Inclusive/Exclusive: Helping More Good Happen

boatmen3
The Jolly Floatboatmen, 1846, by George Caleb Bingham

I am not a natural joiner of groups, but life has often provided me with reasons to do so. It is as if my comfort zone needs frequent testing and expanding, like I am being asked to develop greater fluidity of mind and spirit. It is not usual that I’ve been coerced (though that has happened, too). If I include my family I was a joiner of musicians from the first breath. Then came sports and other activities to pursue, talents to hone (or abandon) while in competition with others, academic coursework to seek alongside more students. There is a long list of summer camps, workshops, conferences, churches and their smaller groups, treatment centers, recovery groups. Assorted special gatherings (Native American pow wows, holiday parties, weddings, funerals, etc.). Volunteer work and ever-changing jobs. Musical and theatre groups. Writing groups, book groups. As a youth in the sixties I was a joiner for purposes of social and educational change. And I briefly joined a group that had mysterious chanting and left me dizzy for a few ecstatic hours.

I have praised these groups or hidden them, added them to resumes or trotted them out in interviews for new positions. And I still search for a couple that will fit me well now.

Think about it, all the joining that has gone on in your life. If you are like me, you either do so because of shared interests and goals or it is more or less a requirement or you believe it will aid future endeavors. Surprising outcomes have likely occurred. You get to put on all sorts of hats, enjoy different interactions. Everywhere I end up there have been good reasons I might benefit from group inclusion. In theory and generally in practice I do appreciate other human beings. I pull up a chair and join, even if I am not always at ease and wonder what can be gained or shared.

But I admit this joining occurs despite a near-constant pull to solitude. The anchor of it amid life’s ceaseless shifting of demands and distractions. The satisfying yield of hours spent perusing ideas and exploring a spectrum of interests. I feel time is like breath, it sustains my life or is not good. More extroverted persons might be inclined to suggest introverts are more selfish. I have experienced the direct opposite, a release from self-centeredness and that nagging, attention-grabbing ego when engaged in solitary activities. My mind frees up, the restless ego sits in a corner, and my intellect and spirit begin to escape confines of societal limitations. There is no one to worry over, impress or surrender to. The clarifying of thought and opening of heart occur readily.

Perhaps in another life or time I might have sought religious sanctuary. A studious and pensive life, asceticism, constant communion with God–these are magnets for me (admittedly romanticized by lack of prolonged experience). I likely inherited some of this from my parents: they contrasted very public personas with private, my musician father inventing games and fixing cars, seeking knowledge and prayer; my teacher mother withdrawing to design and create with fabric and thread, write down thoughts, study Psalms, tend flowers in the yard. They both filled up with whatever drew them inward. I know the feeling.

So there is this dichotomy, one among others. I am certain this “push-pull” is shared with lots of people. Creatures of complex desires, and contradictions, we become immersed in the physical realm then yearn for greater understandings or richer spirituality. We love our earth but wonder over other galaxies or dimensions. And there arises a twinge of loneliness with the love of solitude. I, a restless seeker, yearn for like-mindedness again and wonder where are those who share my callings, passions, beliefs. And so I consider another group. The problem is, often I still feel alone. The partial solution is better grasping that each and every one of us is alone–even as we are a part of the conglomeration of Homo sapiens, sharing a planet in one of innumerable universes. I embrace this far more comfortably than I did fifty years ago. I am an ordinary soul among all others yet we each are particularly ourselves, powerfully unalike. Our eyes–those conduits to our inner being–when meeting, know this.

When I review my life, I find a seat around countless tables with mixed company: some strangers, some friends; those female and male; believers in Christianity seated with believers in other faiths or in their own self-determination. We have spoken of both sacred and secular trials and shared lessons bringing us to greater understandings. There have been individuals who have endured follies unlike mine and met with victories I have never known. And some who may as well have been telling much of my own story. And at work meetings I have at times just stopped myself from rebutting a boss’ decree or fleeing the room. Some mediations have resulted in more fractious discussion; others have brought sudden enlightenment. But first you have to  say “yes”, agree to participate. Cohesion of a group depends on willingness of others to join in and support the meeting of minds.

