Seeing Those Unseen

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The walk through heavy double doors to the office in the rundown building is powered by my will to land a job. Voices careen through shadowy and inaccessible rooms, doors bang shut–or is that something being thrown against a wall? I sit in front of a supervisor of a residential alcohol and drug treatment center. In this place long-term services are provided to adolescents. I am wondering why I ever agreed to an interview. As moments tick by, I am riveted by the description of the job and answer questions with genuine enthusiasm even as there are people scuffling and two persons trading expletives. Yet I want to be here. I can feel their hunger, the electric life.

That was a vivid scene in my mind upon awakening recently. The halls and voices of my past still haunt me. They changed my life.

Lately I have been filled with unease and distracted by a related issue, the sort that seeps into each day and night as if bubbling up from a subterranean source. There are only a few weeks before I must re-certify my CADC (Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor) which enables me to stay in this field. I’m also qualified to provide some mental health counseling.

I quit my last position because retirement was becoming more attractive. I experienced difficult ethics dilemmas regarding issues that can plague such organizations, especially non-profits, and felt they were not being well-addressed. And returning home at eight-thirty or nine p.m. after eleven hour days was tougher. But I also quit because I had spent too many years jotting down storylines in between clients, starting poems on sticky notes, then hiding them away. I was overdue to write full-time.

A daughter recently asked me: “Are you happy with your life as it is?” It seemed easy to answer: yes, I am glad to live this life! But I do miss working with the invisible ones at the fringes of society, challenged, changed or disabled by mental health and addictions problems.

Most people in this field burn out between three and five years. There are many who continue, but not too many for twenty years or more. For some reason, my committment and caring deepened and a restless compassion still fills me. I am not special; those who help others are everwhere, often unknown. So I am just one of those unwilling to give up on what (or whom) I love most. I’m not sure it is even a choice.

So let me take you way back to 1994, back to that interview scene I awakened with, for it was very real…

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It has been months since I suffered the consequences of downsizing. I am desperate. Despite sending out countless resumes and ending a couple of interviews on a high note, my efforts have come to naught. I did not coplete my Bachelor degree but before I left Detroit I’d been a home care department manager for a human services program providing for three counties. My 350 primarily homebound clients included younger people who had suffered a variety traumatic brain injuries, as well as those with other disabilities. I hired and trained 150 employees. Yet here in Oregon I am scrambling. Everyone seems more qualified than am I, at the top of the heap.

So when money runs out and I study the requirements for a “Residential Care Facilitator”, it seems folly to respond. I have never worked with disturbed or addicted youth; I am not a therapist. They want someone who is sober, can monitor and assist at-risk youth and develop better programing. I am living a recovery lifestyle, have raised five children and manage to convey indirectly that I am not easily intimidated. I have experience developing programs and providing practical support to high risk populations.

Just not teenagers who have been homeless or incarcerated. Traumatized. Mandated to residential alcohol and drug treatment. They are bound to be enraged and depressed. What am I to them? I am part of the barrier in their thinking.

The interview goes well. The supervisor likes my varied experience and passion to be of service to others. I get the idea he is interested in hiring someone more mature, older than twenty-something. At forty-two, my competence has been tested and deemed solid. But this time I am a neophyte. He explains the majority of youth here for three to six months are gang-affiliated or gang-affected, prone to violence against themselves and others. Girls and boys, ages twelve to eighteen, are in separate dorms but share activities. All have become addicted to multiple drugs including alcohol. They bear scars of physical and emotional abuse. They have mental health diagnoses, serious abandonment issues. A challenging group to watch over much less teach, inspire, and point in a healthier direction.

They also need someone to coordinate field trips, create outside educational activities, plan enjoyable physical recreation. The clients must be driven to parks and A.A. meetings. They require monitoring at all times. I might assist the teacher in the alternative school teacher at times. All for little pay.

“So, what do you think?” he asks, eyes lit up.

What I think is that my smile is straining my facial muscles. My heart rate increases every time a kid screams at someone or I glimpse a sullen face outside our door. I regret not learning excellent office skills so I can work at a dentist office; it might be so much easier. I’d taken a donut shop counter job. But completing college would have been the best idea. Instead, I married my first husband and he finished his Masters while I had (well-loved) babies. I have to turn my life around, escape another failed relationship and avoid looming poverty. A more fulfilled life is a goal; while joy isn’t critical, I at times dream about it.

