Friday’s Quick Pick/Photos & Poem: Heart of Family

Floers, family (2013 cruise) 057

Remember that from the start it was
one for all, all for one? An entire lifetime of this.
A sweep of arms that gather in all.

It may have been a fervent dream of hope,
an obstinate faith in unknowns, but still
our circle has looped and held even
when torn to nearly broken.
And repaired, each thread twined with
the next in tensile links of love,
defining a net that catches sustenance,
saves whatever falls and binds together our
disparate truths. And loosens to let you go your ways.

Will you remember when you are less sturdy?
When I am gone? Or if the ties unravel and
you wait at the window, hands reaching for more?
There will be rifts. Misplaced time. Miles flung far.
Yet it has been, remains and will be this:
all for one, one for all, heart overlaid with hearts.

Acting the Expert When Surrender is Needed

The human being has a serious inclination to make masterful talk, to inform, educate, even enlighten another of our species, then ultimately persuade the listener of one’s own point of view. We do this nearly without thinking during normal conversations, peppering our speech with ideas and details that are meant to define an experience with our first hand experience, and thus determined authority. It’s as if we believe we are each born experts in both broad and specific ways and so proceed in life on that presumption.

Perhaps we are experts–but of our own perceptions, our individual viewpoints. Or education and long experience makes us seem so. For all intents and purposes, what we think we know is also what is more or less real–in our minds, if no one else’s.

Consider one ordinary exchange:

“Watch out, you’re going to hit that car–the light is red!”

“What? I see the car, the light was yellow. Plenty of room, no harm done.”

“Yellow means slow to stop soon and was red as you turned. It’s alarming how that might have been an accident.”

“It means to speed up to not get caught in a red light, actually. I had plenty of time. You overreacted.”

“It’s not safe, pushing on fast at the last moment, not gauging distances clearly.”

“What’s not safe is you barking at me to watch out, it distracts me, then I lose needed focus.”

“You need to drive more carefully.”

“You ought to chill out and just let me drive. I’ve been doing so a long time now.”

“Wait, where are you going? Turn left there, it’s much faster.”

“It’s actually longer, that way is residential streets.”

“You miss traffic jams. I guarantee it’s ten minutes faster at least due to light traffic. I go this way all the time–”

“I’m turning on Siri; she knows the best way.”

“My gosh, an annoying computer and not one bit of driving experience although ‘she’ insists on directing us.”

“Siri has updated, inside info on all routes.”

Slightly sulking wife turns to the window, stares into the traffic. She would like to silence that computer once and for all, just take charge of that steering wheel herself. She sighs. It’s better to relent sometimes. But next time she is insisting on driving, her way.

Both are convinced they know what’s going on and what’s needed and what is not. They likely each have valid points. They each have literal viewpoints that create a manner of decision and action. Yet both desire to exert influence over the other. One or the other will win out unless a stalemate occurs. This time the driver did since he was in control of the vehicle and she at least verbally backed down. And it’s just a drive through town on a few errands, not a critical point to be made, not a major decision (unless he should not be driving due to a fading of keen senses). But we love our viewpoints, our familiar and comforting subjectivity. We know our own minds and assert them.

I’ve delved into this issue the past week–that sometimes overwhelming urge we have to make our voices heard, opinions accepted, our purported knowledge well heeded. There is such a powerful need to impact others, to even change them in some well-considered ways. And it is usually “for your own good”–this, from our singular and considered position.

If it is an acquaintance or even a stranger, that is one thing. We have interchanges in an elevator, on a park bench, at an event or when sharing a ride to work. But even interactions about weather at the grocery check out stand can be comically loaded with impulses to have the last word. This happens to me.

Checker: “How is it out there now?”

Me: “Great. Started out out temperate, getting hotter. So nice I got my sandals out.”

C: “I’ve waited so long for a day of real sunshine. It seemed grey and chilly earlier.”

Me: “Sunshine will prevail. But it changes you know, rain and wind, a smattering of hail, then bright clear skies. It’s Oregon, we like it.” (What does he mean by “real sunshine”?)

