Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Songs for Better Living

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The first time my fingers felt a surrender of the strings, it was like the world was flung into outer space and I was riding it there. The sounds were tinny and screechy but the action felt so good I did it again, my left hand’s fingertips straining against light gauge steel. My right hand worked to strum and bang across the strings and as it all exploded into the atmosphere my head and chest caught vibrations on a shimmering wave.

“Naw, not good– it’s either you or the flea market guitar. Both, I’d say.”

My brother Terry was propped on his side and leaned into the edge of the top bunk bed to get a better look at me. I hit the strings again and the sound wailed through the room in search of a chord. I placed my fingers this way and that and strummed twice.

“Give it to me.”

“Dad said I could use it. And it actually is a Yamaha FG150.”

“It’s a piece of junk, you know he’s always bringing so called vintage stuff home and bragging about his deals–$200 just thrown away.”

Terry stretched himself over the edge, testing gravity. I waited for his body to slither down, giant snake of a brother. I fought the urge to remove myself but too late, he landed on his feet with a thud. Pointed at the guitar. I ignored him and tried a few more things, trying to get a feel for it in my hands, in my head. Terry sat beside me then, muscled weight causing the mattress to sink so that I listed too far, into him.

“Let me see it. Please, knucklehead.”

I shoved him away with hard shoulder against his.

“Okay, Danny, my turn!”

I gave up, my fingers raking the strings a last time. Terry got what he wanted; he was good at that, like most things.

He had studied piano since age 5 and I played the trumpet and though we both performed well, it was Terry’s capable pianist’s hands plus chestnut- curly hair and amber eyes that stole the show. Not that he loved piano; he just played it very well, so now he was in search of the next big thing he might conquer. All he needed was a guitar and his megalomania would increase by ten thousand. Everything about him screamed “star quality” by age 17, my buddy Jack once informed me with a shrug, and he noted he had a younger sister like that, center stage all the time.

I took that in as Jack tried to slam-dunk one in our driveway and of course it bounced right off. Then I got one in, if barely. We laughed as we flubbed more–all irritations slid off his back, he was easy for a friend– and went in search of food.

At 15, I was not only inches behind Terry in height but a seeming lifetime behind in accomplishments. Unless you counted billiards. At least I had that–our dad had found a billiards table with equipment and in a flash I’d found a sort of sporting call. Terry rarely beat me. And golf, I was pretty good at that. Terry complained it was too slow a game to excite him, he’d take basketball, anytime, or hockey. But then, I was always the tortoise and he was the rabbit, Mom said, and neither was better than the other, only different. Okay…I informed her it just didn’t sound good, so please quit.

As he carefully fingered the 6 strings and tried to pluck a tune, I got up and pulled the curtains back from the window. The undulating hills radiated warmth in the last of a warm caramel sunlight. Dad was throwing Riley a stick, who dutifully retrieved it and waited for the next toss. They could do that for an hour, easy. I had been the one who threw the sticks but Grey Dog, our aging, grey muzzled Labrador, died last year and since then I’d lost interest.

We’d daily walked the hills, in silence more often than not. I told him things. I even sang him songs, which he seemed to like.

I swiveled around to meet Terry’s stare as his hand took a break atop the pretty wood body.

“You done trying that out yet?” I asked.

Terry strummed away. Though it didn’t yet make much sense, he had a smart way with it like his piano notes did, clipped and sure. He shook his head and grinned. I left him to it. Fought the urge to slam the door on the way out, so pulled it to a hard close and went outside to watch Riley and Dad.

******

I played the Yamaha when I could, which was more often than expected. Terry had gradually and miraculously forgotten about it. He was cramming all the time to elevate already excellent grades–the goal was to get into University of Michigan. He and Dad had been discussing the merits of studying law, like he, himself, did before getting into global economics. I was less of a student–it bored me. I liked music, played trumpet in the orchestra and wrote things in my spare time, just loosely connected ideas and thoughts. I tried my hand at manuscript notation but found it hard, with no one to get help from; my music teacher didn’t write or even arrange music, he explained, embarrassed.

Sometimes Dad–eager to reassure me I was loved despite there being a star player in the family–I made things out of wood, our hands working with the grain, piecing pieces of a design together with respect for the trees that gave up their beauty. Like the oak coffee table for the basement rec room. I appreciated the shared hobby but it was that vintage guitar that was best. The rec room was where I usually played when people were gone. My hands were getting it, how the strings worked, how the notes felt under the less tender pads of each fingertip.

I had decided that song writing was a possibility only after I met Nance.

“I hear you play guitar,” she said after school. We’d just gotten out of chemistry class and we walked down the hall. It gave me jitters walking so close.

I cocked an eyebrow, surprised. “And–so?”

“Just think that’s cool, that’s all, you should play for us all sometime,” she said and was gone, her arm grabbed by her best friend. She looked back at me and I looked away. She was too amazing to look right at for long. And I had grown two and a half inches in the last four months and could barely walk down the hall without tripping. Besides, was she teasing me? Had Terry spread things around, made fun of me as he often did? I didn’t trust it. But I wondered about love at first sight, heretofore scorned as a real thing.

One night Terry and the parents were at a basketball game–I had to beg off, saying I had too much homework to watch him play. I started to work on a tune. It was just a few notes that sounded sloppy but then got silvery, then there came a verse with a mishmash of words, then a passable verse. I wrote the words down, revised them, tried again, again. Then a chorus came right to me. My voice had gone and changed, gotten deeper– it growled and caught but I found with less air pressure forced through my throat it could sound decent. I practiced that song for weeks, only when I was alone, but finally it came together. A victory. I told Jack but refused to perform it for him so he dropped it. He was into old rock and metal bands which was fine but it wasn’t really me. I didn’t know what I was trying to create. I just did it, then did it more.

Once I heard footsteps on the stair landing outside the rec room and kept on singing, as I was recording on my PC. But I knew they were my dad’s by the way his weight slogged up creaking steps; his pace picked up as he hurried on. I almost wished he’d come in but was relieved he hadn’t interrupted. A couple days later he stopped me on the way to the garage where he was repairing a lamp.

“You have a feel for that old Yamaha, son,” he said. “It was a worthwhile find.”

“Thanks,” I said, and that was that.

I wrote, played and sang what I could never say to Nance. She was going out with a guy already, I found out, but I still could look at her, wait to hear her speak in a hallway or class. Her voice was strong as a brass bell when excited, then rushed easy like water over a hill; it was soft as a leaf falling to ground when she whispered. Her presence filled a large part of me but all I wanted with her just became more music. I kept it all to myself. Not even Jack heard those songs. But he did like the spasms of hard, fast chords I put together for him.

There wasn’t much else I liked doing and my grades showed it. I worried the parents would take the Yamaha, at least limit me so I vowed to study more.

“You’d better get on those grades, bro,” Terry said. “You want to go to the local community college?” He popped a slice of last night’s pizza in his mouth.

I grunted, shrugged, stared out a window in my second story bedroom. A potential chorus to a new song looped around my head as clouds formed and re-formed. I needed to record a few bars. But there he was, lounging on my brown plaid love seat against the opposite wall, big feet and long legs all over as he dug in for awhile. Taking up my time.

I sat at my desk, guitar wedged between bookshelves and bed. Terry had moved to another room years before but at times stopped by our original bedroom. Which meant, I pointed out, that I’d not entirely had my own room since he just walked in as if it was his, still. No one seemed perturbed about that though Mom expressed sympathy and asked Terry to be more considerate. I had to yell at him to stay out more often. Finally he’d stopped by less and less.