From each group I take what seems useful, turn it over in my thinking and being. The rest I leave on tabletop. I do not carry anxiety or fear or anger with me if I can help it. What matters is a basic respect for others, for how their own souls thrive and seek even if their ways are not mine. I have faced being the odd one out and believe compassionate detachment brings better outcomes than judgment.

A common experience of mine is having to explain how I experience my faith in God, why I came to believe what I do. It started long ago, at about age 5 in Sunday school when I said that God did not look like an aged grandfather since God is Spirit. I was met with odd looks and questions. I wasn’t sure what the reaction was about but was sure of what I meant. In my current Christian women’s group we shared our first memory of church. Most offered experiences praying with parents or their childhood church building or hymns sung together. I shared the above anecdote of about age five. I was asked once again how I had come up with that idea. I said I may have heard it at home but the truth is, I just felt it deeply. Embraced it as I always felt embraced by God.

There has not been a time when I didn’t sense God watching over me–and all of us. Despite the horrors of this world, despite a seeming lack of answers to life problems or my own soul at times feeling wrenched, forlorn at certain junctures. But neither did I feel altogether at home in this physical vehicle and in this earthly life. As a child or as a youth, I saw life in different ways than most I knew, though it took years to understand it. Where someone else perceived the appearances of things, I was drawn into the multi-layered center of them. When someone saw the withered face of a crooked old man I saw a vibrant soul if a bit tired and cramped. When someone else saw the pretty blue sky I saw God’s territory stretching beyond our imaginings. Life in all its wonders exceeds our interminable need to box things up in simple equations. To me there were and are endless connections of one thing to another such as a single leaf’s veins and veins of my body and the pathways of distant celestial bodies: to me, they are each a stunning facet of the great Design. God is in the morning and night, in sorrow and joy, in creation and meditation.

I countered the raised eyebrows of teenage friends: Who said we were the only sentient beings? Why believe we cannot read feeling, thought and needs of others when we each are given another sense of intuition? Why this separation from God, from each other, from our own selves? Can we not overlap belief and actions more freely? Is there really so little room for uniqueness while sharing common ground? I desired unity and wholeness–in microcosm or macrocosm, It was already present. We just needed to recognize it. But I felt adrift then, and can still feel that way when I forget we are taught to live with daily illusions, put on masks to get by, feign interest and understanding when raising our hands with a question makes far more sense. We are informed we need to blend in when the beauty is in our differences as well as our similarities.

The groups I have joined are often rife with an underlying anxiety about how we identify. If attending, say, Alcoholics Anonymous, one is first and last an alcoholic. If in a church group, one is a member or being schooled to be a member of that denomination. In political groups, one’s party is of paramount importance. In a private club, the involvement is dependent on qualifiers that allow you to be an exclusive member. As a counselor, I signed a code of ethics agreement but further, I had to meet expectations of the organization with little to no resistance. If a member of an order serving God, then all partake of the same vows. No matter to what we attach ourselves, we agree to a creed, a commitment, a mission. Otherwise, we are likely to be suspect or not serious in our intent–or otherwise ill-suited to the culture of the group. Rules matter; they help keep in place needed structure. Yet I am not convinced this is always the way that works best for diverse human living–at least when it is about being on a lifelong quest of the soul. We are more than the obvious, and more than our genes or resumes or talents. We are spiritual and, I believe, eternal beings living short human lives.

I recently read an article about Thomas Merton, the mystic, poet and Trappist monk. He stirred up my far less eloquent and lofty thoughts with a few sentences from his journal entry over sixty years ago:

“If you want to find satisfactory formulas you had better deal in formula. The vocation to seek God is not one of them. Nor is existence. Nor is the spirit of man.”