C: “I actually bought an umbrella, first ever. I’m from Arizona. It’s never warm enough here, wear layers all the time or about freeze.”

Me: “I see…it’ll be up to eighty, ninety soon, stays clear and hot until late October then the rains return.”

C: “I’ll adapt, right?…There you go, thanks for shopping at Fred Meyer!”

Me: “Welcome to Oregon, hope you’ll enjoy being here!”

It was only a chat about weather…but I really wanted him to appreciate a place where the beauty is magical no matter the season and go on to explain how our weather changes our landscapes and impacts choices in interesting, positive ways. He surely wanted me to understand how hard it is to get used to a different clime; he missed the predictable dry heat of his home state.

Just a passing exchange.

What happens when something closer to home challenges us? When we feel that something is not going the way it ought to according to our estimations and yet the other person insists it is well and good? The hardest of all quandaries to address meaningfully is with those we love. When is too much said, too much influence attempted? When do we step back, admit things will go the way they will go? When do our frank opinions start to sound like severe directives? The dread static of interference?

As a parent, we are expected to be the ultimate guides. Or to at least gain enough trustworthy information that we’re able to behave like we can do the job. Some decisions are instinct for most parents: to nourish our children physically, mentally and emotionally; keep them safe from harm; train them in all sort of skills; provide assistance and feedback as they progress or need more aid and practice. And we want them to feel well loved. According to our cultural norms and traditions, we have further priorities to address as they grow up. We do whatever we can to ensure they get the information needed, then use it satisfactorily. And explore their lives from a solid base of confidence. This all seems reasonable most of the time, an arduous task during others.

But we all know that no matter how well we manage to pull off parenting responsibilities, little ones have minds of their own from a very early age. And then they grow up and our opinions and expertise mean less than a a pinch of salt and a dash of pepper tossed over popcorn and potatoes. They can and do make up their own minds They’re turn into adults somewhere in their early twenties. They’ve already stumbled, fallen and gotten back up, even become stronger and smarter–more than a few times if fortunate.

So just why am I standing here going on and on about what may well be the better way, what is probably in point of fact the wiser choice? Excuse me, a look tells me or a pause on the phone: thanks for those awesome words but we have complicated lives to attend to and we do have a tentative plan–don’t I have a busy life of my own? They might not say all that but I hear it.

Yet, wait a minute. I have decades on them. I have experiences they have never had and may not. I have knowledge that might be derived from excellent and arcane sources that could transform their lives. I just know those adult kids really well after the diapers and strep throats and night terrors and scabby knees. After we’ve shared heartbreaks and missed chances and anxiety over more change and the victories and moments of stirring clarity and the strength and courage that courses through their tender selves like life giving, sometimes even holy, water. The healing that comes when loving kindness is infused into rancorous wounds.

It’s sacred, being a parent. It demands of us much. We are witnesses to a life changing before our eyes. And our speaking and listening both helped keep them on the road that’s unspooled present and future for a long while. Safe! we’ve breathed again and again. Or if not then we waited without end at bedside, outside closed doors, in the night as we called for angels. In the kitchen making something that they liked. Put that kettle on for soothing tea, anything to help them rebound.

The truth is, I would take out my heart and lay it down for them. I would leap over a burning bridge to rescue them. I would find and carry their souls in my own hands out of a menacing darkness and into the lustrous light. And I am a woman for whom motherhood was not originally in the foreseeable, feasible plan.

So when an adult who was once my small child, a grown person whom I so love chooses to do something I do not understand, I have tried to quell my response unless requested. But not always, not by a long shot. I have to be honest, it almost seems unnatural after those intense decades of being ever-present and needed. So I attempt to offer thoughts with care even when I feel the weight of urgency. I remind myself: they are smart people, creative thinkers, they have an array of attitudes, ideas and feelings, too.

It’s not my life, after all.

It might be marrying someone I have not even had the chance to properly know. Leaving a fine job for other interesting but uncertain possibilities. Adventuring to places that are so far away and seem risky. Changing the configuration of a family despite the clear challenges. Moving to another place when the old one could improve if given more time and effort. But they have come up with a mutable plan, a working map and preferred criteria. My input is only useful or impractical data and may or may not be discarded.

