Friday’s Quick Pick/Poem: Masquerade

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Don’t tell me about loneliness, that fiendish friend.
We all well know its ways, how it arrives
and vanishes, and hollows a sinuous
trail inside density of life like
a worm or a beetle into greenness.
And then unbidden, you follow, track
it with eye of hawk, root out damage
of its work, you howling and quaking,
trying to snatch all up, take it away.

The trickery is that loneliness is a masquerade,
and it seeks to beckon you into places
where the wearied self must seek truth
blooming inside each perilous, solitary ache.
But God sits there, the One you forgot,
God Who flings stars that will forever net you,
Who prunes sorrow with a stubborn mercy.
Then brings forth a mirror, reveals how beloved
are we who somehow imagine abandonment.

An Accidental Life

It was morning, end of August and blazing hot but humid. Now and then a lesser flame of wind swept in to further melt me. Perspiration evaporated then returned to linger on my pinkening skin. I drove along the familiar country road, elbow hanging out the window, thrilled with our new powder blue Opel Kadett. Heat waves shimmered off the pavement. On the radio Pat Metheny’s guitar was soaring, whining, reaching out to whomever had ears to hear. I was tapping out rhythms on the steering wheel, singing with Pat and his band. It was a so-yellow-blue-it-could-blind-you kind of day, the road mostly mine.

I was on my way to an art history college class, my first time back since the precarious birth of my first child in February at age 23. Jubilance filled me, I felt light as a balloon. First of all, tiny Naomi had fought a few battles but thrived despite coming to us two and a half months early. And I was going to be one step closer to my degree. I glanced at a blur of endless fields of corn, dense, tall and begging to be harvested. I missed Naomi even as I enjoyed a small rush of freedom. A perfect day all around.

But then: scramble of noises, painful jolts, car pushed and spinning, crashing forward fast and I was fading even faster. Aching head, breath heavy, pain shooting through every nerve. Car smashed into what, how, where?

“Miss, miss, oh dear God, can you hear me? I hit you, I am so sorry, didn’t see you just the corn! Stay awake now, stay awake!”

All vanished from presence of mind and body, all fell dark. Even the new silence ended as time recoiled, vanished.

Inside a small space I looked down, down, down from its ceiling at two people busy with another, a body that was mine. Wailing sirens, vehicle swaying.

“She’s in shock–lost consciousness again! Check vitals!” The man slapped the wall hard between cab and work space.

I hovered, amorphous, invisible, curious to see such a small creature, limbs flaccid, clothing askew, head and knee bleeding, body so frail. Cared for but emptied. The animal I knew well lay physically below and suffered, nothing I could do, only wait to return or leave. I felt sorry but detached and so very calm as the EMTs got busier. Flesh of me must have been charged with pain, but then more deeply stilled. What was to come of me? I desired to stay alive in that world. The men worked, I watched, waited. A breath and heartbeat called. Movement downward toward my body and slipping into that hardscrabble place of a perishable body. Then nothing at all for a very long while.

I came to amid brutal lights in the emergency room of a trauma center of inner city Saginaw, Michigan. Ned, my husband, and his mother stared down at me, relieved and talking to me, trying to explain things. I could hear so little. Feel surprisingly little; pain medicine coursed through my veins.

“Cynthia,” my husband said. His rough hand went to mine.

“I was watching a movie of me…from above,” I mumbled.

“What?”  My mother-in-law asked, startled. “What  does that mean?”

“You were? Oh…” Ned said. “Not good, but it could be worse. You had a concussion, banged and slashed your knee and forehead. They sewed you up. You’ve been out for hours, between medicine and slipping back and forth…somewhere.”

I squinted up at worried faces, closed my eyes again. I wanted more than anything to sleep a long while more. My whole being and body ached despite pain medicine, as if it had been shoved side to side and I hadn’t caught back up with it yet.

“Good to see you’ve awakened. You’re extremely fortunate, young lady, no internal damage. The nurse will keep monitoring you. I’ll be back in a bit.” A white coated doctor had stuck his head in; out it went again.

“We have to keep you more awake for the next 24 hours or more. I’ll keep waking you every hour to make sure you’re going to be alright–the concussion,” he explained.

I moaned. “Naomi! Where’s Naomi?”

“With Grandpa, of course.” My mother-in-law looked at me oddly, not the first time.

“For a minute, I thought… so glad she wasn’t with me.”

“You were going to class, remember?” Ned responded, worried I had lost track of all.

“Yeah,” I replied, a sweep of relief flooding me. As if I had lucked out to be in the car all alone, that she had been home and safe as needed. “What happened?”

“A man was driving along, about 50 mph at a perpendicular angle to your road and didn’t see his stop sign as he neared the crossroads. He said all there was, was cornfields. He assumed the intersecting road had the stop sign but wasn’t concerned and there you were. He kept talking about there being all that high corn.”

I shuddered: the shocking impact, that barest moment before I blacked out, then awakened then lost consciousness again. And the ambulance ride when I was on the top of the ceiling. But all else before and after those few moments was gone.

“He’s a minister,” Ned went on, “and he stayed for hours after he was looked over, worrying about you. He gave me his card; I said I’d let him know. He’s got a few bruises and small cuts but he had a much heavier car. He’s very sorry and of course it’s his fault. His car T-boned your side of the Opel and it spun around then finally crashed into a stop sign post opposite the one he should have seen. Our new car was totaled. They used the ‘jaws of life’ to get you out… you lost consciousness quite awhile. A pretty bad accident, Cynthia…”

His square, warm hand was one mine as I drifted on the edge of a netherworld, in and out. Our pretty new car, gone. I was alive, no internal injuries or broken bones! But my head and knee were starting to hurt like hell…my neck felt seared by awakening pain and I had on a stiff neck collar. Major whiplash, I guessed.

Did Ned say the man was a minster? I wondered who he was, where he had been going, and then recalled how distressed he was before I passed out.

******

After more hours I was deemed fit enough to go home since I seemed lucid and cognizant of all. I was given crutches. It would be over a month before I could walk unaided on the bashed kneecap–not broken, miraculously, but tissues deeply bruised and a wound across it about two inches now stitched up. On the way home we got stuck in evening traffic in city center. My body was returning to itself more fully; it was so hard to sit, and to bear the roaring of engines, honking and grinding of gears, the passersby staring at my bandaged head or so I thought. I worked at keeping at bay the fear that another car might zoom into us.

