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.

 

Come to Me, My Shining Time

Williim Eggleston
Photo by William Eggleston

Though I’d just awakened, I was to get up and meet him at the Tacos ‘n Thai cart owned by Javier and Apsara. Not my favorite place at the moment. Food and I have not been on good terms even when I can afford more than this. Stress attacks my insides. The scraping for money. The nights I try to trick my body into sleep as I rock back and forth, all knees and elbows in the hammock Neal left on my porch when he disappeared. I am not often left with an appetite for breakfast. Hunger for relief, yes. I just want to live normally, take care of my business and do good things with no whining. Not so remarkable, but you’d never know it from the fears that threaten to abscond with my brain.

“Lily, back at last!”

Apsara flashes her monumental smile and the morning is improved. Her good will makes every dollar I spend here worthwhile so I order a side of rice noodles with egg, carrots and mushrooms with a bubble tea.

“You got something going on now?” She means work; she dabs her brow with the hem of her apron. “Shining that sweetie face in more glossies?”

“Modelling…well, no. I’ve been cleaning more houses for the past couple months. It covers gaps since Neal left.”

“Cleaning still… ” Her round face clouds and her lips purse.  “No good!” But her smile returns as she pushes a pen further into her hair and stands tall. She never prods for information, unlike her husband. “I’ll get you fed.”

I don’t know if she means “no-good man” or just “that’s bad news”, but either way it may come down to the same thing: not the best situation. I find the man who was with me for two and a half years entering my mental screen, all lankiness, blustery talk and warmly lit pools for eyes. A filmmaker, he was often gone. This time gone for good, and it’s not as hard as it looks to others. He was difficult to take in doses bigger than a few days after the first six months. It wasn’t his roving mind, the constant storytelling; I like stories and ideas. It was his expansive self-appreciation. I got bored. Even though he helped me out as my money dwindled, it was not such a sad day when he left on a promising European project, gone before dawn.

I need rent and grocery money, not him. I need things to go just right for me for once. My own time to come, my own passion to be acknowledged and enjoyed. And it’s sure not modelling, which shocked Neal. Well, it would.

Javier sticks his head out and waves. “Back for the best, I see!” he shouts, causing a handful of customers to gawk. “That good-for-nothing guy gone or what?” He makes a motion with his hand as if saying “good riddance” or worse, then is yanked back in by Apsara.

As I walk to a far table, I cringe. My personal life doesn’t need to go public in my neighborhood. I know I should get used to this, a different life. A harder one. I’ve considered the food bank but can’t handle the thought of lining up behind parents who have kids crying in their arms. Patient and often disoriented homeless. Clots of women pared down in size and spirit who are spurred to action by their men or a gnawing pain in their stomachs. It doesn’t seem right; I should be able to manage by now, not take from those who need it when I eat unevenly, that’s all. I’m almost thirty and haven’t gotten off to a roaring success. Well, the modelling paid well but that isn’t the success I aim to have.

As my madly successful family reminds me.

“You might consider getting a skill at last that equals a dependable and decent paycheck,” my father, a mover and shaker in biotech, advised on the phone. I had called for two hundred dollars to pay past due water and electricity. Every word including a “please and sorry” felt like failure. His voice can disguise itself as an audible grater, shredding both my eardrum and self esteem.

I pinned my cell between ear and shoulder as I folded clothes on the bed, then let it slip to the quilt as he continued to enumerate all I might have done or still could do. I counted in sevens as I did even as a kid. It still helps calm me.

“–instead of trying to become some sort of photographer! Art for dear art’s sake does not make for very fortuitous ends. Why couldn’t you have stayed with modelling longer?At least that got you in some doors and offered tangible rewards.”

“Yes, dad,” I murmured into the pause.

“Lily? You still there? You want your mother to talk to you? She’s just back from her book club.”

