Friday’s Quick Pick/Poem: Sister, Alright Now

It is quite alright, anyway, sister,

this is one more reconfiguration,

a slip-slide to the right,

a gutsy careening downhill,

a pulling this part closer,

letting that old thing fall,

leaning minor or major to the left,

reaching past what obscures the way,

one leg rather tired maybe dangling

but another still dancing a jig,

one shuttered eye seeing as much

as it can, another luminous and brave,

while our spirits move in vivid infinity

or sing with the rivers, wind, stars,

and burnished wings stir old romances

the rock in your hand a shadow

of old hurt that will bruise no more,

as your rallying for the unwise or forgotten

becomes quieter (we all need mercies),

your thoughts rustle over blue-green lakes 

like a flock of startled geese,

and reflections ripple, smooth your  

face as your eyes widen and narrow,

two sunsets. I see the universal you

 

and the reason this is on my mind

(besides you being you)

is that all of us everywhere must one day

realign renovate rescue relinquish

transfigure our bound-up lives

into a more tender, valorous humanity,

into the torch of compassion,

a superior imagining of love

 

and so, also, we two–you and I–

will hang on, mosses clinging to dirt

on old paths remade for the detours

no matter what they inform us

no matter what you can no longer name

no matter if turquoise skies fade to grey

no matter when the next bell tolls

sounding each new arrival and leave-taking–

 

I will drop from the line and find you.

I will remember everything, my sister.

Especially and deeply for you.

 

 

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Found Tent

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

In the spacious front hall closet I was rearranging toppled baseball caps, a pair of  hiking boots, three IKEA folding chairs, two camp chairs, a small storage unit for more hats/gloves/scarves and a box of Architectural Legos so a new vacuum would fit behind crammed coats when it jumped out at me: a Three Person Wedge Dome Tent snug in its plastic casing.

“Huh,” I said to no one, since I was alone. “How come this is still here?”

Never mind that the corners are shadowy even with a hall light on. It seemed nonsensical that a full-sized tent could be hiding out in there. You see, we don’t camp. The “camp chairs” are what we take to an outdoor concert, or for a restful afternoon by a lake–not for hanging out in the woods for several days. Then I recalled dishes on the shelf above, the pine green enamel service for two plus stainless pot that are good for…camping. We do have basement storage. Yet here this stuff sat.

“We don’t ever camp, likely will not camp again, so what the heck?”

I pulled it out. It almost pained me, looking at it. The tent was beautiful with its lightweight royal blue water repellent fabric and polyethylene floor, the mesh door to bar insects yet allow ventilation. It’d look great with camp chairs and green enamel ware out there in the misty cool mornings under a canopy of Oregon evergreens and big leaf maples and so on and on, with eagles soaring above in hunt mode, owls hooting in velvety depths of night, and a campfire charging up the storyteller in us, even a few songs rolling out as we sipped soup from mugs…But not to be, I mused wryly.

I used to camp a great deal, with enthusiasm. I camped out as a child when at various summer camp programs, of course. And with my parents during  my teens (though not too often) with a simple pop-up camper they towed behind their Chrysler and then the Plymouth. We even camped in Canada which was more interesting to me then the camping with parents.

My first husband, Ned, and I went “primitive”; areas we camped around northern Michigan had no electricity or flush toilets with few other tenters around. When we had a family, we took our babies along, I nursed on the go. We backpacked along overgrown trails, branches reaching down as we made our way. We scavenged kindling, chopped and split “downed and dead” logs and cooked simplest fare over an open fire. I had married a man who was at perhaps most at home in the woods and the solitude found there. I wasn’t so far behind with willingness and appreciation. At first there were more skills to learn but it was fulfilling to work alongside him. It was peaceable out there and we and our kids felt good.

