I have been close to home lately with the unpredictable coronavirus showing up in our area; it is also generally quite cold, often cloudy or foggy and damp again so I am not tromping far afield, though I keep up my walks. So I looked through old posts and found one that provided some good cheer: “She Who Rules Wisely: Troll Runs the Show”, posted in 2013. It was a visit to a local arts museum that inspired this. It may not seem like a meander at first glance–more an outing and experience–but imagination can take us anywhere, and I revisited past pleasures so this time it counts! I hope you enjoy foolish, fun time I had with the above troll. (She still resides with me on a bookshelf.)
She Who Rules Wisely: Troll Runs the Show
My family recently enjoyed a reunion for a week. We shared a variety of activities and talked from morning until evening. Our five adult children landing within the same city limits is a rare event. They got to reunite with an uncle and three aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews.
One sunny afternoon we explored a few offerings of downtown Portland. My oldest daughter is an artist and since we all love the arts, we visited the choice Museum of Contemporary Craft. We saw an exhibit of bowls in many mediums displayed as part of a project organized by Ayumi Horie in partnership with the museum entitled “Object Focus: The Bowl”. Particularly curious was a table lined with bowls that we could pick up and examine, think about, admire. An option for the visitor was choosing an artist whose bowl was enjoyed, thus being given the privilege of taking a similar bowl home to use by checking it out at the Circulation Desk. This part of the project is called “Object Focus: The Bowl, Engage + Use.”
Yes, that’s correct–we got to utilize the very art that museums typically discourage us from touching. What an adventurous concept! I was all in, especially when the others encouraged me. We all agreed we would at least use a unique and beautifully crafted bowl for an upcoming family BBQ. The daughters started to think of foods the bowl might hold. I finally chose one created by Mike Helke. It is an unusual shape, and the glazes are lovely. I knew it could make something good happen.
We did fill the bowl with a luscious fruit salad for our family reunion meal. But we had a few other ideas and I seized upon one in particular.
It involves a troll. My troll.
She Who Rules Wisely (aka Crone aka Old Troll) was given to me by my mother over thirty-five years ago, following a Scandinavian trip my parents took. I think of this carved creature as an ancient and watchful being from first, another dimension, and second, a region that attracts me with its natural grandeur and history. Since her kind supposedly has power there and in my house, I afford her respect and a prominent place of repose.
Every now and then we talk a little in secret, I must admit…she is reassuring yet stern, frank but humorous–much like my mother and her sisters have been, reasonably…. But most of all, “SWRW” is a survivor and considers herself queenly when at her best. In fact, she confides she borders on goddess-hood. She is part of a long and dignified history whether or not we humans get it. (In truth, she is a bit raggedy after her nearly legendary life, but I would never mention it to her face…)
There was no question that she would chime in when she saw the bowl brought home. She has opinions, after all–and does adore the limelight. What follows is a transcription of her responses, aided by pictures she has allowed.
“I see. Trying to get this one over me, eh? I happen to have been thinking about boats and beds, either of which this great piece of ceramic might become. Allow me to investigate further. I can’t sleep anyway, with all the racket.”
“Yes, yes. About the right size. Sturdy yet elegant. Best colors I’ve seen in eons. But which to use it for…no, no suggestions needed!”
“‘Oh, sail me across the great Atlantic, take me back to my fiords, my dear! Make me a bed in the deep velvety forest, my true love does awaitme there!’ What? My voice needs a tune up, you say? Rude…never mind. This suits me well. But would it sink…anyone check that out yet? What are the specs?”
“This looks and feels nothing whatsoever like the ocean…”
“That was extraordinarily taxing to flip over. No, I didn’t need your help. I need to get my exercise regimen in gear, anyway. I am aged, I do need my cardio. But now, what to do, what to do? I feel at home in here…A bed, a boat. Shhh…! I’m cogitating. “
“Brain fatigue. I might need to rest up first. Not as quick as I used to be. Wait….that gives me another thought. Watch this.”
