Death’s Sorrow, a Song that Sings Without Invitation

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Gary Guenther

Why, sometimes, bother to write at all? Words have their own impulse to sound themselves, like small and large gongs shuddering under our hands. But mostly tonight I write only because what else can I possibly do?

My older of two brothers, Gary, age 79, had a massive heart attack Thursday night or Friday morning, then perhaps another, and was placed immediately on life support. Then passed this morning, with our help. We sat hunched about, stood staring, immobile, wept and wondered, spoke to his likely unhearing ears, held his hands or feet. And so soon! he was gone.

My brother of magic music hands and hard-headed ways and large living. A well-educated man and a self-taught man, a person who could not get enough knowledge.

I had just visited with him three days before–after he had been ill for several months and in hospital often. But that day he seemed so far from the verge of death. No, he was so much better than he had been in many months, in all known ways. Clear and more at ease, his severe congestive heart failure and bi-polar illness episode well treated. Thinner, a man once tall and broad-shouldered now smaller, folding in and out as his gestured and leaned.

Hearing this tonight, now: his saxophones and clarinets and flutes talking mad and mellow music; his buoyant singing tripping over tables and faces, those great old standards, swing, Gypsy jazz. Sizzling, shuffling, deep dipping, high scaling notes; the swirl, punch, laugh of the wild and pensive being you have always been.

I want to say: Speak to us, tell us the plaintive truths. Tune up the atmosphere with songs made to be freed. Make a ruckus but not a terrible one, an ebullient one.

Please.

You could say anything. Raw or tender, frightening or confounding, irritating and illuminating and just plain curious and so riveting to me.

My brother’s photographic memory, phenomenal, the vast ranging information, philosophy and science, arts and politics and world history, a myriad opinions and dreams and intuitions and more. The several hundreds of films he critiqued, copied, shared. The music he mentally cataloged, spoke of with eloquence, voice rat-a-tat-rat-a-tat, slip-sliding along: it mesmerized me sometimes–as it did even him. I would call and sing a song’s–jazz, classical, pop–first few measures and he would tell me its title, give me the words if they were forgotten. My own phone wizard of music quizzes.

He was the first one who read my first attempt at a novel and when he said how much he appreciated it, how he believed in my writing, I was stunned, as he read a couple books or more a week, and read diverse choices, read well. He could understand my story’s or poem’s underground lives, the crisscross of meanings. Like he also knew I was a dancer who mostly didn’t dance. A singer who cut off my love affair with music to survive in the greater and much harder world.

And I knew more of him than he thought I knew and he knew this eventually. But I also knew very little, much less than what others even said, the good and the not good. I was just watching, hearing in my own way, from soul and gut. And I only write what I know, what I feel; what else can we offer but our own truth…

Welcome to my house, I said (what matters to me is being blood). Welcome to mine, he said. So we came/went and enjoyed.

His baked beans, his ham and potatoes, missed already. His cigar-smelly, liquor-in-a-glass, sweat-tinged, tiny music club room in the back yard. Instruments galore, whole and in pieces, stereo and radio, small open window so the chickens could pop in and out of his place, then his partner’s studio. His good bare feet took him everywhere. White mane of hair and rumpled hats. The fascination with not only instruments but cars and motorcycles, like Dad. Appreciation of small things, the value of what was used and tossed that he then took apart and repaired. How he liked dogs and cats, their very animal-ness, his affinity. Cared about the forlorn; I have heard them speak of him. Loved his partner’s good rich art and her–so long.

I don’t know how I cared for someone this much, about whom I usually saw so little. He left home for University of Michigan when I was 7, got two degrees, taught at a prestigious college and worked at mental health clinics. But later he lived right down the street.I pass by their house every day almost. I have stopped in on a whim. and it was good to greet him, share a hug, sing a little tune. He thought I might perform with his band some years ago. No, but I heard them play several times, so good I danced, a happy fool, in my chair.