And then the full bladder suddenly awakened, too, and demanded attention.

“Oh my gosh, I can’t wait until we get home!”

“There aren’t restrooms nearby and we’re stuck. Everything must have slowed way down when you lost consciousness… If you can’t wait, you just can’t. Let her rip. It’s a truck seat, it can be cleaned.”

“I’m sorry, I am so, so sorry!”

“It’s okay!”

I felt betrayed then by that simple physiological function, the body a bit battered yes and then it had to test me further. Embarrassed, even ashamed, I obeyed his suggestion as there as no other choice. He looked away. I began to cry as the seat got wetter and covered my face. Marriage brought many things unexpected and hard.

After that I examined my forehead in the visor mirror. A huge bandage covered the space above my left eye. Ned glanced at me from the corner of his eye, saying nothing, driving the rattling truck on home. Home to our daughter. Home where the back yard spread out like an open field, and wild grasses swayed in sweetest summer breezes, stars glittered and winked, and the moon glowed benignly upon us. We laughed a little as we rolled windows all the way down, tension easing as we moved through city congestion toward the outskirts where we made a life. Back to our miracle baby.

I was awakened every hour. I lay on my  back, Naomi close on my chest, and listened to her light breath, felt Ned’s quiet body gravitating to mine, his words few. The cooling breeze flew into the window, a summer night’s healing. I thanked God for being with us once again.

******

A couple of weeks later the gravel driveway announced the arrival of a car. Ned was home from work; I was tending to Naomi. It was a man’s voice and it sounded Southern. In a moment, Ned ushered him in. He wore a brown, fedora-style hat that he took off as he nodded at me.

I don’t even recall if his name was given though surely it was, preceded by “Pastor.” The name was not the important part to me. His presence was.

Ned looked skeptical but was polite enough. “This is the man from the accident…he wants to meet you.”

He was tall and bony so that his modest shiny suit hung loosely from his frame, a shock of pale hair was receding, and his light blue eyes were full of emotion. He clutched his hat in fidgety hands. He began to speak in earnest, voice soft and lilting.

“I just had to find you, Miss Cynthia, had to know what had happened to you and how you are doing. Your husband told me your names and I found you in the phone book…and here I am. I still feel terrible, toss and turn at night wondering how it could have been avoided. I should have known better; I’ve gone over and over it. The corn was so high everywhere I looked–the country roads…But that’s no excuse. I failed to stop. I hit your car and caused you grievous injury. I’m a Baptist minister. I have prayed every day and night for your good recovery. I hope you can forgive me.” His eyes welled up. “You hurt your head badly–and your knee! Will you be alright? What about the scarring? You’re so young. And you have a little baby!”

“There is really no forgiveness needed, it was a true accident,” I reassured him.  “All will be alright.”

We told him what the doctor had said, what we expected, which was that all would heal up and all should be well. I had barely thought about the scar with its twelve long stitches; it curved in an “S” shape, a deep red tiny snake a bit above my left eye and all the way to my hairline; it was true the doctor had not made an art of his stitchery. My kneecap skin was the same, less stitches but not pleasant.

We talked a little about the crash, but I spared him my details. I didn’t want to cause him more distress. Like being on that ambulance ceiling staring down at my body and feeling there was a choice to stay or go. And the pain and losing control of my bladder.

“I suspect the scars will fade in time. My hair naturally falls over my forehead, anyway!”

“I would pay for plastic surgery, if that would help–you are too young and lovely to have that all your life. And it’s a reminder.”

The very idea stunned me. Plastic surgery never entered my mind. It was simply unneeded. I was far more concerned about my knee so I’d soon have less hobbling about, return to more vigorous activity. There was physical therapy to help out.

“No, not necessary, really. Your insurance has covered everything else. That’s wonderful. And I’m going to be fine, healing up more by the hour. But it was very kind of you to come by and check on me. To offer more.”

He stood there with that sad hat in hand and I offered my hand to him. Then I felt a need to hug him; he hugged me back. We walked him outdoors.

He turned at his car door.”I’ll pray for more good healing. God be with you all. Thank you for seeing me.”

“God was with us both… I made it out alright and you did, too.”

We waved goodbye.

I got better fast. The accident seemed long past as autumn arrived. I never heard from him again. I thought about his compassion, his prayers, at the crash scene and their continuance. His accountability. Good will.

His genuine caring presence has stayed with me all these years.

******

I have written of that good man because I have had cause to remember him vividly again. The old neck injury flared in my early forties in the form of early onset arthritis of the upper spine. There had been a second injury from an assault to compound the matter. By the time I was in my late forties, there were increasingly difficult headaches caused by neck/shoulder muscle spasms and increased stiffness. I kept active and tried to stay limber and continued on. But into my fifties, that burning pain and headache could morph into a ceaseless state, a nightmare, lasting all day and into the next. I refused opiate pain medications and took acetaminophen and ibuprofen despite the latter causing stomach problems. After my heart disease diagnosis and new medications, my cardiologist said ibuprofen was out. I have had a great many physical therapy sessions over the years, chiropractor treatments, acupuncture, massage, have used heat and cold, frequent daily stretches. I love being active and so have done the things I always have loved, as much as possible.

One can certainly learn to live with and beyond even hounding pain without narcotics. I don’t want to use medication I don’t absolutely need to take. But now, occasionally, I do. To just rest, to keep blood pressure down and my heart rhythms happy when it is at that point where it has dug in too deep. It runs right up my neck to my skull, into my brain or so it seems. I cannot think of anything else when it will not let go.

There are far reaching effects of old injuries and damage done. I have been laid flat for parts of days at a time. I have had daily routines impaired, as certain head and arm movements aggravate bone-on-bone friction, those nerves a conduit of sensations not desired. Writing and sitting for long hours can agitate the inflammation and muscle spasms. I can’t turn my head fully from side to side and spinal stenosis is creating other problems. So something needs to be done before greater degeneration of the spine facets occurs. There will be a consult soon with a neurosurgeon to learn of the options.

But this week I think of that gentleman with hat in hand, recall his consideration. Empathy. Despite being a stranger he wanted what was good and helpful for me. Enough to find and see me face to face and offer regret for something that was not truly his fault. It was a freak accident, as accidents often are. My two long scars have remained, paler and softer yet I still do believe God was with us. And his prayers may well have held back the specter of death as I lay in that ambulance looking down at my damaged body, wondering: is it time?