“Not so easy to get comfortable, I admit, but I’ve known rocks that were much worse. The three rectangles are a deft touch but this rounded side sleeps poorly. I could use a cushy bed of moss about now. What did you say the craftsman was building? Right, bowls.”
“Okay, it’s the fabric that is half the problem. Where did you get this? I don’t like it. Cheap. Remove at once.”
“An improvement but somewhat claustrophobic. Reminds me of some fishing boats I’ve sheltered under during my unbelievably long, occasionally nomadic life. I could tell you stories!– another time. If I could, I’d close my other eye and sleep away the rest of the evening. This whole experience is inspiring but, I have to admit, tiring.”
“You know what? I appreciate the generous offer, but you may keep it, Cynthia. It looks good, you like it, but to me it’s a boat that won’t float and a bed that hexes snoozing. My tail is starting to drag now. Let me give you some advice. Next time you want to bring home art, take me with you. I’m available for consulting for a reasonable fee. Speaking engagements, as you know, are a heftier investment. But they might not be about any arts that you’d appreciate. I know things, you know.”
“Hey…okay, here we go again. Storytellers–you all have to have the very last word. Wait–keep that profile shot–my best side! I do look pretty good, eh? Yes, I do. And I’ve got my eye on you, my dear!”
He should have never come here, not yet, but his brother’s last words were “Meet Allen Z. at Tip’s.” And he didn’t want to dishonor Len, two years younger. Now gone. But it gave him the creeps. This was the epitome of the sort of place Len frequented, smart in a moderately chic way, crowded with bodies and words, chairs surrounding each table so people kept attaching themselves to conversations. Too many suits for Rudy. It had been hard to find a spot where he could wait undisturbed. He’d had to put his backpack on a chair across from him and his foot on another. Still, a man built like a cement block had put his hand on a chair back, eyebrows raised, as if he was sure of this seat with or without permission. He backed away after a pronounced glare.
He’d arrived before the lunch crowd poured in so he’d ordered and consumed a BLT sandwich, the cheapest thing on the menu. Len and he had met here once every couple of months when Len was about started college and Rudy had been moved to full-time at the Rialto Theater. Still, it was Len who could afford the salmon salad. He had money coming in from their great-uncle, whose vote of confidence was so great he’d long ago set aside money for his charming, studious great-nephew’s education.
Everyone knew that was right. Rudy didn’t think much about it until he couldn’t get a job following high school. He sweated it out in the basement rec rom at the parents’ and Len sympathized as he scored the honors’ list again. Rudy wished he’d had both the flair and committment to academics his brother did. But it was a short-lived sulk. The job at the New Rialto Theatre was one he’d coveted since he was a kid. It was perfect hours (late afternoon til one a.m.); it showed independent and old movies and hosted other kinds of performances; and it afforded him a good look at Lucy now and then. He had yet to find the temerity to speak to her. It was just as well. She looked the other way when she saw him. If only Len could tell him what to do about that.
“I’d say wait for her after her shift and offer to view an ole Lauren and Humphrey, then have a chat over a microbeer. Or exotic coffee. Dazzle her with film trivia. She’ll love it.”
“Good idea. I think. She’s so smart, I’ll probably put her to sleep with my little movie anecdotes.”
Rudy put his hand to his mouth. Had he been speaking aloud? That was happening lately. He mostly knew Len was gone, but he found himself talking with him, both in his head and as if he was there. How long would it take for that to stop? Six more months? Or maybe this would all be straightened out and Len would be back.
A sputtering laugh startled him. He looked around. A businessman was blowing smoke rings and his table mate was jowl-deep in the roast beef special. Rudy studied the front door as it opened and closed, finishing the dregs of cold coffee. He shivered. The air conditioner was blasting despite the forecast of cooler days. Len wore a sweater; he chilled easily. Or, as Len said, he didn’t thaw after March like others, but he did shed the ratty goose down jacket.