Merton devoted himself to seeking God and lived half his life in a monastery. He sought profound connection to others amid his solitariness and greater silence, needed nourishment of mutual understanding. He wrote over 70 volumes on social justice, spirituality and pacifism and rallied for interfaith understanding. Merton wanted to experience belonging here and now in this world as well as with God in ways mere–powerful but limited–language cannot bring access.

There are things we tend to keep to ourselves, even when we identify as part of a group. I have often kept to myself my experiences of God-moving-with-us, of near death, of intuition and angelic presences, among others. I wonder what would happen if we shared our uniqueness around a table and in the world more easily. What might someone find in our experience that could reassure or liberate or comfort? There is a risk in being wholly one’s self, in a group or even alone.

The worlds within us are reflections of who we are separately and together. We each have wisdom, stories and good questions to offer. We live and die within a far-ranging confederacy of human beings. In our particular groups we can make a difference for good or ill. There is potency in joining together, even if it includes a handful neighbors on your block. So I would hope you and I each can take a seat at a table, then be able to say without fear or disregard: “This is my truth. What is yours? And how can we share resources to make the whole better?” I’ll be coming back to that group, and it will influence my time alone, as well.

A LeAnn Rimes Sort of Intervention

IMG_8937

LeAnn Rimes’ soaring alto grabbed me at the sink as I cleaned a skillet of salmon leftovers. I was minding my own business and boom! the song shook me right up.

It’s important to know I’m not generally a country music aficionado though I admire its production value and talents. I’m not a very sentimental person, just occasionally nostalgic. I go for Debussy and Berlioz, Miles Davis and Diane Reeves and Bill Evans among many more. But sometimes I need country’s brand of liveliness, its overriding warmth. Even its simplistic and frank commentaries. So as I tackled kitchen clean up from last night’s late dinner, I thought LeAnn might do the trick. The song playing had a great chorus that insisted everyone has their highs and lows, love can stand strong despite life going right or wrong. What I heard was less regarding romantic love, more about life’s highs and lows.

And I thought: that about sums it up. And started crying.

I was elbow-deep in suds as tears slid down my cheeks and mingled with soapy sweet potato bits and salmon flakes. I wondered what on earth was going on but let them quietly fall. I’ve gotten good rest, plans are in order for my daughter’s upcoming wedding, and summer hasn’t yet been utterly vanquished.

Yet, something was up. I am not an easy weeper. Country doesn’t figure strongly in my musical repertoire because I have had enough of broken hearts, longings for more love, sizzling nights and crazy-fast cars, lalalala baby. It was once dizzying and fabulous and nuts but from this perspective, a bit overrated. Well, I mostly have had enough. I admit a lapse into old daydreams from time to time when I have nothing else to do or think about. Or a vivid memory catches me off guard.

But this morning something else happened. Music found me and whispered secrets, awakened dormant feelings. I began to recall cherished friends who have come and gone (or I had to leave due to circumstances), love held close then torn apart, life’s hopes and disillusionments. It seemed the spot where loneliness lives was unlatched, then let out to roam. It dogged me from pan to plate to gleaming countertop. The harder I scrubbed the more tears fell. I need to get a grip, I thought, right now. And I could use a bigger support system–how’s that epiphany for a retired counselor?

I looked around for more to do. I’m an action person, and like to think on the fly, multi-task. Feelings are appreciated, too–as long as I also get things done.

But the sadness intensified. My parents and long-gone friends hovered about like visitors. Faces from twenty-five years ago came forward, those I had counted on and cared for, reluctantly said good-bye to. My mother, having left earth thirteen years ago, may as well have entered the room. Of course she knew I needed her. I nearly felt her hand on my shoulder; her easy laughter came to me like a freshening of breeze. I imagined what she would say to me right then:

“Well, some things are out of our control. But the rest you can work with and have a good time doing it, too.”

I had to sit down.

I guessed it all made sense. A wedding for my youngest, A. is soon–but my mother is no longer here to ask for advice, to celebrate or commiserate with. She would have had a word to offer on everything, like it or not. Soft hugs and prayers that targeted bothersome specifics; mom was affectionate but never wimpy. Somehow she could corral unruly life, place it into a manageable perspective. And I know she shed plenty of her own tears.