The thing is, I know they generally value my well honed opinions. They call or stop by to toss about ideas with me, share work lives and creations, ask for some skill or ability of which they need to avail themselves. Most still even name their hurt, hopes, joys. They know they can always get a hug. They know I can listen. I have spent a lifetime of listening to clients and also to friends and family. I can be quiet, can wait, observe. But I also have a need to be honest about what I think and to inquire after more when I don’t understand well enough.

I am not good at being fully neutral with my family. Aloof or inscrutable, disengaged. Utterly objective. Sometimes I have to pray long and hard to regain a viewpoint that will enable me to place distance between us even as I zero in on the issues. It can be a hard maneuver to pull off but I have gotten better at it. I also pay attention to Mother Wit, my gut.

Nonetheless there are many times when what I think is not particularly relevant to these adults. They may not even ask much less tell me the good stuff in the first place. But when they share their lives and I’m taken aback by matters revealed, I have to remember I want to be the sort of parent I at times wish was here for me: someone calm, attentive, with a sense of humor, too. Able to consider a kid’s view valid even if all whys and wherefores are elusive. I would want respect. Trust in ability to make good decisions. Due consideration of the whole story. Acceptance of my adult life, anyway. Love.

All this is just what they deserve, as well.

I also ask myself: what was I thinking and doing at their age and what did my mother say or not say to me? She managed to get some decent sleep and also care about me despite some choices made that she sighed or likely wept over. She knew what I know now: you cannot act like an expert and blatantly insist on the wisdom of parental opinions and viewpoints no matter how you might want to… not with grown children. Especially when it is not their wish. I can’t any longer take away treats; I can’t give them “time out.” Nor do I want to, thank goodness.

But lest the reader think the five I raised are not quick to engage in their debates, too, it can seem like pandemonium around our table when they visit. Each one for themselves and yet in the end they are each one for all, too. I guess they’ve been taught to question, to probe, to re-imagine, to assiduously examine. But they know when enough is enough. They know to be kind.

So, I now do know what to do with my important advice. Leave it, tell it to pipe down. All my pushy, incisive, needful words can find another place to stir things up: a poem, a story, a walk along a brilliant river. Or to find solace: a prayer, a talk with my spouse or a friend, another walk in life-affirming woods and dale. I can manage my own self. Why would my children not do the same?

I feel humbled. I don’t always. Sometimes I feel as if someone must please hear me but today I think I’m the one who needs to reckon with greater truth. What do I know except for myself and even then…? I am not in charge of anyone else’s life. My mind can be a lively though peaceful haven or a corral knocked about by a hundred wild horses in it. I want to let out those beautiful and maddening horses. I can always look for them later. I prefer my innermost haven more right now.

My children, I surrender my worries and questions today and maybe even the morrow. I give over to the choices and aspirations that make up your own journeying. I want you to take chances that matter to you, to dream wiser and farther. To become your extraordinary human selves. And may our paths forever cross along the curious byways we take, the bends, twists, peaks and valleys that we each chart and traverse along our way.

 

Make Over

1178154_ida_07 Marlene’s daughter hadn’t yet made the appointment for Marlene’s haircut but she would. Tomorrow. Or she would just text her stylist, that might reach him faster. Greta was busy, a clear success by any decent standard a mother set. She brought work home at night, there were multiple flowers plus a new lemon tree on the wrought iron balcony that needed particular care, she had a nine year old son with urgent needs–Demian’s phone wasn’t working again, he had to buy knee pads for dodge ball, his painted turtle just passed away. Life was happening fast for Greta.

Not that Marlene thought her hair was a critical event that required immediate attention. She liked her hair; it had managed to retain some volume, the omnipresent grey was complementary to her pale blue eyes. But Greta had gotten the grand idea that her very expensive personal stylist could “do something” for her mother. Now that she was no longer working. Or married to her father.

“Spruce me up, you mean,” Marlene said with the least amount of sarcasm she could manage. “Maybe make me over. For what?”