How can this not be possible? Faith and prayer are potent in a world of disbelief, ironic disputes of spiritual matters. But I can tell you that anything is possible.

No, it was not the right time to go. A whole lifetime was yet given to me. I have come close more than once to leaving this world; it was not the first or last occasion to be jolted from my body, watching drama unfold below, wondering many things upon return to flesh, blood, bones–this temporary home we move within. But one does simply hold on if possible though I find it is little more loosely. Life can’t be clutched to love it well or for it to embrace us back. I am planning decades more to explore the gifts of this tilting planet. And to plow through rough spots. Something can be learned, no matter what. And I remain thankful for all chances to live life in its entirety, whatever comes.

I hope that good man has been happy with his chances, too.

More than Passing Attachments

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The heavy pounding was like a rubber mallet banging the wooden door. Bea dropped the small sack onto the kitchen table and tore off her coat and gloves, each finger tingling from unusual cold that permeated the town. She had just closed and bolted the door and was hesitant to check the peep-hole. It might be Mick, that audacious man down the hall with split lower lip healing after his last reported boxing match.

Mick made her skittish sometimes with his wary sullenness, the abrupt greetings tossed her way as they passed one another, the way his black hair fell over his forehead barely covering a scar that trailed between his eyebrows. He wasn’t, she thought, so mean as tough. He had a wife who was loud and friendly in that way that overwhelmed her but they always greeted each other, chatted a bit. Bea had thought the two of them suited one another fine. Then they had a baby over four years ago, a lovely boy. She’d tried to not wonder about his life with such a pair. It was none of her business, was it? They appeared to love him, were happy whenever she saw the three of them together. What did she know about kids?

The banging erupted again. She strode to the door to take a look. It was Mick alright and he glanced at his watch then right at her, his amber eye enlarged by the round concave glass.

“Bea, I know you’re there, please open up. Mo needs you.”

Bea opened the door a little. “Yes?”

His demeanor transformed as he smiled. His pulpy face was oddly handsome with those golden eyes and a square jaw accentuated by a couple days’ whiskery growth. She didn’t smile back.

“Mo, well, she got a job at the convenience store, she hasn’t found a sitter yet and starts tonight. I have my own shift work and I’m running way late. Can you help us out this once? Just until she gets somebody steady?”

“Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t have experience with children–and I work all day long. I do have to sleep at night, of course. Sorry…”

His strong eyebrows came together and he said nothing, then crunched his baseball cap in his hands. “Well, maybe Carter would help, he’s home by ten, usually.”

Carter was a professor at the community college. He taught English literature and creative writing, some grant writing for professionals. They’d gone out a few months but he could be verbose and she was quiet. Things hadn’t gotten far. He was divorced, had two sunny-natured daughters in middle school, and liked to travel so was often gone on week-ends. She saw him in the courtyard and corridors occasionally but barely acknowledged him now. She thought he might still talk to her if given the chance so she gave him little to none. Why complicate life more?

“Yes, that’s a good idea, he might do it awhile. I can vouch for his respectable character. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

She slowly shut the door but it struck Mick’s booted foot.

“Oh, wait Bea, maybe you could at least watch Toby until ten? I’ll make sure Marty or someone will pick him up by then, okay?”

Bea was ornery after a hard day; an ache spread through her lower back. She was hungry for the chicken soup she’d bought. She wanted his boot out of her doorway, his pleading, beat up face with cat eyes to retreat. But she shrugged, then gave him a look of defeat. Everything inside her rebelled against the image of her trying to entertain or soothe a little boy. Hopefully she’d just get him to sleep before the hours were up.

“If there’s absolutely no alternative I’ll do it this once–one time only, okay? Bring him in pajamas with a book or two.”

Mick shook his head as if disappointed in her attitude but thanked her and raced down the hall.

Bea’s nerves jumped about in her center. How did she get suckered into this? It was only a few hours; it couldn’t be so hard. Their lively four year old might turn out to be a pain, but anything was manageable for a short time. She’d seen him chatting with tenants and shared her own brief conversations with him–and had wondered over his strong verbal skills at so young an age.

She got the “to-go” container of soup with its fat penne noodles, chicken chunks, carrots and celery poured it into a deep bowl and reheated it. She took out chilled apple juice, poured some in a tall glass, cut a slice of bakery bread and slathered it with butter. At her small drop leaf table she arranged it all, smoothing a sage green and yellow-flowered cloth napkin. Then she sighed and dipped her spoon into the steaming brothy mix.

She barely managed three spoonfuls when the doorbell rang out. She went to the door and found Mo beaming at her with restrained excitement. Toby harbored a resigned, somewhat suspicious look. They stepped in.

“You’re a real lifesaver, Beatrice, thank you, I can call my cousin for tomorrow and if that doesn’t work out I’ve got a friend needing extra cash. This new job is saving our necks, we need more inflow and less outgo. Mick lost last week-end–he boxes at times, you know, he was almost pro once–that didn’t go as planned.”

Bea plastered a smile on, then held out a hand to Toby who shuffled in with brown furry bear slippers and matching bear (doing cartwheels) pajamas. He ignored her and surveyed the premises.

“Remember Beatrice, Toby? She’s come to our potlucks, even gave you a nice picture book for your birthday, right?”

He looked at her from under a fringe of dark disheveled bangs and nodded. Bea saw he had grey-blue eyes like his mom, not the eyes of a scruffy wolf like his dad.

“Come on in, Toby. I’ll for sure see Carter in a while, right? I work tomorrow, leave at seven. I’d prefer he came by for Toby by 10 at the very latest.”

“Right, he said he’ll come after the last class, after nine-thirty or so. You two are too nice! Off to my new job–thanks a million!” Mo hugged her son who hugged back dutifully and was gone.

Toby looked at the shut door then padded beside her, into the kitchen. After Bea retrieved and placed a fat pillow on a kitchen chair, he sat down opposite her sniffing the air a little, his upturned nose almost quivering. He looked hungry. Bea took another spoonful of soup, blew on it then held spoon midway to her waiting lips.

“You hungry, too?” she asked. “Any dinner at home?” Surely they’d fed him earlier. Or were children always hungry?

He nodded, tried to place chin in both hands despite being too low to the table. He openly coveted her bowl.

“I can share some if you like. There’s good bread. And juice.”