Did we always see eye-to-eye? No, but please, forget those tenacious family issues, everyone has them despite best attempts at denial or correction. Everyone can say yes or no to what they want to hold close. I have so much learn, but being a family member is something not hard for me. Maybe because I trailed along behind the four older ones, I’ve loved them from close to the ground with its gravity, closer yet to the heart because I am the person I am. And I cannot not love with entirety, little pest sister who grew up to be this person, a full human being.

We had that perfect three hour visit last Tuesday. It truly was. So long it had been. I was so glad he was up and about though shaky-legged, that he shared such conversation as hoped for. I got to take him to the grocery. We talked possible vegetables and the preference for darkest chocolate and bad-tasty chicken strips and three big cartons of puddings as he zipped around in an electric cart. I could not get him to buy oranges but did get him to buy bananas. We laughed as he drove fast but not too fast to tip over displays; he had good corner control. People smiled, nodded at us; we smiled back. He was so appreciative of the deli man’s careful way, making up a whole new batch of chicken strips for him. The lady next to us suggested it with a twinkle in her eye. Gary liked that. He said the big box would last him the week; the savory-greasy aroma gave him a grin.

And yes, the talk of musicians and favorite places in Mexico where he still wanted to live, maybe November he’d get there again, that was paradise to him, heat and colors and simpler ways. Then, old friends he had seen come and go, people who had worn shirts and socks he had given them, why not, and money, it comes and goes, it’s the way it should be. And what of my writing now, what would come later, what did I think? Write, Cynthia, keep going.

Finally, his not being able to play music, anymore. Heartache, dulled under resignation. And of God, once a useless topic to him, now of meaning. An eruption of so many possibilities.

His round hugs and three kisses the last day, happy at last. And: see you next week for the ultrasound, Gary! And I was thinking of how soon Marc and I would make a pot of good pasta and hefty salad for our table and Gary would be able to join us again and we’d all talk like we had all night long. we’d all prayed. It felt like an answer to fervent prayers.

But we never know anything for certain, we do know that–then are surprised.

This is what I miss tonight: what we will not now do together, what could have been possible since he got better… after the interminably long illness stopping things, separating all…How time and opportunity have faltered and forsaken me once more. Though it is finally accepted, anyway. With appreciation– for what we’ve enjoyed, or never get over it.

Did he leave, finally, the material world because his music was to be played and shared no more? Or he was just worn out, finally burdened by breathing, the surfeit of song and sorrow and stitched up things? Such agony he knew, such joy. It can be soul-tiring to live hanging onto a grand bright kite of life and looking down to see a whole messy, stupendous scene yet still ask relentless questions with no definitive answers. Then, finally, to become servile under the dictator of illness. And under the new rules of aging that no one truly briefs you about, it’s often just everyone for themselves calling out an embarrassed help now and then.

And the bullying of the years’ errors, what a villainous thing it can be. I know some of that waste. Hard to proceed without assistance or it can drive you to the edge. We all need it or are lying to ourselves. He got the help–despite his intention (with his daughter’s insistence and devotion to his aid). Our prayers, my good Lord, how hard can one pray…. Are we not all worthy and unworthy and ever needing transformation? I believe God saw his hand out and came forth and my brother opened the windows and then a door. It changes things. It did change things.

Life is carried in many ways here. Can feel like a back-bruising pack of odds and ends, dreams and demons, wounds and wonders. Shadows. Miracles. Breaths un-breathed and hissed and whispered, heart beats jumping and waltzing, finally resting on a too-long pause…

You, my brother: done here.

Yes, that Stairway to the Stars, Gary. Come on now, sync with the new rhythms. Flee to peaceable places. The Light loves you no matter what, I swear to you the angels speak in a kaleidoscope of tongues, sing crystalline choruses, are like jewel-bright fires dancing as the pathway opens.

It all will be revealed, now go.