Where was this mysterious Allen Z.? The tasteful wall clock indicated he was fifteen minutes late. Allen Z. would be wearing a red shirt and black pants so Rudy wouldn’t miss him. But who would notice if he slipped in and out with all those people blocking the light from windows and doorway? The loudest people attracted attention but only momentarily. It was the ordinary, silent ones who needed watching. Rudy knew that from years of being one. No one was so observant as he because no one paid much attention to him. He could absorb a lot in a short time just by being still. And he knew much about fascinating things, including people, he liked to think.
Len told Rudy he had to have been a cat in his last life, quick and good at sneaking around. Len put him up to things even though he was the younger one, like getting him to bring up the carton of ice cream to their room when his mother was finishing laundry right by the kitchen. Or stealing the bourbon bottle from the cabinet behind his father as he read the newspaper in his easy chair. There was the one double date they had that ended up with Rudy being nearly charged with trespassing. He’d been sent ahead to scout out the lay of the land behind a mansion on Lake Road. Len had planned a take-out picnic at midnight by the big pond behind the estate. Instead, they were sighted anyway, the cops were called and Rudy was the last to roll down the hill, smack into a flashlight’s glare. After that, Rudy taught Len how to do the slinking around, passing for a shadow. It was a relief to be done with such games.
Rudy absolutely wanted to leave now. The call had been made to Allen Z. after everything happened, then quieted down. Rudy had not been in a hurry. It was so overwhelming when Len vanished after his car accident that Rudy half-forgot about the name and number jammed in his jeans pocket. Detectives had found no decent leads and time dragged on. After Rudy woke up from the shock of it all, it finally occurred to him that the stranger might know something useful.
The voice that answered was refined and smooth as fine leather, as if he was expecting a pricey client on the other end.
“Allen Z. here. And to whom am I speaking?”
“Well, Mr. Janus, good of you to finally call. I’ll meet you at Tip’s tomorrow at one o’clock.”
“It’ll be lunch rush. Couldn’t we meet somewhere else?”
“Not at all, it’s perfect, busy is good, they have excellent espresso if in fact I’ve slid right into an early slump. Which happens more often than not after noon.”
“But it was one of Len’s favorites and…”
“Yes.” Allen Z. paused a split second. “See you at one unless I’m delayed for some reason or another. Then I’ll get back to you eventually. I’ll be in a good red shirt, black slacks.”
It seemed impossible that Rudy didn’t know the person he was to meet any minute. He knew most of Len’s friends. Well, until the past year when his little brother made himself scarce. Their mother had often tried to send him to Len’s place to check on things, see if he was okay. Which he was, or appeared to be, when he was around. He was just immersed in another paper or the latest girlfriend. And why did everyone keep track of him when he had been on his own awhile now– just like Rudy? When Rudy said he only wanted a good dinner out of him, he chuckled. They ate well that night and talked just like old times. But that was rare.
Then Len was in a three car accident, was in the hospital with a bad concussion, deep lacerations, bruised ribs. They were observing him. And one night he disappeared.
Rudy rubbed his eyes.
“Mr. Janus, I suspect?”
The speaker held out a long-fingered hand. His back was to the streaming light so it was hard to see his face. Rudy stood and took the man’s palm hesitantly. The so-called red shirt was a muted wine color, the pants charcoal and expensively-tailored. They sat.
Allen Z. had the clearest, lightest blue eyes Rudy had ever seen, and the effect of looking at them too long was that of staring at a bright twilight sky or pristine pond: mesmerizing. He didn’t like them, or his silky shirt and beautiful slacks. Something was off. The man wasn’t Len’s type of friend, was at least ten years older. Something else bothered him that he couldn’t name. He looked down to break the spell, then up again.
“Allen–what’s up with the Z.?–whoever you are, we’re meeting because Len told me to call you. I’d like to know why. Skip the bull.”
“Neither are you who I was expecting–a surprise.” He waved the waiter over, told him to bring espresso. “It’s simple. I’m giving you money for him and clearing up a few things. He asked for this and because he’s a good one, rising fast when he isn’t put on hold, I’m sharing minor information. I always have discretionary powers.”
