Space and Time to Celebrate Family

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(A gathering in 1964)

Because I am soon off to visit my brother, along with a gaggle of other family members, I thought I’d share a bit before I board the plane. I am more a traveler by car so this trip, non-stop, requires a good reason. Much of my family is converging on the other side of the country to celebrate W.’s seventieth birthday in a few days. It seems preposterous we all could have aged so, but certainly it’s a blessing we’re yet here on earth and engaged in hearty living. To that end, there will even be a nephew arriving from Germany. The party will be a good one.

December is a month full of meaningful dates. It occurs to me my mother’s birthday was this month; I wonder if she will attend in in spirit, which would be like her. And a dear grandson will be turning eight the day I fly back home. But, too, I must say–because he is so much on my mind–that I lost another nephew far too soon one December. I grieve his passing, still. And Christmas is coming up, a time of faith that matters to me spiritually, far less so materially.

Family. We all have complicated families. I read once that those who maintain congenial family relationships tend to fare better as they age–particularly if one feels close to siblings. There is comfort in familiarity (notice the root word there!), the forbearance and forgiving acceptance that being blood-connected offer us, and a love that cannot be shared in quite the same way with any other.

Besides, in my family we share: similar cowlicks, white hair generally arriving quite early (I am the odd one with more auburn brown still), large and mostly blue eyes, mental and physical stamina, musicality, and a tendency to believe all things possible, even good things. We love to hope, learn and create. We also can be fussy and critical, high-handed, overly generous rescuers, perfectionistic, easily moved by suffering and kept awake by troubles here and afar. We pull toward God, those ancient teachings a divine compass, yet we can be too demanding of ourselves and others. Fervency can be a pro or con here but at least we have passion.

I have written of my family before, most recently of the aforementioned brother on Veteran’s Day. What could possibly interest you further? I’ve told a few tales about five children growing up in a two-story bungalow in a small Michigan city. Our father was a music educator and administrator, a conductor and musician. Our mother, an elementary school teacher. For some years she was a stay-at-home mom, which translates into being the CEO of a home-based business: a large family with drive, wide-ranging goals and assorted needs and deeds. We were (and are) a slew of “doers”. That meant keeping track of intricate schedules for each one, not to mention my father, who was so busy his recalled presence is at times like a blur except for dinner and Sunday mornings. Then he slowed down, sat (often with a symphony score at hand), talked with us. Quizzed us on various topics. It was like school at home and we all had something to say.

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(Birthday brother and our father and a shared appreciation of cameras)

W. is much like my father, with his passion for history and music and his artistic eye, a genial way with people and generous laugh. Today I got a text message from my sister-in-law: they were on their way to perform with a small choir at a White House holiday reception. It doesn’t surprise me; they remain professional singers (not their actual vocations) though they are retired. W. plays viola well but his voice is lovely. We all used to gather together around the baby grand at my parents’ house, five kids singing and/or playing an instrument, a mini-orchestral experience. Our father accompanied us on piano and directed; my mother watched from the kitchen door.

You can see where this has gone: family reunions unlock the door to memories and it is an experience that recalls sounds and smells, feelings, specific slices of life. The way my father’s eyes warmed (yes, twinkled), his laugh when sharing a new pun. The way my mother touched the side of her nose with an index finger while regaling us with a story. It might have been what happened as she walked to the store yet it was somehow funny and fascinating.

I am the youngest of the bunch. My two brothers and two sisters were off to college when I was barely thirteen. W. is more a known entity today, despite the miles. One of the sweet pleasures of being an adult is getting to know your siblings as co-adults. I feel fortunate; there is not one I am not proud to know, and I look forward to being in their company.

If holidays triggers nostalgia, then family reunions bring reality into sharper focus. No one is without flaws or quirks; we are all creative types and strong-willed, but were taught to be kind and civilized. Laughter will embellish conversations. Debate will be commonplace. I am sure there will be discussion of our diminishing extended family, events we recall from our youth, the passing of pictures to exclaim over. There will be feasting around tables. Music: it goes without saying, whether we sing, attend a concert or listen to the stereo. And since W. is a professional photographer, as well, his cameras will be recording details. The schedule for five days will be orderly with some room for spontaneity. My brother’s house will accommodate us, people wall-to-wall. I look forward to the “side-by-side” composition of our meeting, rubbing shoulders, exchanging hugs.