Going up now, don’t let go of those who love you until a sonorous bell rings long and loud, then you will see.

And here I am waving, Gary, I am waving at you, still.

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Living Strong, Living Whole


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At the gym I start to think about the Olympics, my primary spectator sport. I am excited about the athletic prowess I will witness but try to follow each difficult and elegant move of Tai Chi in my class. Then I work up a dripping sweat on a treadmill. I have brought a psychologically probing mystery (Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street) to read as I briskly walk. I once made the mistake of responding to someone who had something to say about everything. Talking and power walking do not mix well.

I glance around at the end of a chapter. Twenty men and women, mostly past forty, are huffing their way towards a goal. I like the environment there. No flashy decor, no semi-pros or perfectly proportioned folks to daunt the rest of us. Twenty-five years ago I had engaged in intense weight training, so understand the propelling desire. But in this gym we still mean business. Not even close to that territory Olympians occupy much less the same mental zone, granted, but still, it counts. I am grateful to be among those who take ordinary well-being seriously, no matter fitness level. I attend Zumba weekly, dancing and working with concentration and pleasure. I appreciate the eighty year old woman who is more excited and committed than younger attendees.

But I have to tell you, the tightly packed rooms, the sounds of thunderous feet on treadmills and harsh clunks of barbells, the raucous redundancy of stationary bicycle wheels–all this gets to me if I stay too long. I work two hours to make it worth the fees. By midway I am wishing the televisions would die and I was hiking in the woods. Couldn’t there at least be a video of a trail through the forest or across a mountain meadow instead of CNN or a game show? Hence, another reason for a book. But I long to be outdoors. I engage in this extra fitness routine only at the behest of my cardiologist.

I wrapped it up a bit early in the morning. I had heard we were getting snow in Portland, a wild event. The rest of the country has been wrestling with polar vortexes, but Oregon has been in good shape, sunny and dry for weeks. Daffodils already arisen from the earth. Snowdrop flowers shimmering amidst forever-green grass. This winter the rain has been a bit scarce and I have missed it. But, really, snow?

It hit me as soon as I walked out the doors of the gym: snow swirling and stinging my face; that bright, sharp scent; flakes landing on eyelashes, melting into damp spots on my cheeks. I caught my breath. Wind drew my long hair across my face as I unlocked the car.

And I was transported to Michigan, thrust back to my youth.

Even though I, like my siblings, was studious, focused on developing musical abilities and given to somber introspection, I had an abiding need to be outdoors. Like children everywhere, I loved my serviceable bike, a blue Schwinn, and traversed streets and sidewalks, excited as a world traveler. My legs needed to stretch and sprint. Although not formally involved in track and field (though I did race–and often beat–the boys in our elementary schoolyard) I challenged myself, running races with friends. Neighborhood games were spontaneous: “kick the can”, “red rover, red rover”, playing baseball, volleyball and badminton. We had to move. Not even television snared us for long. The big maple in my back yard was a favored refuge–like a jungle gym and a good spot for the swing. It was a mountain to conquer. I was fascinated by trapeze artists. I dreamed of their routines, hands to hands or feet across treacherous gaps of space, then tried out moves on rings and swinging bars at parks. It felt amazing.

Ice skating called to me at six or seven. I found the speed exhilarating and mildly dangerous. The dancerly movements mesmerized. I had studied dance, felt deep kinship. Before long I was studying figure skating, performing at times, competing. It demanded discipline. Built stamina and increased courage, not only physically but emotionally, mentally. Nothing but feverish illness could keep me off the rudimentary outdoor rink, the snow a backdrop to challenging figures, falls and successes. On skates I was lifted beyond all cares, and felt free, powerful, joyous. This enchantment lasted until I was about fifteen, when life distracted me, and music had become more time-consuming and crucial to me. But I skated when I could. To this day, lacing my skates up at the side of a rink brings a thrill. And once on the ice this world falls away; I am granted entry to another kingdom.