I thought of the necklace, earrings and bracelet A. will wear with her vintage bridal gown. I sniffled a bit more. They once belonged to my mother, given to another daughter, who is sharing them with her sister.

The wedding preparations have required a concentration of multiple energies. I’ve gathered up scattered information and tried to execute ideas with a level of skill I’ve at times felt was lacking. There have been few to assist me due to others’ life obligations (a twenty-two year old granddaughter helped a couple of times, thankfully, and daughters have chimed in a bit). I’ve relied on my own problem-solving and hoped for the best: May it please not rain on the forest ceremony! Let the food be savory and hot! May the music be lively and the sound system good enough for what we can afford!

And all the time I have been thinking of A. and how her life has been in a fantastic upheaval, with a move to another state, a brand new career and her best friend/fiance who is looking for his own job. Wedding yet to happen, but soon, so soon.

There is this business of the family morphing… again. I have been through it a few times. This idea of losing a daughter, gaining a son… We have known D. many years and care for him, root for him, too. I know how to welcome folks into my home as well as adapt and this was no new person. No, it was all this shifting gears, making things happen, accepting all outcomes. Today varied impressions manifested as a tender sorrow, a pressure within that left no bruise yet radiated pain. And beneath that, a swift, deep river of feelings. To cross over to the other bank where a more productive day awaited meant fully acknowledging them.

So LeAnn was singing away and I was at the oak table weeping and praying: This is how messy it is to be human. I hate it sometimes. How inconvenient to feel so sad when I have things to do and much to celebrate. So help me, Lord, because this life’s drama and comedy will go right on until it does not. Help me, Jesus, to be strong in the compassion you have shown me. Give my soul safe harbor when things get out of hand out there. Show me how to be of use, how to exemplify your Love. Lord, let these tears cleanse any sore spots I have neglected to ask You to heal. And never let me forget the blessings I receive every single day…And please, I need a better sense of humor! (An Aussie puppy might help…but later when I can catch my breath…) 

I thought of my two best friends, both struggling with illness, who may not be able to attend the wedding. I thought of my sisters, one close and one far away, both of whom are dear to me. They also have health issues and demanding lives. One brother is nearby but I rarely see him and one lives across the country but will come and also photograph the events. We’re getting older and time and place separate us more than I would like.

But sometimes what I think I need doesn’t seem to be what I get. Today it was the comfort of someone who knows me well and to whom I could say: “Change in my life is hard, I admit it. And it can make me feel discombobulated and lonely for what used to be. Even though that wasn’t a sure thing, either. Even though I’m curious about what awaits around a next corner.”

After a few minutes I’d had enough of crying. I washed my face and put on more lively music–a little Ry Cooder and his Cuban pals–and got ready for the gym. When blurry or low on spiritual and emotional power, getting active is a way I can circumvent a descent into lethargy or self-pity. I brushed my flyaway, greying hair and put on tennis shoes, already feeling some brighter.

And then A. texted me.

“I’m feeling overwhelming sadness and I don’t know why! Will you say a prayer for me so I act like a normal person at my new job for the rest of the day?”

Just like that, God stepped in closer to do some work.

I texted back. “Me, too…maybe that’s why I shed some tears today. Well, I have my own stuff. It’s all these changes, a roller coaster of ups and downs. When you move out of the temporary place and make your own new home you’ll feel better, I promise. It takes time to fit the pieces together after a big, sudden move like you’ve had. And the wedding on top of it all! I’m proud of you for just coping with it, carrying on.”

We chatted awhile. The topic changed a bit. But I texted prayers and held her close at heart. She went back to work with love sent my way. A. is such a good egg. And she will work work like mad to do a great job. Her new job is a marketing and community outreach position at a performing arts center. It is work she was meant to do and she feels fortunate. But her needs extend beyond work and this transition has been trying.