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(Childhood home)

When all seven of us, our friends and father’s music students were present in the house it was cramped. Often it felt lacking in privacy, was noisy and action-packed. I would climb the backyard maple tree with notebook and pen, breathe and think, plan faraway jaunts and dreams. After my siblings departed for the next stage of life there was such gaping space, a swell of silence that at times unnerved me. Then I’d sit on my bed and marvel at finally having my very own huge (so it seemed) room. I felt suddenly like an only child for the next several years, with the high and low points that came with it.

We can’t go back to the house on Ashman Street–no one wants to return to childhood, really, and my parents are long gone. But this is even better. Each of us grew up, became individuated beyond the group as everyone does with good fortune. Our lives have at times been challenged, even fragmented, then stitched together and made whole again. We have many interesting years between us, voluminous talk to share. We will develop new snapshots while tending and savoring each moment. Age has sculpted our faces and no one knows just what lies ahead. So now we make space and time enough to celebrate my brother and, too, these enduring and deepened family ties.

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(My brother and me)

The Heart Chronicles #14: The Heart is Made of Stories

My mother sat on the edge of my twin bed every evening to share a long good-night. No matter the hour, I would beseech her to “tell me stories of when you grew up.” And so she did, vignettes about living and working on “The Farm”. She told me about swinging on a rope in the hayloft and the sweet pungence of warm hay as it got stuck in her hair and inside clothes; the fat, ravenous pigs she fed slop; the stealth it took to steal the morning’s eggs from beneath the fussy hens. She explained how she washed clothes on a washboard in the big multipurpose sink until her knuckles were reddened and raw, then hung the billowing clothing on a line behind the house:  “Sun-purified and perfumed,” she explained. There was that ornery mare that kicked at her spine, causing a lifetime of back pain as they seldom went to doctors. And sometimes Gypsies passed by in the dark and snatched a pig or chicken, long gone as her father ran out yelling at the top of his lungs; I thought he probably had a rifle in hand.

 The farm animals my mother and her family raised did not have names; the cats were wild  creatures that hunted mice and other varmints. My mother also confided that she would rather have stayed after school to practice basketball for her girls’ team than return to hard labor each day. I imagined the sun setting over the fields: she created the colors, sounds and scents of the country as she walked all the way from the town’s school to home, swinging the bundle of books secured in an old leather belt. Cicadas buzzed in my brain or snow swirled in a frenzy but we always got there safe and sound.

When she finally turned off the lamp, I could hear her voice weaving its magic long after her footsteps disappeared downstairs. That faraway exotic time and place, life at The Farm, lingered in my dreams.

The truth is, my mother could have made a story of walking to the grocery store and often did–a humorous character study, a surprising event that was made more fascinating through sharing. Life was never ordinary to my mother; it was full of textures, vivid designs, and had grand presence simply by being lived.  Anything could be fascinating, much of life’s stories were moving, some brought bountiful tears and often there was a lesson to be gathered from her tales. She had a natural gift for it: her expressive voice,  bright eyes and hands that shaped the air and spoke the wordless bits. All conspired to make the renderings complete. And it issued from her attentive mind and open, responsive heart. 

So that is where I learned it–that life was endless stories within a story and it’s origins were home. That a story from the heart is the best kind. My mother shared compassion for others by telling of those she’d met along the way or still hoped to meet,  of those she had found and lost, and those she loved well. Her wit was quick and full of laughter, but she also unleashed words sharp with anger. There were whole paragraphs laced with tears due to all manner of injustice she witnessed. Struck by beauty in almost any place, she could as accurately describe a fine piece of millinery as an insect she spotted in the garden. I have known few people as moved by the fractious, wondrous complexity of being human. And she knew about forgiveness, which crept in to her dreaming and musings.

It seems entirely reasonable to me, then, that the human heart is constructed of stories. It is, in truth, what I knew from the start–my mother only provided me more evidence of it as I grew up. And if it was my father who gave me music which courses like life-giving blood in my veins, it was my mother who gave me the powerful keys to the kingdom of Story, where words shape-shift and play, toil and conspire, liberate and elevate. In so doing, she gave me precious freedom.