I clutched the phone and let my eyes rest on a dark corner of my room. I thought how it might look in a wide angle shot, a young woman with voluminous flame-red hair facing a dark plum wall, shoulders and feet bare, soft light slipping over her back. Her shadow flimsier than she imagines. I closed my eyes. “No, dad, it’s fine, I’ll call her another time. And thanks for the money, I’ll keep you posted.”

“Right, will do and love you, just get back on track.”

I’ve lived off my modelling savings for over eleven months and it is about gone now. My three year contract with the agency ran out. I haven’t returned phone calls from other agencies. I don’t want to be anyone else’s mannequin. Beauty alone can carry you for a great many miles. But long ago it left me at a dead end where its meaning and values are at odds with my idea of a real life. How can anyone pay such big money to hang clothes and jewels on my torso? To use me as a canvass for someone else’s often hallucinatory visions? It’s all disposable, even meaningless as I take the longer view.

It was a convenience from the start–easy money before, during and after college where I garnered an Art History degree. But I’m sick of it, want to shed that persona like a coat both heavy and sweaty. I am a burning creature inside this muscle and bone, burning with dreams and impatience.

Neal did not understand my doubts, nor did he try. He found my career invigorating, a jump start for his tendency toward sluggish ambition. I got to be his muse for a bit, gratifying at first. And a useful asset when we went to the endless parties and he could say, “This is my partner, Lily, who last had a starring role in British Vogue. Isn’t that wild?”

“Noodles steaming hot!” Apsara calls out.

I get up and walk near an occupied table. There is “the look” from three young men, that ten second stare as I come and go. The hair, the legs and so on.

“Got a minute?” one asks and another elbows him. The third whistles low and tunefully.

I want to snap my teeth at him and make terrible faces.

Javier is right behind his wife, grilling and turning meat and peppers and onions for tacos but he stops to turn to me.

“So what about it? Gonna go back to modelling jobs or still trying to sell those pictures of yours?”

I pick up the plate, succulent steam flowing from Apsara’s noodles into my nostrils. “No, done with the first and working on the second. I’ll figure it out.” I dole out ten dollars, glad for change.

“And we’ll put a few pounds back on for you. Don’t worry about it, we’ll help out if you need it.”

He gives his head an affirmative nod and his dark eyes fill with an odd mixture of compassion and gentle mirth. I want to take their photographs: hustling side by side in early mornings and into late nights, the joking and running into each other and cussing and stealing kisses. They’re life being lived on maximum volume, quick to respond, full of enthusiasm, cooking a way of life and an offering of affection.

“You got what it takes, little sister,” Apsara says, leaning in the open window. “I know you make it. Your dream life. Look us, we get it done, so too you, Lily.”

Tears arise hot behind my eyes but I shoot her a grateful smile and head back to my spot, the fragrance of noodles and veggies a rich perfume. I thought I wasn’t even hungry but I had thought I wasn’t lonely, either.

“Hey, you lookin’ so good!” The whistler gets up and ambles over. “Got a number?”

“It’s not available, just move on.”

He makes a sour face, as if he put his hand in the shimmering water and got stung.  “You got sass, my oh my!” he says but takes off to catch up with his friends.

True enough, I’ve shown it all: sass, melancholy, wide-eyed surprise, riotous excitement, wild fierceness, seductiveness, tender innocence–you name it, I can locate each and work it into my face and my limbs as fast as demanded. But today I feel tired, vulnerable, transparent to the world. Just like yesterday.

Except for that early phone call. Even the persistent ring sounded official and yet I hung back, unwilling to find out who was on the other line. It wasn’t a familiar number.

“Lily here; hello?”

“Herb Winters. We talked last month, remember? Meet me at the food cart, that Mexican and Thai one by the park in an hour. I like it for lunch sometimes.”

