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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Not Who You Thought I Was

Think you basically know who your neighborly acquaintance and co-workers are? And perhaps can get a good idea of the stranger’s state of being who stands behind you at a coffee shop and offers a cheery “hello”, a two minute chat? It’s likely you trust that you do after x many years of  various sociable interactions, and that you can pretty much “read” first impressions received–but maybe best to think again.

I’ve lately perused several reviews about Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know. His research and conclusions intrigue me; people intrigue me, in general, as a writer and as a retired counselor. I also suspect many of us know already that strangers can be almost any type of person behind the knee-jerk performances given us. We generally tend to be cautious by teen-age years–and certainly by adulthood. Now more than ever, it must be said. I will read his book at some point, to see what new insights have been discovered.

Beyond that, his ideas obliquely dovetailed with my post idea for today. It may seem the opposite of Gladwell’s subject matter and I admit it’s too-large a topic: the origins, nature, and outcomes of friendships. (I will keep it more personal and shorter than all that.) But the reality is, our friends generally begin as strangers unless we knew them shortly after birth and even then, there was that first meet-up. Our knowledge starts close to zero before climbing upward toward some imagined one hundred percent, yet we probably never draw near to the fullness of deeply knowing another. Or we might be more fortunate, who knows at the inception of connection?

We are drawn to others for certain reasons–consciously or not–and we tend to see what we want to see. Suspense novels demonstrate this over and over; crime headlines and stories do, as well. yet we blithely go about our business of developing assessments, making new friends and perhaps becoming closer in time, determining who we can count on and who is a fair weather buddy and who is–let’s be honest–is a wash-up.

I’ve not had the most prolific friends compared to many. An introvert with strong extrovert bursts for pleasure or customary needs, I take my time, try to choose carefully. I learned to withhold  who I am until I am more certain of what may come of it. I had more friends when younger, due to circumstance and personal leanings. But when I review my history, it turns out those I decided might not be such fine cohorts were better, often far better, than first determined. Because I surmised who they were rather poorly, too wary at times. Or perhaps we found opportunity for a diversity of interactions and it changed things. Or a common cause led us to team up, then held other benefits.

The truth is, my good and even best friends were quite surprising–not who I thought they were more often than not.

My first close friend as a youngster sat with me at church. We passed notes on a Sunday bulletin and watched from the balcony all the other goings-on. After church services, we often met near my house at a drugstore counter to delve into a huge shared plate of  hot, salty French fries and cherry or lime Cokes. We enjoyed the occasional sleepover but mostly we enjoyed each other’s company at church events for years. Then we went to the same school by grade seven and became closer. She came from money, I was middle class but it seemed less important then–having parents who were educated and church going seemed to be the expectations for making friends back then.

We share the same first name, and that was dealt with by my name being shortened to “Cindy” which I detested–but then we both answered to that, too. She was the oldest of five kids in her family; I was the youngest of five. She even then seemed older than I. Both achievers, we did well academically but while I was involved in the arts, she was more politically inclined, running for and winning president of the student council. Many must have thought we were an odd couple of friends but it made good sense to us.

But she was not really as I first thought. She was deeper, gentler, and also much angrier. Her family life seemed blissful in their beautiful house but in fact, it was not. There was strife in her parent’s marriage; her mother was deaf and often seemed unhappy and her father drank a bit much. Loud arguments were not uncommon–between adults and  kids. In my family, no one argued; we tried not to even raise our voices. No one talked of anything too personal. And there was no alcohol in our house; none was drunk elsewhere. She was not athletic but I was; she was a class leader and I became more a rebel in mid-1960s. We still shared a desire to achieve; a sensitive nature under which was a well of deep hurt; a passion for fashion and books; and a sturdy trust of one another. And yet, when people change, friendships alter, and can fizzle out little by little. There is not the same alignment as before. And when one moves past the unusually intense bonds of teenage-hood, the need of closeness evolves. One grows up, and there is a loosening of ties while others form in appropriate ways.

We moved away from the hometown. She ended up in television news production while I raised two children, attempted to complete my degree and kept on writing, letting go of music and theater. She was yet my childhood best friend, and we kept in touch via letter, some phone calls; these dwindled to nothing. After over twenty years of not being much in touch we bumped into each other, fatefully, in yet another Methodist church service. She had been living in my city, too. But our get-togethers were strained; she was wane and terribly thin, pushed a piece of bread around her plate. She spoke of things that meant little to me– and vice versa. She’d never had kids; I had raised several. She had never remarried; I’d married three times, four if counting a remarriage. We had our childhood in common, memories, that was all. I was baffled, and worried about her mysterious frailty never explained, a vagueness in her eyes that had once been clear and quick, though they’d always been beautiful and still were. My heart was softly bruised by loss as our friendship was void of relevant meaning. She was not anymore who I thought she was. Maybe time had altered us that much. It is as likely that she never was who I imagined, just another youth trying to find her way–a partial stranger who for a time was known a bit and filled an important need in my life. And I, in hers.

I had another best girl friend to whom I swore loyalty. She was fierce from a distance. I was practicing becoming fierce. She was sullen, too, but one who always spoke her mind and defied convention– but displayed more compassion than I’d ever seen among our peers. We became the support needed for three years. She left town after high school as did I. Over time we lost connection.