“If that’s an informal offer, my answer is ‘yes’,” I say, shaking his hand.

My extended family wonders if I am scared to work with these troubled kids. (Yes! But no one else will know that.) How will I pull it off? (By paying attention. Following instructions. Getting to know the clients.) My partner, not who I hoped, thinks any paycheck in my name would be good. He is right, always. He can make this painfully clear. Little does he know of my hidden agenda: moving out with my teen-aged son and daughter when I save money.

I shrug. “It’s not like I’ll be working in a reform school or jail. I’ve had difficult clients before.”

“Sure. Elderly and disabled,” my youngest child reminds me.

The first day I enter the girls’ unit there are a number of sneers and questions. Heads pop out of rooms and eyes try to stare me down. I know how to not blink and act brave. I try memorizing the unit’s rules and my duties but at the end of the day I feel as though I have left a “hot spot” where a fragile truce has been called. I make it out intact due to my helpful co-workers, all under thirty yet oddly jaded. When I get home I don’t want to talk. I want to sleep a dreamless sleep and wake up a professional.

For a long week I watch and am watched. Not primarily by my boss, but the clients. They assess me better than I do them, as their instincts are well-honed and street smarts prepare them for anything. I know I look like someone just out of a Junior League meeting with coordinated slacks and blouse, hair and lipstick just so. It’s the casual version of my old work attire. But it isn’t just that other employees wear jeans and t-shirts to blend in, like camouflage in the wilderness. These kids are savvy and know I am green, not just new. They’re looking for my soft spot, the weakness that will allow them to get extra attention or more dessert, a later “lights out” or a good word put in with their therapists. Someone they can make a partner in crime.

I figure all this out when my supervisor informs me on the fifth day that the reason A., a thirteen year old client, is so friendly and flattering is that she needs good reports in order to not be “discharged incomplete” which means locked down somewhere else. She has hit a dorm mate once and threatened staff. Duly noted.

I return home at almost midnight, sit on the back stoop and cry without sound. How can I do the work if caught between a passionate impulse to be of service to those in need and noxious fear of the unknown and possible assault? I resolve to give it two months. Thoughts of failure makes me feel I am teetering on a scary precipice. I pull myself back and grit my teeth. I must succeed.

What the clients do not know is that I am not all I seem at first glance, just as they are not. I have gotten through treacherous times. Have my own survival skills. A will that holds fast and a deep-rooted desire to be useful in the world. I am driven and have have discipline, both of which were instilled during a somewhat privileged life that was soon scored with pain and loss.

It takes a couple of weeks, but I begin to see that beneath scars, bravado and bad words are the longing to belong, a dim hope of kindness, and vulnerability they fight to protect. They have been abandoned, beaten, sexually abused, thrown out on the street, supplied drugs by their families, locked in closets and reform schools. Many have been in multiple foster homes and found not one bearable. Many of the teens have been diagnosed with mental health disorders and are medicated, with uneven results.

I find my place as the kids make room for me. I work every shift and overtime, including graveyard, for the money but also the experience. I am good at staying calm so group counselors include me to encourage safe, effective dynamics. The alternative school teacher needs help so I start a writing group. They learn there is more to language than they imagined and discover words for nebulous, confounding feelings. I watch them change. A good way to connect with them is to provide experiences that are different than most are used to. I coordinate a recreation program that includes visits to the ballet and the art museum as well as barbeques and badminton in parks. Another is to pay attention when they need someone to bear witness to dark secrets and fragile dreams, most of which have been too long unspoken.

Or is just holding steady, as when one beleaguered young woman, stands in silence as she fires an imaginary .22 at every car in the parking lot. And then at me. I freeze. Then hold out my hands to her. She drops her phantom weapon, grabs on. Later, much later, we laugh. I immortalize her in a poem and pray she stays alive. As I do every one.

Without fail the person who learns the most is me. Resilience comes from the human need to keep living. Strength for the weakened arises from being comforted amid suffering and learning how to reach back. Hope sparks when even one small event clarifies possibilities for a better life. Sheer survival can transform into flourishing. It is astounding to behold. The result is freedom to create a better life. In the end, love does what it can.