When all else seemed lost at various junctures in my journey through the years, when I found little to keep me steady or strong save the repeated prayer for help, I reached for pen and paper. In my car, there is a small notebook, as well as in my purse and at work–just in case a gaily dressed character runs across the stage of my mind, then beckons me down the street into a cafe surrounded by an ivy-covered fence, a meandering stone pathway. Or in case the first line of a poem– Daybreak spills over the sky and earth like holy water, and rescues us all–visits me. And at four in the morning, there is another notebook and pen at my bedside when I need to solve a puzzle of dreams, or sift through the detritus of my restless mind until I can find a single thread leading to the true center of the mess. The heart of the unfolding story.

My heart has known plenty of bad stories, ones I would rather have avoided, tossed out much sooner or even set afire under a full moon. A few have epilogues that refuse to be erased. But they all somehow led me to good ones as well, those I can still build on or revise so that the endings are neater, richer, better. Even perfect endings can be created, for at least that very moment.  

Lately there have been some struggles: with the alien process of aging, with the unhappy news of two heart valves eroding, with the revelation that my five children really have long set sail when I had thought they might still be floating closer to shore. Time seems a frail thing, until I remember that time is truly not a known quantity. It is not the be-all and end-all on earth, to me. It is certainly what we each make of it. The living heart never tires of one more tale that needs to be heard or told. And so I put pen to paper or fingers to computer keys and think of my mother, who always encouraged me, even once after her death as I stood on my balcony under the gentle stars, missing her: You must write the stories. She smiled, then vanished.

(Postscript: The last Christmas I saw my mother,  not so long before her passing, I gave her the manuscript of my novel. This is the picture of us after she looked at it. She was so happy to see it, and I to share it, that we kissed each other. She flew home with it. A couple weeks later she called: “It sure kept me turning the pages, moved right along. Good characters!” She passed in 2001 at age 92, four months before I was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. She had congestive heart failure.)

The Heart Chronicles #9: Having the Time of Our Lives

Once upon a time I invested an inordinate amount of physical and mental energy in things that ended up taking a lot from me. I saw lists as critical to ongoing efficiency and made at least two each evening for the next day. They might include notations regarding cleaning/organizing the house, shopping for and feeding a family of seven at least twice a day, planning and scheduling the month ahead so the timing was perfect, a variety of meetings and events. Then there was worrying about how the bills would get paid and how to still save enough for a getaway (with or without children) in summer,  ruminating about everything from my lack of an impressive formal education to my husband’s demanding career and working lots of overtime at my job to develop my own credibility. And do not forget to take the dog to the vet, a child to the dentist, the outgrown clothing to the shelter, car to the mechanic. Also: dredge up the stamina until one a.m. to get the laundry and ironing done so everyone would look picture-perfect the next day. That growing pile of odd-paired socks accused me from the cold basement floor. At times it felt as though I was battling a beast,  one that resided in domestic limbo with me when all the rest of the house snored away. 

 Time was racing on and I was running along with it, sweat trickling down my back, yet it seemed I never caught up, much less managed to meet all requirements of each moment. Some on the list were  necessary chores; some were important; some were a waste of time to fret about. But my motto was clearly “press on.”

Well, to be  honest, my mottos were more like “Excellence Above All!” and “Onward and Upward!” So who was really asking me to push on like a driven workaholic when I was exhausted or ill or just completely fed up?  Even I knew as a younger woman that something had to give but there just wasn’t time. It didn’t get fully addressed until I had my heart affair, that experience of the unbelievably crushing weight settling itself on my chest as I was hiking in the middle of a gorgeous woods.

As you can imagine, I took some time to re-order my priorities. When I got down to it, it wasn’t so hard to do. After three years away from  my career to attend to my health and rejuvenate emotionally and spiritually, I went back to work as a counselor. I still work full-time though many at this age seem to be happily retiring. It isn’t the negligible paycheck. Working with endlessly intriguing, complicated people who can use a helping hand is what draws me from the comfort of my home each morning. I am recharged by the very acts of reaching out, listening, offering information and reflections. Caring. There is power in being deeply present with others; it can refurbish the giver as well as the receiver. It is one of my lifelong callings.