Fifteen years ago we learned of each other’s whereabouts. Our email updates were lovely but brief– then ended. As if that was all we needed to say after the past intense years. She had become a biology, chemistry and psychology teacher at a high school in the Southwest. I’d imagined she’d been a world traveler/vagabond or maybe, if she settled down, then a social worker. Clearly I was mistaken but not entirely surprised–she was bright and she’d liked knowledge, the give and take. I wonder if we had tried harder if we would’ve enjoyed an adult friendship across the miles. But I always think of her fondly, a firebrand who smoldered less or differently, settling into her life, as I did mine.

There were college friends, too, many of whom lived on the same street in ramshackle rented houses. Like a mini-colony or commune, just a brief walk from one door and through another. Who knows if we would have been so keen on friendship except for being in an accessible place, at a propitious time. We met in class or at a college event or during a crisis hotline volunteer shift shared. It might have been our common sense of irony–so popular then–or similar degree program or mutual friend that first linked us. But before long we camped, hiked and skinny-dipped in backwoods lakes, took turns hosting dinners and musical gatherings, critiqued each others’ poetry or songwriting, held each other’s hand as loves soured. The women were engaged feminists; we had weekly women’s meetings that empowered us, attended protests, helped educate one another. Most of us went our separate ways but they are with me internally, as those were happy, passionate times of community in a real sense. (I married one of the men from then– eventually–and am married to him now, a best friend, too.)

I have had the good fortune to make friends everywhere I’ve lived and I’ve moved a great deal since nineteen. For one thing, since I’m in recovery, I can find twelve step meetings almost anywhere. Many of my closest friends have also been in recovery and what friendships those have been! In every city and countryside I have lived, there were women of all ages and stations in life who’ve been smart, honest, caring, and always lively. We’d go on walks, out for coffee or a meal, talk on the phone for hours, laugh over our ridiculousness. We’d hold each other when life felt unbearable, and mine the humor where there seemed to be none left. We were willing to be there for each other, which is not always the case in the more ordinary (not in recovery) world. And often what we’ve had in common was mainly a need and desire to live fuller, healthier lives, with no substances abused.

I initially seldom guessed how friendly we might become. Even at those meetings as people try to be open and thorough about serious addiction issues, you don’t–can’t really–know the complexity of a person. We each don our worldly masks, some more than others, and addicts and alcoholics are well known for being chameleons to survive their lives. Who knows what a nice smile really hides or means to convey? We all harbor a prejudice or two even when we wish we didn’t, and all kinds of people come through the doors.

But you know about their recovery or how they are working at it, not much that might reveal a whole truth. That is only one part of their story; one’s essence is multi-layered, even more fascinating. Gradually people take more steps forward, learn to build trust so solid relationships grow. I have often felt that many of the finest people I have come to know have been those I’ve met at meetings. When you have lost or are on the verge of losing everything thought to be of value, you discover what ultimately counts most. You keep things to essentials. And that can make for profound ties for those who get it.

I recently enjoyed a visit with a woman I met 26 years ago. We were working with homeless, usually gang-affiliated, abused and addicted youth. I had fallen into the job, or so I thought until I fell in love with it. She had chosen the field. Larger and taller than I with a mane of hair, her swaggering attitude and assertive words intimidated me some. She acted as if she knew everything and commanded those kids–at times aggravated them with her boldness. I didn’t like her at all, I thought she was hard and crass and I had seen or felt enough of that in life. I figured she should get a grip on her style if she was going to be an example to the youth. She obviously felt otherwise and we went our own ways if we could, throwing looks at each other in the charting room but cooperating on the job.

But we both smoked then and took our smoke breaks behind the building’s fence where the kids–forbidden to smoke–couldn’t see us or smell the smoke. Rather than stand silently, we got into various conversations. I offered just a little of who I was. She told me right off that I was “prissy, a nit-picker, too inexperienced in all ways for this work.” I didn’t show it, but it got to me enough that I shared a bit more of my story just to get her to stop the commentary. I figured she might respect me more if she saw beyond my “Miss Junior League” clothes (her idea but she wasn’t the only one to think such things), ingrained manners and reserved presentation. It almost seemed if I swore here and there she got more congenial, but I informed her I didn’t like it. We swapped a more stories, shared our last cigs with each other, then stopped the mutual hassling–mostly. (Much later we laughed over how to annoy or tease a person can mean you like them, a peculiar method of showing it.)We worked better and better together and the kids in the facility saw that, how such different personalities could work in tandem for their welfare. After four or five years I moved on to another job as did she. At best she was a good companion in our work and we laughed a lot once I got to know her more; at worst still rough-edged and hard to know more deeply. And I think we both figured that was that and “good luck to you.”