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Was it really so hard to take that job when I didn’t think I could do it or even wanted it? Only in the beginning. I worked at that facility for almost five years. In between working hours I returned to college, became a certified alcohol and drug counselor, gained education in mental health counseling, and have served diverse populations. I discovered one of my callings–God offered me a chance I hadn’t expected–and it carried me along the next twenty years.

Can I leave it behind for good? I’m still uncertain. There are so many needs, some of which are mine. But I can share their stories, perhaps hold up lost ones and warriors with these words:

You are seen. Known. Remembered and honored by this woman.

Photograph by Joseph Szabo
Photograph by Joseph Szabo

 

 

Staying Alive: an Interview

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“So, alright, you have me sitting in a long-past-its-prime chair in a monochrome room and I am supposed to be cooperating so that you can do the work that is in my best interest I am told, but really is all this necessary again? I didn’t agree to come here to talk to you. I don’t even know who you are. I had no choice. I came because it was the last-ditch chance, his way or exit center stage! ‘Get out’ he said! I mean, I nearly…”

Mim’s inhales deeply, then fills the air with a few staccato breaths. She is hurting everywhere, toes to brain.

Lane leans forward. “It seems you didn’t really want to go, not like that. And you came of your own will today.”

“Yes, well, it isn’t that simple. It was a matter of giving in or getting out. I mean, leaving the family. Like, settling for a life on the street, likely, can you imagine? I can’t. He says he wouldn’t throw me out–how would it look to his firm, our neighbors?– but, hey, it has happened to better women than me. I mean, I’ve seen them out there and they are so sad, terrifying. But, then, look at me!”

The clock on the wall is simple, inconspicuous, but the ticking is like a stuttering shout. Mim, her new client, shifts side to side then pulls her shoulders back, finger to mouth so she can chew off a hangnail.

Lane sits still. In the corner of her eye she can see through the window, rain slashing across the parking lot two stories below. Her office is warm but the fortyish woman across from her shivers, folds her arms tight over her white shirt. Lane notes her shoes. They are expensive grey and black flats, slim and scuffed.

“I mean, it’s not like this is the first time. This is number three. Pretty soon I’ll be able to write reviews of all the treatment centers in northwest Michigan. I wrote a column you know. Used to. There can’t be that many more rehabs for me to check out. All the same in the end.” She exhales a guttural sigh that sounds like disgust. “So, yes, I have arrived once more, this year in New Times Center on Lake Michigan. I have to say it looks good out there.” Her good leg bounces. “It would possibly look gorgeous through the magic filter of gin.”

“You’ve had a lot of experience at this. You’re sober five days. It will look better in a week, two weeks. You know this already.”

Mim looks at Lane hard a few seconds but the woman doesn’t blink. Here eyes are moist, very blue, quiet. She is so still Mim wonders how she does it, listening to all the rantings.  Does she go home and have a tall glass of wine while she eats on her deck? Does she have to build a fortress around her before she goes to work? Or is she someone who gets it, this special sort of hell?

“I wonder what I must look like from the other side of the room, from your chair. It looks no better than mine but it must be a heck of a lot more comfortable. I know this isn’t a sabbatical trip I’m on, not a resort where I can kick back and have a good old time. But it isn’t the road to paradise, either. I don’t have to love it, find it new or fascinating. Because it is not.” She wets her lips, pushes her short hair off her forehead. “It is NOT.”

“It’s another try at sobriety,” Lane says, “a chance taken.” She pauses. “On something more. For you.”

200236712-001The clock, rain, the steamy warmth of the room: they have a dreamy effect and  contour Lane’s mind. Mim’s words, edged with gold–“It is NOT”–line up across her mental screen, perilous, brash. All those negatives over the years have become like so many glass words Lane collects, then breaks apart and rearranges with each new client. They create something else or do not succeed.

She picks up her mug of tea. The client doesn’t respond, only watches rain streaking the window, eyes narrowing as though trying to focus on one thought, a moment, the certain feeling that might tell a whole story, the truth, in one sentence. Lane knows it is hard. She sees it takes all Mim can summon to sit there and be seen like this when her nerves feel like they have shark teeth and her heart is a chattering fool. Lane knows it is not yet anything like the promise of well-being the tri-fold brochure intimates. The woman is to smart to see how she runs in circles. Yet. There can be change. There is a stirring in Lane’s chest like a small door opening, then: a steady pulse of compassion.

“I do want life to be different. I want my son and daughter to race up to me on visiting day, feel absolutely sure I am going to be strong. Kind. That is what I want to be: so much kinder than this.”