My current husband, Marc (who camped as a kid on Lake Michigan during summers with grandparents), and I camped at times with our combined five kids, borrowing my parents’ camper until they sold it. We tended to do this for other purposes, i.e. we were visiting a certain person “up north”, attending a folk or bluegrass music or similar event or were on our own Canadian sojourn. It was more economical and fun to camp rather than throw away money on hotel rooms. Not all the children were thrilled–hotels were luxurious playgrounds, unlike home–but most adapted. Naomi and Joshua, my children with Ned, were at ease, happy, helpful. Alexandra, our youngest, was excited to try anything new and adventurous. My stepdaughters were more skeptical. But Cait easily embraced the beauty of nature, loved finding wild berries, cooking with us. Aimee loathed it. She insisted she was genetically programmed to be a city person and to drag her out into any wilderness–despite flush toilets, showers, electricity: near civilization–was a true injustice and perhaps neglect of our responsible parental duties. (This never changed–she adores the concrete jungle and generally avoids being in dirt or in spitting distance of bugs unless required.)

Over time camping was less and less a family activity choice. A few grandchildren still went, however, with my parents–even when Mom and Dad were in their seventies. They were good at the more comfortable style of outdoors living. My dad had talents one would never suspect when he was in his tuxedo, conducting a symphony. He’d set up camp with simplicity and speed. My mother was a farm girl-turned-teacher and organized, efficient, if not thrilled with constant dirt in her makeshift home, under her nails–hadn’t she been done with all that? But they both respected, even seemingly revered what nature offered and taught the children more valuable lessons with each trip. Among which was cooperation with others–a love of familial fellowship. Those who enjoyed those trips still recall them fondly.

The last time spent hunkering down in a tent was autumn of 2010. Marc and I bought the tent when my son, Joshua, and his family (with two dogs) invited us to join them. I was thrilled he invited us. We didn’t  have what we needed but he did. Joshua is a veteran camper and hiker, a woodsman-type like his father. He, his two children and their mother know how to manage the basic and arcane things one learns when spending much time in wilderness or close to it. By the time they were in school Avery and Asher could identify many animal signs via scat and tracks, bird calls and even wild plants. They could explain differences between poisonous and nontoxic ones for use as, say, poultices for injuries and bites as well as for teas and food. I looked this info to verify it and was stunned. And Joshua can start a crackling fire with little and no modern helps, spot a deer in the distance before anyone else, root out stones from water or earth and name the types found. He has made a peaceable connection with all bugs and even spiders, despite a few having bitten and infected him badly with venomous wounds made.

My son and I experience nature at a perhaps primitive core which also encompasses our highest sense of all things–but he knows more about the outdoor life by now. Hence, it would be good to tag along with him into Oregon’s forests in the Columbia Gorge.

If only I could  tell you it was an entirely satisfying time but our one night camping experience was rough at moments. For one, my husband snores and has sleep apnea and without his CPAP machine, even with pillows propping him up a bit…well, it was an even less restful sleep for me; he seems more adapted to his apnea. We inhabited two separate sleeping bags with thin foam cushioning beneath. Nonetheless I felt may stones, lumps of dirt and stray twigs every time I was awakened by the drone from my husband. And I sweated too much so threw off top half of the sleeping bag, then felt the chill of skin drying inch by inch.

Sightless in the seas of blackness, I listened to the wilderness’ darkened voice in between  the snores and coughs. Its enveloping presence was alternately soothing and disconcerting. Thoughts arose about cougars, my most feared (such hunting prowess with stealth and fierceness) wild thing in these parts. And bears which I knew tended to be avoidant of people if food was securely put away (it was).  I had long trusted deep forest when I’d camped before and that night it was like a familiar but also a stranger one. I had lived at the edges of a few woods, miles out in country, and rustlings and sighings and snappings and occasional unknown soundings of something, somewhere…yes, it was so recognizable. I was duly mesmerized. The trees were so alive–of course they were!–but they were so utterly alive even if sleeping–did they ever sleep?…What else was awake besides me? My blood coursed with adrenaline at odd moments despite sensible self-talk.  Heart rat-a-tat-tatted or harrumphed. Mostly I wanted to stop itching and sweating, feeling the uneven ground and hearing Marc emit snores. Wait, what was that landing on my forehead?  And why didn’t I just buy a second small tent? Pitch it on the other side of the site? Why didn’t he just find a happy pause in racket and lsnooze on? Likely scared off near anything out there.

But even the dogs were sleeping.