“To what do I owe the honor of your annoying presence today?” I asked.

“And he did it, Terrance Michelson slipped right into U of M, touchdown, let’s hear it for blue and gold!” he announced in a bombastic sports commentator voice.

I regarded him evenly, unsurprised. He was fist-pumping the air, screaming a silent triumphal scream as air hissed from his mouth, overjoyed and proud of himself.

“Congratulations, wise ass,” I said with a fist pump of my own to be more brotherly. Fair. “A few more months and you’ll sweating it out in Ann Arbor and I’ll have this place to myself, at last.”

“And you can sing your heart out all you want, I won’t have to plug my ears but no one really cares, anyway. Maybe you can visit me sometime–I’ll get back to you on that.”

“What?” My heart thumped faster. They had all heard me? And he never let on?

“You think no one’s around. You get so into it! One of us comes home and can hear you in the basement or from up here, you don’t even know we come in. Singer slash songwriter stuff, huh?… What’s that about?”

The sneer under the words–singer songwriter stuff; I was surprised he’d gone that easy on me—told me what I already suspected: it meant little to nothing to them, it was stupid to his family. Otherwise, they’d have said something, anything by now. The trumpet, sure, that was a worthy instrument but guitar and songwriting? I flushed, studied my hands. I had great callouses now, the strings never bit flesh as they once had. My fingers fit with those strings.

Terry sat up, guzzled his soda. “You can do a lot better than that, right? I’m glad you got into the guitar, though–not my thing, too busy, anyway. Makes Dad feel good that someone uses it. ” He surveyed the bedroom, looked at me a beat or two and laughed. “A few more months, Danny boy, and I’ll be outta here!” He rolled off the couch, squashed his soda can and tossed it at me, then exited.

I shouted after him, “Guess what, it’s blue and maize, idiot, not gold– look it up!”

The room was so quiet then I already knew how it’d be when he was at U of M. Peaceful. Maybe lonely, occasionally. But I sincerely doubted that. I might let my music be heard by the parents, test it out. Maybe. I was tired of hiding what mattered most. Tired of being afraid to show who I was, not a rock ‘n roller like my brother and friends admired. I was, basically, a sort of poet who loved music, and if that felt awesome in deeper reaches of me, it was also terrifying.

And I was not going to college. I had to break this to our parents before long. I was going to make a lot more music. And make a basic living doing it. I could think of nothing else I wanted to do.

******

This stage was like every stage but smaller. Intimate, homey. The capacity crowd was cheering like every other audience, enthusiasm spilling over into manic energy, but the massive roar felt softer inside me than usual adrenaline surges in my body and mind. This time it was the hometown stage.

This time I had nothing to prove, right?

Yet even as I played as always, my head was bowed less toward the mike, there was less of my usual closed eyes–and before long rose an intensity that at times had been lacking as we toured. It was as if I needed to come home after the years of struggle, then success that I sweated to maintain. I wanted this audience to know that this–this was exactly what I had been made to do all those years when nobody knew me. When my music was kept under lock and key. The boy who was becoming the man whose music they now danced to–the kid transforming while no one noticed. Even, it seemed, my family.

I looked over the crowd, scanning, scanning as the band played and we sang out, music rising and falling. I had called my parents and we’d chatted–they were mildly supportive once they’d heard my earliest music, and more so when I started to make a decent living. I’d not gone to the house as they’d moved, it wouldn’t be the same; we were flying out early morning, too. Instead, we’d had an early dinner and a good catch-up. They’d be out there just as they had been at a handful of other concerts. “That Yamaha FG150,” Dad always said with a happy shake of his head.

I hadn’t heard from Terry in well over 2 years–he was a lawyer in Pennsylvania, married, had a son. He’d called and congratulated me on our second, more lucrative album and I’d sent kudos when he joined a good law firm–but we had little more to say.

Neither of us was to to blame. He was another kind of person, ambitious in another way– for our parents, for himself. I couldn’t share music twelve years ago; it hadn’t felt real or nearly good enough. Life felt so tentative then, made of dreams and longing, like a shaky attempt at a magic wish. Now music lived in my days and nights; it was the whole of it.

My band, Dan and the Grey Dogs, had made three albums in seven years. We had traveled thousands of miles, lost track of the countries, found ourselves with more money than we’d dreamed of having. I was doing what I had desired, and this great band had made every laborious moment and crazy dream connect and it worked. I sang out. My guitar cried and soared, quieted and called out– and the other guitar and percussion lines rose up, turned this way and that, unreeled the notes and carried the tunes into the universe.

The crowd was swaying, jumping about, calling back to us. I closed my eyes again, let my voice respond, guitar riffs reach out to grab or caress: this language that had given life to a boy’s lovelorn poems told broader, deeper stories. Stories I no longer needed to hoard or protect.

Back to our dressing room. Squeezed between band members. I threw my arms around each, thanked them as always. Jokes and criticisms, relief of laughter. Beers passed around. A loud knock on the door, three times. Our manager answered as we seldom saw fans at a dressing room. I ran my hand through dripping hair, grabbed a towel for my face, took off my soaking shirt and rubbed down, leaned against the wall. Waited.

“Dan, hey-is that you?” He glanced at me, then all over the space and back to me. Stared as if surprised to see me there in the flesh at last. As was I, him.

“Terry… come on in! My brother, guys.”

They nodded at Terry, a couple slapped him on the back, then the band melted away from us.

He looked too big in the noisy, cluttered room, sport jacket folded over his arm, shifting from one foot to another as the door closed, his eyes squinting, eyebrows unsettled. He put hand to forehead, rubbed at a crease. His shoulders sagged almost imperceptibly and he began to speak, then stopped. I stepped closer, held out my hand, which he grasped hard.

“Great show!” he said to the band, then, “Good one, Danny” to me but without much enthusiasm.

“Thanks. But where’s… Iris…?” I asked as we moved to a corner, that had to be right, a flower, yes. “I knew you wouldn’t bring little Thomas if you came tonight, but maybe Iris?…I know I only met her at your wedding four years ago, but–“

“Well, that’s the thing, you never knew each other, did you? We haven’t been much in touch. And she couldn’t come.”

“Oh, okay. Sorry, I hope all is well.”

Terry looked past my shoulder. I followed his gaze. He stared into the mirror above the counter where we got a bit made up, blown dry and so on, and his eyes drifted from the strain of his face to tiredness of mine in the reflection.

“She left,” he said to my image. “Five months ago. She has Thomas–for now, not all the time, either. I asked Mom and Dad to not tell you.” He gave me a weak half-smile, as if this was all there was to it and it was what it was.

“Terry, I’m sorry, man….” My hand went to his shoulder but he stepped away, looked around again.

“I always wanted to play, you know, but I had a lot on my plate, not enough time and you had a natural feel for it….I had to be the lawyer. It’s okay, I’m good at that. Anyway. You always had more true talent.”

“Always? I did?”

“Of course, so I ignored you, at least your music. I couldn’t compete well and win, for once.” He sighed hugely. “Competition, that relentless engine that has driven me so hard.”

“It does most of us. I guess we succeed when we push on, right? And you succeeded in your work, too, so we both did okay.”

One of the guys from the band pointed at the door asking if I was going to join them at a local bar or the hotel or stay. I inclined my head–go on.

“I should go, your band is ready to pack it in.” He started to the door after the Grey Dogs.