He nodded again, watched her get a smaller bowl from an open shelf plus a juice glass. Soon she’d arranged all before him and gave him a smaller spoon which he turned over in his hand once as if it was a foreign, fascinating thing. But she didn’t stare at him. They ate in silence except for his rhythmical slurping. She got a fat slice of bread and buttered it thickly. He held out his small hand for it, nearly smiling, and held it carefully as if weighing its density, feeling its softness.

Bea took her time, pretending this was any ordinary night after a day of work as a legal assistant. The boy was just a surprise. She loved coming home to the orderly apartment, basked in its familiar homeliness.

She had gradually personalized the place with colorful framed prints, a vase of fresh flowers weekly and her grouping of LLadro fox figurines set on the mantle. On a lamp table were two tall jewel-toned candles and a thick book. There was a blanket or throw on every living room seat. She loved to sit before a fire and contemplate little or much, read or watch a movie after dinner and chores were completed. She’d lived a mostly solitary life a long while; it suited her better than in her twenties and thirties. She’d made it to age forty last October. There was simple contentment in that. And also a restlessness, as if the milestone had left her with a new emptiness despite a rich fullness.

Her mother had always assured her the forties were the best years, a time she would expand her vision more, make healthier choices, find her life met by lovely surprises. A new psychic freedom would abound. And so she still had hope, even though her mother had also believed Bea would get her Masters’ degree, meet “a good, solid man” and have two kids by now. They talked even less than they used to; Bea was not able to think of much to say that wouldn’t cause veering into deeper waters. Not necessary. She admired and loved her mother. She was just not of her ilk, one of domestic yet overachieving women.

Toby and Bea finished at the same time. She took the dishes to the sink as Toby wriggled off the chair, headed to the living room where Bea had lit a fire after her arrival. When she entered the room, he was sitting cross-legged before the flaming wood, mesmerized.

“Real wood?” he asked and pointed at the flaming logs.

“Yes, just old pine. It works well enough, don’t you think?”

Toby inhaled deeply. “Better than ours. We use big crayons stuffed with wood, sawdust it’s called. They don’t make the room warm up like this.”

Puzzled and struck by his intelligent comment–was he really four?–she realized he meant the kind of fire logs at the grocery, ones mixed with petroleum wax and sawdust.

She offered her thoughts as if they were having a complete conversation. “Well, I like real wood. It has a good voice, for one thing.”

Toby crooked his head at her, ready with a question, then leaned closer to listen. The snap and crackle of dry wood as it combusted seemed to bring greater ease to his alert, compact body. She found it remarkable that this boy whom she had met perhaps a half-dozen times could sit in her home without fear or no emitting of whiny longing for parents. Mo and Mick had done something very right so far.

“Yes. It does talk! And smells yummy,” he said and smiled widely.

Encouraged, Bea got up to put on her glasses and took out knitting, thinking this would be a breeze. Toby turned to see what she was up to next.

“Knitting, huh? No books?” he asked. “We have lots of time.” He glanced at the wooden mantel clock and furrowed his brow. “Seven o’clock. Two or three hours? Enough time to read and maybe play a game.”

“You read? Tell time?” she asked him, surprised he could read Roman numerals on the clock face as if it was nothing. How did he do that?

“I like all sorts of numbers, what they do. And clocks. Funny old time.” He scratched his head. “Sure, I read pretty okay. I like stories about real things.”

Bea held his clear eyes for a moment and then slid off the couch to join him.

“Tell me more.”

He pursed his lips. “Like, tell you a story?”

She beamed down at him, liking that idea immensely, but he gave a firm shake of his head as if in disbelief that she would dare ask him rather than do her duty as babysitter.

“I bet you have some good ones, maybe about time,” she said.

Toby looked into the fire, went silent. She thought he had forgotten and now he wouldn’t expect her to entertain him. Relieved, she started to get up and then work on her afghan when he put a hand on her forearm.

“Do you, Bea? Know some stories?” he asked.

“Well, I was hoping you’d bring a book. I just know grown up stories.”

“I have some, then.” He stretched out his legs, flexed his furry bear feet a few times.

“Okay, then. I’m all ears.” She sat beside him.

He giggled, the small sound bubbling up. “All ears, funny thing to think about. Well. There was a boy. He wanted to go to a great school. But his daddy and  mommy said no, he was too little. He ate a lot more and tried to grow bigger. He did all they said, was good. They still said no. The boy wandered into woods as he slept. There he met something with wings, frosty and bright. A winter story fairy. And he went along with that fairy. They had school in the forest and he learned so much. He went home but they didn’t believe those things about numbers and light. They said he’d just been dreaming.”

Bea waited for more, almost breathless, a dab of air trapped in her chest then released in a rush. “What then?”

Toby looked at her as if he had really awakened from a dream, blinking at her. “Nothing. He just was at home. He missed the forest fairy. The numbers games. Like one hundred seventy-two plus one hundred twenty making two hundred ninety-two. It’s something great but not really a thing. It’s like light. Numbers get bigger, smaller, change everything. But are the same… it’s all perfect. I love it.” He shrugged.

Bea shivered, pulled back a bit to better see him. He was lost in the fire again, wiggling his toes so that the two bear heads danced about. There was an intensity that moved her, its stillness and clarity unbroken, pure. She wanted to wrap her arms about him but he didn’t seem to want or expect anything. She wanted to set him apart, prepare him for a wonderful future; he was just being himself.

Who was she, anyway? Just Bea. Who was he? He was a genius blooming within a small body, a gift giver for the world. And she got to hear one of his stories before he knew what he was offering.

“I believe you.”

He turned his whole body very slowly toward her, lay on his stomach and studied her. “You do?”

“Yes.”

“Oh good. Now your turn.”

He turned over and back to the fire. She sat close and he leaned against her. Bea put an arm about him and just like that she remembered her own favorite children’s story. Not real but then was his entirely? She told him about Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail and adventurous Peter Rabbit and how Peter had to elude crabby Mr. McGregor as he explored the delicious garden. He was happy with the telling, quite taken with Peter’s brave maneuvering. She then admitted she had made Peter more hero than disobedient child.

“He was just a kid, he was curious!” Toby said.

“True. But he ended p with a belly ache from too much snacking. This story is over one hundred years old, Toby, so it’s still a good one to share.”

“Huh! But my own story is a secret,” he said seriously, then yawned. “And Peter Rabbit’s long ears are two more ears tonight.”

Bea patted his hand and wondered if she could keep his story to herself,  his geometry of life and school of dreaming, the light that he understood.