Mim brought the tender finger to her lips again, but she took it into her other shaky hand. She laced all fingers together so they formed a basket she peered into as they rested in the hollow of her lap. “But I don’t know what I’ll find if I stay sober. I don’t have any idea what I will discover inside, what sort of real woman is there…”

Ticktickticktick. Time slinks away as rain’s counterpoint beats an ancient drum on earth and brick walls. Mim’s fingers unthreading, shoulders sagging forward. Her face is like an underside of the moon, not fortuitously revealed but marked by a terrain confused by misinformation and the inroads of experience. Alcoholic eyes, burning wells. An etching of persimmon scars marches up her jaw line to her temple, slides across her covered, crooked nose. Her left eye is still circled by the palest velvety purple. Her lips move but nothing is let go. Hands fly to mouth, to eyes, to face.

Lane sits forward. “Life will find you, has found you even now. All you need do is be present with it. You have time here, a safety net. I’ll be here while you puzzle out the clues.”

Outside, Lane catches sight of a bony, bespectacled young man looking in the narrow window of the office door. He cranes his neck to see Mim. Crutches in the corner. Cast on her leg. She sees him staring and turns away. He feels sorry for her, her face damaged like that but he is much more angry. He might have been her, he might have ended up like her, but no. Did. Not. Happen. With a forceful push of the wheels, he propels his wheelchair down the hallway.

Mim stares at the empty rectangle of glass. “Lane, look, I can’t promise anyone anything. I don’t even know if I will stay.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“You came today.”

“Yes. I did.”

Lane nods and almost smiles. Mim feels done. She stands up with difficulty. Lane watches her hop to the crutches, steady herself. When her client stands a bit taller she crosses her office and opens the door. The hum of life flows down the corridor, a stream of possibilities. Mim looks over her shoulder, eyes like two dark stones turning and shining in light, and steps forward. She wants to smell the wet earth without alcohol numbing her senses. She wants to smell the rain.

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Dragonfly Glass

IMG_2868It had called to me from the shop situated in a mountain valley: a sturdy clear glass, pleasing of shape, with good heft. But most of all, the dragonflies that were in relief near the top brought a smile. I am a fool for insects of all sorts (even scarier ones), and dragonflies intrigue me with their grace and short lives (one to six months) in temperate zones. They love the water but do fly elsewhere. They rarely bite and don’t break the skin if they try. They have been with us 300 million years. If that isn’t a wonderful bug I don’t know what is.

But enough about dragonflies. The glass grabbed my attention and I pondered the price, which was more than seemed reasonable. Still, it was small enough for juice, a good size for a quick drink of water. I turned it around in my hands and visualized how it would look with my sturdy Desert Rose table ware. But such extravagance. I walked away. And back again. I left the shop with two cheerful glasses.

Today it was more summer than spring with a cloudless aquamarine sky and sweet breeze. I sat on the balcony and sipped chilled tea. The glass–the new favorite. It had held water, ginger ale, apple juice and iced tea. I admired it’s combination of ordinariness and decorative good sense. And then I held it up to the sunlight and the thought that came forward was a surprise. It looked like a glass used for a stout mixed drink or rich-colored wine, not tame juice or water. It was the right size, and its heaviness ensured it stayed put when set down. But to contemplate all this took me back.

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Way, way back. You see, none of my glasses have had a lick of alcohol in them for twenty-two years. That was when I stopped drinking. something I write around but have never stated bluntly. Now it seems I want to speak of it.

The day I last drank has been, perhaps oddly, increasingly less a subject of daily personal interest than professional, as I have counseled and educated chemically addicted persons for twenty of those years. Yes, I have attended plenty of support groups. But after awhile something happened to my thinking. It was like the clean, unmistakable click of a lock’s mechanism disengaging to full unlocked position. The door that opened led to the life I had always wanted but could never fully discover or create.

I became free of not only any desire to drink but also of significant feelings about it. I didn’t and don’t hate alcohol and its undeniable power to alter even ordinary people’s responses to others and themselves. It is a power that the alcohol-imbibing public still doesn’t fully respect. I had a quite short drinking career revolving around too many goblets of wine and stiff mixed drinks, resulting in some harrowing tales. It would be dishonest to not note that a family member asked me to make a will when I was still pretty young. There is a common misconception that it is how much you drink that identifies whether or not one has an alcohol problem. In fact, it is more simply how it chemically impacts a person physiologically, emotionally, mentally. It didn’t take so much as you’d think to provide experiences I don’t care to live again.