Breathe in the good magic, Cynthia, be at your ease.

It started to rain, fat drops smacking and sliding off  tent walls. A relief to hear its music. I closed my eyes and fell asleep a couple hours out of exhaustion. Dawn arrived with a whisper and sweetness that is unlike city mornings, not with a slap but a caress. And the fragrance of fire burning and oatmeal cooking and coffee simmering. I crawled out of my sleeping bag, sneaked outside and stretched sore muscles and bones, grateful for the new day. Mist hovered in the distance like a benign spirit gathering. I could hear the kids at the river, their voices soft. Joshua was tending to the fire, sitting on a log. He looked up and smiled his crooked smile. The dogs noted me, licked his hand and took off.

“It was a sort of rocky night, but glad to be here.” I wanted to be a great camper so I did not want complain to Joshua.

He chuckled quietly. “Good. You just have to get used to it again.” He gestured to the flickering fire. “I piled some wood in the tent. Found other kindling not too damp.”

I nodded, looked out into the wetness and light creeping into inside the cooled air, a persistent brightening of a dullish day. The forest was breathing its fresh breath and I took it in deeply. Damp earth radiated its musky goodness. How I loved woodlands after rainfall, how trees shook off their shower and other plants bathed and glistened. My grandchildren scampered about with muddy boots and clothes, hands full of stones and berries. I thought back to those other days when my children were their ages and life was woven of inexplicable beauty and sorrow, not unlike how it was, still. But now it was safer, freer, deeper for me in countless ways. And my son was cooking breakfast, hugging his two, quietly talking with me as I poured coffee into our mugs. I watched him and was startled, as I still always am, to glimpse his father.

Before long Marc followed his nose to join us. I held my tongue. He seemed more achy and groggy than I. He and Joshua talked wood, stones, fire building. Content to listen, I heard Avery and Asher chattering as if freed of a spell of enforced stillness. The dogs, a mess of mud and plant matter, caroused with them.

Sitting around a small sputtering morning fire, sipping hot percolated brew, hearing birds’ wings slice through a sprinkling of rain and our muted talk, I was nearly as pleased as when camping years ago. Just more sleepy and quite a bit older. But I felt perhaps even more alive than decades ago. Oh, I was flush with boundless energy and vivid talk and brave dreams then. But now…now I was more rounded at my sharp edges, more permeable, flexible. Able to welcome insights other than my own fragments. I was humbled. Enriched. In fact, I had stayed alive when more than once I thought I might not make it so long. And that was something.

Only the enormous, aged trees about us might grasp this and they seemed to lean toward me, branches graceful and strong, their lives enduring an opening of every new day and its progression in this communal place, then into nights. Events of import that seeped into them, slipped about them. I nodded at the forest and heavy sky that promised more rain.  A gratitude that filled my throat with tears a second. But, too, I wondered if I could do it again or if aging had begun to conspire against me. If I had what it took to be fearless and sturdy enough of body and soul to make a camp out there. If we would take another chance, just go out on our own s before.

We tore down our lively camp, hiked as light rain came and went. By the time we separated and said farewell, sunbeams were vanquishing soft fogginess and how it shone on us. My heart swelled with wonders even as my body griped a little.

 

I put the tent back in the closet, tuck it into its corner. Can we even think about camping again at 66 and 68? Maybe, maybe not. But I want to see it there when items need reordering or when I just want to pull it out and look it over. Or when we finally move from here. I want to know it has been done and done well enough. How it has nourished us all, made us let go and attend to the immediacy of life, venture just a little more into the wilder variations of what matters: love becoming even more visible within the realm of natural manifestations.

Still, I find myself dreaming of staking my claim to a spot amid the sentinel trees. And a sturdy blue tent–one for Marc, one for me.

Friday’s Quick Pick/Poem: A Small Ballad of Beauty and Fortitude

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Photograph by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The freshening darkness sings and snarls.
At the window she rests and waits for
that loft and heft of air that carries
all four directions into her emptying mind.
She doesn’t need to move an inch from the
extra wide bed (nor can she) that cradles her

smallness like a bird wrapped within
skeins of a variegated night.
It is a waiting that brings pleasure
as all the light is turned down.
Things that were hiding or resting
take their places, reveal wondrousness.
It’s all a giant music box that pops open as
last shards of color soon pale and vanish.