I ate half my food when my stomach began to balk. I wanted to leave before Mr. Winters arrived. His voice was devoid of clues as to whether he had good news or bad. That might mean exactly that: indifference. The worst sort of response to baring one’s soul. No one has ever seen my photos up close in person except for two people: my oldest friend and then Neal. It took all I had of small courage to take my portfolio to his gallery. Leave it there for his scrutiny. When I didn’t hear anything after two weeks, then three and four, I knew I had made a serious miscalculation. I hoped Mr. Winters would be open to my work because I admire what he hangs in Winters’ Photographic Arts Gallery: pictures exposing human foibles; scenes of ordinary life so vivid with insight, perspective; moments captured that revealed deeper truth; such layers of texture and form and hue.

If my photography has any true power, it will hold onto one millisecond of life that renders it visible to many, each person bringing with them their history and inquiries, emotions and intuition. A slice of life is brought close not entirely by me in a blink of focus, a suspension of time–but also by the vision others bring to the result. Their eyes see with mine. And I want that intersection to be transformative for them. I’m not sure I want to invoke anything except attentiveness, an experience of all else falling away so the one standing before my visual notations knows some of what I observed and felt, then adds adds his and her embroidering to it.

Exploration can begin that easily. I want us all to be witnesses to lives we carry and lead. To say: I am here; I acknowledge this moment, feel this life force move, regenerate.

And what else is there? A series of truths to absorb and share. I think about all this every day now. About how much I want to make pictures, have them in shows. Put them in print. Hope others emerge from the seeing with a greater sense of life’s density and transparency, too. I guess what I want is to find each essence, then be a person who will tell her truth.

I tried to explain this to Neal. He found me contradictory–“A foxy model longing to be profound?” he teased. I was thought ridiculous with my desire to create something more worthy. Change the ways we know the world, even for even one person? No, not this pretty woman.

“Entertain them,” he said, “that’s exactly what every one wants and that is my aim. Distraction–not being more present in this miserable world.”

I slipped away without answering, the moment emptying me of it.

I have never been very religious in ways I suppose I might be, but photography is a kind of conduit to God. Through my cameras I begin to discover what makes things as they are. The mysterious otherness of each perceived creation shows me a holy Presence. Stillness, astonishment, awe, grace: all I could otherwise lose possesses me with magic. I feel as if caught inside the perfect whorl of time, a still point where everything is unified. Makes sense or may, one day. I feel rent and made whole all at once.

This I could never experience as the posed subject of a camera, as a person to oggle, study or use as a vehicle to advertise material goods. To design an identity that was as foreign to me as my cohorts’ (including Neal’s) hunger for wealth and public adulation. My beauty was a destination for many; for me, simple DNA. Then a reckoning. Then a barrier. But I will define myself through and beyond these. Be a human being who does, not only who is.

I shred the paper napkin in my hands, look at my watch, sip the chilled bubble tea. Herb Winters is late. Nerves jiggle my leg and foot.

Javier is wiping sweat from his forehead with his plaid-shirted forearm, fists full of cooking tools. The lunch crowd lines up, then disperses. Some shift their weight as they check the menu, others stand with arms crossed, patient. A moving tableau of color and form. I reach for my camera and start to shoot, get up and move quietly, my old friends unaware, lunch people shuffling and taking places at tables. The high sun is clear, golden in the autumn coolness, an element that competes with the faces, then complements expressions rippling one to another. A wave of fascination for my eye.

Apsara looks up, past me, her eyes locked on the far treeline, perhaps, and she is turning luminous, black hair almost sparking, her mouth a ripe berry as happiness gathers and she turns toward Javier. He slips his arms about her, pulls her close so their foreheads meet. Another customer arrives, waits, rubbing his tired neck as he watches such big love. But there are so many aromatic choices for lunch. He speaks up. They laugh. My camera finds them all somehow exquisite and I take them in, fill up with images as they are framed and snapped, spellbound.

A shadow splays itself across my path.

“Lily Rossiter?”

I look up. It is Mr.Winters. He has my portfolio under his arm.

We find our way back to my picnic table but it is full up now, so we walk.

“I have spent good time studying your work. I’ve begun to see what you’re doing.”