I felt an urge to leave just as he did. It had felt very personal fast. Uneasy at moments already. Maybe it was enough that he came and said it was a good show. Enough that he shared a hard thing, the truth. But I didn’t know when I’d be back that way again or if I’d get to Pennsylvania in the next year or two. Or ever, who knew? What else would happen in our lives? When would we get to know each other as adults, anyway? There was no more bunk bed in our lives, no yelling down the hallway. Time took us down a damn big river and here we were, both mid-stream for once.

I swiped my neck again with a towel and grabbed a clean T shirt from my battered duffel bag and pulled it on.

“Hey, want to get a drink and a bite to eat at the ole Eastlake Bar and Grill?”

Terry looked at his wristwatch, said, “I guess, sure.” He tapped the gold and diamond face, “a gift I got when I made junior partner at the most financially prosperous firm in town,” he noted proudly. “Dad would love this fancy throwback of a watch, right?”

“Just what I was thinking! It’s pretty nice, bro, hang onto that. Maybe you should go see them, show it off. Now I say let’s get out of here before more fans congregate at the back door, okay?”

“Wow, impressed.” Terry gave a small mock bow but it didn’t feel mean spirited. “Please–after you, Danny boy,” he said for the first time in his life, and maybe the last but it didn’t matter, anymore.

We ran for the car, flashes going off around us, people screaming as I grabbed my brother’s arm to drag him faster along–and there was Jack hanging at the edge of a growing clot of fans, both hands waving, smile infectious as always. I strode over to greet him and thought, Lucky dog I am, lucky life.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Living a Life and What I Know Matters Most

I walk into the library this afternoon without knowledge of any special event. My stop is impulsive, convenient on the way from an errand. I do enjoy our public library a great deal and often feel thankful that I can take home any book or other media for free. But now I am staring at the ample back of a woman while listening to a very good cellist perform. I am trying to capture the cellist as a video on my cell phone. He is playing a most sonorous cello that is plugged in so the notes are “electric” in effect. Shortly I give up trying to get him on my cell, as said audience member keeps readjusting position in her chair, blocking my view. And she is dancing in her seat a little, primarily with shoulders. (I am calling her “Sunny” because that’s how she feels, despite her severely cut hair.) But I can hear him, so catch his cello notes while videotaping the floor or Sunny’s back. (Rather late it occurs to me I might have moved or recorded his performance as a voice memo.)

An older man–tall, dignified and possessed of a beautiful head of white hair–is shepherded to a seat. He is blind. It is made clear the view is no needed to enjoy the concert. I wonder about the man–if he has always been blind, if he lost his sight to illness or injury. He is unperturbed by anything, focused wholly on listening as far as I can tell. I decide to do the same.

But am not altogether successful. My mind drifts easily at concerts. Music of all sorts grabs my attention and may truly enthrall me but it also ignites several bursts of ideas, cinematic images, random thought trains I follow until I fall off and get back to the performance. Today there are jaunty pieces played; melancholy ones; two straight-up Bach sonatas; complex original compositions with several overlays of musical lines and harmonies thanks to his electronic equipment. Some of it is experienced as a maze within a maze that creates lush landscapes, gives rise to pathways that take me to here and there, usually ending with a waterfall. And then the music impacts me more like a sophisticated construct, a dreamy contemporary high rise through which I wander and climb, peer about. Often alone, indistinct figures come and go.

And I think of my own cello. How I would have loved to play like the artist–the jazzy pieces, anyway. I studied classical music until 18; some years later I played more as I wished. My cello now sleeps against the wall of my bedroom. No, more likely it is in a coma, as it has been unattended too long. Not nourished. I think of opening the hard protective case often but cannot: it may have cracked again along old lines of ruin that it endured decades ago being transported from Michigan to Tennessee. The original cracks were repaired by my father’s skillful hands. Later as they reopened I got them repaired again; they cost me dearly. I played it some once more. And it sounded nearly good as new awhile but I didn’t play as easily. And I stopped altogether. Yet it is mine, it is in that burnished wood that resides a good length of personal history. It is also a possession of imperfect beauty, of a body with its own voice, even if stilled for now. And it yields stories just standing there. I touch it in passing. My cello is oddly as adored as ever, though I have little substantial bravery left for making music.-serious music, anyway. (Singing to the twin grand babies is far different.)

It takes me to my sister, who played her exceptional cello professionally an entire life, almost until death at 78. She was not an improviser, generally; all that she played was musically clean and deep. Sometimes fun, in a perfected way. I also liked to stand behind the piano bench as she sat at her shiny grand piano; I’d sing all the old standards she wanted to play. We grew up this way. It was a way of being. Our family of seven would gather at our modest, worn baby grand from time to time, but especially during Christmas. Our father, a violist primarily, played well enough, sang along. My mother might join in, a rare exception as she thought her singing not up to snuff. It was quite good enough, her voice; she left music making to him and us children, is all. She had other interesting talents. I can see her laughing as she winds up a tale of who and what she saw on her way to the grocery store. I can see her at her sewing machine, stitching rapidly, perfectly the seams of a burgundy velvet bodice with a pink drapey skirt for me.

I blink twice. Back to the present, though any present is threaded with strands of our pasts no matter the intention, whether conscious or not. Some things only resurrect it more clearly than others.

The woman, Sunny, in front of me: her dress is true vivid red excepting one third of a vertical area from neck to waist.This panel is configured with narrow black and white stripes. Around her neck is draped a sheer scarf that is also black and white but large plaid. Her earrings are cherry colored, little beaded baskets, cheerful and swingy. Her hair is short, blondish-brown but she is older, perhaps my age. It’s how she wiggles in her seat to ease discomfort; the boots on her feet being sensible; soft lines folding up along her jaw as she turns her head. But that dancing spirit!–her shoulders are sliding to and fro. She taps her foot in time. Is she a musician or a music appreciator only, a retired dancer or maybe someone who just needs to move and happily so? The value for her is in open engagement, the simple joy of it and many are smiling, responding with gentle movement. The blind man sits with eyes closed, is still.

The scarf Sunny wears is elegant but not too elegant for this afternoon concert. It’s finely knotted, straggling ends lay along her upper back; they move as she moves. I do love scarves, and wear them often though not today. My love of them perhaps originated with my mother and Marinell, both of whom had many and used them often. There are scarf wearing women and those who are not; I think the same is true of men, anymore. My husband wears a charcoal and white tweedy wool scarf in winter and I like that. I collect scarves for all seasons, pull them out to dress things up or to make the ordinary less so or feel warmer as a sudden wind finds my neck. They’re not all finely made; I get some from thrift shops. My daughter has given me a few: one which she dyed over its original colors; one she made herself of silk; one that she shibori-dyed by hand with brilliant indigo. I resolve to wear more this winter. And note that Sunny has good taste, not surprisingly considering where I live these days, a place where money is tastefully displayed, never shouted out. But good taste can be appreciated, too.

The piece our cellist is playing rises and falls about us. It is light and dark, rich and simple, warm and bittersweet. I look up to the open second story of the library, see a hand on the edge of its half-wall, then catch a glimpse of a teenager’s face, his longish hair falling forward. He disappears. I’m gratified everyone in the library can hear this good music, enjoys the sudden free gift to us on a rainy winter afternoon.

I may recognize a head farther up. I get up, wander about aisles of book shelves, peek toward the audience in hopes of positively identifying my friend. I don’t know Kathy well but suspect I’d like to; we always seem too busy to get together again. She plays cello; rather, she also has played and is taking lessons once more to brush up on skills. It informs me of her personality some: she has determination–and is brave–and loves music and the making of it. We more than likely have other things in common.