Oddly, or perhaps serendipitously, we found ourselves often working for the same agencies in our city. And on the same teams again. Or one of us would be leaving an agency and the other would be coming into it. We began to spend time after work, going out for coffee and catching up, sharing inside info about what we knew of places we worked or wanted to next work. And gradually I began to hear about her parents, siblings, lovers and partners, past mad exploits and current sobriety challenges, her foibles coming forward as well as many strengths. I learned she loves opera as well as Bonnie Raitt (we’ve attended five concerts) and Mavis Staples. And also live theater–so I took her to a musical theater performance and had a great evening. I soon knew that she is part Native American; we’ve been to a few pow wows together. I realized she’s one of the most generous people I’ve ever met, both with time and money. That she is devoted to whatever dog she has last rescued and made her own. That she loves to go to Las Vegas for glitzy extravagant shows, yet also has a fascination with politics and volunteers for various campaigns. That she dislikes the outdoors as much as I adore it. And that she will never marry–we accept this difference despite my being the marrying kind. She does, however help raise a great niece and adores the child despite bellyaching about her hi-jinks.

We are getting older now, yes. There are even more things we can guffaw like fools over when we meet and slurp the steaming drinks with sugary scones, muffins or rich chocolate cookies. I have had the pleasure of enjoying five of her dogs; the last, an unlikely cross between a terrier and a basset hound named Dave, is a peach. She is not well; she has not been since I first met her. She has recovered from some things and developed others, serious maladies. She walks with a cane and a major limp despite being younger than I, and I know she is in pain every single moment. She doesn’t talk about it unless there is a crisis; I don’t talk about my health issues, either–we have too little time to enjoy all the good, the absurd, the miraculous, the strange, the love that circulates about despite many barriers to it. She has long worked in a women’s prison, helping them learn new things and get better, find their way back to lives more worth living. She is tired out by it but she won’t stop as I have; she wants to do this until she cannot take another step, I think. She will do it because it is what she loves–and to stop might mean not so good things are ahead for her.

I certainly had not sized her up correctly at first meeting eons ago. (As well, she did not make the correct evaluation of my personhood; she saw externals and decided who I must be.) She was this whole entity with interesting facets, far less like her projected demeanor than I even surmised. I found in time that she’d become a dear companion, someone I find marvelous and can count on. Laugh and weep and celebrate with, as needed. Someone who always can count on me.

A beloved friend. Once a stranger, as I had been to her. We both had been in error.

I could write of many people admired and gradually loved. Though I am not as social these days and can feel a bit too alone, I know that despite my share of heartaches and horrors–some trying to throw me off what can seem like the tightrope of life– I’ve been gifted with wonderful people to care about. They each have entered my life as a surprise, for all the right reasons. (More so than the people I should have avoided and also, unfortunately, judged inaccurately.) I believe we ought to pay better attention, make discernments the best we can–but then we must take our chances. Give others the leeway for reassessment and perhaps acceptance into our lives. Otherwise, we miss out on finer, richer truths of other human beings, the kaleidoscope of insights, delights, and mutual enrichment.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Connecting the Dots

Morning glory, famrrmers mkt, downtown, city, cj oink 095
Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Dot-to-dot magazines: I was crazy about the cheap newsprint drugstore ones on the children’s rack that cost under a dollar, and successfully lobbied my mother to allow one as a treat. I kept them close at hand longer than one might expect a child-soon to become-a-youth to enjoy them. Whether each page held a fine design of flora and fauna or simple geometric patterns, of easy-to-harder labyrinths or children and grown-ups doing ordinary things–I wanted to have at them.

Pencil sharpened, poised above the page, I studied the few or numerous numbered dots, I predicted the pictorial outcome. Yet felt a thrill, anyway, when bringing it to fruition whether right or wrong. It was like watching a Polaroid snapshot gradually come to life, or colored inkblots on a folded paper develop into  a surprising picture as the paper is opened. All I had to do was follow the numbers, dot-to-dot-to-dot– and lo! a small puzzle solved, a rendering awakened. It was simple, relaxing entertainment. I felt far more stimulated and accomplished when doing “word search” features(often included in the magazines), but that was not the goal. The point was to engage in a task (of questionable long-term value) that gave me happy respite.  Besides, I was a visual child and creating any sort of graphic design, even dot-to-dot ones, was blissful.

I miss those but I know they can be bought at a news stand. One can even purchase nice books filled with such games. I recently looked them up online. To my surprise, there appeared a large variety of intricately created dot-to-dot designs. They seem like works of art when completed–you can color them, too, and proclaim the picture your own. And those adult coloring books are impressive, as well. There is a profitable market out there in response to demand.

How nostalgic, even enchanting, these pastimes. And how bittersweet that we so crave simpler things, sweeter times, our days or nights softened by the soothing neutrality of such engagements. It is easy escape. Some comfort that costs little but gives generously for a half hour, an hour, as long as we desire. We seek it out as we need it, just as we did as children or youths, then extend our search as adults. It is certainly not always found on the internet or other electronic entertainment sources people flock to with a thirst for something more, bigger, better.

Sometimes it all requires pausing to simplify. Or we are perhaps forced to reassess our options. If we pay attention to our life needs, we will reach out to see what is there, who is there. And we may be surprised by the results.