Why and for what must you wait? he complains
as he nudges her bones away from his heat.
To be friends with life, she tells him.
He utters noises that suit the hollow he makes;
she watches beyond a narrow window, senses keen.
An easy enchantment as earth shifts, sighs;
wind brings sonatas to her strong teacup of a heart.

Everything living in the far-flung night is
larger, far more than she knows, but this is
a comfort: cats ferocious in hunger and desire,
handfuls of birds all glide and whisper,
squirrels and spiders that burrow and spin.
The moon glows without prejudice as the man
creates distance, keeps safe his importance.

Once when she was a brave child
she sat at night under the peach tree.
Savored flesh of tender fruit as twilit sky
stirred with a flurry of bat wings,
each no bigger than her fingertips.
Insects joined in chorus, brittle and bright.
Warm were the rocks, smooth beneath
her failed legs; night crawlers scaled her toes.
No one knew she had dragged herself out
until morning and they found her asleep
by a den of foxes. She had dreamed
she’d stood up, raced in fields behind them.

She grew but her legs did not lead where
she begged them to go. Later, more useless
than when she was certain of healing. Romance.
She has been more at home in breadth of bed
day and night. It has become less to bear.
Fine night creatures circle under the stars;
nature’s design makes room for her in the
unnatural world of trivia. Useless tears.

Night breathes on me and I am freed of it all, she says.
He snores on, head under quilts, blind and safe
from the dark while she floats, heedless,
toward the salvation of this in-between time.

Harry Brill’s Pants

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Harry Brill sometimes opened his door wearing nothing but a frayed button-down shirt, this time one with the thankfully longer tail. He leaned on his walker and squinted through the screen, breath leaking out in a plume of smoke. As Home Care Manager, I’d had very few complaints about Harry besides his sporadic state of undress, but that alone kept many personal care workers at bay. Many quit the first day. I drove twenty miles out to the small, dilapidated trailer park to check up on him. As Home Care Manager I investigated complaints and took action as needed, among other things. Once more I would remind him of appropriate ways to behave with his aides.

He threw me a look of irritation, motioned me in and bumpily turned his walker around to move forward. I let the flimsy screen door slam, not from a fit of rudeness but because he’d once told me it always comforted him to hear it; his wife had let it slam on purpose each time returning home. I waited for him to back up and sit in the frayed blanket-covered easy chair, then sat across from him. I tried to breathe lightly. The air was slimy with smoke and bacon or sausage grease.

“Why gracing me with a visit so soon, Cynthia?” he asked with a barely disguised growl.

“Good morning, Harry, where are your pants today?”

He rubbed his sparse white hair. “Maybe in the bathroom. Sometimes they just stay put.”

“So I understand. But they need to come along with you to the living room and front door, remember?”

He gave me that look that said even dolts knew that but he’d consider it further.

“Ain’t always easy to get ’em back up, as you know.”

“That’s why you have help.”

“They ain’t always here, are they?” He pulled another cigarette out of his shirt pocket and stuck it behind his ear. “But now you’re here you can help.”

“Of course, Harry, as always.”

I entered the bathroom, retrieved crumpled black sweatpants from the bathroom floor. Harry pushed the walker aside so I could better pull them over his purplish feet, up over rough shins and knobby knees toward his hips.

“Your turn, hike them up the best you can. Got a hold of them now? That’s it. You’re better able when sitting here, I think. Maybe the back of the sturdy chair helps.”

“Yep, I guess, got ‘er done.” He grunted as I sank into the couch. I opened a folder of notes on clients I’d be visiting, taking my time.

“It’s hardly worth the effort some days, if you want to know. And my legs ain’t too bad-looking, are they? Just a little weak-kneed.”

“So you say. Now we can better chat. How is that Georgia working out three days a week?”

He leaned forward. “Well, she tattled on me, I see, not so sure. But she can cook the out of beef stew and chicken wings and fried taters. And she’s real clean, likes to polish.”