But it isn’t her. The concert is ending. The performer bows and the applause–mine, too–is enthusiastic. Sunny chats with someone and though I can’t see her face I believe her eyes quickly widen in pleasure–and it seems another good thing, I don’t know why, but it’s satisfying to consider as I move down the stacks. Pause to read titles of mysteries. Pause to breathe in the musky scent of older paper, ink and bindings; many books have been on these shelves such a long time, standing tall and at home.

I am obsessed with mystery books lately, not my usual literary novels or other genres of books on bestseller lists. I want to lose myself in a rollicking good story, puzzle out the culprits, enjoy the history or foreign country or unique detective. I have a habit of constantly asking questions, some say too many, like to dig into it all, root out more answers. Or at least possibilities. Why why why? Who-When-What-How? I would like to try writing mysteries more. This is another thing that intimidates me, but in this case it is all the more reason why I want to try harder. It is writing, after all, only words on a screen or paper. But what passion keeps burning in me for just that.

Shortly I check out three books despite not needing more in my bedside or other stacks. Audience members are dispersing. The blind man is moving toward the entrance, and a woman is holding his hand. They look beautiful together, their white hair softly gleaming in the warm overhead lights, their shoulders touching. I think of my parents, how their white hair made them so attractive, how they held hands, loved each other.

I find it a little hard to leave the library. I linger by the display of new books, listen to chatter, drink of peacefulness. Yet there is something nudging me, a shadow at the back of my mind, and it is trying to tell me something important.

It is when I go outside and note the rain is now a decent sprinkle that I look up at the cloud-swathed sky and do remember: my nephew, Reid, died around this time. He took his pain and jumped with it off the Fremont Bridge. He had lived enough of the life he’d embraced but also had so long endured. We had known many years he could leave us in some hard way. There’d been such terrible times, then lulls, then more dark days and nights. One never knew what the next week or month might be like for him as he was afflicted with bi-polar illness, and he drank and used too much. I knew it was agony for him, felt it in his presence, and also was relieved and glad to see him at family gatherings despite–or because–I felt his despair so sharply. As he struggled, I’d ask myself what more could I do, whatever more could be done. We all did. He asked, too. The truth was something else, that he was in many ways preparing to be finished with the high-wire walk though each 24 hours here.

And yet. I so badly wish that it might have been been different. It is a time that has entered my cellular memory, those moments when knowledge of his leaving us did arrive: a brilliant flame put out in night’s cover or the stillness of very early morning as he chose to be no more. It has left a part of me where the lifesaving power of art and the potency of hope and strange and unkind designs of life can collide and hurt, then entwine, wrap around my heart with a long soft rope, squeezing my center until I weep, then giving me something to hold onto again. I know it must be alright, it came to something, it was different than his past; Reid is where he is, not screaming out, not alone, not now.

I tell myself as I often do: God knows everything, God recreates and loves us here now and thereafter, we are made of and bound to and freed by such Love. This I am certain of though I cannot explain it when it seems absurd. I still believe; no, it goes beyond belief, it is the spiritual, the cosmic reality I live within. We are all connected; I cannot ever lose anyone I love.

I start the car, yet sit with forehead on steering wheel as my throat closes. I open a window. Breathe as tears blur vision a moment. They recede as Reid moves through my mind, through the foggy, wet day, toward a gentler dusk. I put the car in reverse, drive to the coffee shop. Singing a song to myself as I drive, “The Wexford Carol”, which was recorded by Yo Yo Ma and Alison Kraus and which I heard recently. It soothes me, releases sorrow, lets in more gratitude.

The coffee shop is packed with couples and teens, friends gabbing, single folks absorbed in their computers. It is warm in there in every way. I sit on a stool and look out the window and I feel okay, even better than okay, sipping my mocha, nibbling a warm slice of banana bread. I have much to care about. I am not afraid to finish this day and begin another.

Then I get a text from my husband. He is in Houston, between flights on his way back from Mexico after a 9 day business trip. He is tired, will be late getting in. I tell him about the cellist whose music and banter delighted, a used bookstore I visited, the warm ambiance of the neighborhood coffee shop, and how I have missed him. And he texts me back exactly what is needed: “I can’t wait to come home. I love you.”

Visualize This: Creating and Creator, an Intimate Life (please hold the applause)

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You know how it’s become pop psychology/spirituality to visualize something, hold it in your mind with surety and expectation of success? Maybe even draw a picture of it or write it down in bold letters to make it more concrete. Then stare at it until memorized. Take time to fully focus on the one heartfelt goal. We are assured this will help us make that goal materialize. What we want needs more formal shape to latch onto or it might slip away into the fog of nothingness. So get to visualizing and what we fervently hope for, we will eventually get. Right?

If I take a hard look at that idea, I’ll admit I’ve not been an all-out fan. I have not often constructed a definitive conclusion for anything way ahead of time. I don’t imagine a final fabulous product of my efforts– or if it is imagined at all, vaguely, in passing. It seems almost counter-productive, rather than a sure avenue to full materialization. I don’t want to limit outcomes; it is difficult to know what will be best in the final rendering. (And I say this although I am a writer. I don’t make up things, not really; they make unbridled appearances while insisting I write them. More on that later.)

There are reasons why this visualization business is not my chosen methodology for accomplishing things.

The first is that I don’t believe in an easy magic (visualize=realize) when working toward something. I find it a bit insulting that one would think I’d believe in that. This is based on experience; my entire semi-rebuttal is based on real events. (I qualify it as semi since the concept is more complicated than it appears.) Visualizing feels good, it can stir up motivation. It might provide relief from the gritty work that must be done. But it doesn’t guarantee anything more than a sense of expectancy, a hopeful respite from variable reality.

There are always exceptions. For one thing, I know that visualizing healing processes for my beleaguered muscle of a heart likely has made a difference. I thought of each procedure being done, how it carefully fixed things and further researched how all parts work together. Linking this to calls on the One Above, a far wiser resource for life wellness, further helped move me from illness into states of repair. Finally to returned well being. But I commit to getting up and running each time I have to rebound. I have also seen people self-heal. But this is other territory, an impressive intersection of the scientific and perhaps mystical. It’s not mere magic, fantastical trickery or just thinking good thoughts. It’s amazing.

But all that is not the sort of thing I refer to when noting I am not a such a cheerleader of visualizing Clear End Results.

I have written of growing up in a competitive, achieving family, with parents who held high expectations. It wasn’t wrong; it wasn’t right. Such an orientation can spur a youngster on to greater things; it may also create perfectionism that is damaging. Or some of both. Each child is built differently but the belief was that we all were capable and so had things to accomplish. We were tasked with doing as well as possible because it would be foolish to not do so. Even more, an insult to family and God to shrug off abilities, opportunities. Thus, I learned about self discipline from a very young age. I did what was required to conform to the cozy family unit. I liked my parents, admired them, enjoyed my siblings generally, appreciated challenges I was given. It wasn’t hard to be thus trained–this was the American way my friends and I grew up with during the fifties and sixties. I didn’t chafe for many years within those parameters, under firm directives. It lent security to have clarity about cause and effect, the rewards of civilized behavior and meaningful work. Or lack thereof if there was significant deviation.

This is not reflective of rigid gender roles that might have hemmed us in. My parents were forward-looking, educated and happily employed. They expected the best from us regarding scholastics and personal development. (If a brother or I had had a talent for cooking or sewing like my mother we may have learned and done that, as well, but I had less than said brother.) The Christian faith certainly guided us all. But I did not find it restrictive.