Recovery management is an addictions treatment group I facilitate twice a week at work. I could spend most of my time lecturing about the monumental dangers of relapse to alcohol and other drug use but it wouldn’t make that much difference, in my experience. Most people resist being told the worst possible scenarios. And many of my clients have already lived through them and need something different. Instead, I talk about the dangers of living lives that are just tolerated, deeply resented,  discounted, or flat given up.  We discuss what they once loved but lost, what they’ve always wanted to do, the strengths they can promote despite also having some liabilities. What thrills them and challenges each one to become better persons? What gives them contentment, laughter, focus, energy?

 I ask: “Do you wake up wondering how much good stuff you can learn, experience and share in the next fourteen hours or more? Or is it just another middling morning to deal with? Because all this is not a dress rehearsal; it is your actual, true life this very minute, or it ought to be.”

To the woman in the corner who chews her nails though she wears a perfectly coordinated, wrinkle-free outfit or the man who hangs his head and closes his bleary eyes, hands clenched tightly, I suggest the same:  “Take back your life. Now.” We talk about how they can start simply but I ask that they do not delay. Everything counts when a person transforms his or her life. I get excited and my hands start to talk along with me: “Make an investment in what you care about first, what you long for most. There will time to attend to the rest. This moment is your opportunity to be happy.”

It isn’t that hard. It doesn’t cost us much–rather it costs far less than  it will when you find yourself emptied, worn down from neglect one day. We each perceive and experience what we choose; we can decide to absorb ourselves in whatever brings us closer to inner freedom, strength and courage, appreciation of others and ourselves–and perhaps most of all, lasting peace.

What changed for me? It wasn’t that I didn’t have passion for life before being diagnosed with coronary artery disease.  But maybe I didn’t have such grand good sense, and that lack took me off the rails and into a hinterland of too much brutish work and nagging worry, not enough enriching activity and tranquility. I started to make time while addressing the mundane parts of living. I learned to tell myself and others “enough”; solitude became a solace. So much of what comes our way we cannot control;  I can only control my own self, and that certainly isn’t one hundred percent guaranteed, either. The past has already been lived and the ruined or wounded parts, therefore, are no longer allowed to steal my present. The far-flung future is known only by God and prophets and I am neither–so it is unexplored territory. It will be unveiled as I participate in each unfolding day. And I step forth, even though I know one day I will likely stumble. That old basement beast has a way of reincarnating–it might need taming again. (I still favor lists, but not every item has to be crossed off before I can get to sleep at night.)

So, I am having the time of my life. Not tomorrow. Today.  I haven’t known boredom because there always is someone or something I want to learn about. There is music to hear, art to see and make, theatre to attend, dance to enjoy, other cultures and places to explore. There is a natural world resonant with wonders right outside my door; I want to be in it. There are books to delve into; they fill bookcases and lean against the walls in happy, lopsided stacks. The multitudinous stories that rise up within me await the time of day or night when I sit down and write; it is like falling in love each time. I have a lot of family about whom I care fiercely and eternally, and friends who I will be seeing soon again,  our voices at ease in debate or laughter or shared sorrows. 

My life is so full I sometimes wonder how much more I have room for, but living this way is like discovering a deepening well, ever available for replenishment. And then I can open my hands to others more generously.

Voluptuous, golden sunshine floods my balcony and the potted pansies wave in the delicate breeze. A white butterfly pauses on the railing, wings elegant and bright. A dog with a basso voice is barking cheerfully. Someone calls across the street. Please excuse me–I’m off to see what’s happening next.

The Heart Chronicles #8: Holding to the Circle

I went on my annual trip with my sisters not long ago. We talked for hours, poked around various shops in the historic downtown of Port Townsend, toured a Commanding Officer’s Victorian home at an old fort, watched a regatta of two hundred boats glide into part of Puget Sound. We shared a few meals, talked late. I was not keen on the week-end ending so quickly.

Marinell, Allanya and myself: we are three sisters among five children (two brothers, also) but I once felt as though I was the fifth wheel, the “leftover”, the once who missed out.  My siblings were born close together, as though meant to be two pairs. But five years after the fourth child, I arrived. I studied them as though from a distance–they were titans of accomplishment, often seeming just out of reach. Plus, they enjoyed the possibilities of independence. As the baby of the family, I was busy deciphering new data and expectations, traversing territory they had left behind years ago. By the time I was twelve, all my siblings had gone off to college. In a home where privacy was a bonus experience and quietness was a stranger, it was now so empty I could hear my own daydreams and secrets in the echoing reaches.