******

When Carter came, Toby had been asleep on the couch for an hour.

“Did you know about him?” she asked.

“You mean, do I know he’s very bright? Yes.”

“No, he’s more than bright, he’s…maybe even extraordinary.”

“I suspected it after a talk we had in the courtyard last summer. His vocabulary is impressive, his  ideas something else. He’s very confident around adults but sort of shy around kids. You find him interesting, too?”

They’d settled at the kitchen table. She scanned Carter and found him the same, very tall and a bit spindly, reading glasses hanging around the neck of his worn navy sweater, longish wavy hair still out of control.

“I find him quite wonderful. A sweet child with an amazing mind.”

“Not entirely perfect, I doubt.”

“I’m amazed by what Mo and Mick have done–he’s a great kid.”

He chuckled. “They don’t do much. But they love him, take good care of him and that counts most. He baffles them. They talked to me about him once. I told them he was likely gifted, he could be tested. They seemed surprised. Didn’t much like the thought of it. Don’t blame them. He’ll always be noticeably different.”

“Maybe we could encourage the boy, be good grown up friends to him. We might take him to museums and plays and concerts, go on different hikes and more– if they’d allow us. Don’t you think that would be good? To give him more to explore with that fine mind?”

Carter smoothed his forehead with both hands and groaned softly.”You mean, like mentors? He’s only four and a half. He’ll have school soon. He might enjoy all that, sure, but we both work, his parents are up to their ears in more shift work. And he’s their child, not mine or yours. We can just be kind to him, you know. Listen to him, encourage him.”

“Well, I’m going to try something more. He needs more.” She thought how Toby mused over her own use of “all ears” and wondered what he’d say to his parents being “up to their ears.”

“He’s got you hooked already, Bea, just like that?”

“Yes, like that.” She lifted her head, jutted her chin out.

Carter leaned back and tilted his chair on two legs. “And what if this is just another passing attachment? Like you got hooked by us, had a passing attachment to me and my kids? Because I don’t think that would be fair to Toby.”

Bea wanted to bark at him to set those chair legs on the floor and get Toby and just go. She was enthralled with Toby but tired out; he was being too touchy feely. They didn’t need to rehash things. But he was perhaps right. It had been three months since they had spoken much. She had backed away when it got complicated: his life and hers, his children’s comings and goings. Her intrinsic introspection, minimalist ways. His extravagant poetic responses to all. People were trying; people required so much. She liked her legal briefs and research, duties and schedules, more predictable results. But Carter and his kids had fast become important to her.

She had been afraid: how much had awakened in her after being comfortable alone. She’d freed herself, fast.

“Maybe not…” She pushed the chair back, wooden legs squeaking as they scraped the worn tile floor. “Maybe you should gather the boy and go.”

His eyes met hers and it was all so familiar, that soft liveliness with slightly mocking humor, a more often kind regard. Revelations of the poetry in human living that propelled him and finally moved her.

“Or we could wait for Mick to come by here. We could wait on the sofa by Toby. We understand him a little, after all, don’t we? And I could use a steaming hot peppermint tea.”

It took her a moment to decide but when she did it felt good, even right. She fired up a burner and put the kettle on, oddly energized. Carter left her to it. When she brought the mugs of tea to her living small room blanketed in warmth, Carter and Toby were both asleep.  She sat on the floor by Carter’s long legs, rested her head on folded arms and imagined her life happier. Slept, too.

Toby’s eyelids lifted to unshutter his eyes. He smiled into the hazy burnished beauty of a firelit night. At his two new grown up friends. Then his eyelids closed as he drifted to his tantalizing forest in search of more numbers, more light, more frosty tales.

A Master Key to Contentment

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Seeking serenity is a way of life for me, a nourishment I cannot live well without. It may have been intensified by troublesome times as a child and young adult but it has nonetheless been a natural impulse as long as I can remember. In any case, it is a powerful key to a kind of magic guidebook for living richly. Why wouldn’t I use it all the time?

It’s being attentive to the harmony that is coexistent with discordance, locating symmetry that hides inside the apparently off-kilter. My belief is that there is order in the messy jumble of life, and renewed creation stirring in the design of every universal interaction. Like pebbles tossed into water, nature’s actions and reactions are a demonstration of exquisite unity and symbiosis. And in human connections–slight as a fast second on the street or ongoing as a long partnership–there are various manifestations of energy exchanged, networks of coexistence revealed.

It is often a sudden point of acute awareness that brings me a sense of serenity. I recognize myself in others’ humanness. I see my place, another soul passing through the byways of human life, a series of trudges and leaps through a breathtaking if also spoiled paradise we share. There are lessons everywhere, light that seeps through the sieve of our often deliberate blindness. But I want to know what is there; I want to reap the rewards of paying attention. The weeping as well as the laughing. The sheer authenticity of life rewards me with a deeper peace in the end.

It’s hard to be disappointed as serenity reveals itself in transitory events or ancient, sweeping vistas. It was in tiny drops of light among azalea bushes as I walked this morning. Released from Samuel Barber’s heartrending “Adagio for Strings” for at least the hundredth time yesterday. My city balcony brings me deeper inside the majestic dark, where I am reassured the North Star and Big and Little Dippers yet demonstrate a purposeful design well placed in a vast cosmos. But even cutting up a nectarine or tomato elicits a smile–the very idea of seeds! The purity of fruit fleshiness. And such tart sweetness savored.

There are other paths to experiencing serenity, of course. For me, engaging in a variety of creative projects fills a predominant need. Spending time in prayer and meditation is essential. Spontaneous dancing frees a joyous tranquility. Whistling (I’m an inveterate whistler) favored tunes–classical or pop or jazz or my own–does, too. Reading brings mental relief as well as stimulation, both kinds of peace. Sitting and talking with loved ones–or chatting with a cashier. Attending a symphony concert, visiting art galleries. Ice skating and hiking. Chopping zucchini for a succulent green salad.

There are endless choices for participating and observing that bring me to that fine, still point of serenity. I prefer to let go of cares I still pick up–as if my carrying their cumbersome weight will solve the problems when in fact, I more often tire and stumble. So I back off, give space to thought and feeling, fling wide the knotty nets of perseveration and emotions. Just be more empty and then open in that way a rippling span of a wild meadow is: all life working together, with time enough for work and rest. I am welcoming of gifts that arrive from everywhere.