I mostly felt strong, confident and tackled what was before me, my life aimed at the goal of excellence. I worked to do as well as possible: to dance and figure skate, sing, play cello, act in plays, write poetry/ plays/stories, stay on the honor roll in school, cheerlead, make decent friends, do good things via church. My main motto by sixth grade was “Excellence Above All;” it was put all over my notebooks as other girls were covering theirs with boys’ names and flowery doodles. And I believed in its shining virtue. So this was a kind of early creative visualization practiced many years: Imagine the very best you can do, practice for mastery of each step or technique, work more, correct and then eliminate errors, practice harder until the result is what was envisioned. Needed. Required. Perfection if at all possible.

And then something gradually occurred that began to change me. I recall how it all began and what it felt like even now.

I was learning much could happen due to disciplined effort and time well used. The goals were rewarded when you took right steps and got to it. They indeed brought about consequences: applause, attention and accolades. Admiration. Ribbons and medals garnered for competitions won. Opportunities to perform more, entry to rigorous music camps. Skating events demanding more hours. Writing praised at a young age, published and displayed at a child education conference. With all this came greater expectations, more unrelenting work. So many people to please, oh my.

There was satisfaction in it, of course. I was a born performer or appeared to be, someone who naturally got out there, wanted to DO things. For a anyone who knows what it is to stand on the wide stage,heavy velvet curtains swinging open to reveal waiting audience and then a spotlight locates you… and then your song, dance or character is bit by bit revealed by your voicing and movements….well, it is thrilling, yes. It is darned fun. And the applause is that longed-for reward, the answer you had hoped for, appreciation and acceptance by peers, even. And for the audience has experienced satisfaction, too. If there are any other material gains to be gotten, you wait awhile backstage or pace hallways, breathless, until the final vote comes in that you measured up. After a decent performance, whether on ice rink or stage, people find you, circle about, press flowers, compliments and hugs onto you. And the most final, coveted word comes from parents: that I did well or that I did not quite manage this one, after all.

So it went, years after year. And I went along with it, busy and making gains.

Then, at around fourteen or fifteen, there was a turn that I took. Those rewards began to feel slight, temporary and in fact, were not what I truly wanted. They were feeling heavy with responsibility. Granted, I had some issues going on–I was a teenager, first of all; second and third, I was a survivor of abuse (not from immediate family) and taking prescribed drugs to alleviate symptoms. But this aha moment was about creativity and performance, two things that mattered most in all the world to me. My safest and happiest place, the arts. I fit there  just right yet I wasn’t feeling so giddy about those outcomes.

I remember being in a shadowy and dusty, rope-slung, prop-filled backstage, chatting with others after performing. The stage hands were shouting and doing their work.It was where activity first concentrated just following a concert or show, with performers thanking friends and family and teachers for their appreciation as they headed to change clothes. I gazed out onto that stage, the lighting softer, then dimming to nothing. and suddenly all I wanted was to disappear with it. To be free of expectations, the smiling and talking and being surrounded by excited faces. Who were these people? How much did they matter? How much of it was that my father was a beloved public figure/musician and so it was expected of me (and the rest of us) to excel? How much of it all was necessary? Which was better, playing cello or singing on a stage or in my room? The place I felt most at home was playing and singing and writing in the woods of Interlochen, the summer music camp I attended (along with my siblings, where my father also taught). Being with others who had the same passions. Why did that matter so much more than being recognized as capable?

For a couple more years I decided to perform only for myself, stay right in the moment for the art, itself. It worked so well, it scared me. The results were even better. But more ever than before, I leaned toward wanting the experiences for myself–to the consternation of parents and teachers. (Let it be known that being a talented child born into talented multi-generations of family within a smaller community is a  strange and difficult thing.) Why was I easing off? There were plans to address, a future to consider.

Sure, it was the performing arts, not private and static arts. But then it came to me: it was the doing of it that I loved best, the literal creating of something, giving shape and more freedom to music, making a bold call with soul and body, finding life in even the full, rich pauses. It was inhabiting deeply solitary work, being moved by unfolding of more creation. The merging with the vitality of one note, a word that seeks another, an array of feelings speaking one to the other. Becoming more alive in the center of devotion to the moment, the messy and despairing and elated work of it, that chasing and opening and finding. Losing myself, beauty and mystery awakening of its own accord. My own self only an instrument–mind and heart useful for a blossoming of something truer if I allowed and encouraged it.

This was what I loved about writing: it required no audience if I chose not to let it out into the world. It was alive in a very small space as it flowed from my mind and hands. A character or even observation needed no applause to sit up and start walking, finding company and goofing off or forging ahead, getting into this or that. And so I horded the time I had to write things for my own mind and my eyes. It was  mine first and last if I said nothing of it. And I found myself singing out anything at all that I desired when the house was empty, fingers crashing across the keyboard of our baby grand piano. And I was happy for that much.

So, I realized that acting on creative urges wasn’t actually about those trimmings,  nor was meeting the wishes of various factions. It wasn’t even the end result that felt momentous. It was the steady making of music, crafting a dance, honing spins and figures on ice, the delving deep into language and finding grab bags of treasures. I wanted to be fully moved, gathered into authentic experience as I made my way through passages spiritually, emotionally, physically. To be myself yet stretched far beyond self. And to do that, I saw I might need to forego robust applause or stern judgment. Or at least take a break. Because at that time it felt inauthentic more often than not.

Making any kind of art is first and last an intimate act. I needed more privacy with it, a quietness where smallest stirrings could be felt, even intuited. And needed to celebrate the living parts, not only the tedium of attempting mastery. Let the songs or stories be whatever they chose. I could shepherd them. I could tend them until they were done browsing and fattening. I had some skills and I had passion for it, and I learned more each time I started again. And as I saw that was more the way I wanted to go, there came relief. It wasn’t perhaps as secure as before. Stepping away from the rhythm, the meter, that composition of a well-trained life, that protective cocoon, I found myself falling far as well as rising up.

Many things happened that pulled me from the youthful life of performance and achievement, aiming for the next valued high bar. By the time I was out of high school, I was often using drugs legally and illegally. I soon sang less. I was not a bar singer (tried being in a bar band and hated it), not any more a classical “art” singer, no longer appearing in musicals. Jazz was still too new to me since I had rarely even heard it growing up. I was a hippie so sang folk songs, while privately I still wrote other songs, helped by keyboards and my guitar. They had been stirred up in me at a young age and kept nagging. But I rarely performed. My college friends and I sang in crowds at music festivals, smoke-filled living rooms, sometimes alone at coffee houses where everyone was loaded, so pleased. I studied art history and painting, sociology and literature and writing in college. In time, I sang and played my cello not at all. I got married. Ice skated and danced now and then. I painted as if possessed, wrote long into the night. Participated in poetry readings. The last activity was the closest I got to more regular performances. But it was different than years before. This time, It was entirely my choice to perform, as well as how and what.And it was with other poets.

Over this past Christmas I decided to share an old tape put together in 1978 for my parents, when I was twenty-eight.I don’t recall if they said anything, so likely they did not. I rarely made music after marriage and three, then five kids to raise. There wasn’t time or energy left.

That recent night I shyly gathered two visiting daughters and put it on. There was one song created during my early twenties that I thought they might appreciate. I was afraid, really, to show such a private thing as a song I wrote, sang, loved. They listened intensely. I soon saw they felt tearful so I closed my eyes. Waited. Not for anything, really, just for the song to be finally done, my twenty-something voice to stop being so plaintive. And for them to know what it had meant to me to make, to do such things.