Y0u might ask: what does this have to do with the human heart and its well-being? Bear with me: this is about matters of import, and how they help keep us alive. 

So. The years passed. I slipped away from my siblings and they, from me. We each sought our particular adventures, some fabulous, some doomed from the start.  I eventually had my own young family and there was little time and money for travelling to far-flung locales in our country and, sometimes, the world, to visit them. I found myself wishing there were five aunts and uncles around who could join my five children on outings to museums or the zoo, share barbeques and ball games, delight in each triumph with us. But it was not to be. We wrote letters; we called at times and talked as long as we could despite long distance being expensive. But actual distance between us was great. I felt my longing grow more profound.

At forty-two, at the urging of my sisters, I relocated from Michigan to the northwest. I was suddenly in an area where my older brother and two sisters resided. My other brother lived, and remains, back east. But this wealth of siblings within my reach was wondrous. My last child was twelve then, the age at which my siblings had left the family nest.  I rediscovered how vastly caring, inquisitive, stalwart and good-humored they were.

I’ve been able to hear my older brother, Gary, play jazz clarinet, saxophone and flute at clubs and borrow his classic movies; we’ve   shared our dinner tables.  I can call him with a wisp of a tune stuck in my brain and he can name it–and sing it fully–for me. I do wish my younger brother, Wayne, was not so far away so he could be counted among those at the long oak dining table in my home. Last year’s sisters’ trip was happily spent visiting him. Also a successful musician, he has music at the center of his life and his photographs are really stories reflecting myriad travels; they demonstrate a clarity of mind and heart. His warm laughter reaches out across any room.

Allanya showed me how to maximize the pleasure of living in this beautiful city, shared food and shelter at the start. We prowl estate sales and antique shops, enjoy leisurely walks in tree-canopied parks, and call each other whenever we like, the line buzzing with whatever is important or mundane, pleasing or difficult. She and I are like two birds of rumpled but bright feathers, drawn to the beauty of nature, the mysteries of life. Marinell, the oldest, lives a few hours away but I always look forward to our visits. Thirteen years older, she also has had heart malfunctions, so understands. I enjoy hearing her play her cello and grand piano. We might sit on her patio and sip hot or iced tea, pluck sumptuous strawberries from a bright bowl, and reminisce about our younger years or discuss our latest book favorites. And few have more fun shopping than we do, exclaiming over our finds.

My sisters and I sat in a motel room that last night together as the sun floated above then slipped beneath the misty, silvered horizon on Puget Sound. Somehow we got on the topic of life after death, angelic creatures, experiences we have had of the indefinable power of God. We each revealed an experience we had not shared before in our visits. Our voices fell; our family eyes, large and intense, filled with tears. There was a quietude in that room that overtook the ordinary time and place we inhabited. It resonated so deeply within me that when I looked at them closely I felt I saw their innermost beings. And they shone so, they shone brightly, like warm lanterns illuminating the cocoon of darkness that had spun itself about us. I looked again and saw their beauty, love, wisdom. Their tenderness.

Sometimes when my heart jolts me awake; when it  murmurs so slowly I wonder if it will keep me moving through day and night; when it feels stuffed to bursting or ragged with irritation–then I remind myself from where I came. I recall the honorable legacy my parents left us, and know well who has helped bring me this far, caring generously through the highs and lows. There have been, as there always are with health challenges, desperate moments when I wondered if I had too far to go and not enough courage. My husband, children and friends have been there, thankfully. But my family has been my anchor from the very beginning, and I am there for them as well.

My education on this earth has at least taught me how to hold on to what I experience as an endless circle of love. Therein we each can create and recreate our lives. It started for me long ago in my own quirky, compassionate family, and it continues to radiate from the center of the great wheel of life. Hold fast to love, dear reader, wherever discovered: it will walk/dance/lift/carry us through anything at all. And by an unexpected act of grace, it transforms the greater heart into a clear, deep well for others who also are in need. We can then guide each other through the harrowing places. We make peace with the nights until the incandescence of moon, stars or sun keeps us company again.