“‘Oh hold’? What does that mean…Are you some lawyer?”
He laughed from belly-up. “That’s rich!” He smoothed his pale mustache which Rudy found to be a poor excuse for hair growth. “Hardly. I’m his boss, but we are better described as associates.”
“I didn’t know he was in business.”
“What sort of business?”
“Objects d’art, truth be told.”
“Like paintings and such? Fine art?”
Allen Z. gazed at him, then nodded at the waiter who put down the white espresso cup and saucer.
“How? Tell me. And where he is!”
“He has a talent for finding art, shall we say. He finds it for me. Rather, for my clients.”
Rudy sat back. “He has gone to auctions, prowled antiques shops or what? How did he get this odd, unknown talent you speak about? He likes art but he doesn’t make it a priority. I’d be surprised if he could tell the difference between a Van Gogh and a Picasso. That’s more up my alley. I love the stuff, the older the better, the rarer the better.”
“You’re a wonder to behold. Len informed me of your interest before he left.”
Rudy sat forward and grabbed the man’s sleeve, hissed into his face.
“Left for where? Is he in trouble? And are we talking black market here, illegal activities, is that it, Z.?”
Allen Z. pulled his arm back slowly, beamed those eyes on him, then placed folded hands on the table between them. He leaned into Rudy’s space.
“Quiet now. You need to listen well. Your brother is quick of mind and hand, can access places no one else has, can perform a risk assessment before cameras know he’s there and then he brings back treasures. But he made a grave error. Now he has to do business elsewhere a few months, perhaps longer. He’s on a private research trip, let’s say. Just keep you mouth shut as Len said you would or there will be other matters for you to deal with. In the meantime, he wanted me to give you this.”
A medium sized, brown leather, zippered pouch was slid across the table. Rudy felt fear like a knife blade sliding down his back. He should get up and leave now. His brother couldn’t know this man. But there were the worn, gold stamped initials of “LJ” on the bag he had gotten for graduation from high school. “For incidentals” his mother had said and Len had used it ever since for one thing or another. Rudy fingered it, took a good breath and opened it.
Inside was something wrapped in paper, he thought, then, no, he pulled it out just enough to get a look. Crisp bills. Lots of them. He put them back in, zippered it shut, sent it back over to Allen Z.
“It is now. I don’t mix with small interests like this. It’s what is left of his trust fund and more. He wants you to have it. He said you ought to finally take Lucy to a good restaurant and if that goes well, to the mountains for a week-end.” He tossed back the espresso and licked his lips clean.
A heaviness came over Rudy. His head buzzed with the crook’s energy or it was fear or the noise of all those people eating and talking, making things complicated for each other. Why didn’t Len just call him from wherever he was? How could he know for sure this was the truth, at all? Or if it was money that belonged in the family?
“And he said to give you the temporary cell number, so here it is.” A blank card with two numbers was handed over. The first one was the Allen Z.’s, the crook’s. “I’m off. I have classier conversation to pursue.”
He rose and blocked out the light once more. Then he bent down to Rudy’s ear.
“If you’re ever interested in a job we might be able to use your burgeoning passion for the arts. Time will tell.” He stood tall and placed his hand on Rudy’s shoulder, gave it a rough squeeze, then walked away, leaving behind the scent of expensive cologne that made Rudy cough.
The pouch sat there, waiting. Looking too obvious. He picked it up. Paid his bill. Made his way through the line of customers at the door and into the blinding sunshine. At the corner Rudy held Len’s number up close and dialed it. It rang and rang. No voice mail. And then it was picked up.
“Rudy? That you, bro?” His voice was tinged with the usual huskiness.
“Len! What’s going on? We thought you were dead, maybe! Where are you? This is some insane joke!”
“No joke. Take the money, have fun, put it in savings. I’m okay, just away from the contiguous states. Tell mom I’m okay if you need to. Later, Rudy. We’ll talk again. And be smart.”