“That was amazing, Mama, but why did you stop? How could you have stopped writing and singing songs like this? I didn’t know you were a songwriter, too!” My youngest daughter’s face, this one who sings like a jazzed-up lark, has even recorded but she has a career in the arts with little time so her own music has stepped back.She was incredulous, happy. Sad.

As if I had somehow let them down, me down. Or was that just in my mind, that old echo ringing in my ears? The fears of failure, the losses endured?

My oldest daughter, the visual artist–who sings so sweetly under her breath, once played a pure flute– looked away, hair falling over her wide-eyed face, infamous composure crumbling, her silence speaking loudly.

The tautness of truth rings like a wire disturbed; revealing one’s self can be painful for all sides. Don’t cry, I wanted to say, please do not cry for me but only any beauty you can find there. It was only this song I want you to have and keep.

I hadn’t expected such a response. I took a tremulous breath, willed myself to be calm. Lighter. This was no time to say more than intended or wise. “Thank you for listening to it. ..Music was really that great a part of me. And it remains, somehow. Life changes things; then I changed priorities. I had all that music humming inside me so sometimes made more songs. I sang some to you kids, you just didn’t know what they were. But for the most part I stopped making and singing them, at all.” I managed to smile, lingered over their shining eyes, their love. “I write stories and poems, as you know. That creative activity became my truest passion.”

The vulnerable moments inched away, that window when they saw me for a separate person, the woman I always was and still am–it closed a bit. And they do know writing and I are made for each other, that it isn’t ever about being “known.” They have read my poems and prose, comment intelligently. We talked of art in general and I was flooded with tenderness. Was glad I had shared it. That meant something. Not being on any stage. Not even any accomplishment.

I by now probably lack any driving forces of ambition along with the correct successful visualization. But the fact is, I am rarely free of visualizations whether I want them or not. The brain naturally conspires to brainstorm– and acknowledges no clock. And I know how to work very hard and quite long hours. But still, I am not yet, if ever, envisioning publishing a book, for instance. A poem here, yes, a story there. I am just too busy writing, thinking of writing, rewriting in the middle of a dream, on a walk, even when talking to someone. I am getting older. My hands are not as fast as the words that want to play and cry out and make clear. It hits me anew that time is scarcer, worth more.

Besides, we all know life is essentially pretty random. I mean, how much reality can we hope to control? Can a visionary plan make things happen? I don’t know. Work can, often. Passion matters. For me, it may take more toil and trouble than I care to know. I learned some basic lessons (“let go, let God; keep it simple; easy does it but do it; one day at a time; forgive and love one another “) the hard way awhile ago.

Mostly random, not carefully planned, is this life. It seems that what has happened year after year has been revealed to me unbidden as I trod fresh and worn paths through the uncoiling years. The surprises have been my guides and glorious wonderments the unexpected gifts, and any successes seem more like flukes or kindnesses than deserved good fortune. Everyone has visions of what life could or should be, a hope that their finest dreams endure. I have been lucky, overall. Not money, not status. Just joy in many different activities, embracing a kaleidoscope of inspirations. I keep making do with such fascinating pickings. The discovery I seek happens right now. Purposeful acts of creation go right on with or without me, it’s a well known truth. I am not the point of all this, the story is. I long ago wanted and still want first to be a small conduit for good things and know, too, the blessing and power of such a thing.

You have to adore what you want and be loyal, love yourself well enough, and then design something from the lovely mess as you go. Maybe without visualizations we cannot begin to see all options, but the heart’s desire tends to entrench itself. Just get ready, set, go.

Here, I also write for those who come to read. And so now I will engage in visualizing, in case it works better than I imagine:May all who seek, find their truest, best selves and thus find the Divine within untidy mishaps and good tasks of each day’s living. This vision looks like light spilling from a main point way out there to all other points, more light to and from you, then spiraling back. I call that a prayer but it could be a song, a line of poetry, a dance of angels, a thought that vanishes on quickening wind.

 

Friday’s Passing Fancies/Poem: Word Puzzle

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Today it won’t come easy, in spite of wanting.
Letters skim off meanings of entire words,
inviolate vowels and consonants harbor
little truths as more beg entry to the
charismatic soul, disquieted mind.

Some poems and other matters are made
of hard beginnings and loose ends,
moments that culminate like
fire breaking out from logs
that mean to just spit and sizzle

or the other way around.
Each one, poem or passage, is made
of this and that, despite refining,
wrestling. The waiting.

Tunneling with words cannot be more than it is;
certain revelations will not reveal life itself.
The latest story may only be
a closing of an eye caught
winking in reflections.

The Shoe That Showed the Way

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“It’s a damned city we’re living in!” Mel said, incredulous. “Don’t embarrass me, put it down, Lana. You can be stupid, it might have bacteria, it’s just garbage.”

As if there was anyone else around who cared. As if Lana didn’t know she was in the city by now. Lana turned over the abandoned black shoe then tossed it back to the grass. How would anyone manage in such high heels? Who would leave a shoe behind, if it just came off? Or what if it dropped from someone’s bag? She wanted to pick it up and put it in her backpack.

Lana had lived there for six weeks now. Her sister could be less irritable with her lack of “citified ways”. That’s what their mother called their Melissa’s mannerisms, her way of talking (and nickname Mel) after nearly two years in Seattle–that is, an old town that was now a new suburb, but by a lake. Their father offered his opinion another way; it didn’t bear repeating so Lana didn’t share it. Mel would just fume and that wasn’t good for her job as a barista. Customers wanted cheerful, attentive.

Lana hadn’t been sure what being a barista entailed. When it was explained, Lana thought it madness that her sister was paid a fair wage for making fancy cups of strong coffee all day long. Enough to pay rent on a place of her own. Sort of. There had been a first boyfriend, it turned out, and then he had left and there had been a girl who stole money and then Mel had to move from a nice apartment to a tiny, shabby cabin on the far side of Lake Washington. The moss colonies were eating away the roof. The owner had gone to New York long ago and didn’t care. Half mile down the road mini-mansions were being built, so they were the poor, lone renters. Mel got a second job at a Kwik Stop on week-ends, her eye on another apartment complex. But she needed Lana’s help.

“I still work like a dog but not much is getting better fast. When are you going to get work, Lana? Or are you running home to the backwoods?”

“It seems like you didn’t ever get too far–look where we’re living. Though I love the lake. And how do I know when I’m getting a job? Who will hire me at eighteen with my skills, as you point out enough?”

“Well, you’re pretty smart and gorgeous, so something is bound to happen. Or we’ll make it happen.” She pulled her sunglasses off her head and settled them on her long nose.

Lana stole a glance at Mel to see if she was being mean or nice. She felt it was the second and wondered just what Mel meant; her ideas tended toward risky. “I tried for that second hand store job but haven’t heard back.”

Mel pulled the glasses down so brown eyes peered out. “You need to set your goals higher, Lana.” She pulled a mouth to show mild distaste. “We both do.”

When Lana had completed her 12th grade schooling, she had the sinking feeling she might never get out. She loved to write poetry, a useless thing fit to cause heartache, her father informed her,  half in jest, as he had a sweeter side. Her mother shook her head at him, patted her shoulder. But college was just a dream to her at seventeen with no money. Lana was restless. Her sister wrote a few letters about how much fun they’d have if Lana moved in with her. After a year Mel called, desperate, and asked if she was going to fly the coop or would she be wasting away under their parents rule, living–if you could even call it that–an anachronistic way of life.  That was the right word; Mel had looked it up.