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When I got home and watched snow drift and whiten our emerald city, I was taken back to years of tobogganing. The two icy runs in the deep greenery in City Forest were fast. Waxing the underside of the wooden toboggan augmented speed significantly. My mother was worried we would fly off and break our heads. Some occasionally did fly off; I was lucky. Four or five of us would squeeze close, hold on to the one in front and when pushed off would howl and scream our lungs out. The rush was beautiful, well worth bumps and bruises, the aching hands uncovered and slowly heated up in the warming house.

I more completely lived outdoors, or so it seems in retrospect.  I pondered life plenty, practiced cello and voice, studied for tests and topics of my choice, wrote poetry and stories, drew things and worried about surviving that netherworld of adolescence. For me, it was like trying to navigate quick sand. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse kept secret, back then I was haunted while asleep and dogged by its specter by day as I also resolved to meet standards set by a high-achieving family and an unusual town that was full of exceptional people. It was critical to move beyond myself and to vacate the confines of artificial place, to further call on Spirit as well as my senses to realign life. I had a wound from which soul and life bled. It had to heal. Delving into the complex organic world and finding my place in it assuaged grief, granted grace often. Even saved me.

I knew that being fully present while developing strength and reflexes, balance and agility held power that nothing else could offer. I felt it as a child and youth; everything worked right. I explored a small woods that was a maze of elegant birches and other deciduous trees, weaving through trails brushed with sunlight and shadow. The creek that ran through it and beyond was a gentling presence as I studied blooming things and rocks and gathered leaves. Sang back to birds. Tracked garter snakes through weeds. I also daily visited the tree nursery just behind our place. There were hours of uninterrupted sanctuary and play. Staff nodded and smiled, my co-conspirators.

I had other playgrounds where work also determined my time. I spent several summers as an arts student at National Music Camp, known as Interlochen, in northern Michigan’s forested lake lands. It took who I was and shaped me more deeply and broadly. It gave me a literal steady ground from which to better launch my life. It was a place where dreams came to fruition more each day, with extra gifts of  lake living, the trees a canopy of delights. Music flows from and returns to the Creator outdoors.

God, ever near, spoke to me more clearly outside, in that wordless language of Spirit. I experienced how well my body served me even if there was also pain in having one. Senses bring knowledge, build skills. Conditioning of mind and body result from discovering possibilities and pushing limits. Sports and play were then, and are now, good ways to learn. Courage arises when we are at our most weakened. This was surprising to me as a youth.

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As human beings, we are built to fight for what matters most; we are made to embrace the difficult as well as the blissful. I was not going to fail because I was unwilling to take a chance, to seek a better way. To find the holiness in the midst of the unholy is the way I choose to live. There is nothing between me and a life lived well but what I put there. Wholeness is our birthright.

I hiked at a state park a couple weeks ago, before we imagined snow coming. I left my husband behind, I confess. The hilly trails and giant moss-clothed trees beckoned like dear companions. My heart beat hard. Birdsong imbued the air with ethereal communiques. Sunlight drifted into microcosms and macrocosms and onto me as though a welcoming hand. I was profoundly at peace, as always.

I can now see the snow accumulating beneath a lamppost. Someone is cross country skiing in an otherwise empty street. Her long strides are efficient and smooth. I am envious. I remember that and snowshoeing at a place called Rattail Lake. It was one of those weekends full of friends, snow, a roaring fire and late night philosophizing. We were bold college students, aflame with life. We thought we had forever. But that reminiscence brings me back to an abiding passion, ice skating. It is time to get out there again, skim that field of ice, revel in the guidance of body and soul as they liberate joy.