And that was it. “Be smart,” as if he meant something more. Rudy was taken over by a swift surge of adrenalin and he walked the streets of the city for a long while, thinking of everything, wondering why, wishing they were kids again, filled with an odd excitement. A twinge of guilt hung on–both of them playing cat in the dark all those years, snatching things. Then dread pounded his chest. Intense curiosity. Sadness. He thought he’d have to scream a little over the freeway, then just sat down, drained.
But he also thought about the room full of old films, some rare, and how he loved them and how others did, too. He would always protect them, that was what mattered to him, right? Then it was back to Len, his gifted brother, an art thief! Ridiculous, yet it made a strange sort of sense, too.
All of it worried him.
He locked away the pouch in a metal box in his apartment. Then he got ready for work, washed his face and changed shirt and tie, took the bus to New Rialto. When he passed her, he didn’t greet Lucy, not yet.
At break time she sauntered over to him, long hair swept up in a topknot this time. He liked seeing more of her.
“You have anything special going on tonight, after work?” she asked.
“Not at all,” Rudy said, leaning back against a wall. “Not one single thing.”
I took a sip of water after brushing my teeth and was surprised when my lip was grazed by a rough spot. I held the ceramic glass close and examined it. There was a minute crack less than a quarter-inch long; it lay along the edge, marring the smooth, shiny glaze. Now it threatened to crumble under the force of my gaze. As I examined the lush blues and greens that graced the form and vibrant golden circles that marked one side, disappointment rose up. My fingers touched the crack where the loosened chip was and it fell to the floor. Thoughts of repairing it were silenced by thoughts ranging from: “I can find another pretty one at the ceramics art fair this spring” to “It’s just a ceramic glass, not an heirloom–it isn’t that important” to “Why does everything I love break?”
This has become a common refrain. It seems as though many possessions have met fates I had not foreseen.
Less than a month before another handmade glass had cracked. It was a pale water-green—celadon– porcelain beauty that I had found at another art fair. It had been one of a matched set; my husband was given the other one and still sat upon the bathroom vanity, unscathed and appreciated. I wondered about the longevity of the latest ceramic vessel that was on my bedside table. Imprinted on the white and blue side is one word in pale red: cup. I treasure it; my artist daughter gave it to me.
I could list a couple dozen other items that have cracked, ripped, crumbled and unraveled. There have been several earrings that have disassembled when I wasn’t looking and just disappeared. A prized blue topaz ring I enjoyed for years was only a band with an empty mount when I got out of my car one day. It had been intact when I got in, or so I believed; the stone was never recovered. A crystal bell once belonging to my mother smashed after falling for no discernible reason. And a favorite hand-blown glass candle holder snapped in half when grandchildren strayed too close in their exuberant play. There was my cello, which was crushed almost beyond recognition when a moving company failed to secure it well. Then there were the dozen paintings. The canvasses had been removed from their stretchers and rolled up for safe keeping, then stored in the lower level of a carriage house in which I lived. A massive thunderstorm swept in during the night, the room flooded and the paintings were ruined. They were my paintings; each one was a kind of awakening and no longer preserved.
The earliest objects lost or broken always brought me to tears. They were lean years when, as a young mother of five, the few beautiful objects I had were either gifts or treasures passed on by family, like gold filigree earrings (one lost) from Spain that my parents gave me after their trip. Each loss felt like a small blow as I surveyed the humble life I lived; I felt a little shame as I longed for mere things. I had not been raised to lust after material things. My own parents’ home was modest but held lovely things imbued with memories. I understood even as a child that the most important things are those that were rich with meaning. Most often those were books, music, something handmade or unique, things that felt like blessings.
When the last ceramic glass broke and I groaned, “Why does everything I love get broken?”, my husband asked, “What do you think this is really about?” I didn’t like his response but I thought about it.