The past several months– defined by family illnesses, life challenges and ultimately, two family deaths– I have been more persistently musing over connection. To human beings. To our places in the world and universe, to the natural world and to one’s creative muse. To divinity. These are what matter to me. And what I have felt more deeply than ever. Yet my thoughts and experiences have been fractured unexpectedly; my quiet, pedestrian life has been interrupted, shaken up, re-ordered. It has been a period spent swaying between deepened solitude, a slide into a well of quietness, and the more active desire for the company of others. Ordinarily, I would write more hours (perhaps even journal), resurrect meditative and freeing  art activities, seek out more music (or create with singing or other instruments, find a computer program for composition), get much more physically active. I have read a lot. These are some of my coping skills, life’s joys. But the changes experienced have required travels and looking outward as much as inward. Being with people, and often witnessing exhaustion etched on faces, eyes revealing shards of anger and waves of anguish. And yet, there have been laughter and tenderness enough to cover us with a softening kindness. Perhaps common human sorrows underlie part of that alchemy.

If you have read my summer posts, you know my older brother died rather suddenly. Then I flew with my spouse, Marc, to North Carolina, traveled through several states to Michigan for an in-law’s memorial and back to N.C., then finally to Oregon again. I flew to Colorado for a week to visit a daughter and her partner, got altitude sickness near the end of all the fun. Then to the Oregon coast for a beach “time out” with and for Marc. The day we got home from that heaven, we attended another memorial at a crowded pub for my jazz musician brother.

Everywhere there have been family members to console and be consoled by, to join hands in what seems an ever-shrinking circle. I have thought of blood ties and of family married into and how they both help hold up the world for me, with me. How they fill my life with colorful moments and surprising reveals. How their lives are so needed in the full constellation of my life, in the balance of what matters most. When one leaves the earth, their unique space is created, not to be filled again. Their lack of physical presence is as a shadow that passes through a doorway from here to there and further than I can quite see, most of the time.

How to maintain the old stable connectivity when people I have known and loved? My parents are gone; one sister; one brother, a sister-in-law. Another sister has mild dementia and sitting across from her recently, she faded before me a moment and I was frightened. Who else? When? How does one prepare one’s self? Of course, we cannot. We only can live daily and when things change, when we lose another someone, we accept that reality slowly, heartbeat by heartbeat.

I again think of those dot-to-dot books. How one stroke could take me to another dot and then a another and another. How I have the choice to lift my pencil and be done right then or to keep that line going to complete the picture–before turning the page. How like living a life…

Though everything, I have been in touch with friends or they have called me, sent me notes, shared a meal with me. I don’t now have but a few, decades-long close friends, but they have been here for me as I am, for them. But one friend is also ill and every passing year is a gift. The others may or may not stay in Portland as not so far ahead, retirement may dictate designing another life in another place altogether. Anything could change. And does. And there can be loneliness in any circumstance.

Portland is becoming massively populated. Expensive. I had to go downtown on an errand and was on a busy thoroughfare I don’t often traverse. I looked up and around at every stoplight. The stores and houses that had been demolished, the cavernous, even monstrous new buildings being erected…it stunned me. After living here since 1992, I have watched small waves of new residents arrive.  The last 2-3 years people have rushed to the city and looked for housing where all the action is, “close-in”, as we call it. Some suburbs are also expanding and real estate is hot. But Portland has firm boundaries and the only place one can go is up, so the high rises continue to rise at a rate that keeps many of us breathless. It’s only a matter of time–I keep waiting to hear of it–that my small five-plex will also be sold for a gazillion and as many or more fancy, shiny new condos will inhabit this space. We must migrate to a more affordable elsewhere.

Progress. You have to house the people as they keep coming. I was initially housed in one of my family’s rental homes–fortunate even then. And I hang on to our current comfortable spot a little longer. But how to stay connected when landmarks are altered or removed, when neighborhoods take on a whole new flavor, when your neighbors are often nameless when you barely even blink?

The keys to continuity in a fast paced life have to be resilience and adaptability. Going where the new dots go to see where it all ends up. Or creating one’s own new page. It takes curiosity as well as stamina, tolerance as well as brainstorming.

My husband longs to retire in Michigan, preferably in northern MI. on one of the countless alluring lakes, or even one of the Great Lakes (which are nearly like the ocean but, of course, are not). I understand the pull to that enveloping country, a place that lives vividly inside my mind and heart. But I don’t get why some actually return to their old hometowns. I suspect we cannot reasonably return to the past to embrace it as our present–but people do it, and apparently it works out. It has to be the desire for familiarity as our world becomes more unfamiliar in vital  ways. And that hope of connectivity. I  may have to move. I research various cities that might suit us as we age, in case we are priced out completely in Portland in a few short years. I’ve moved many, many times since I was 18. And there has always been several somethings or someones that made each move enriching. But I had to keep my ears and eyes open. Make the effort required. I was seldom alone and not for long–I raised five children. But there were always their own needs and wants. Now they’re adults and the architects of their own dreams, searching for the next ones. Though I am happy when they (and their fast-growing kids) include me/us, they owe us nothing.

So I have started to take stock once more, since these continued losses and attendant changes. What is truly left me now? And how can I keep myself in better touch with people? With meaningful activities? This life in all its generous experiences… I have had plenty of the bad and I don’t ever want to miss out on the good stuff. I have a strong desire to share it with others, though I have a penchant for significant solitariness so suitable to writing/creative work. I need to keep looking for options, despite my many forays and sometimes ending up faltering. I worked for a very long, time as a counselor. But I also have participated in numerous writing and a few vocal groups; tried Meet Up groups; engaged with various churches (will get more involved in the current one); taken dance and Tai Chi classes plus joined gyms; taken college classes; been active for decades in recovery groups; done some volunteer work; attended many writing workshops and conferences…well, there is more but that covers the main actions taken so far.