Sometimes–though I’ve worked in human services most of my adult life and have loved the work–I don’t know what I need. I believe I’m competent overall and have faith in my daily decisions. But what requires most attention can be a blind spot until something jars the truth out of me. It could be music that excavates a clue, writing a poem that sheds light or the natural world enlargening my vision. I start each day with a meditative reading and prayer, yet still I might need more sharpening of focus. But generally what matters to me is a steadfast faith in God, helping others including family, the courage of kindness, the phenomenal resilience of love, and the fulfillment and freedom of creative work.

And as I finish this, it finally hits me: LeAnn Rimes is to be a performer this season where A. works. I’m surprised, but it all comes together. Her song must have been waiting to reach and teach me today, along with my daughter. Such clever timing, when my soul needed a dollop of sweet on top of sour. Didn’t I, in fact, get what was most needed? A pause that allowed some tears, a sharing of love, a refreshed outlook. Now I can better set aside useless longings, make more room for the present and future. More living will certainly occur; stasis is useful but not permanent. There’s no holding back change once events are in action. Life has its own velocity, clears it own paths. We just have to decide how many directives we want to issue and how much work we’re willing to do. When we want to jump in and step back. Sometimes it means letting the aches of living rise up, burble and shimmer, transform our vision and help set us free. To be truly human and glad of it.

Thanks, LeAnn. Thanks, A.

IMG_8934

How to Soften Without Weakening

 

il_fullxfull.240136293

CJ always walked fast in her brown Frye boots that had a hard inch high heel, the better to strike the hard byways and roads, floors of public places, rooms of homes. They announced that she was strong of mind and body, she was not wasting time, and don’t even think of accosting her. People would turn their heads, face in a frown, so loudly did her heels hit a surface.

Those boots travelled with CJ for years, carried her into woods and mountains, cities and villages, from one side of the country to the other. They covered her snug, faded jeans to the knee. She wore sporty tops, a wornout jean jacket. Her hair morphed from year to year, blond for a bit, years of cropped burnished red, then reverted to the real auburn, then finally interspersed with strands of white. Large blue, dark-rimmed eyes bore right into you when they looked into yours at all; mostly they scanned the environment, took in the milieu. Located a spot within a group that she would claim. Not reticent, CJ spoke right up, interested, attentive but she kept a psychic distance, engaging in talk smartly but without full personal committment. She had strong opinions; everyone knew them soon.

Never would she be tricked by people again, nor by life or love. But, of course, she was, often. And at the end of each day she went home, pulled off the boots that had become scuffed and pliable with wear. Washed her face, settled down with journal or books, paper and typewriter or sought guitar or piano. And then tender, responsive, yielding feelings and thoughts flowed like water from an opened spring. A little softness breathed and expanded. What moved her came to the fore, and what hurt bled so that she was both sorry and relieved to still feel it all.

This went on for a couple of decades–variations of attire, sometimes fancier footwear–until someone asked her why she acted so hard. The question was like a slap in the face but she said, “I’m not hard. I’m kind of tough, I guess, but I’m strong and that matters to me. The world is harsh, don’t you think? I guess my way works for me because I’m still going onward and upward.”

“Does it?” came the response. “Because people are afraid of you at worst, intimidated at times by your energy and bearing, and even those of us drawn to you don’t know if we’ll be welcomed or challenged…”

CJ laughed. “Well, I guess the braver ones will come forward and we’ll work it out. Or not. I can’t be responsible for what others think, only for what I choose to do. And I’m okay with things.”

“You know what? You seem…arrogant. That’s part of the problem. But maybe you’re just afraid. ”

CJ turned away and stalked off. No one understood. Interacting freely and openly was so often an exercise in futility. She was better off alone except for a very few and even then…

It took awhile to find her way back to the gentle side of genuine strength. Being soft resulted in being vulnerable from what she could tell. She was in her early forties before she redesigned her behavior substantially enough to present herself more fully and honestly to others. Because there was some truth in the observer’s comment: she was pretty tough and perhaps a little arrogant, but she was also scared of various things, good-hearted and full of passion for life. Committing to absolute sobriety made an immense impact but that was only the beginning of a journey to wholeness. Well being would require more than awareness or a good plan; it required a willingness to change and redoubled efforts. Peace was the goal. The one experience she had failed to encounter since childhood.