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A letter of thanks (and fixing a glitch)

DSCF3728Dear readers:

I so appreciate each of you as you follow and read “Tales for Life” posts. There are untold numbers of excellent bloggers, scads of fascinating information and ideas to ingest. I know you all live demanding, at times tiring, lives. And I remain faithful to my weekly posts not only because I am passionate about writing but because you come back for more. It is humbling to see the “like” button clicked. I encourage you to leave a comment so I know what struck you and what you’d like to share otherwise. I follow many of your great blogs, as well.

But writing hurdles certainly occur for me, generally related to the computer. The post just published on 1/2/14 had many formatting glitches–my computer was having a fit, or the site was. It was a very lengthy process to get it posted, and even then, imperfectly. I’m not sure what happened to its title but now it’s in place: “Afternoons at the Ice Palace”.

This short story is based in part on my lifelong love of ice skating. It was one of the saving graces of my childhood and youth and continues to bring me pleasure and fitness. Although I have lost some figure skating skills, the ice still calls me. I plan on going to my local indoor rink soon. I do miss wintry blasts of wind and snow swirling around the rink. But joy will embrace me as soon as I hit that slick surface and pick up speed. It takes  my breath away.

Well being is more important each passing year–spiritual, emotional, and physical. My coronary artery disease is being managed well overall even as I accept my life will likely be shortened by its presence. So please don’t put off any concerns you have about your own health; early interventions can save us from much suffering.

I care about people, their struggles and breakthroughs, the complex questions and epiphanies that arouse wonder. Seeing and encouraging Divine Love in others is a priority. The most important thing to me is the knowledge of God being here, now, close to each of us. We are never abandoned; we digress and move away of our own accord. I have wandered down some twisty, tangled paths of my own and made unwise decisions.

I notice that atheism is getting more press. And there continues to be violent verbal and actual attacks on various religions. The world never wearies of dissent. I am Christian although my writing is about many topics and imaginings. My beliefs may not match yours or yours, mine. But we each can vow to improve our work or play, carry out actions enlivened by healthy risk and extra effort if they are informed by a faith that grants us stamina, inspiration and peace. May your own spirits and minds be so strengthened.

So may your coming days and weeks of 2014 be fruitful and active, buoyed by contentment and love. Thank you for making my past year one of good steps forward. I have gained more readers weekly, in large part to being Freshly Pressed. You have kindly supported my efforts. It makes a difference as I scribble away, seeking the words that convey a few worthy tales about living a life on earth.

Tell me: what tales do you want to design and live today?

Regards,
Cynthia

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So Many

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                               (Viet Nam Memorial/soldier)

So many names.

I could talk about being a youth and young adult during the sixties and seventies and the myriad events I witnessed, the upheavals that altered this society’s institutions of many kinds. Or the ways family was redefined and individuals found community in new ways. There were pioneering and also risky ideological movements; women’s rights made progress and many men came to know themselves differently, as well. The assassination of JFK alone would have ben enough to rock our young worlds. It was a time of change that made an impact we would feel decades later.

I could tell you my little story. But this attempt at saying something that matters is about theirs, almost all of which I barely know. This essay is not “for” or “against” anything, but simply in remembrance of those who have gone before us due to being soldiers. They have had expectations and thoughts regarding events about which I have understood less than I should.

But I can at least say that back then there was Viet Nam first and last in our lives. It permeated the news, our consciousness, our fears, questioning. Television left less and less to the imagination and the images followed us into sleep. Front pages held news daily that stopped us in our ordinary lives. We had our own ways with the war: enlisted or were drafted, debated, protested, marched, prayed for peace, tried to ignore it, worried, waited it out a very, very long while.

So when I see this picture my breath leaves me and it sears on the way out, aches upon its return. I stood at that memorial, that wall, many years later, touched the names chiseled in the smooth, obdurate surface. I watched the soldiers and families, felt my face burn and eyes fill, heart contract. But I have never been a soldier. Standing there was so private, yet so public as all who were present shared grief and memories together at the wall.

So many.

But not all who left passed on.