Great put hands on hips as she did when a child. “Enhance your best features, those pretty eyes,” she enthused, “give that grey some oomph. Maybe mask it. Help the frizzy waves. Oh, and eyebrows…don’t be resistant, mom. I’ll pay.”

Oomph?” Marlene repeated, palms held up and looked at Demian. “Eyebrows? What next for this pitiful old lady?”

He shrugged, absorbed by the game on his phone. “I think Grandma looks fine.” His thumbs worked very fast. “You’re not too old, Grandma.”

Her grandson generally championed her. Marlene appreciated it. With a name like that (“He is the pivotal character in a perfect Hermann Hesse novel,” Marlene had told Greta, “so you must read it to know what you’re doing here!” but she did not), no telling what he’d do but he was smart, kind to all creatures, and had imagination as evidenced by the way he decorated his room. On his wall he had drawn an orange car with blue stripes on it. He liked to look at it as he fell asleep. Driving it was himself, of course, and in the passenger seat sat a small dog, a bit like a cocker spaniel, one his mother so far refused to get him. Its furry ears blew straight back in the wind, its long pinkish tongue dangled. Demian had signed and dated it. The only reason Greta had not thrown a fit was that Demian was a good artist. Truth was, gifted.

Names meant something in life, Marlene mused as she retired to her room. Demian might have been Peter, a name she favored for its crisp confidence, although Demian in the book had charisma, wisdom. She might have been a Renalda, a sensuous but proud name she’d read in another story, a trivial novel, but she had admired it ever since. Greta was named after Marvin’s great-grandmother. He’d said it would keep their daughter strong.

He was possibly right. Greta was like a commercial for endurance. Long hours at the ad agency, health withstanding gangs of viruses on trains and planes, a three-time marathon runner, and a single, loving mother. She never had married. She had chosen to have this child “without the interference of a life partner” was how she had put it. Marlene just shook her head. She had fought the good fight during feminism’s firebrand years, had worked all her life and had both fallen arches and piddling pension to show for it but when did having babies become another experiment in self reliance? But it was only a matter of time before Greta would be promoted and then move them all into a newer spacious apartment, so who could complain?

Marlene became a willing grandmother at age fifty-four. The child slept and ate well, exhibited intense focus from the start, and had a face like a Buddha, gently-shaped. She came to see him, if feasible, every other week-end for the first eight years but she hadn’t intended on living with him and his mother. That happened after Marvin decided he never was cut out for marriage and took early retirement, then moved up north to fish happily ever after. Marlene’s bank job had always been duller than boiled potatoes so she’d retired, too. Their modest house was sold, there was a little alimony and money from investments, yet funds were more tight than she’d expected. Greta could use assistance, she said, so moved her in. Temporarily, Marlene repeated often to them both.

“Okay, just your hair,” her daughter said again, standing in the doorway. “I’m thinking next week. Carlton is perfect for cut and color.”

“I have color. Two, in fact, brown and white mixed together making an interesting pale blondish-grey.”

Greta made a little moue with her plump mauve lips. “You agreed to leave this to me. My Mother’s Day gift to you. Please?”

Marlene turned on the retro lamps near the loveseat that took too much space. She slumped into the cushions and picked up a magazine. “I guess I’ll need to trust you.”

But Marlene just didn’t when it came right down to it, not as she’d have liked. The live-in offer was generous and the expedient thing to do–for the short term, until she got her feet under her. Or went back to her hometown. It didn’t really suit her, the schedules they had, the expensive, fussy food she was expected to eat and often shop for and prepare. The way Greta turned on the television every night. Marlene liked the radio so sought refuge in her cramped room (once a small office, now the dining room had to do for Greta’s work) unless Demian wanted to play cards or checkers or draw with her. The perpetual being on call for babysitting although being with her grandson was far more entertaining than anything else. She loved her daughter. But Greta had such a big life plan and Marlene, one that was vanishing a bit more each day.