But there is much more I can do. Discovery happens if I just take action– new or old talents and interests to expose and encourage, knowledge to glean, service work to do, friendships to root out and nurture, places to explore in this and other cities and towns, within bountiful nature here or elsewhere. That is how I will stay connected in a way that continues to fill me and then overflow, hopefully, to others.

Because I was taught well long ago to take what life brings you and make something decent of it. To see possibilities and do something useful with them. Make a slim, winkled dot-to-dot magazine fun, give it some oomph. Plunk a melody on the piano, see what develops. Out of the mess, assemble order. Out of the ruins, create anew.

High aspirations, perhaps. But sensible, as well, to me.

As a child, when my family took trips across country in our crowded car (seven of us in that family, too), my mother would point to the landscapes and towns, observe the streets, shops and people and say, “Look out your windows! What do you see? Isn’t that interesting!” And my father would slow down, park and we’d pile out, run to the historical site, or a riverside park for a picnic or walk about a town green and gawk at stately statues, or even visit a strange church if it was a Sunday and sing old hymns with the rest and later have a chat. Just passing through, have a good afternoon. And then we’d tumble back in the car, play word games or sing our harmonized songs the next hundred miles, or tell stories, or be roustabouts, but finally we’d fall sleep that night in some cheap motel, side by side. Full up. Content enough with that day’s adventure and ready–come what may–for the next.

All people, I discovered, are complex human beings in need of home, hearth, good work and a modicum of happiness to share. May I never forget that most primary connection.

View a few pictures of downtown neighborhoods of wacky, wonderful Portland as it tears down and rebuilds:

Irv., misc., downtown at night 019Farmer's Market, Tryon hike, neighborhood flowers! 055Saturday Downtown+Tryon Josh & kids 010

Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: Roses, Perhaps, in the Morning

DSCN0248
Photo taken in the International Rose Test Gardens by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

(Note: I am inspired this week by roses and their magic. In Portland, we celebrate our annual Rose Festival; it has begun this week. The  Pacific Northwest is entirely hospitable for rose growing and we have the honor of having the International Rose Test Gardens here. The Peace rose is my favorite of all, the name, its beauty and intoxicating fragrance. The story is entirely made up, of course. Enjoy!)

***********************************************

“Let me tell you about the back yard. Something strange is happening there.” Erika held her breath, considering how to begin. But too long a breath, it seemed. She coughed lightly with hand over the receiver.

“You need to get back out there, Mom, shape things up. It’s not like you’re bedridden now, and it used to be your favorite place. My yard is about four by four, made of that terrible, uneven pockmarked brick but you know it works for me. If only there was a fountain, that would make all the difference in reducing traffic noise at night. And give it some charm. My one chair and a fountain. Did I tell you I got really expensive ear plugs? They fit so well I feel deaf with them on. But I can still hear people or raccoons rummaging in garbage and the sirens, let me tell you.”

“It keeps changing. I mean, there is always something I didn’t notice before.”

“The seasons do that, Mom, really, you need to get out more in general, enough of this malaise following that vicious bronchial infection. It lingered so long your body has forgotten how to function on a reasonable basis, you know? Maybe your thinking…Anyway, I checked online for fountains and just need to see them in person, maybe Home Depot?”

Erika could see her daughter sucking on the end of a pen as she corrected students’ papers, one eye on a pot of simmering homemade soup. Multi-tasking, made possible by ear buds used to talk on her phone. Jen would use her feet, too, if she could, to accomplish more. Probably had. She used to clean up clothes from the floor as she sat on her tattered fuchsia armchair while leisurely reading sci fi, lifting items deftly with clenched toes and tossing it onto her bed.

“I woke up to something yellow out there today. Northeast corner. I thought it was gold sunlight flashing through leaves but it wasn’t.”

“Maybe it was Mrs. Rosselini’s canary that got loose.” She emitted her snorting laugh. That bird took off in 1999, when Jen was a kid. Everyone suspected it was Mr. Rossellini, who couldn’t bear its ridiculously cheerful singing as it only sang for his wife. For years people thought they had spotted that bird; they suspected he’d forced its freedom.

“Jen, don’t be ridiculous–that was so long ago. But it wasn’t any bird. It was a pot of lilies.”

“From last year, then? They grow from bulbs, right?”

“Calla lilies, they’re mini calla lilies. Mine are the other sort. Tiger lilies. They’re now opening up, too, it seems.”

“So are you getting out there to check on things, cut the grass, trim the bushes and so on? Or getting Joe Hanes to come by with his push mower? Thank goodness I don’t have to worry about that, here. But I am thinking of getting a community garden plot. You should see those, the things people plant and successfully raise! Urban farming, a miracle. I could eat very well from a smallish garden.”