How does someone radically change? Would that it was a natural metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, a transition that felt so reassuring, with a punch at the end: the beautiful pay-off. But adding wings to those who treat life as though it has to be wrestled, tamed and codified is an arduous task.

When people are tossed about by the vagaries of living, experience multiple losses, become used to fighting hard to stay alive, they learns that being readied for the worst can be useful. It’s like arming the alarm and sitting in wait for trouble. It creates a cynicism of the worst sort, as even vivid blue sky moments can be missed due to tracking skittish or heavy clouds. There can be so much put into survival emotionally or physically that exhaustion renders the person worn-out. Ragged. A hard shell can be the only remaining defense. This view lends itself to expectations of losing out–why go all in and embrace possibilities and happy times when you believe they will soon dissolve? Life is fickle, prone to sudden shifts. Some are convinced being stoic and putting shoulder to the wind is better than being swayed this way and that and then perhaps toppled. People who push hard through life have had enough of being down. They need to stand tall; beware anyone who takes them to their knees.

Amazon4

The problem with such stolid refusal to bend or back down is what the old adage states: without flexibility, a person can break. Or just become so obdurate, so unwilling to relinquish control and to take a chance on vulnerability that there is a loss like none other: the inability to feel richness of emotion. Love and fulfillment. Deep intimacy, tranquility. Hope. That hallelujah that comes from joy.

Everyone needs to toughen up a bit. That begins as toddlers, then ever after when we fall. The kindest parent will let the child get right back up with encouragement and a gentle touch, bear the howling and sniffling then wipe tears away. If not, each fall and failure would be one too many, hard to accept as part of the process of gaining more skills. Resilience is instilled this way. Directed toward the next choices or steps, there is the belief that the coming experience will be worthy of effort, with the possibility of a better outcome.

But there are those who tumble without a kind word to shore them up. There are those, too, who have so much breakage during many kinds of falls that something inside gets crippled, stunted in the process of healing. What helps overcome pain is becoming inured to it, ignoring it, bearing it in private with no witness to offer a supportive hand. And when people who are born very tender-hearted come face to face with the frailties, ugliness or woundedness of living, it can scour their minds and souls, tear away critically protective insulation. The alternative for too many is to become harder or perish.

How can healthy living be restored? A search for balance needs to be initiated, so that endurance and stamina, courage and strength can become more potent with no loss of heart. Instead, the heart will open and become wiser as we navigate dangerous shoals effectively. It requires risk and surrender: letting feelings come and go as though through a sieve, feeling and acknowledging but not overdosing on them, not being overcome. It requires thinking imaginatively when all seems pointless or burdensome, dsicerning thenext right steps. And considering the promises and pleasure of what lies around the next corner. Not least is practicing to be a person of enduring substance, who has dignity but not arrogance. A core of strength devoid of unforgiving hardness.

A seemingly superfical alteration is trying a different costume and demeanor. When I was still counseling addicted and emotionally challenged persons full-time and saw people enter my office with shoulders rigid, lips taut, their public masks bold but full of warning, I suggested trying on a new one. Loosen the stride, smile at others first, open up personal space a little, walk with confidence, not as angry self-defense. Speak more quietly; others listen more to someone who doesn’t demand being heard. Buy new clothes or rearrange an outfit so it’s no longer armor, but only an accoutrement. An addendum to the real person who can better shine through. It’s powerful how even small adjustments can affect those who meet you. Then, forget yourself altogether. There’s a whole world out there that could use your attention. The truth is, every person needs to be seen so go ahead, look them in the eye if they don’t shy away.

Whatever lies ahead is generally as good as you make it. No one else can do it. Use your strength like a gift, not a weapon.