The first fact I considered is that much of what I like is breakable. I am drawn to pottery, objects made of glass, carefully crafted jewelry, fabrics that may be likely to fray, pull or stain easily when water dashes it. Hanging in the window is a delicate crystal bird. There are photos and lively cards from children that festoon the frame of a large mirror in one room; sometimes they fall out, get ripped or marred. But visual intrigue, that is a variety of color, texture and design, attracts me. And the few things I own, I have come to value. Either I should better protect them or accept they are perishable. Or purchase items that are guaranteed to not break, corrode, tear, shrink, or otherwise malfunction. Which is not my preference.
The second thought is simply that although I have gathered some possessions, the simple odds are that many of them will simply not make it until I am old enough to while away the days in an easy chair. Even when the lifespan of an object is long, it can have a proclivity for vanishing when you least expect it. But there aren’t many that are crucial to my happiness. In fact, although some might determine I have few possession of worth, I often feel there is a surfeit of things that clutter my life. Most of what I can see in my home can be done away with, and I have spells when I go on a rampage and clear out the clothes closets for donation, remove miscellaneous things from high shelves and trash them, load up bags of well-used or unsatisfactory books for resale. A surprising peace settles in the cleaner, emptier spaces. I feel light again. As things leave my home one way or another, I am ultimately not very distressed.
So I consider what I always have left. Books royally command this home and CDs and the stereo enjoy up a prominent space. And many areas are devoted to photographs of up to five generations of our families. Which reminds me, my camera is one of my prized possessions. I keep it close at hand and take care with it. My cello, with me since age twelve, sleeps in its hard black case in a corner. It was rescued by my father’s gifted hands after the devastation. The turquoise afghan my mother made long ago graces a chair. My husband’s resonant guitars await his touch. Pictures my grandchildren have made are kept a long while. There are the recordings of one daughter singing and works of art my son and another daughter have made. Cards from all five kids over the years are secreted away in the middle drawer of my ponderous desk. And my own writing is organized in files and boxes; current works are in haphazard stacks near the desk. I would rather not see any of these disposed of any time soon. Yet if all was swept away, I think I would be alright with it in the end. Having had little many years and then finally a bit more, it is evident to me that things don’t have a high place on my list of priorities. I can let those go, have even left them behind as I have moved place to place over the years. Needs would get met again.
It occurs to me that it’s my life I don’t want lost or broken anymore, yet as soon as the words land on this page I know the frail hope of such a desire. I know what has come before this day; the future will bring challenges again. For I have experienced cracks and chips and brokeness in every way over the years. I have endured health problems that have brought me to a grinding halt. I have experienced near death more than once and lived to tell the tales. There have been marriages and friendships that have failed due to faulty expectations, mistaken identities, poor timing, excess baggage, waning interest. Failure of faith has visited me more than I imagined, although since childhood I have lived and breathed a core-deep belief in God. Fear has nevertheless rendered me helpless to my profound consternation. Despair has at times whittled away self-worth, and in its place came the long, lonely descent into the bitter heart of self-abnegation. The price for staying alive has seemed very high at times when I had not yet learned how to hold on to what matters most and let go of what matters least. Before I learned to live free of whatever was keeping me from peace.
If I know what damage is, I know also the power of reprieve and renewal. It can happen when least expected, a phone call from a dear friend, the sight of a trillium blooming in the muck, a sweet song from years ago coming forward and escaping from my lips. Freedom for me is discovering that loss is temporary despite tenacious pain, woundedness can fully heal, and familiar people will leave while new people with their stories will arrive. What is resisted is often the lesson most needed. It is about forgiveness. It is about joy despite the grief we hate to feel but which can become holy. I have many times lost my liberty to people, to circumstance, to forgetfulness of Spirit. But the way back has been lit with beacons held out by many hands, some unseen or unknown at the time.
The truth is, whatever I can hold close, whatever I care about may become broken. It can be lost. But it may also lead to freedom and discovery despite mad random events or my expectations. Even love of surprising incarnations.
All this gratitude came from a broken cup. Do you see what I mean?
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson