross my path without so much as a nod in my direction, yet I see them and wonder. I pay attention to learn more.  But all the other characters arise from unknown origins with something they want to say and do, and they offer small or great gifts from their imagined, powerful lives on paper.  They resemble newly incarnate creatures as the story is crafted word by word, line by line. For writing to me is a kind of holy thing, a lifeline, a bridge to distant realms as well as a magnifier of Divine Love. It sweeps me up, breaks opens my mind. It resists pessimism, discovers fascinating company and endures all manner of false moves and then surprises me with a revelation. And through the sometimes tedious process a peace is fashioned that endures and a joy that succeeds even in the midst of gloom or uncertain times. Writing, in the end, asks me to freely give part of my heart and soul to others, and in so doing, the well is replenished for more giving in the non-writing life.

So, I missed that deadline.  I am still displeased with my failure to read all the fine print. Rita and Wade, Maggie and Jonathan–they wait in the file. I may have to revise the pages a few times–maybe that’s why it wasn’t submitted this time. Or maybe they need a bigger story. It could be that it was just a lesson once more about what matters most to me and how I need to give it more attention, respect and time. After all, if I care enough to write the stories, I have to care enough to give all I possibly can to every single word, each new beginning.  That is how I have learned to live–and write–despite the odds.

The Heart Chronicles #14: The Heart is Made of Stories

My mother sat on the edge of my twin bed every evening to share a long good-night. No matter the hour, I would beseech her to “tell me stories of when you grew up.” And so she did, vignettes about living and working on “The Farm”. She told me about swinging on a rope in the hayloft and the sweet pungence of warm hay as it got stuck in her hair and inside clothes; the fat, ravenous pigs she fed slop; the stealth it took to steal the morning’s eggs from beneath the fussy hens. She explained how she washed clothes on a washboard in the big multipurpose sink until her knuckles were reddened and raw, then hung the billowing clothing on a line behind the house:  “Sun-purified and perfumed,” she explained. There was that ornery mare that kicked at her spine, causing a lifetime of back pain as they seldom went to doctors. And sometimes Gypsies passed by in the dark and snatched a pig or chicken, long gone as her father ran out yelling at the top of his lungs; I thought he probably had a rifle in hand.

 The farm animals my mother and her family raised did not have names; the cats were wild  creatures that hunted mice and other varmints. My mother also confided that she would rather have stayed after school to practice basketball for her girls’ team than return to hard labor each day. I imagined the sun setting over the fields: she created the colors, sounds and scents of the country as she walked all the way from the town’s school to home, swinging the bundle of books secured in an old leather belt. Cicadas buzzed in my brain or snow swirled in a frenzy but we always got there safe and sound.

When she finally turned off the lamp, I could hear her voice weaving its magic long after her footsteps disappeared downstairs. That faraway exotic time and place, life at The Farm, lingered in my dreams.

The truth is, my mother could have made a story of walking to the grocery store and often did–a humorous character study, a surprising event that was made more fascinating through sharing. Life was never ordinary to my mother; it was full of textures, vivid designs, and had grand presence simply by being lived.  Anything could be fascinating, much of life’s stories were moving, some brought bountiful tears and often there was a lesson to be gathered from her tales. She had a natural gift for it: her expressive voice,  bright eyes and hands that shaped the air and spoke the wordless bits. All conspired to make the renderings complete. And it issued from her attentive mind and open, responsive heart. 

So that is where I learned it–that life was endless stories within a story and it’s origins were home. That a story from the heart is the best kind. My mother shared compassion for others by telling of those she’d met along the way or still hoped to meet,  of those she had found and lost, and those she loved well. Her wit was quick and full of laughter, but she also unleashed words sharp with anger. There were whole paragraphs laced with tears due to all manner of injustice she witnessed. Struck by beauty in almost any place, she could as accurately describe a fine piece of millinery as an insect she spotted in the garden. I have known few people as moved by the fractious, wondrous complexity of being human. And she knew about forgiveness, which crept in to her dreaming and musings.

It seems entirely reasonable to me, then, that the human heart is constructed of stories. It is, in truth, what I knew from the start–my mother only provided me more evidence of it as I grew up. And if it was my father who gave me music which courses like life-giving blood in my veins, it was my mother who gave me the powerful keys to the kingdom of Story, where words shape-shift and play, toil and conspire, liberate and elevate. In so doing, she gave me precious freedom.

When all else seemed lost at various junctures in my journey through the years, when I found little to keep me steady or strong save the repeated prayer for help, I reached for pen and paper. In my car, there is a small notebook, as well as in my purse and at work–just in case a gaily dressed character runs across the stage of my mind, then beckons me down the street into a cafe surrounded by an ivy-covered fence, a meandering stone pathway. Or in case the first line of a poem– Daybreak spills over the sky and earth like holy water, and rescues us all–visits me. And at four in the morning, there is another notebook and pen at my bedside when I need to solve a puzzle of dreams, or sift through the detritus of my restless mind until I can find a single thread leading to the true center of the mess. The heart of the unfolding story.

My heart has known plenty of bad stories, ones I would rather have avoided, tossed out much sooner or even set afire under a full moon. A few have epilogues that refuse to be erased. But they all somehow led me to good ones as well, those I can still build on or revise so that the endings are neater, richer, better. Even perfect endings can be created, for at least that very moment.  

Lately there have been some struggles: with the alien process of aging, with the unhappy news of two heart valves eroding, with the revelation that my five children really have long set sail when I had thought they might still be floating closer to shore. Time seems a frail thing, until I remember that time is truly not a known quantity. It is not the be-all and end-all on earth, to me. It is certainly what we each make of it. The living heart never tires of one more tale that needs to be heard or told. And so I put pen to paper or fingers to computer keys and think of my mother, who always encouraged me, even once after her death as I stood on my balcony under the gentle stars, missing her: You must write the stories. She smiled, then vanished.

(Postscript: The last Christmas I saw my mother,  not so long before her passing, I gave her the manuscript of my novel. This is the picture of us after she looked at it. She was so happy to see it, and I to share it, that we kissed each other. She flew home with it. A couple weeks later she called: “It sure kept me turning the pages, moved right along. Good characters!” She passed in 2001 at age 92, four months before I was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. She had congestive heart failure.)