Gene and Maureen Hardy, their parents, called themselves farmers. Twelve years ago they had escaped the confines and demands of a good-sized town in Idaho. They had decided to live off the land, forsake the madness and so-called conveniences of society. Gene Hardy did keep an aged, dented but sound green Volkswagen van. He’d been a mechanic and still fixed vehicles as well as other broken machines. On their four acres they grew vegetables for food as well as to sell at a small roadside stand. They had three Toggenburg goats for milk and cheese, and chickens. Gene hunted and taught his girls how (his son was just learning), though Mel declared she was only eating vegetables and dairy so why should she have to do it? Lana excelled at hunting despite not much enjoying her skills. She was good at learning, in general, and had an unusually fine memory. Maureen Hardy had been a teacher into her thirties, so home schooled daughters and young Jeff. There was no television. A beige phone had come with the house. It just hung on a kitchen wall; it infrequently rang.

That day it rang for her and Mel was on the other end, it was like she had been told she had won some jackpot. She left within a week, her mother bawling at the door and her brother Jeff waving and she waved back until he was a speck on the road. Gene Hardy had left to hunt grouse, leaving her with Gus, their old neighbor, to take her to the bus station in the next town. Gus hadn’t said much to her except, “Be good and be careful.” And shook her hand, with a one armed hug.

But it was hard living in Seattle, even if it was on the outskirts with fewer cars, less pollution. The traffic noise still found them all the way across the lake. Lana slept on a worn out couch with a wool blanket pulled over her in the cool nights. When Mel finally got up she took her bed and slept a couple more hours. They took the one morning bus into town together sometimes so Lana could look for work. Otherwise, she was alone. It was not something she was familiar being and found herself thinking of home more than she would have liked.

The day Lana saw the black high-heeled shoe she had applied for a job at a drugstore and the manager had looked her up and down, gaze lingering on her face, then barely glanced at her application and said he wasn’t hiring–try again soon. She figured there was no good reason to return.

As usual she waited for Mel to meet her on a break from the coffee shop around the corner. Lana rested at the city park, watching people rush by with confident strides, their bright spring jackets flying open. She admired how the women held their shoulders back, heads up, as if they didn’t need anyone to help them get by. They looked like beautiful horses galloping off  to even better fields. Lana pulled out a peanut butter sandwich and a bottle of water. The sunlight poured through leaves and she could smell the scent of a tree’s pink blossoms. A fountain sprayed crystalline water in sheer arcs, then splashed into a pool. She listened to the water was halfway done eating when she felt rather than saw him slide onto the park bench, as if a cold breeze swept up.

“Want to share that?” His voice was husky and low.

Lana pulled back and clutched her sandwich as if it was a fabulous deli concoction. He sat no taller than she but was powerfully built, she could tell that because his shirt was tight on his biceps and shoulders. His blond hair was cut close on the sides but fell forward over heavy dark eyebrows. His eyes, heavy-lidded.

“You don’t have to look like that. I’m just sorta hungry.” He released a sharp laugh. “I’ve seen you here before. I’m Dante.” He held out his hand.

Lana couldn’t stop staring at him. He was a perfect balance of ugly and attractive. His smile was too bright. She didn’t talk to men she didn’t know, not like this. She knew very few as it was.

“I’m waiting for someone,” she said and put down the sandwich.

“Yeah, some girl, I know.” He leaned toward her abruptly. “You are truly beautiful. But you know that. I could help you use that to your advantage. You need a job, I bet. You’re new in Seattle, right? I have connections, I know my way around here, believe me.”

“I suppose you do but I have other plans.” She turned away, shaken. What was he doing, chatting her up like that?

“Girls like you have the advantage, you know that? You could have the moon and stars. You could be a movie star, you’re so great to look at. You want to act?”

Lana stood up and stepped away, chest hot with fear, all senses warning her. “No, I don’t and I have things to do, bye.”

“Aw, sure you do, sugar. Come on–we’ll talk more.”

“Hey, beat it or I’ll call the cops!” Mel ran up behind them, put her arm around Lana; they took off..

“What was that about? I was eating my sandwich, that’s all, and there he was, talking crazy. He was a snake in short grass but I didn’t even see him coming.”

“Sis, he was looking for a new girl to sell…seemed high.” She pulled her close in a gridlock side hug.

Lana stopped and faced her. “Crap, I knew it! I was about to kick him and run like hell!”

“Of course you were. Don’t go there again, wait for me at the coffee shop. I’ll get you a knife to carry.”

“I have mine at the cabin, brought it in case I have to hunt—I know, dumb. But I wouldn’t carry that with me, would I?”

Mel considered. “Man, if he knew what you can do with that and how you handle a 20 gauge shotgun…”

Then they gaped at each other and began to giggle, then chortle, obnoxious sounds pealing out as they stopped at a cross walk. The green “walk” sign went on, but their laughter was so hysterical, pedestrians hurried past.

“It’s not funny!” Lana said as she snorted, feeling half horror, half relief. “And I left the rest of my sandwich.”

“I hope pigeons or seagulls got it. That thug didn’t deserve a thing.”

They crossed a few streets, looking over their shoulders a couple of times to make sure Dante wasn’t following them. Then they doubled back to the coffee shop.

“Look over there, by the grass,” Lana pointed at something dark against the greenery. “Weird. A black high heel.”

And then Mel had told her it was trash, just leave it and soon she went back to work another few hours. Lana followed her in. She was oblivious as usual to those who turned their attention her way, to the luminosity that rose from her skin, that slipped off her person as she passed by. Lana sat at a table for a few minutes, left to her own devices. She studied the street scene closely but didn’t see the man who had accosted her. She felt tired, ready to go back home instead of looking for a job. There was a bus that left in fifteen minutes so she told Mel she’d see her at home and left. She then hightailed over to the shoe, picked it up. Stuffed it in her backpack.

The ride home felt longer than usual. All about her were people dozing or whose glazed eyes were riveted to the passing scenery or to screens of expensive devices. A woman across the aisle who was perhaps her mother’s age gave Lana’s black shining hair an appraising look, then revealed an unspoken question as they made eye contact. She looked at her book when Lana stared back with a small smile. But the woman’s husband glanced up from his newspaper. His red-rimmed grey eyes didn’t look away for a long minute and she sensed his random thoughts, felt suddenly exposed. He seemed exhausted and lonely. She made her body smaller; her mind filled with static. If only she looked pleasant like Mel, just blended in. She put on sunglasses and closed her eyes against the world.

******

At the lake shore below the old cabin was a dock barely holding together. They had no brightly painted boat to take them out,and skim over the undulating green surface, only an empty boathouse. Lana sat on the end of the dock often. She figured if it collapsed she would land in the water and she knew how to swim well. Beside her were a notebook and pencil and the black high heel. The shoe wasn’t trash. It was clean and newer and stood empty on the dock, wishing to be worn. She began to sketch its outline in loose strokes and set it in a shaded background.