“Yes. Well, no, I’m not out there much and yes, Joe cut the grass last week-end.” Erika gazed across a shadow-splashed street as the creaky porch swing swung to and fro. It made a nice breeze and lifted the hair off her neck. The neighbors’ yards were bountiful with flowers, empty of people. Lights were turning on, soft blurs of life moving between window frames. She closed her eyes and hummed.

Jen found the humming alarming, It was what her mother did when she was spacing out, feeling low. She had been sick so long there was worry that she’d tip into critical illness but it was thankfully only four days in hospital, then back home. Still, four months that upended her usually active life. And Jen lived four hours away, only got to visit three times.

“Mom? The yard–you were saying?”

“Oh, nothing, Jen. The calla lilies have good company in that jungley mess. I’ll let you go now, but try lettuce and a tomato plant to start.”

“Fresh tomatoes…! I do have a ton to get done tonight, and tomorrow and tomorrow…” She snorted again. So much to do, so much life to live, a surfeit of activities and goals–how could she complain? She would not, not to her mother, at least not yet. “You’ll call if you need me to come see you sooner than end of the month?”

“I’m fine.”

“Okay, good, such a relief. Love you.”

“Love back. Good night, dear.”

Erika left the front porch, walked around to the back yard’s fence with gate and unlatched it. In the corner sat a large green pot of sunny mini calla lilies. Gingerly, as if her footsteps might jar the earth and disturb the plants, she moved closer, then knelt to look them over. She pinched a stem to assure herself they weren’t fake. The blossoms glowed in the opalescent air of a mild June evening. She had no idea how they got there. She felt her yard was not quite her own this year, that her neglect had taken it out of her hands. It unnerved her enough that she sneezed three times then coughed, so left the outdoors to its own devices. Whatever those might be.

*******

“Fran? Sorry to bother you but I know you’re usually awake late…”

“Erika, that you? It’s 2 a.m. Insomnia again?” She patted her mound of unruly hair as if they were face- to-face. She could now be seen without warning–all this technology.

“I heard something outdoors.”

“Did you call Joe and ask him to bring his hatchet? Probably nasty raccoons again, he’ll make good work of them.”

“What a friend–you are too awful! I don’t want to disturb him this time of night. I went downstairs with both big flashlights. Looked out the back door. Nothing. I checked all the locks again. But it gave me a chill. I should make some chamomile tea.”

“Naw, get your book and start reading, You’ll be asleep before you know it.”

“That doesn’t work for you.”

“Nothing works for me but the serious will to sleep four fair hours or so a night.” She yawned. “The callas still shining out there?”

“Where else would they be? Sneaking off to the next yard?”

“You never know.” Fran reached for her tablet, switched it on. “We could watch a movie together. What your pick?”

Erika fell silent and leaned back on two pillows. Listened hard. Nothing to speak of but the chimes swaying in a gust, sonorous tones soothing to her tense mind. She was too tired to keep this up so hoped the raccoons visited Fran or Joe a couple nights for a change. She hummed a corny love song to calm herself.

“Erika? You humming?”

“I don’t want to watch a movie until 3, but thanks for your friendly offer. I want to sleep a deep blessed sleep. I want my back yard to stay the same until I get back to it.”

“Those calla lilies–I bet someone wanted to get rid of them so dumped the pot at your place when you were out. Say, Carol Whitaker? She usually puts her puny plants at the curb. She could start an entire nursery with her rejects.”

“A whole sad nursery of rejects, yeah. Poor Carol, she tries hard but her thumb is nowhere near green.”

They both laughed and Erika felt relief at last. She also felt Fran winding up, ready to talk gardening tall tales and she just wasn’t up for it. She didn’t even want to think about her garden yet. Couldn’t it just rest this year? Like her, take a leisurely summer break? She still felt so weary.

“It’s so good to hear you in more fighting form again, Erika. Let’s get back to our hikes this summer.”

“Well, wait–in time. Right now I want to sleep off the remains of this day. That worthless conversation with Jen.”

“Oh, Jen and her intentions. She’s got a good life.  But keep your phone bedside–you can call any time.”

“I know, my friend. Happy movie watching.”

She turned out a bedside lamp with the crafty pressed-flower shade. Lowered her eyelids. She just hadn’t recovered fully, her mind was jumpy after feeling so powerless, felled by illness last part of winter and into the spring. Turning over, she pulled the white coverlet up to her ears, then up to her forehead and dropped off into an abyss of fretful dreaming.

******

She shaded her eyes against sudden revelation of sunshine. When she’d risen, the air was moist and thickened with fogginess. Two mugs of strong coffee later, her mind and the sky were much clearer. Her tricky neck ached and she rubbed it with both hands, then stepped onto the stoop and descended steps into the back yard.

Then stumbled backwards.

There was a small palm tree in the northwest corner, its big spiky leaves greeting her, the fuzzy trunk straight and strong in a huge clay pot. Astonished but curious, she went to it. She had never observed a palm up close; how funny yet attractive it was. How out of place in this Northwest habitat. Unasked for and alien on her property. And how did this get to be in her yard? Who entered without her permission?