It’s a numinous life we are born with and into, and its mystical ways seem to me at once ordinary and exotic. All we have to do is turn around to see evidence of a stupendous wisdom. Deep beauty. Even when there is tragedy to throw us off. Even when there is rancorous pain that wars with a need for kind relief. I think of the juxtaposition often, perhaps because I was a counselor so long and know the price people pay as they thrash about looking for peace, longing for a life to cherish and feel cherished by. But also because I have been acquainted with difficulties. When seeking serenity amid the waste of disregard or rougher antics of living, we can bound toward the healing touch of wonder to rescue ourselves again. Find the inherent peace that is there, waiting. Just listen, watch. Be patient. I trust it to reveal itself, open like a tender, stalwart flower in the midst of the odd wilderness of humaness.

Love, the most basic human compassion and appreciation, is part of this peace. It seems love attracts more tranquility. A charitable act is enough on its own but may bring a return of the same. A smile elicits another smile or a jaunty nod. But who it mostly transforms, I think, is ourselves. When I view life from a place of acceptance and care, I see more clearly, as if mind and heart develop magnified views. Then comes more clarity. Just as the imperfections of a hand thrown ceramic vase provide unique qualities, so do our quirks and defects. We’re made of marvelous whole cloth as humans; that cloth is rendered durable if perhaps a bit spotty by the mysteries of DNA. And gradually life leaves marks within, and those we leave upon it and others. But we are working our way down the road and its byways with help from the powers of physics and presence of many people, some we don’t ever truly know. And, for me, God and heavenly guardians.

A key to my ability to rebound and regroup, to stay in the present while also moving forward is this innate need for peace and tranquility. The life we lead requires it. It is sustenance, regenerates body and refills soul. I sit at my computer desk and hear the sonorous tones of chimes one of my daughters gave me a decade ago. And robins and crows among others. Earlier I listened to cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s album “Obrigado Brazil”. He’s a musician, a cellist I have long adored not only because of his extraordinary talent. He harbors grace that seems to vibrate, and an enthusiasm for not only a large variety of music but for life. He transmutes his experiences of harmony and delight into the miracle sound.

The months of April and May are not lately my most favored. I do enjoy the lessening of the cold rains and the profusion of flowers that take over all but it is also a time of sad remembrance. My oldest sister died right before my own birthday (one year ago) and my mother passed and was buried on Mother’s Day (fifteen years now). I miss them, still, though the ache is not overwhelming. And this year, my husband became acutely ill and was hospitalized. So I seek more serenity as it is needed. Sadness can be a beacon if you become fully open to it, for beyond the tears flow more love and gratitude.

I began this post thinking I would share only a few pictures along with a line here and there. Oh dear, words carried me along their willful current, as ever. But now to share a few places or moments I have found inspiration and the treasured balm of serenity. I hope you also will be moved to seek more each day. Don’t put it off; the Grand Mystery of Everything awaits you!

Taken at a favorite cottage and beach on the Pacific Ocean:

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M., my husband, recently survived multiple blood clots in both lungs. This peaceful though short vacation was a good healing time.

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M. rock hunting, guaranteed to bring serenity. Me, breathing salt sea air, mesmerized.

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This is a city park where I power walk and also enjoy the pond with ducks and a heron, towering trees, flowering bushes, people relaxing and exercising.

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I  find peace and delight at the farmer’s market on the week-end.

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The forest saves me. I often hike in woods within our city and elsewhere and last time watched a barred owl for several moments!

Random pictures of gardens and me 048I have a thing for trees! They shelter all, give us oxygen, beauty.

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One of the best paces in the Northwest: Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge In Washington. We love the Cascade mountains, glimpses of Columbia Gorge, open meadows, marshes, birds.

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I look forward to any ferry ride, especially when heading out from northwestern WA. for Vancouver Island, BC. Serenity, every time.

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Victoria Trip 7-12 427Just a glimpse of beautiful Butchart Gardens, Vancouver Island.

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Easy: simple fun creates contentment along the lively waterfront in Victoria.

I also seek out Portland’s Japanese Garden frequently. It was the place I needed to be following 9/11, and go when I want to be filled with beauty, yet also emptied.

A fine place to go for countless infusions of serenity.

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But I love walking in my own historic neighborhood; it provides me with ample doses of happy surprises and peace–and an abundance of flowers, without which life would be much less joyful.

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Serenity waits. Go find the magic. Fill up; share the abundance.

(Please note: All photographs are mine. Please share but attribute to me. If you’d enjoy seeing more visual posts let me know.)

The Wishing Well of Chardonnay

Image from “Jealousy”

She shouldn’t be here. If she was the kind of woman who used common sense with a creative twist to solve her problems she’d be blocks away, on the train, headed to the house with its verdant shutters and two cats snoozing on the windowsills. Bernard would be lurking about even though next door, waiting for her to run up the three steps to her front door so he could rant or gossip or cry on her shoulder. He found her manner and words reassuring, she imagined. Mariana felt his loneliness shifting between aggravation and a bleak reminder of her pull to wounded creatures. But never said so, except to Tater and Gawain. Pitiful, she was already a cat lady at thirty, yammering her secrets to each fluffy, noncommittal countenance. They had to listen–or pretended to.

But it was Friday night and here she sat, staring not at the goblet of wine but at the round paper coaster beneath it. It reminded her of her own boxed and forgotten coasters, then of doilies, those lacy white decorations that adorned her grandmother’s mahogany buffet and chests of drawers and side tables. She closed her eyes and saw the shadowed rooms, how the dust lept up as she passed through an errant stream of light. How her nose took her to the kitchen where everything reflected the truths of “Cook of the World” and “Bread is Love of Life.” Those words of praise and gentleness were embroidered in bright floss, framed at the far wall by the swinging door. She had made them at eleven years old for Christmas gifts. She, Mariana, was daughter of her grandmother’s wayward daughter named Delilah. Delilah made it big then forgot to visit but was the one who paid for her mother’s needs until her clutch on life released its grip, thus providing relief for that ardent but “too ultra daughter”. That’s what Grandmother Cort called her when angry:  “My too ultra (rich, risky, artsy, out of control, irreverent, fill in the blank) daughter. My missing daughter.”

And after all was said and done, Mariana got the house, the one she hadn’t yet returned to this evening. Oh, there was more but it didn’t matter, it was not and could not be her grandmother.