Marlene felt at loose ends. No husband, house, job. Well, the subtraction of the job from the sum of her life was no loss. Yet who could blame her if there were mornings when the patch of sky she saw between faded curtains had an ominous cast? Or the narrow bed felt much too comforting? It got boring during the day. Watching people zoom by below their fourth story apartment building. Haunting the library until there was a distinct feeling of bloat from overindulgence in the printed word. Walking around the same blocks again. It was true that Demian was a wonder. But grandsons were not friends exactly. Marlene was used to meeting up with Jenny and Cath in a moment’s notice. Now they were an hour away.

There was a mirror above the oak dresser and Marlene stood before it, hands atop her head. Her hair looked…like her hair. It folded in at her shoulders, enough curl to keep it from hanging in a thready hank. In the duskiness of the room, it seemed a warmer color but the grey glowed like sterling in sunlight. Either way, it didn’t matter much. She recalled the bank years when she presented herself as the quintessential professional, the time and effort it took. How she loathed the pants suits and the dresses that required expensive shoes and nylons. She took frequent restroom breaks to reapply her lipstick or otherwise she felt undressed. Her real lips were faded, like rose petals that had lost vibrancy, appeal. She had gotten rid of the suits and twenty tubes of expensive lip color, keeping one for special occasions.

Marlene smiled at her reflection, then waved. Then she bobbed her head side to side as though she was deliriously happy. This sometimes worked.

“Grandma, what are you doing?”

Demian climbed onto her bed so he could place himself behind her image in the mirror. He stuck out his arms and she raised hers. They waved them wildly. It looked like she had four arms.

“Demian! Time for bed!” “Grandma and I are doing something!”

Greta entered the room with her phone in hand. “I already texted Carlton. He said next Saturday at three. I’ll take you. Demian can play with his buddy downstairs.”

Greta beamed at her, eyes lit up with anticipation. Marlene sighed. It came out a small whistle that made Demian giggle as he bounced off her bed.

 

It was sometime after five o’clock in the morning when Marlene awakened. Two cats were at it, whether fighting or loving she didn’t know, it all sounded the same to her. She sat up until the racket died down, then, wide awake, pushed the covers off and walked to the low window to fling open two little doors to let in the air. The day was starting off with drifting fog, then it’d clear, she bet. A day for a walk down by Pier Park, watch boats come in, barges go out. She’d have a croissant with honeyed butter or a poppy seed muffin and coffee, take her book along. It’d warm up; the spring sky would turn aquamarine like magic. Then it would be crawling with people. She wouldn’t be able to sit and muse over anything with the cigarette smokers and toddlers with their anxious, gabby mothers. She shuddered and yawned. Greta would be up by six, scurrying around.

Then the idea came to her. She stuffed her faded polar bear T-shirt into her shorts, then got her coat from the stand by the dresser. She went to the window and looked down at the fire escape. Marlene had once had to use one during a false fire alarm. She stepped up, steadied herself with hands against window frames, then stepped down, her thigh muscles complaining. The air was so still it seemed to hold its own secret sound. It soothed her. She watched a younger man and an older woman–it could be her a year ago–rushing for the train.

By the time she had climbed halfway down the she realized she had no shoes on. How must she look, a mad woman perched on the fire escape! She went back up the metal steps, climbed back in and put her tennis shoes on, then pulled on her old khakis. Then she scrawled a noted on the back of a bookmark and left it on her pillow: Gone to Pier Park for an early morning stroll and coffee. Don’t worry, back later.

Marlene started again, one foot on the window sill, excitement mounting.

“Where are you going, Grandma?” Demian’s voice sounded serious and it made her pause. She looked back, pointed to the book mark, then put a finger to her lips. Demian read the note.

“Can I come? Please?”

“Not this time, sweetie,” she whispered. “I’ll be back before long. See you after school.”

And then she stepped out the window.

“Grandma! Don’t let mom change you! Got it?”

Marlene looked at him and felt so much love that her body felt strong and mighty, her spirit felt light. She was momentarily concerned she might leap off those steps and fly just to show him how much she could and would do for him. But she let out a  chuckle, stepped out again and landed on the metal step with a thud. Demian leaned on the windowsill and watched her gingerly descend. When she looked back at him, he gave her two thumbs up. She waved and took off down the street, coattails flying in the fresh May breeze.

“The best!” he said, then tiptoed back to bed.