The last time I saw CJ was today. I looked in the mirror. I simply stopped walking as though I was on a terrible mission decades ago and discovered how it feels to not win or lose, but be at home in my own skin.  To be better powered by faith in God and acceptance of life’s whims and trials. To know that love for others never has an end; what is given away is replenished. Being fully and deeply human ended up becoming an even more extraodinary experience than expected. I feel strength of heart, of soul increasing each year.

Of course I still have boots. My favorites are soft black leather, tall and lower heeled. But barefoot or shoed, I am walking with ease, moving in peace.

DSCF0644

 

 

 

 

 

The Waiting Room

Photo by Lee Friedlander
Photo by Lee Friedlander

We had decided to go to a marriage counselor before we got married. Before we even got engaged. It was Lynn’s idea after I brought up legalizing things. It made sense after two years sharing my apartment. I was not someone who had to think about things three times over and then dissect them with someone else at considerable expense. I generally knew what was good for me. Or what was not, like drinking, which I had given up right before I met Lynn. Lynn didn’t seem so certain about personal issues, had expressed concern about what we’d require if we became a couple on record.

“K. stands for Katarina–it said on Yelp–but I guess that sounds more professional. Or unique. Classier. Or she wants it to look like a man’s name; maybe no gender. Or no one can pronounce her name right–she might be German?”

That’s Lynn. She is compelled to figure all things out in detail, maybe will even ask the therapist at some point even though it isn’t our business. Whereas I think the “K.” is irrelevant. I don’t have any opinion about small things that don’t impact well-being, mine or others’. The office was close and in a turn of the century building, a house, really. The reviews were fine and here we were despite my dragging my feet initially. Lynn picked me up after work. I had been studying for a final in “Ecologically Sound Housing Trends”. I had just read about the concept of “tiny houses”, single habitats as small as three hundred square feet but attractive and livable. I tried to engage her in discussion about it–I thought it was excellent–but she waved it away.

“Weird. Don’t even think about it for us!”

When we arrived, we found a good-looking cat on the burgundy sofa. It stretched front paws to back, then in reverse, then hopped off. It suggested that K. wanted the place to seem more homey, which was fine by me. The therapy session already felt less arduous. I never liked places with glass tables and reflective metal tree planters, fake palm leaves defined by dust, magazines from last year fanned out like a cheap decorative touch. The old cherry wood table was adorned with daisies. No clock, likely on purpose.

“Why would she have a cat?” Lynn’s brow furrowed above her deep-set hazel eyes. “People could be allergic. Or have had bad experiences with them. I hate cat hair on my clothes.” She got up, brushed off her short knit skirt, and sat in a chair adjacent to the sofa. “I hope she doesn’t let it in. I don’t want to be distracted.”

“Well, abandoned already,” I commented. “But I have the cat.”

It–he–had jumped back up but sat calmly on the other side of the sofa, following an invisible speck above his head. I checked his tag.

“Berlin? Huh. Do you think that refers to the city or Irving Berlin? My vote is for the composer. ”

Lynn shrugged and smiled, touched my leg with the toe of her shoe (“mule” she informed me once). She checked her watch, pulled a paperback from her cavernous yellow purse–it’s a big lemony boat with brassy hardware. She began to read, then took a sucker out and stuck it in the side of her mouth and commenced to chew. It made me wince. All that sugar invading well-maintained and polished enamel.

She has purses like you wouldn’t believe. I asked her to count them last fall and she came up with fifteen but said she wanted a new one come spring. Hence, big yellow, which cost way too much. I can’t imagine what she needs to carry in there, a box of tissues for her snuffly nose? She complains about my beat up canvas backpack, ripped by a clasp, permanently dingy after years of carrying books, thermos and lunch, serving at times as a pillow between architecture classes. It has been durable; it blends in with my khaki jacket.