She got over the worst grief since time passed on and with it, the random tsunamis of suffering and technicolor insertion of memories that had seemed the glue of her identity. Mariana missed Grandmother Cort in the way that one misses steady, friendly heat during chill weather or the swing and fall of living voices. They had grown apart while she was in college, then Grandmother Cort had called on her two years ago and she had returned. Her own mother she missed very little (she was across state, five hours was rather close). The feeling was mutual.

But most of all she longed to be sitting in her living room with a whole bottle of wine. Or two or three. Here she was anonymous. No one cared if she drank or if she looked smart or who she was related to. In this corner bar just off 11th Street and Hay she was nobody of interest, certainly not known as Delilah Cort’s kid, the artless offspring of an ecologically focused, famous performance artist. Diving through flaming hoops beneath a gigantic red and purple moon that emitted plaintive calls of dolphins. Human hair jacket worn to a fundraising party to save foxes and wolves. A six-foot tall and long sculpture of shells and stones, seaweed and driftwood that floated down the Columbia River, then was sunk and returned, dissembled, to the ocean.

It was all very titillating and thought-provoking and like an echo it had always boomeranged off Marianne’s life. In self-defense, she became a middle school English teacher. The students were more interested in the latest teen pop artists, their touchy complexions and sports. And, too, their inner problems and possibilities. They wrote what they felt and it didn’t feel so intrusive or demanding as her mother’s ideas. Her mother’s headlining life.

“Another?” The  bartender with the cleft chin and soul patch held the attractive bottle of chardonnay at an angle, teasing her with more.

“Why not?”

He smiled and poured. He knew her by now, though not by name yet. She had been coming off and on the last couple months.

“Want to order any food yet?”

Marianne shook her head. The idea wasn’t appealing even though her stomach rumbled beneath voices and clinks of ice in glasses, the traffic’s crescendo and decrescendo. It was only six. She would eat later. Now she was thinking and sipping wine, only relaxing and releasing…something.

A small, compact man hopped up on the bar chair next to hers and plunked down money. The bartender, returning his nod abruptly, poured a whiskey neat and moved on. The man tasted it, licked his lips in appreciation, drank it down, then waited until the bartender poured another. This time he looked into the glass as if divining something of surprising interest.

“So. I see you in here a few times. I say to myself, ‘Why is she here when she doesn’t drink enough to count for much but she doesn’t eat a meal and talks to nobody? And she gets tipsy sort of fast. And all alone.’ That’s what I think. And I have obtained no answers yet.”

Marianne looked at his squat glass, then at the hands holding it. They were average sized, broad-palmed, and stained by something woody brown. She sipped her wine and sighed. They tried to get her to talk and then she had to leave. Sooner rather than later, she just wanted nothing of it.

The man turned to her. “I know you, you know.” He chuckled, either at his sentence or what he meant.

She studied him now, wondering if he was another teacher and she just hadn’t noticed yet–it was the start of her second year at this school–or, worse yet, a student’s father she had met at a conference.

“Yeah, every now and then, in comes this lady who has a pleasing air of mystery and she has a couple of drinks and then slips out the door with nary a smile or glance at others.”

Ah, a man who would be a poet, perhaps. Was he talking about her or generally all women who did this? She unfortunately blushed and caught a glimpse of them in the bar’s rectangular mirror. He was decent to look at, neat haircut with even features. Unremarkable in a crowd except for height, the lack of it. She sat many inches higher. Maybe his eyes counted, as they were lively and large under thick eyebrows.

“Well, I like a little wine after work. Once a week or so. I’m not a big drinker, that’s all.” She turned the goblet stem with manicured, tapered fingers.

“Oh, she does speak.” He holds out his hand. “Then I’m Daniel Unger, virtuoso furniture refinisher and dedicated patron of Hay Street Bar and Grill.”

It wasn’t as if she had never met a guy at a bar, hadn’t had some flings and even an earnest boyfriend, once. But she wasn’t up to it. Somehow turning thirty months ago had felt like a gong banged inside her head. She was still reeling from it, her mother swooping in and taking her to L.A. for the week-end, acting as if it was a rite of passage requiring a doting and madly extravagant mother, something she had never been but that Mariana foolishly was still open to. It had failed to much amuse Delilah or her “uptight” daughter. Mariana had gotten very drunk and high and then sick and shouted that she felt like she was trapped inside a Fellini film, no, much worse as it had her mother in it and Mariana couldn’t find a way out. Delilah provided that via the return ticket, of course. Luckily.

But she did awaken at home on that next Monday morning thinking it was time to reassess. What needed to fit in the big blank picture window called her life? Meanwhile, the fusty smell of smoke–cigarette and cannabis–had stunk up everything in her suitcase. She washed on a twelve minute hot cycle, then hung her clothes in sharp fall sunshine and wind. She had lost her favorite tattered volume of Theodore Roethke’s poems which she loved to read at night. Her burgundy high heels had gotten scratched. One (new from Delilah) topaz earring landed in a gutter as she scurried to catch a cab–she felt it fall off, too late to stop. What else did she have to give up?

The unsurprising fact was, her brilliant, wild mother would always come and go. What more was there, now that she had her grandmother’s beloved if creaky house; a fair career launched; and a few, okay, two good, sociable friends? What could she make of this lopsided life?

All of that only made her want to drink again. To long for big, sumptuous gulps of wine.

“Ah, right,” she extended her hand limply, “Mariana here, nice to meet you but I’m leaving now.” She grabbed her purse hanging on the chair and began to rise.

“Oh, don’t depart now–please.” He sounded so hearty. Undaunted. He tossed back the whiskey. His eyeballs glistened. “I’m not looking for more than conversation, Mariana.”

“I’m not looking, at all, I’m afraid. I just like my wine and then I am done.”

She rose and stood towering above him. She was tall next to most people. Next to him, she was a leaning tower of a giantess. His gaze rose to meet hers, as if he might try for a better look at an interesting flag flying in the wind.

“Okay, say I just thought you might be smarter than the average person, and I wondered it someone like you knew anything about William Blake or operatic arias or the meteorological status of the coming winter months–anything, in fact, that might interest a more fully thinking person. Because most of these folks–” he swept his arm around the room–“they just aren’t liable to converse. Like that.”

Mariana sat down and slumped over her goblet. She beckoned the bartender for another go at the chardonnay and knew she had detoured into quicksand. Or maybe that happened when she entered the Hay Street Bar and Grill, she wasn’t yet clear.

“You have a way with words, Daniel Unger, very savvy.”