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So, I didn’t long for alcohol when I was finally done.  I detached from it while keeping clear the reality of what worked for me in life and what did not. Alcohol was definitely on the negative side. Recovery has remained number one every day despite not thinking of it all the time. The reasons are simple: I want to stay alive, live well and long, and be true to who I am–none of which alcohol could support. A drink–or a drug, for that matter– will eventually rob an addicted person of everything good and fine in human life. I reclaimed my own power to live more freely and richly again. Over time, I integrated what I knew about my unhappy relationship with alcohol into a broader understanding of my worldview and beliefs, as well as my authentic needs (not those society dictated) as a person.

All this sounds relatively easy, perhaps. It has been, in a real sense. Of course, there have been moments when holding tight to one moment of sobriety was the goal for the day. The painful events of life, physically and emotionally, didn’t back away or even lessen much when I put down the drink. But the good news is that as humans we are provided with an amazing array of solutions and aids to help us live intentionally, in peace. Our brains manufacture chemicals called endorphins (among others) to help us with bodily pain and even heartache. Our free will enables us to make many kinds of choices that either nurture or undermine who we are and want to become. Out of the caldera of the past, we can construct a Spirit-shaped life that is a wellspring of clarity as we imagine, act, speak, love.

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It all completely works, I told my clients; you just have to try it and then keep at it. I perhaps did not tell them I am a good case study with a complicated history (which we all seem to have) coupled with an early onset of sedativism precipitated by prescription drugs. This made me a sitting duck for alcohol problems later on. The whole journey was a strange one that no longer haunts me. It was one of those dead-end roads. I got off (with much timely help), surveyed the options and took a different direction. Such liberation had a revolutionary feel; it stays with me to this day.

I return to my humble dragonfly glass. It holds peppermint-tinged iced tea; it cools and soothes on this magnanimous May day. And I hope to enjoy it for many years–at least all the days that are given to me. I consider the myriad wonders of life and know I am fortunate. The important parts of the puzzle of living fit together, and I fit there, too. I ask you this: what is not to love in this very moment? I thank God for this ordinary and bountiful life, come what may.

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“What is to give light must endure burning.”
-Viktor Frankl

How I am Being Alone in the Here and Now

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I flung open the louvered closet doors. The sight of colorful skirts, sweaters, shirts and pants crushed between one another made me wince. It is time to make a seasonal change, trade the winter group for spring and a few items of summer. It’s a chore, but usually painless. This year, it felt like something else: an anxious moment that brought me face-to-face with remnants of a previous way of life. The work-for-a-paycheck life.  I sorted for charities, hesitant about several pieces. Since I am no longer working four, ten to twelve-hour days at a community mental health clinic, how often would I use these?

So far, most of them remain. I haven’t given up hope of finding part-time work so that I can keep on writing more. And there are other occasions to get a little fancied up, even in Portland, the only place I have lived where one can wear jeans and sandals to a symphony concert.

I intended on working for several more years but when I became ill with vertigo I identified cause and effect. The job I had didn’t fit; stress was gaining. The answer? Time to go. I have been happy to fulfill a true calling for twenty-five years: counseling many at-risk populations including addicts, alcoholics and the mentally ill. The hardest thing was saying goodbye to my clients. I found a way to let them know I was doing what I advised them to do: taking care of myself, making prudent decisions to support my well-being. I planned on doing just that.

So what have I done the last four and a half months? I wanted to be happy with my choice, while the pretty attire seemed to accuse me of sloth as I stood there in jeans, t-shirt and an old grey sweater. And slippers covered my feet after a long walk in the damp morning. But I stopped to reassess. What constitutes work? Am I not managing household business affairs, running errands and taking care of my husband, who works in an intensely demanding position? I spend time with adult children and grandchildren as often as possible.

But there is more to be done, much more.

All those years of raising five children, getting more college credits when possible, working outside of home and then doing laundry until midnight, I longed for one thing more: time to be and do all the other things I loved. I have never been truly bored. That may have come from my history of growing up in a prodigiously active family; we did not have time to do nothing. We seem to have excellent stamina and reserves of energy. And if I even hinted about being restless, my mother told me to find something to do. I was expected to comply.