My brother came back from the Viet Nam War a changed spirit, a different kind of man altogether, and for me a brother I feared lost. I was confused. I could not touch him so far away was he from us. His easy laughter had long left and the rooms were emptier for it. I was not a child but it sorrowed me in a way that nothing and no one could explain away. I did not find the brother from before but he did return to us in body, and slowly, he redesigned his life. He lived each day as he best determined it. He unfroze over time but the thoughts were kept to himself; pain, no doubt bitter, never named. Yet somewhere his changed destiny allowed him to unearth indelible beauty and love, which he offered again. Or it found him, like an angel settling in. One way he may have been renewed was through photography, a way of seeing and translating life even when he was a soldier. I have seen his pictures of the women and children, men in doorways, streets full of the still-living, the country and city landscapes so haunting to me. Perhaps they helped him salvage the good that survived. I don’t know. He stepped forward and continued on.

I’ve rediscovered him again since becoming an adult. I’ve become less innocent but more attentive, too. I study his photographs past and current and think they hold a kind of vivid austerity, a lean and elegant power that comes from burning. A quietude. Something sacred and also forlorn co-mingles in light and shadows. He has travelled around the world many times and brings back stories for my eye and spirit. I can wander with him. For all that, I am more than thankful. And he shares kindnesses in more ways than can be noted here.

Yet as he himself would likely note: too many gone. I once walked through the Arlington National Cemetery. The endless white, simple crosses with stringent light streaming through trees…that unavoidable silence, yet a silence potent and heavy. It hollowed out a place in me from which a tidal wave of weeping issued as I walked on and on.

I feel it again today. There is so much more to the story we see in the photo above. Tales that survivors hold secret. Things some release in increments that nonetheless feel vast. And it still haunts and covers us with a cloak of pain. Prayers like songs that never end: they fall like drops of blood to earth yet also take flight. To the Universe. To God, who waits for us to remember our compassion, seeks to heal without our ever knowing all the answers. Or the right questions, I sometimes think.

So many separate lives, sacred to the whole of this, our humanity. That is what I think of when I see my artist daughter’s mammoth handmade quilt, the fabrics into which she sewed and counted porcelain “bones” to represent each soldier who died in Iraq. “In memoriam” was the engine of her industry and moved her heart. Her lap was heavy with yards of fabric sheltering clay pieces, then folded on the floor. She sat in a rocking chair exposing, stitching, recreating, remembering the losses. And the spirit of her work was unleashed. She has shown it in art galleries where few of us may fathom lives lost, to forces we poorly decipher. But the essence of those gone is evident.

How many wars this world has counted and still counts. Soldiers who have taken their places. Our country alone: those going, too often not returning. So many lives. I bow my head. Tears do not, cannot speak enough- cannot touch enough- cannot change this world enough. But that doesn’t keep me from hoping and praying, still. It doesn’t put out the light. But we cannot forget who and what has been, and who still carries on.

large_fit_Falk_recalledquilt_0073_1_1000                                “Recall(ed) Quilt” by  Naomi J. Falk

*Please view more on this and other works at: http://naomijfalk.com/media/2095

*Note: Vietnam Memorial photo is courtesy of Patricia Ann McNair’s blog.

The Great Unknowns

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Ever get the feeling that something is about to happen but it isn’t going to be an event you desire? Something you cannot even imagine? Or you can, and that’s the problem, or will be sooner or later.

Your throat tightens as though a vise has gripped it, your breath is  squashed by the fancy architecture of your ribs. What was once your important and strong core, i.e., your diaphragm, is now a puddle of bad jelly. Your heart? It has its own agenda and it is not listening to reason. Your autonomic system is responding to a three alarm fire and you can’t even see the smoke. Then you realize what is happening but it leaves you quaking anyway: anxiety attack! If only there was somewhere to run for cover.