“I am hoping you do, too, Mariana….” He tilted his head and waited her to offer up a last name.”

“Cort. Teacher, owner of cats, power walker. Unwed.”

“Ms. Cort. Hmm. Cort. The name rings a bell. Teacher of what? Metallurgy? Calculus? The history of theatre?”

She grabbed her drink and let its voluptuous taste settle, then soothe her throat. If she kept this up, she would get home very late and this Daniel would know all about her or she wouldn’t get home, at all.

“I teach eighth graders English and I love it but I’m still a neophyte. I do appreciate Blake but not like Rukeyser and Levertov, even Mary Oliver. A ton of others. I am interested in weather patterns as they specifically affect my small corner but sometimes am piqued by trends globally— as we all at least should be.” She put her chin in her right hand and leaned on the bar. Gave him her full teeth smile. “I enjoy opera once every few years. I do love ‘Carmen’ and ‘Madame Butterfly’.”

Daniel had turned to face her. His mouth fell open, wordless. His back straightened. “Alright then. A live one!” He shook his head and pulled a mock look of dismay. “I’m sorry, that sounds terrible! I meant my hunch was right. I think I’ve finally found someone I can engage with!”

His thin-lipped, open smile was infectious but somehow off-putting. Mariana didn’t want to be the lucky number on his bingo card, even a remarkable card. She didn’t want to have to entertain anyone, swap light intellectual fact-findings. The thought of her cats, yes, her tawny and white cats, was now magnetic. Her kitchen, still embraced by the spirit of her dead grandmother, was calling to her to make scrambled eggs with hash browns. She had papers to grade despite feeling a little drunk.

More than a little. Feeling the prickling of shame at the reality: that she was unable to get past this Friday without stopping in and ordering the drink and putting it to her lips and swishing it around her mouth and savoring every stinging-sweet bit of it. And ordering more. Knowing that she would soon be taking her own bottles home and forgoing the goblets altogether each night. Once again.

With some effort, aided  by Daniel’s warm, confident hand on her forearm, she stood up. His brow creased into furrows and she knew he was more than a few years older than she, well-built (short, true, but irrelevant) and muscled or not.

“You know, I have work to do tonight…I’m really not much of a drinker, not a jolly one, and…and I do need to get home to my little family.”

“Family….Cort. Cort. Say, wait a second, are you by any chance related to that Delilah Cort, the great performance artist? Amazing woman!”

She wished she could toss a drink in his face but it was gone and so she nearly gave him her mother’s phone number. But that would be unkind, wouldn’t it. She shook her head, the room swaying a bit, things slowing down. “No, don’t think we’re related.”

“Well, huh, I sure do wonder about you. Alright then, nice just meeting you and safe journey home. See you next time?”

His expression looked like he was used to disappointment and she thought they might have had a few laughs, even some stimulating moments. She wanted to tell him all would be well but it wasn’t.

“Sure,” she agreed, “ditto. Goodbye Daniel Unger, good furniture making.”

“Refinishing!” he called after her.”On Hay and Bueller!”

Outside, the October air blasted her with a tangy, frosty breeze. Maybe it was the wine, but she stood there and thought of orchards and frost on apple tree leaves, the land her mother had cultivated but rarely even saw due to her constant touring. The thought of the perfect, silver-faced moon sending its light down to shine all over those forgotten, sweet red apples made her throat swell with tears. She got out her phone and dialed.

It took him six rings to answer.

“It’s me. Can you come get me? Yeah, right, that bar I like and you call a den of thieves. Honestly, tell me, why that? It’s a nice little grill, too! No no, no food yet. Seven thirty already…really? Well, I dunno, maybe three. I think?” She lowered herself on the curb between a BMW and truck. “Yes, Bernard, yes, I know, call before not after!” She covered her mouth so she wouldn’t cry out. “I’ll be here, in front. Honk your horn loud, okay?”

She leaned back on her hands and looked way up. The sky was like a crystalline, midnight blue platter of delights. She imagined the adventures of Orion and Cassiopeia unfolding on the infinite arena of heaven. Angelic presences dancing as if perpetually joyous. Did they do that or was it all a story her grandmother told her to keep her safe? She imagined she saw her now, looking down her significant nose over the top of glasses, and her eyes were just sad. It has really come to this? she said to Mariana and Mariana closed her eyes to be better unseen by her and the heavens. I want to write poetry, she told her, I do. As she’d always told her, but to what end? It was another chardonnay she wanted now.

Mariana knew, of course, this wasn’t the place she was meant to be, sitting between a bar and the street, evading a real life that needed her participation, both feet in. But it was hard! Being the kid of a famous person who gave her love to art. Being the granddaughter of a generous-hearted grandmother who tried so long yet somehow lost her own child in that very trying. Being a teacher of youth who wrote of unspeakably awful and bracingly beautiful things. Being alone, alone with this and more. Even having two cats who could walk away from her if someone else fed them better and let them curl up on her or his lap. Wouldn’t they, now?

Being an alcoholic who had four years sober until she fell under Delilah Cort’s spell and gave in, then gave away her recovery for a few quick hugs, a rush of regrets from the woman who never knew what power mothering held.

And the off-chance she would be seen and loved for who she, Mariana, actually was. Maybe she didn’t know yet, after all. Maybe it wasn’t all that late to find out, either. How could she know these things? Now the sidewalk felt frozen to hands and legs. She could lie down, sleep here all night.

“Mariana.”

His hand on her back felt like a hand she knew. She squinted at him. He was big and dumpy; his broad face was puffy as a soft roll and he smelled like earth and greenness because that is where he lived, in his garden. He limped terribly because his back was bad. He was so much older now. But he was always there. Would she never be grown up and right-minded enough to manage her life well? Yes, he had said. Yes. If he could do it half-crippled by arthritis, cranky, unmarried again and too fat, but still sober after thirty-five years, longer than she had been alive–well, then, she could do it, too.

“Mariana. Come on, girl. I’m double parked. I’ve got some stew on. I’ll bring bowls over; you can add bread and butter. Strong hot tea. I’ll make a fire. We’ll sit with Tater and Gawain like your grandmother and I did. You’ll start over. Tomorrow! Get up now.”

She heaved herself up and looked toward the open door, light from the car’s interior illuminating the short distance, Bernard close enough to catch her but not so close he would push her forward. She took a sloppy step and then another, the moon and stars humming in her head, his labored breath forming a bright fog that hovered about them.