So I show up each day to fully experience and utilize my time, just as when I had an ID badge. It would be dishonest to state it has been a simple transition. I am still a person moved to be of use, to aid those in dire need and listen with unerring attention. To be centered and calm, to not derail the client, to maintain clarity of thought and keep an open heart yet not to be swallowed whole by the suffering: this takes rigorous practice. It became second nature.

So, to be without people around much of the day has been strange and hard. But here is the time I craved so long; it was either use it or lose it to something I have never known before–a lack of direction. Solitude has much to teach me. I will continue to give thought and prayer to possibilities that must be within my reach. But this is what I am doing, in between numerous household chores and seeing family:

*I read as soon as I get breakfast, starting with magazines. I have subscriptions to The Writer, The Smithsonian, Vogue, Architectural Digest, VIA, and American Craft. Oh, yes, also People and Entertainment Weekly. And I sometimes buy Glimmertrain or Tin House (literary journals), Real Simple, and Sunset and The New Yorker. I peruse Willamette Week for area events and arts offerings.
I enjoy newspapers online as well as blogs of many. I also read non-fiction and fiction off and on during the day and at bedtime. Currently I am reading The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields (a novel about author Edith Wharton), Neighbors and Wise Men by Tony Kriz (about spiritual experiences of the author), Why We Write edited by Meredith Maran, and A Book of Luminous Things (poetry anthology) edited by Czeslaw Milosz.
I read a few hours daily, more if I am researching something. I have to set a limit or nothing else will get done.

*At night I schedule my time for the following day and the bulk of my day is reserved for writing. When I write or research writing issues, time can cease to exist. The work includes: research on agents and publishers as well as lit journals both online and in paper and writing competitions, revising my work, writing blog essays and poems, working on new fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry, preparing and submitting work according to the specifications of various editors, editing my novel for the umpteenth time. I have an abiding passion for writing. I want to write pieces that will move, surprise, and engage people so that after they are done, they have something interesting to take away.

*I walk or hike. Every day, rain or shine, cold or hot. The only thing that will stop me is serious illness. I walk because I love the rhythm of walking, the way it relaxes and clarifies my mind, and I so appreciate nature, architecture, people and random and surprising moments that occur. I also walk and hike because I was diagnosed with coronary artery disease at age 51 after an apparent heart attack while I was hiking in the beautiful Columbia Gorge. I don’t worry but I am aware of my “borrowed” time as heart disease does not go away. I keep the inevitable (but who among us doesn’t leave this world eventually?) at bay any way I can.

*Daily I pray, sometimes read meditations and the Bible. I think about and sense Divine Love/God in my life and others’ routinely. I cannot imagine my life without God in it daily, every second, whether or not I am fully conscious of it. I would not be alive without God, could not have endured and healed from dangerous and painful experiences, would not have stayed alcohol-and drug-free all these years, would not have the gratitude and peace that permeates my life. There are times I am not totally clear about the next step in this earthly life, but I am never uncertain of God’s eternally compassionate guidance.

*I am learning to draw and use watercolors after many years of not painting and drawing. I used to paint large acrylic paintings so this is new. It is a wondrous thing to see what pencil and paint can do on paper. It is scary because it is new but that is part of the adventure.

*I am happy when photographing things, mostly nature and architecture but also people. I have a passion for

* I either call (or text or email) my children at least weekly if not more if I am not going to see them. I talk to a sister often. I call my mother-in-law and email my other siblings. I visit with a few close friends. Despite being introspective, I have extrovert tendencies and miss people at times. So I get out in my neighborhood and enjoy shops and restaurants.

*I am thinking about taking flamenco dance classes, engaging in voice lessons so I can actually sing again, enrolling in a tai chi or QiGong class, taking more writing workshops, volunteering again, finding more botanical gardens and also forests to explore, self-publishing my novel. I’d like to make some new friends. Appreciate my family to the very fullest. I don’t know how many more days and nights I have to immerse myself in all there is to hold close, then let it go.

This is my slice of life, alone, in the here and now. I don’t think too hard about the future; it will come, or it will not. I am still a good friend to myself after all these years, but I can always learn more. It has been a slow letting go (for now) of service work. But when the heart breaks open even a little it has room for so much more life. It creates space and insight needed for change. For me, that means making more stories and sharing life’s bounties. I hope that whoever reads this can find time alone to explore all that wants to awaken and better serve your life.