The main room didn’t look any different than before Georgia started working there. It was in colorful disarray: a few shoe boxes of snapshots and cards, old magazines and mail teetering, discarded cigarette packages. Two used bowls with big spoons along with mugs were on a side table where dust gently accumulated. The lamp bulb was dim but I make out the oval mirror behind Harry, a smudged, streaked glass. It wasn’t at all good for his allergies but the smoke was likely thicker than dust.

“She was last here Friday, Harry. That’s three days. The dust still gathers in random piles– if you even look for it.”

He sniffed. “Well, last week Georgia brought her son and we played instead.”

“Ah.” I wrote a line or two. Georgia and Terrance/confer with Boss Marcia– or not? “What did you play?”

“What d’ya think? Checkers! I beat that squirt and her. But nice boy, maybe five, minds his mom.”

I considered Harry as he looked out the door, then took the mashed cigarette out, lit it with his red Bic lighter. Inhaled, coughed, inhaled again. He was eighty and had had both hips replaced, the last surgery not as successful. His one living daughter was in Texas. His nephew came around every couple of months with extra food and a hundred for utilities, sometimes stayed for a quick chat.  The nephew cared but he didn’t have time; he had his own life, as he reminded her when she called with an update.

Harry had had five personal care aides in the past seven months. If it wasn’t his smoking, it was his pants left behind; if it wasn’t surliness, it was his Meals on Wheels deliveries spoiling on the counter.

“I don’t know. I want you to stay here, too, but you sometimes get in our way…we have to have a sound strategy.”

“Yeah, guess that’s so.”

The cigarette was held up in front of him between index finger and thumb. He studied it as if it held an answer, then took a long drag. I waited from him to exhale; sometimes he’d hold it in an extra few seconds as if challenging me to say something. I didn’t. I knew he’d smoke until he left us behind. He had told me time and time again that his father and grandfather had smoked right up until ages 90 and 94. “It’s a genetic thing,” he’d say. “We got stronger lungs than most, nicotine sets with us just fine.”This despite his worsening cough for which he would not see a doctor.

He forced out the smoke between pursed lips, hacked once. “But what d’ya expect? I’m used to my own ways.”

“True. Well, do you want help or do you want something else?”

He narrowed his rheumy eyes at me. “What’s the ‘else’ part?” He stubbed out the cigarette. “Not my nephew again…”

I took a deep breath. I had not been looking forward to this moment. “A referral to other housing. That retirement place he had mentioned. He’s got the money to help out, as you know.”

Harry lay his crooked palm against his chest. “It’ll kill me. He’s always sticking his nose where it don’t need to be stuck… but I won’t leave. Georgia is pretty good, we can make do. I’ll keep my pants handier, I’ll figure out how to get ’em on, I’ll try to smoke less, I’ll eat those–”

“Hang on. You’ll smoke less? Is she that good?”

“By Jiminy, she’s great!” he said, mugging surprise at his confession. “She can cook, she can play a couple of games, she has a kid who laughs–what more could I want?” He shook his head and his brow wrinkled more. “But, that’s right, she can’t clean worth a damn! Maybe we can get someone else in for that if it gets too bad, huh? Gotta keep the nephew happy, okay?”

He tossed me a look. There was a glimpse of his sometimes hidden good nature beneath the bluster and pout. His color, I noticed, was better than last month. He sat up straighter with bony shoulders thrust back as if to convince me of his vitality. The truth was I already knew he was more hearty than most his age. That’s one reason I was fighting so hard for him to just stay put. Marcia was getting on me since we’d had complaints that he was not keeping clean enough, too often without pants, difficult to manage, whatever that meant. He took only a blood pressure pill and one for his stomach, something for pain on the few days or nights his hip felt too bad. His mind was working overtime from what I could tell. I saw no reason to recommend pushing him out his door but Marcia saw things in a different light.

“Georgia was well recommended by another client before… she… passed.” I looked right at him to see if that bothered him but he just nodded. “She’s a hard worker, but I didn’t know she didn’t clean well. That’s sort of important, Harry, hygienic conditions. You seem to manage, anyway, but she needs to step it up.”