Things don’t matter so much to me. Lynn says I have a lack of respect for them but that’s not true. I just covet different stuff than she does. Lynn grew up with more than most people can imagine. I grew up with enough and some extra. But it’s ideas I hunger for. Ideas that form designs, transforming them into something that can change a landscape, people’s lives, the way in which a city or piece of country can better embrace commerce and community. I’ve wanted to be an architect ever since I was a kid and my father took me downtown Detroit to see where he worked. There were buildings being torn down, blocks of sad, neglected houses, junk piling up in empty lots. But there were also impressive skyscrapers and heavy, ornate buildings made of stone and brick. I’d never seen so many kinds of places; I lived in a suburb. I looked up at my father’s building until I reached the top, sunlight glinting off a thousand windows, blue sky pierced by metal and concrete. I wanted to know how that was made, if people really could do that with their bare hands. The possibilities thrilled me.

Berlin jumped onto Lynn’s lap and she erupted, pushed the cat off. “Bad cat! You need better manners!”

I laughed. She was alarmed by so little.

“Not funny, he pulled a thread in my skirt. Really, Justin, you can be insensitive. Get him away from me, please, put him out.”

I almost explained to her that Berlin pulled a thread because he grabbed the fabric out of panic when she jumped; it was fight or flight but both happened at once. But that was obvious.

“Justin!”

Berlin was batting her swinging foot. I looked at her, the face I had come to love, her lips puckering when she was not amused, her eyes gaining a mysterious depth when she was unhappy or passionate. Her look told me this was serious and I ought to understand. I grabbed Berlin then sent him down a hallway, where he meandered until he rounded a corner and disappeared.

“Thank goodness.” She checked her watch. “Aren’t we waiting a long time?”

“Not too bad,” I reassured her. “No rush, right?”

I didn’t know she disliked cats so much. We had talked about dogs only because the neighbor across our street had a sign out advertising two beagle puppies. I imagined beagles were smart, friendly dogs. Lynn adored dachshunds and terriers. I agreed a beagle wouldn’t do well in our city place. But neither did I want a dachshund or terrier. So the topic was dropped.

The carpet at our feet intrigued my eyes, reds and blues and gold in big interlocking patterns, sort of Persian.It looked familiar and after staring a bit longer I realized it reminded me of my father’s study carpet. His rug was much bigger, covering most of the room so that when you walked in, despite the space being filled with dark woods, books and his desk, it offered a bold cheeriness as light splashed across it. I used to bring in my own books to read while he attended to briefs or tallied numbers.

Once my mother came in with a tray holding a teapot and two cups. I had crept into a corner with my sketch pad and pencil. I must have been nine, the year before they divorced. I heard her habitual sharp words and my father’s replies in a French-accented cadence. He had lived in the U.S. since age twenty-five but the sentences rolled out like silk. He said one thing often: “I can only be who I am.” It was the one thing he advised me years later: “You can only be who you are. Don’t let anyone try to make you into someone else.” I knew he was referring to my mother, or maybe, too, happenings from his youth that formed such a view. Even after she left us he held fast to that credo. I held fast with him.

I felt my throat close up a bit, my eyes prickle. My father hadn’t met Lynn. I had put it off, had told him we might fly to Michigan in the summer. The first year passed, then we moved into the second. I visited him alone because Lynn was too busy at the non-profit organization she ran. All he said was I should think about marriage a long time before I committed. I wanted to keep building a happy, fascinating life. Something sturdy with Lynn.

Berlin walked back in. He looked around as though surprised we were still there, then rubbed against my leg and purred loudly enough to bring Lynn’s head up from the book.

“Again?” she asked.

I picked up Berlin and scrubbed his ears; he butted my hand.

The office door opened. K. Garrett was tall and lean and had an open, friendly face but her eyes were intense, cast their powers over the room and us. Stopped on me a second.

“Lynn? And Justin?”

I stood up. Berlin lept to the floor. Lynn put her book away and smiled, holding out her hand for a vigorous handshake.

I turned to Lynn and then K. Garrett. “You know, I think I’m going home. Sorry, Lynn, but this isn’t for me. I have my answers already. See you at the apartment.”

“Justin?”

I walked away, Berlin trotting after me until I got safely beyond the door.