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Sing Your Sorrow, Dance Your Joy

I was in the center of downtown Portland for our yearly Galaxy Dance Festival with my family and we watched with admiration each performance. They all swirled and implored, flirted and defied, brought an emphatic ending to one line of music and started anew with a flourish. The costumes and faces were infused with color and feeling. Stories unfolded, frenetic and quiet, subtle, intense.

And there were the women of India, their peacock majesty, each face strongly defined. Their beauty alone stuns. The dances tease and taunt, demand our attention, even with the tiniest movement of fingers and eyes. No one can say they are not illustrious and rarified in their offerings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a youthful modern dance group dancing in the fountain, leaping and strutting. They made the spouting water another partner in their choreographic designs. I watched a child of four or so jump in with them, body quick and at ease, her movements mimicking their own. She is a dancer already, and she was without fear or constraint and strained against her mother’s hands when pulled back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tango always mesmerizes me. I see the romance bloom in each small gesture, the angle of heads, the subtle shapes made with legs and arms, their feet quick and elegant as the couples turned and slid around the floor. The music, poignant and distinctive, beckons one into another world, another time.

But, in the end, it is the flamenco I most come to see. Duende, spark of life that gives us tears and laughter, unfurls before us. I hear it in the cantaora’s voice as she sings cante flamenco, feel it in the complex clapping of hands or palmas, the stomp and whisper of feet. Each bailora’s body and face hold the energy of the world together for those brief moments.

Cante flamenco speaks to me of the terrible sweetness of love. It brings the laughter of youthful dreams. The music and dance tell of hope gained and lost. The women and men, old and young, share their tales. Birth and death play out on this terrain, and also there is both compassion and passion that keep our lives moving from start to end. Flamenco is a light in the confounding darkness. Incandescent. Powerful. It is not for everyone, but it speaks to me. I yearn to join them but call out encouragement, whistle and clap., my feet drumming on the hot concrete.

I grew up dancing. I am not speaking of dance classes; I went to those for years but recall little of them. Dance came to me like running came to others–and I loved to run and tumble, too. I danced in the yard, in the living room, with or without music. Exulted in creating forms with sinew and soul. When I was fifteen I attended a renowned summer arts camp. The dance building overlooked a green lake and when I danced I felt as though I had left the room with mirrors and leapt above water and pines. I was that happy. But I had gone to Interlochen to study voice and cello, so dance was one of the secret doors to freedom. I savored every class and performance and held them close in order to take them back home for the long winter months.

In the novel I wrote, the main character is a dancer. She cannot speak a word of traumatic events, cannot move beyond the damage done. After months of inertia she finally finds her feet again–she dances the sorrow until it transmutes into joy. It speaks for her and she is saved, in part, by dancing her way through the barrier of grief and into life. Her body and soul reawaken.

I worked with Native American women in residential addictions treatment. Though I was the only white woman amid their community of fragile recovery, I saw that they needed more besides lectures and attentive listening. They had been betrayed and battered by life and people, had suffered some of the worst experiences I have ever been told. At the time it occurred to me they needed to share music in their own languages and tell stories old and new. This was good, but there was more to be done. There was too much memory of pain lodged in muscle and bone. The women were so taut with anger or they were bowed over with weariness that they forgot their bodies were their friends.

So, we stretched until they grumbled. And then we danced. We snaked around the room and down corridors where my co-workers stuck their heads out the doors. We shouted and clapped unison rhythms and danced into the field behind the treatment facility. And kept on dancing. This became a weekly happening and many more women joined us. They came not for therapy. They came for joy.

I would like to dance flamenco before I am too old. I have a tricky heart that won’t always do what it should despite several medical interventions. I would just like to pound my feet into the forgiving earth and shape air with my hands, move hands and hips as though every movement matters. I want to dance, as well as live this life, from my center.

We will see if I can find my way to learning flamenco. It could be that cante and baile are too much for this woman. I might swoon from the effort of it, and the crazy fun. Meanwhile, I dance around the house, across the street, under the trees. I dance with music blaring, alone, because it matters to my life. And if I ever happen to die dancing, my heart overcome with the wonder of it, I will be happy.

“My sorrow I express in song

For singing is crying

My joy I express in dance

For dancing is laughing!”

from Language of the Gypsies