“Yes? You have?”

He’s a big man, has a girth that is not enviable but he walks with a long, easy stride. I match his steps.

He nods. His beard is more silver than black I see now, his face more lined. It is a good, open face, the sort that’s both distinguished and capable of humor. My heart takes off and I wait for his final report.

“You want to love everything and everyone. The longing is there, the care.”

I steal a glance at him but he is not looking my way. What he says is true, I realize. I feel my insides have been exposed.

“But not everything is lovable, not everyone commands the valor of it.”

“Maybe so… I hope otherwise. I know there’s much more to taking pictures than beautiful design or engaging people or other creatures.”

He says nothing as we enter the park. We’re walking faster. The birds are chorusing and kids are playing basketball; there’s a woman with a red and white striped dress on and she’s reading under trees. I want him to just tell me–that it isn’t going to happen, he doesn’t find my attempts at photography commendable yet; I must work and study harder. Maybe he’s a man like my father, wanting me to wake up and get back to real life, that making art, honoring life and giving it my heart needs to stop before I make a fool of myself.

“You have a lot to learn, Lily Rossiter, but you have both eye and courage, I suspect, to do this. I want to hang a few of your photographs soon. You have much more to do to prepare for inclusion in my next show, ‘Discovery: Works of Rising Photographers’.”

I am about to burst with fear. “I know I need education or a mentor but I had to take a chance. Maybe you can tell me what to improve…wait, hold on…you want my photographs?”

Mr. Winters takes my hand, presses it between both of his thick, warm palms. “I think you have a gift. Let’s see what happens. I’ll call to set up a formal meeting.”

“Thank you… so much.” It comes out a hoarse whisper.

He heads for the Tacos ‘n Thai food cart. I’m standing by the merry-go-round with my portfolio so put it under a bush and hop on, push off from the ground so it starts to spin and gathers speed, and the sunshine is velvet on my skin and the breeze is sweetness and then children call out and jump on. We turn, turn, turn and there’s laughter and squealing. I lie back, let all my mad hair go and it flings itself over the dusty earth like a brazen, happy flag of victory.

 

An Afternoon of Art and Conversation

Kresge Court, Detroit Institute of Arts-photo by Bill Rauhauser
Kresge Court, Detroit Institute of Arts-photo by Bill Rauhauser

I know what they think, the two of us gliding through the art institute, his hand on my elbow, my eyes a bit dreamy, pearls swaying with each confident step. He is bulky and tall, his hair streaked with silver and wavy, and his heavy coat which he wore as though it’s a royal cloak, well, it’s cashmere, isn’t it? Of course they think those thoughts. I am too young for him. We’re not even friendly in a way one would expect family. I wear, I suspect, a look of slightly tarnished yet studied elegance. Do they think I don’t know what effect I can create? It’s in my blood. An actress mother; a composer father. We design everything.

I call him Samuel and he calls me Galinda, our ruse in case someone should hear or spot him and then proceed to detain us with an intrusive chat. He is well-known. I am nobody despite my attempt to appear cosmopolitan. Bored, perhaps above it all. Samuel bends over from time to time to inquire after me, to offer knowledge or astute criticism. I try to enjoy this tomb full of artistic endeavors. The places they put art! I have never visited the Detroit Institute of Arts. Why would I? I’m not ignorant. I just live in Kansas City. Or, I guess, did.

After we fill ourselves with a smorgasboard of classical works and outrageously modern pieces that make him squirm and me giggle, we sit in the courtyard. It’s chilly so he offers me his suede sport coat across my legs, considerate, a rather intimate act. I need a smoke. He offers me one of his, and the gold-plated lighter makes the barest flicking sound, not like my blue plastic Bic. I nearly choke; they’re French cigarettes. I suppress a cough while he looks away politely. He doesn’t really want to be here on a Saturday afternoon. I am his wife’s niece. He just married Portia a year ago. He wants to please her while she’s at her office.