Or perhaps it is a malingering you feel, a daily burden, a sensation that nothing is ever quite right or something will go wrong no matter what is done. A deep sense of unease keeps you company, heightened by some circumstances, lessening a bit in others. But it is like your shadow, never vanishing once and for all.

Anxiety is the most common mental health issue noted in the U.S. At least eighteen percent of the population suffers enough to seek help according to one report. I can testify to how widespread it is after counseling clients for over twenty-five years. I estimate that seventy percent of my clients have anxiety. They have said it is the primary reason (grief and loss is second, tied with depression) for abusing drugs and alcohol. And they also complain that they’ve developed a host of symptoms related to anxiety (and the stress and tension it brings) from insomnia to nausea to migraines; avoidance of the company of others; and becoming blocked in achieving lifelong goals. It can kick-start depression. Anxiety can stop you from going out the door for milk or to a holiday party.

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Anxiety is the buzzing static in your head that is louder than a city at full-tilt. It makes things feel harder. Relief is the goal for those who know its redundant tune. Anxiety can hold you hostage. And all you want is freedom, if only the very thought of it wasn’t so anxiety producing.

But my disclaimer: this post does not offer a perfect panacea. There are already good ways and means to address anxiety disorders if that is what you experience and need professional help. At the local bookstore are a wide variety of books on how to manage anxiety. There are physical and spiritual practices (meditation and prayer, yoga, acupuncture, tai chi, and so on) that ease symptoms. Therapists have skills that enable them to treat anxiety in all its manifestations; they make a decent living due to so much need. Pharmaceutical companies profit from designing and selling medications that may or may not help.

What I want to talk about is that it is possible to de-fang and de-claw much of our anxiety. I don’t even think much of that word; it lacks even a utilitarian flair. I am certain that decades ago “nervousness” was just another emotion to experience and cope with; now it has become a major diagnosis. But it is here to stay, it seems. So this is an essay about how I have increasingly avoided an emotional stutter that forces a time out from life. Because that’s what anxiety feels like to me: going into a corner, facing a wall for more than a tolerable few minutes. As long as anxiety can breathe my breath for long, I’m not living the life I need to live: full-on, intrigued by what comes my way and how I get to respond. What I get to next create.

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I’m not easily thrown by challenges though I’ve had some doozies. But I learned a few useful things along the way. Painful events are equal opportunity: we all get to experience them, first off, because we’re born with human bodies. Bundles of nerves and powerful chemicals that create chain reactions set the stage. Each emotional nuance helps us to better know ourselves and others. Our potential and limits. Sometimes we get into something we didn’t foresee at all. Or too late. And it has sudden impact.

Like the one I stumbled into when almost fifteen.

I was walking by a city park, above it, actually, on railroad tracks. The sun beamed down on all. I loved trains, being in them or not. I’d once jumped one for a slow ride as it came into town, hanging on with one hand, the wheels’ rhythms travelling up bone and sinew. So I kept my eye on the far point and my ear attuned to a mellow whistle. It was Indian summer in Michigan. There were children down below playing, adults sharing a last barbecue, and their shouts and laugher drifted up the hill. No train made itself apparent. I wasn’t worried if one did start barreling toward me as I could easily scramble up the incline to the street. There, just out of reach, were gracious homes with broad lawns that overlooked the Tittabawasee River and the park.

I was thinking of little when I heard them. Footsteps. They  closely matched mine but fell heavier, then a bit faster. I threw a glance over my shoulder, thinking it was another like-minded person enjoying the day, waiting for a train. But no. He was not much older than was I, maybe younger, wiry with dark hair and no smile. No words. He felt…wrong. Discomfort did not creep up on me; it hammered me with a surge of adrenalin that was critical. I started to run; my legs chose how fast.

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Not fast enough. Hands grabbed and I was down, blows catching my chest, face. I kicked and hit back and when my jeans were tugged I bit the hand that tried to silence me. I screamed at him. He wasn’t giving up easily but I was raging. My only defense was words because below me in the park no one could or would pay attention.   I said exactly what I felt with a force that shook me.