He nodded again. “I do manage. I’m getting old, Cynthia, I don’t need perfection. But I’ll talk to her and Terrance, they’ll help me out.”

I considered if I should tell him her son was actually her grandson but did not. I had met the young one;  he was big hearted, spirited but well-behaved. I knew the rules, but Terrance liked the old folks, Georgia said. I had told her to not mention her grandson going with her. I knew it might cost me a reprimand or worse but it just made sense. Most older adults enjoyed kids around a bit. It was a win-win as I saw it; I was trying to develop more inter-generational events at the senior center.

“Okay. I’ll talk to Georgia about a few things. Maybe she can come earlier in the day, get you dressed, make breakfast, too. We’ll see how you both do the next three months. And then I’ll be back, if not before.”

“Now don’t go hard on her.” His voice lost its edge and I paused. “You have kids, Cynthia?”

I put my folders into my briefcase. “I do. Five.”

“By Jiminy, lady, that’s a bunch of crazy kittens to let loose! How you manage all this?”

“I muddle my way through, Harry, just like everybody does.” I sighed to emphasize. “We each have our work cut out, right?”

“Well, you seem to do okay, I’ll say that. Maybe I like your stopping by.”

“You might? Harry, watch it now, you’ll go dewy-eyed on me.”

Harry picked up his crumpled cigarette pack and pulled out another cigarette, lit it with his trusty Bic and puffed. “Worse can happen to a man, I guess.”

“But you really need to keep those pants on if you can, Harry, it’s not so much to ask. It can scare people sometimes.”

“It does? Huh. I’ll do my best, that’s all I can do, they just sometimes slip away. But Georgia–will she come back?”

“I imagine so. I’ll call with our decisions about everything soon.”

When I stood up, he did, too, slow but certain, then shuffled behind me to the battered screen door. I pushed it open, took in a chest full of fresh air but carefully so he wouldn’t notice how much I needed to breathe it in. I needed to quit smoking, myself; the thought of being his age and still smoking like a chimney, playing with fate, was too much to bear.

I stepped out to the weathered landing of the wooden front steps, surveyed the trailer park slumped in another day’s slow ending. Half a dozen of them, all filled with older people, with their travails, longings and keepsakes. I knew them all and would be back.

His face on the other side of the half-opened screen brightened as I turned to say goodbye.

“‘Til next time, Cynthia.”

“Until then.”

I ran down the steps and got in my car, started the engine and slowly started down the semi-circular dirt driveway. Harry was still at the door, waving. I stuck my hand out the window and gave a neat wave back. Afternoon light slipped through oak tree branches and made a shining path through fallen leaves. The scruffy, narrow yard lit up in a soft blaze of color. Harry’s door closed with an agreeable bang.

******

Notes on this post:

You may think this fiction, but it is loosely based on one of many real experiences; it fulfills criteria of (quite) creative non-fiction. That’s how I’ve chosen to categorize it, anyway, at this time. I have and shall change all names (most I have forgotten) and identifying characteristics. I’ve created scenarios that are amalgams of a few certain years and places that made up my experience. The elderly people I served are long gone now; it’s been thirty years.

I was employed by a large senior services center in a suburb of Detroit for a few years. Starting as a part-time Adult Care Aide, I progressed to Home Care Assistant and then became Manager. It was an even bigger job than I had thought. There were 350 homebound clients on average who required hot meals delivered as well as personal care services. All this so they could live and, perhaps, die in their own homes as they desired. I assessed and checked in on them, meditated family conflicts and provided resources. I hired, trained and managed 150 aides. Though it was a demanding job, I had a passion for it and missed it after moving to a new city where I began a different career. If there had been a comparable position, I would have continued in the field of geriatrics. (The need for income was paramount and addictions and mental health services offered more abundant work at the time. That turned out fine, too.)

I was told the place I once worked is no more, undoubtedly replaced by a larger building and better diversified programs overseen by county and state. But I hope to write of more personal experiences. The center was a unique place, and being of service for so many in need–who yet had much to offer, too–made a profound impact on my thinking and on my living.