Everyone said it was for her glamour but really, it was for her wit. I have seen them together enough to know how much he admires her. And she him. Portia is much like my mother, Eleanora, but absolutely intact. Her cosmetics business thrives.

My mother is in a place no one wants to mention. My father, Abe, distracts himself by playing piano all hours of the day and night. He won’t eat my cooking. He doesn’t like to sleep alone in their satin-covered, sway-backed bed.

This is how it was, act 1, scene 4:

“Why do you bring me chicken and peas at eight o’clock at night? Can’t you see I’m working? No, no food. Remove the tea, as well. Coffee. Please.”

I stand in the doorway, holding the too-hot china plate, then pick up bright green peas one by one and pop them in my mouth. The chicken is enveloped in mushroom sauce that even I loathe.

“Must you eat that way? Don’t we have a dining room table, silverware? Let me work now. I have to get this completed for the publisher.”

How can I blame Abe? Eleanora is the only one who has mastered him. Coddled him. I am the result of idealistic passion that has begun to erode from the sharp edges of life.

“I’m sorry, so sorry, darling. Come and sit.”

He swivels on the piano bench and holds out his hands to me. But I am already finished with the peas and my fingers are slippery with the last tablespoon of butter. I leave the music room. The silence soon iss stuffed with allegretto and appassionata and a moan of misery as he stops again and again. He huddles over his score. I feet his loneliness like an arctic wind. I can’t evade it no matter how hard I try.

Eleanora has always been absorbed by acting–live theater–and has done well enough to have her name on a half-dozen major Midwest marquees many times. But things change. She is now not the type they seek. Age creeps in and her flirtatious nature becomes a little sad. Or she stumbles over her lines more often. Prestige can’t be easily bargained for or bought. I’ve watched her slip away, into odd reveries, into sleep and finally into a dark corner of her mind but cannot tell you exactly why. My mother still can hush every room she enters. She has such flair and is so quick one has to work to keep up with her. But we are helpless. Well, I haven’t been home for four years but I saw it coming even before I left.

Fade to black, scene change. My own dubious future.

I think sometimes creativity can contort things. It can turn you inside out and then where is the refuge? I’ve noticed that everyone I know who adores creating risks adoration of their own feelings. It’s like a mirror they fall into if there are not enough other images to divert their attention and energy. Or simply not enough spark to illuminate something greater.

Eleanora and Abe would scoff at this. I am just a twenty-two year old college graduate with a new job. No matter that I pay attention. I am nothing if not a neophyte. I have not become absolutely amazing, something they desire with all their hearts.

So, Aunt Portia. She found a place for mother to recuperate from life. She offered me a room in their suburban Detroit home that could accommodate three families so here I am. I work at Metropolitan Estates for now, crunching numbers, attending to people’s wills and all. That’s right, as glamorous as all that, but when I tell people I’m quite interested in wills and inheritance taxes, they act as if I’m somewhat a genius, at the very least clever. But the word I most often hear? “Spunky.” How spunky of me to move here and take this job right out of college in nineteen sixty-seven. I think, how crucial to survival now that I am on my own.

“You enjoyed the art?” Samuel asks with interest.

His name is really Arthur Minhausen III. He owns so much commercial property in this city you about trip over it just walking down the street.

I exhale as he stubs his own cigarette out.

“Some beautiful paintings, of course. But I like living art, not entombed, untouchable.”

Samuel smiles, a crooked front tooth adding a certain flair. He brings his coffee cup to his lips, hesitates before drinking. “Example?”

“How about gardens? Aunt Portia’s is outstanding. Or public sculptures that seem in short supply here but abound in Europe, I hear. People can touch them, enjoy a summer breeze as they sit and gaze at them with serious intent. Or not. Art for the masses, all sorts. Or art you can wear, we certainly need that, too!”

“Ah, now you sound like Portia,” he says. “You should travel more and then tell me what you think. Explore different cultures, enjoy other visions.”