That was what she had heard last night. She felt her heart drum hard as she walked about the grassy perimeter. The latch on the gate, that was the little sound. Yet no one and nothing was out of the norm when she’d swept the brilliant beam of her flashlight over each bush, tree and plant the night before. There was without a doubt an intruder hiding from her, that was the issue beyond an undesired palm and surprise calla lilies. She’d install a sturdier lock on the gate today; she’d always left it open but no more. She’d have motion detection lights installed on the house. All these years living in an established neighborhood that was unremarkable, just friendly and quiet. Now this–this felonious trespasser!

Had he or she taken anything? She canvassed the area carefully, found nothing altered. Just a palm tree and lilies. What next? She ate a rushed breakfast and dressed and was almost out the door when Fran called.

“I thought I’d better check on you, make sure you are still with us! You sure were nervous last night.”

“Well, I was left another unwanted gift and I’ve had enough.”

“What? Something good, I hope.”

“Fran, it isn’t funny. I got up this morning hoping for the best and there it was– a damned useless palm tree!–a real California palm! Well, I think.”

Fran chortled as she lounged in a fluffy robe on her porch around the corner. She could just picture Erika–stern-faced, brushed out and dressed well as always, confronting that errant palm tree.

Erika held the phone away from her ear, looked at it with serious impatience. When Fran caught her breath, she said, “I have to see it.”

“I’m putting it out n the street. A firm message to the intruder.”

“No–they cost too much to set it out like ole Carol does! Just wait in that. I’ll take it if you have to dump it. But why not just see what’s next? I mean, this is not plant thief, Erika, it’s a plant giver! Someone who maybe even cares!”

But Erika took off for the hardware store to get a good lock for her gate and to inquire about flood light systems. She was going to catch this planter person, an invisible trespasser, and get things back to normal.

******

“A palm tree? That’s wild, Mom–though they do make hardy ones that do alright here. Why not plant it?”

“Oh my gosh, you, too. I don’t want the stupid tree. I don’t want the flowers. They aren’t mine, they don’t belong and someone is sneaking into my yard! Doesn’t that worry you a little?”

“I think it’s kind of cool. I might even defend the culprit. How exciting, a bona fide mystery!” She paused. “Mom? If you’re scared, call Joe next door tonight. He’s getting a bit decrepit but he’s a good neighbor, he’ll give you back up.”

Erika moaned–Joe could barely push the mower around– and mumbled a hasty goodbye. She found her gardening gloves and visor and bucket of gardening tools, then set to work in the yard. It was high time. She’d get weeding done and see what she had to do to salvage her once-beloved refuge. And dump those calla lilies– and drag that crazy palm tree to the curb. If she could move it after all the weeding, and if she had breath left that didn’t trigger new wheezing.

******

It was 1:07 when Erika’s eyes flew open. She knew she was not alone when the back of her sore neck tingled and hairs on her forearms stood up. She picked up the heavy duty flashlight and her cell phone. She did not switch on the light yet but peered between the muslin curtains of her window into the quasi-dark yard. A three-quarter moon cast a cool, clean glow across thick grass and huddled bushes.

The gate was closed but that meant nothing to her. Erika stilled herself, waited. Instinct dictated  she not barge out the back door but listen, feel things out, see what moved, what else was different. She wet her dry lips and tried to tune in. There it was. A rustle of a bush, ever so slight but where exactly? Were those footsteps?–were they of  man or beast?

She yanked on jeans and a hoodie, opened her bedroom door, slunk to the kitchen where the back door led to the stoop. She studied her faintly lit phone, with shaking fingers found the keypad, ready to call 911 when there came another sound, soft but unmistakable, a guttural clearing of a throat. She pressed back against the door, braced her feet. And froze.

She could hear the soft grating sound of metal against dirt and stones, like someone was digging up a part of her yard. That did it. She unbolted the door, rushed out, the torch beam bouncing its glare off every nook and cranny. And then off a face, then hands held high and in one of those hands was what appeared to be a rose bush. Pink and yellow roses. The person stood next to a small hole in the ground.

‘Stop where you are, you are illegally on my property and I’m calling the police right now!”

“Wait, wait! It’s me, Erika!”

“Who would even dare do all this? Speak your name now or I’m dialing the cops!”

“It’s just Antony, your old neighbor! Antony Rossellini!”

He was beating his chest now with smudgy hands, advancing toward her, dark eyes wide and desperate. She wanted to believe he was telling the truth. It was Antony, alright, in worn overalls that hung from his wiry frame over a dark t-shirt, with his Padres baseball cap and rubber flip flops slapping against his heels with eqch tentative step forward.

“Antony! What on earth…?” She aimed the beam downward so they could both see better as they met up in the middle of her yard. The one he was not supposed to be in whatever and not in the middle of night.

He wiped his perspiring forehead with a dirty palm and it left a streak so he took off his cap and used a forearm to wipe again, then smashed down his thick, damp salt and pepper hair. grooming in the midst of madness. Trying to present himself as less than trespasser, more as foolish but harmless neighbor.

“I don’t rightly know how to explain, Erika. I was just seized by this idea of doing something anonymously…of making things nicer. I sure didn’t meant to upset you…”

He shrank away from her with embarrassment, hung his head with hat in hand, and went mute.