On the opposite page she wrote about the shoe. Who it may have belonged to, why it was worn that day or night–probably a night shoe. If it had been a good night or a bad night. Lana imagined it was a splurge as it was a good brand, Mel had noted in the coffee shop. The woman might have been meeting with a girlfriend after too many drinks first after work. She might have been leaving a restaurant in a hurry, trying to get a cab. So exotic to Lana, a cab hailed by a woman in black heels in the glittering night, perhaps in a slim blue dress, hair pulled back in a sleek bun. It might have come off as the heel caught in the door and she laughed as the cab sped off. Or it was a woman wearing fancy jeans with a leather jacket, her fingernails long and some interesting color, dark green or  purple, and she and her boyfriend were arm in arm, coming out of a movie. Then she turned her ankle since she wasn’t that good at walking in them. She got so mad she took off the shoe and threw it, then he happily carried her home. Or someone who’d always been afraid of heels so why did she ever wearing them? And on a blind date. So she took them off, walked barefoot to meet the someone at the park and realized too late she had lost the left one. So then she met him barefoot and it was okay.

Or someone was running and she kept going until her ankles hurt, they wobbled then the toe caught on rough sidewalk and it came off and she kept on. Maybe she was chased, just could not stop.

Lana’s heart was thrumming again, faster now. She looked behind her at the ramshackle cabin and lush trees crouched around it. No one else was there, no one was coming. Not ’til Mel arrived. She was still scared when she had never been out there. Lana took slow breaths. She examined the shoe she had kept for no good reason. It was a little scraped on the toe. She tried it on and it was too big. She laughed at herself. Why did this even matter? Who cared about an old shoe? The waves slapped against the muddy shoreline and the dock. Lana looked up at the bright deep sky and shadows on sluicing the lawn; it must be about four thirty. She wondered what her mother would be doing, but knew. She’d be finishing weeding or taking down clean clothes from the line, thinking up dinner plans based on what they had, what her father had hunted. He would be working in the pole barn and Jeff would be at is side.

Lana knew so little, Mel was right. She had no idea how to prepare for a life beyond the Hardy homestead, how to discern things correctly, how to fend for herself. Her sister was struggling, too. They were fools to be there. And yet. Mel wanted to make her own rules, and live her way. Lana wanted…she longed to be a poet. So much so that every feeling, every idea inside her gathered around that need, camped out as if around a hypnotic fire, waiting. How could she be one if she never moved beyond what was familiar? Took risks? Learned how to live richly, with different strengths? Didn’t she need all this otherness, the zigzag byways through life, the strange marvels of people and places? It’s danger? Even that. She had to face the dangers; everyone did. Her parents had tried to hide but the world was all about them, still.

“But I miss the ways I know…” she said aloud and her voice startled, brought a smile.

The silence around her was listening. It was spring air that moved her, the watery music and urgent scents of damp earth and grass, the promise of another starry sky. Her mind gentled and freed.

But today there was the small mystery of the black heel, too. And the man on the bench with that awful made up name and terrible intentions. And coffee drinkers who sat by windows keeping watch from their perches and Mel’s easy banter with customers as she worked to pay bills. To shape a life of her own.

Oh, the world was a maddening, breathtaking place and Lana wrote of it, a convergence of feelings, subtle beauty she recognized everywhere. But then she puttered around outdoors until dusk fell. She went inside and wrote her brother a short letter. And signed it with a big red heart because she missed him so.

******

“It’s for you, sounds official.”

Lana took the old-fashioned phone receiver, one much like their parents’. “Hello?”

“This is Hallie from Villager Vintage down the road. Are you Lana Hardy?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“I’d like to hire you as soon as you can make it in. My long time gal finally quit and there’s no one to fill her hours.”

“You want me to come in for an interview? That’s great. When?”

“No, honey, I’d like you to just come in and work. I’m sure you’re fine–you turned in such a nice neat application and you were friendly, so bright-eyed. Listen, you live a mile away and I need someone right now. We’ll give it a couple of weeks, see how it goes, okay?”

******

It had been over a month since Lana started at Village Discount. She had settled in as if meant to be there. She always had appreciated old things, used clothing was all she wore, anyway, and there were dishes, furniture, odds and ends. Some of it looked valuable but all of it took work to sort and catalog, to display just right and sell when a customer was on the fence. Hallie liked her, said she had a knack for it. Lana found the older woman too open personally and prone to cussing but they somehow fit like opposites often can.

Lana loved to come up with displays and window dressing. She’d had an idea that her found shoe would look elegant in a window with a silver and wine silk scarf draped about it, and one lacy black glove with silvery seed pearls lain atop the scarf. A black sheath was on a mannequin above this. Hallie liked it, as usual.

One day Lana was working on the inventory of sold items. It was almost closing time when the bell on the door tinkled. A tall, angular, well-dressed woman walked in, a paper bag in hand.

“Can I help you?” Lana asked as the woman stood before her at the counter.

“You can–I hope. I noticed in the window that display with one black high heel. Is there another, a mate?”

Lana smiled sheepishly. “No, actually, I’ve got only one of those here. I’m sorry.”

“Really? Can you take it down for me to look at, anyway? Oh, and the scarf, very pretty.”

They moved to the front of the store and Lana procured the shoe and scarf and handed them to the woman. The shoe was turned this way and that, then she opened her bag, pulled out a shoe, set both high heels side by side on a table.

The matching shoe.

“What?” Lana said.

“Yes, how on earth did this get here? Did some random person drop it off with other items? I thought sure it was lost!”

Lana laughed. “I found it. On a street downtown! I saw it and somehow…I just felt compelled to pick it up, I know it’s odd, but–”

The smiling woman placed her hand on Lana’s arm. “Please, it’s serendipity! I lost it the night of my engagement party at the Cameron Room. We were in such a hurry to get to the hotel afterwards, Greg and I. Oh, I’m Nancy.” She shook Lana’s hand. “And I took them off because my feet hurt, really, high heels are a bit much for hours of dancing!”

“Lana,” she murmured, her mouth agape, “I’m Lana Hardy.

“Hello, Lana! I like to buy vintage, I’m an artist so like to mix and match–and I heard about this store so after work I decided to come  by and there it was. In the actual window! I raced home to get the other shoe to make sure. And–” she waved the shoes between them–“here I am.  With my lucky shoes.”

“Lucky?”

“They’re my engagement party shoes, right? They mean something, it all just does. I was sad I dropped and lost it.” She shook her head. “Even though I’ll likely not wear them much–my feet hurt for days! But thank you so much for finding it and keeping it, then bringing it here. Perfect.”

Nancy’s face brimmed with good will. They talked awhile despite the closing hour–the wedding was to be in six months, Greg designed and built boats for a living, wasn’t it wild? and oddly lucrative–and then Nancy grew silent. Studied Lana without blinking an eye. Lana looked back with tilted head, feeling pleased.

“I’d love to do something, Lana. I do portraiture. I paint them for private clients but I also exhibit. I would like to paint you. That hair, huh. Your face is so, well,  it glows with kindness, add superior bone structure that catches shadow and light like…well, then the near-navy eyes…” She framed the girl’s head just so. “I find it all a winning combination to paint.”

“Oh! Thanks, I guess. I don’t know if I’d be a painting worthy of an exhibit! But–why not? Sure, okay, I’ll do it.”

And that was when Lana’s life began to open up, how she came to glean new ideas, clearer insights. To find herself. Nancy Le Fevre painted Lana Hardy’s portrait. It hung in a gallery for ten days, then it was snapped right up. She painted more portraiture of the young woman and as they worked together they became a creative mentor and a burgeoning poet. Friends of the finest sort. Before long, poetry began to flow from Lana of its own accord, the waiting coming to an end. One was even shortly published; she was heartened if amazed. But Mel and Lana stayed at the old cabin despite their increased income. It was still right, they agreed. For the time being, it felt more like home.