I look away to hide the fact that I don’t believe that will ever happen. My life doesn’t include windfalls. But I see a couple staring at us, the woman whispering to her companion. Arthur is high-profile, a local celebrity. He fundraises. He is a toastmaster about town, a gad-about that everyone likes to rub shoulders with. He looks as good as he talks and his wife is even better.

“Well, I made it to Detroit. That’s a start.”

He leans toward me. “A bold move, I must say.” He inclines his head. “Lizzie, you share your mother’s and aunt’s gifts, you know.”

My actual name spoken is a disappointment–shhouldn’t I go by Elizabeth now?–but I flush. Too often I’ve heard I have my mother’s and aunt’s looks and it gets tiring. I have known this new uncle for about a month. “Meaning?”

“You’re a creative thinker, practical. Smart, personable. Independent. You will do well. It won’t always be Detroit. It may be New York or Los Angeles. Public relations, as you hope. You’ll make your way.”

It seems extravagant to me, all this praise. Arthur/Samuel is lighting another cigarette and handing me a second, which I refuse. His smallish eyes are clear and steady. I open my mouth and close it. He nods to encourage my response.

“You forget I might have gotten a serious genetic load of melancholia. I may be doomed to swooning too much or crying over how unfair life is. Worse, collapsing under my own emotional weight. My own mother finds her life less than she desires and what happens? She dives deep into the cave of her bedroom until we have to search for her and send her away for reconstruction. I’m sometimes fearful if I stub my toe I might decide I can’t even walk!”

I’m embarrassed by my frankness, how easy it is. And my anger. Surely I can be kinder. But there it is. Meanness where there should be tenderness. She is my mother, after all. My father could do with more goodness from me, too. He wept as he told me it was best I go.

“It happens. We think we know how to manage and then find out we have a deficit that needs addressing. Or there’s a change in the weather, whatever! We might need help. Everyone does, sooner or later.”

“Not you, I’m sure.”

Arthur inhales and holds it too long, as if the smothered smoke keeps his thoughts in place. I imagine a boat coming to port, the thoughts ready to disembark, waiting for a signal. The he exhales and words tumble out.

“Why not me? Is my ambition separate from the rest of my living? It all comes from the same source: ourselves. Dreams and failures, achievements and losses. But there are our plans and life’s plans. We make ourselves who we need to be, and it works or it doesn’t. I tell you, I haven’t always had it this good, and I don’t mean just materially.”

I sipped my Coke, then held it with both hands to cool myself. “Okay, wait, so my mother chose to be nuts? And I can choose not to be? Just like that.”

He shook his head slowly. “It’s the luck of the draw, sometimes, but it’s also how we deal with what is dealt. Everything we do is a risk. Like my business. Like you coming to stay with us. Even your mother’s choices, Lizzie.” He reaches for my wrist and his hand is dry, firm. “She will rebound, Portia believes, don’t you? People start over. And you are not to feel guilty about any of it, if I may say so. Just live your own life and see what happens.”

I am about to tell him he has a lot to say and I’m glad he took me here. But someone is fast approaching us. There is a camera held high. Arthur takes my hand–“Galinda? Shall we?”–and we stand up, turn, walk briskly away.

He leans and whispers. “Let’s call Portia and meet her for a Greek dinner. This way, my dear.”

We leave a gallery of eyes behind us. I know how we seem. An older man taking charge, his arm about me to shield me from the press, a man who knows what he wants and gets it. Me, a stranger to Detroit, too young to know what she is doing, full of high-spiritedness. A certain sophistication she only copies from her mother, aunt and many others she admires.

But as we walk into the brashness of afternoon sunshine I feel strength of my own. He has let go of me. I can manage just fine. I only have to step forward. Tomorrow I’ll call my parents. Let them know I do love and miss them though I’m glad–delirious, really!–to be here. Cue the curtain. I have much more to actually live, darlings.

Photo courtesy of DIA
Photo courtesy of DIA