“Who do you think you are? God is more powerful than you and He will get you for this! Stop!”

He pulled back, stunned, eyes wide. He went a little slack so I  shoved him off. He fell over and I dashed up the hill and into the street. I heard the train whistle, that low, full-bellied moan that builds into a forlorn and beckoning call. I could not stop running running running. I did not tell anyone what happened but said I had fallen hard and split my lip. Telling that sort of truth was not encouraged in my mid-sixties town.  I pondered if I made the error, wrong place and time. I decided it might not be the best place to walk alone but nothing was my fault. Yet,  self-doubt lingered. Anxiety found a way in, cutting me off from the known world, weakening my confidence.

I survived that attack; in the future even worse would waylay my life. But countless people can and do survive terrible things every day. Living is a complicated ride where treachery and wondrousness can share a seat. Large and small tragedies make us ask: what is safety, really, in the end? We come into this world with hearts and spirits ready to be dazzled and they are. But they’re also turned inside out.

How does one live beyond the bruisings and wounds? Was I to be dogged by paralyzing fear whenever I left a familiar sidewalk, town, country? Would I battle nightmares the rest of my life, only to enter each day expecting the same or worse? Did I fashion an armor so fail proof that I was distanced from others? How to find a way back to ease? It was imperative to learn how to thrive in altered territory, both interior and exterior. It took time. I patched things back together with help, same as anyone who desires to live better. Anxiety, which is a gnawing worry over loss of control in our lives, was not my real problem. I already knew I could have control taken away, with pain left in its stead. So my thinking had to change so I could “live life on life’s terms” (as AA informs recovering folks). Peace was the prize I coveted.

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So facing up to the fact that our lives are unpredictable but resilient  helps. Safety is, in actuality, often relative, fluid and shaped by our viewpoint. How do I determine not the future but the way I will greet it?

So we can adjust our perspective. As a youth I tried to ignore spurts of anxiety (why feed something I didn’t like?) with some success (denial can give us a break). I tried blotting it out with substances. I distracted myself with work, achievements, loved ones. I was busy first and last, being constructive in my life. But nothing yielded good results until I found another way. It was imple acceptance. Of the real sense of uncertainty. Of randomness and sudden changes in the scheme of things. Anxiety accompanies our living; nerves are conduits of information to apprise and use all our systems. Without some adrenalin I’d not move from a chair, after all. I had to make a friendly alliance with anxiety. And, sad human creatures that we sometimes are,  we also need great, unswerving compassion. I give you and myself full permission to heap this on ourselves whenever we feel small. Vulnerable. Then go out there; walk in  kindness.

Not everything needs to ring the alarm. It can ring a small bell. There can be silence. Times can feel harrowing but others are  tender, exquisite. Battling old or unseen adversaries–phantoms on the railroad tracks–keeps the bloody fight going. It took the spunk out of me, which I refuse to allow again. We cannot reasonably fight the unknown. I can learn how to be a dragon slayer, just in case, but why? Surprise is a valued element in my life story as well as acceptance. I do have trust that I’ll keep on walking to the end of this road. That it will stay lit up by ordinary and Divine Love and the next turn will proffer extraordinary things. I am, simply put, allied with my humanness and with my faith. I have surrendered so that I can dwell in my personal power; fear will not own me. And if it gets to me anyway, I remind myself: I am like a sieve as emotions flow through, morph and retreat, rise then fall. Things change once again.

I open the door wide. I look around as my animal senses pay attention. This is automatic and also prudent. I step out and breathe lungfuls of fresh air. Today it is chilled and rainy; I welcome it. Tomorrow? Who knows how the winds will blow? I’m as ready as I can expect to be. There is not time or inclination to give the vast unknowns so much attention. Life calls to me, even the world, and I am enthralled. I just get on with it. You can, too.

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