Erika considered this man she had known for about twenty years now. He was older or perhaps only seemed older in his manner, and had been married to a woman who shuffled about as though she carried a hard burden, which she had, being a refugee from Cambodia. Then she died of cancer not long after Erika’s divorce, when Jen was fifteen. he lived down the street from her house; they had chatted in passing, during summer block parties. But when she had died Erika taken him fresh bread and her homemade strawberry jam. Had sat awhile with him. He’d seemed quite nice even after that but a man to himself, working long hours as a manufacturing manager. Keeping a tidy yard with its blossoms bright and abundant.

“Do you want to come in for a cup of tea?” she asked.

“They’re Peace roses, Erika! My favorite. Tea? Well. Sure.”

******

The two mugs steamed so they blew on it, sitting across from each other at the breakfast nook. She realized she had never had him in her house before. Very few neighbors, come to think of it. Now that she worked part time–not her own choice, a downsizing of sorts at the health clinic–she had become more aware of her neighbors comings and goings. But she rarely saw him out and about and heard little about him. Nothing had likely changed for years. Or she imagined.

“I wanted to do something nice for you,” he repeated. “I knew you had been ill–we all learn of each others’ crises sooner or later on this block– and I know you love yard work. I got this idea of a surprise. I didn’t want any thanks or refusal, not anything.” He toyed with his cap, his voice nearly a whisper. “You were so kind when Channay died. Not just your great bread and jam but your hug and words.”

“My words?”

“You just said: ‘I’m sorry. You were good to her; she will always love you. I’ll say a prayer for you.'” He looked at her with far-off eyes. “I believed you; it felt genuine for a change. You know some people just do things out of courtesy. So it sure helped me.”

“So little to do, really, Antony.”

She recalled sitting with him, making a small pot of coffee in his overloaded, messy kitchen, cutting bread for him and spreading a piece with jam. He had left it on the plate but sipped the coffee while she did hers. They had talked about nothing much, winter rains, their yards flooding, when Channay’s service was to be, her nearly non-existent family–long ago murdered by Pol Pot’s regime. They had just sat and listened to the storm beat upon the roof, the wind rattling branches like bones. He lit an amber candle, saying it reminded him of her. After a half hour or more she had left him to himself, and much later they chatted amiably now and then. She had wondered, though, how he had managed afterwards. If the smile given her way was mere civility as he’d said if others or if he did feel happier again. If he maybe felt friendly towards her. But time was packed with pressures and needs and years passed.

“No, it’s never too little to be considerate. And I never got over to see if I could help out when I knew you were so ill. So, one day a couple weeks ago I thought how you love your yard and garden. I decided to just add a couple new plants–for variety, I guess. But I didn’t want any thanks or issues, you know, I didn’t want you to think…anyway, it was impulsive of me, I know that. Foolish!”

Erika sighed, took a drink as did he. “Impulsive, yes. Unusual, I would say! But not really foolish. I think it’s good of you to think of cheering me up, of helping me out. In fact, I could really use someone to help me weed and plant anew… I am way behind.”

His black and white eyebrows lifted and his eyes sparked with hope. “Easy deal. To make up for my errors.”

She lifted her mug to his. “How about to starting a proper friendship?”

He clinked his mug against hers. They shared a smile, relaxed, congenial.

“I guess I should go, though. It’s late.”

“It is. Hey, thanks for those roses…”

“I’ll come back, alright? Properly plant the bush tomorrow evening if you’d like.”

“Please come to the front door this time, and before so late.”

He gave a quiet laugh that was almost a sigh of relief, waved good bye at the door. Erika locked it behind him, then laid her hand  on it a moment.

******

Jen called on her lunch hour.

“Mom, did your intruder leave anything new?”

“Not exactly, a few tracks in the dirt and palm and lilies remain. We’ll see what happens from here on out.”

“Well, that’s it? All the fun has ended just like that? Rather sad.”

“Yes, I guess. What are you up to, dear?”

Erika called Fran after she lay awake well past 1:00, thinking of pros and cons to beginning a friendship with an older man, a widower who loved gardens but had also gate-crashed her life. Maybe in the best possible way.

“Are you waiting for more shenanigans?”

“You could say that.”

“Ah. Wait, what do you mean, Erika? Out with it.”

“It was Antony.”

“Antony Rossellini? He left the lilies and palm? Oh, my. What is that about, do you think?”

“Not sure. Guess I’ll find out. He said he had a kindly impulse…”

“Huh! Kind of weird, but downright intriguing.”

Erika checked beyond the open window after she hung up. She looked for a sign of something but there was none she could find so she lay down, rolled over, resigned to a return to normal and stared hard at her blank blue wall. There was a swell of silence in her house, waves of it, and she had begun to drown in it the past winter. Sickness makes some things more obvious. It stripped things down to the truth. She felt cleaner and edged toward freedom even now, slowly resurrecting a more goodly life. But she occupied these roomy spaces that were most often constrained by daily continuity and predictability. Time shaped by common tasks and expected comforts– and a forgetting of the extraordinary. As she watched shadows knit themselves along tiny cracks and in corners, she became drowsy, let herself give in to rest but she w wondered over what her life might become–and what was too late to search for and find.

Then from a distance she heard the metallic jostling, a small rustling of leaves or pant legs, perhaps the sound of the latch being jimmied and a man stealing across her yard. She pressed eyelids tightly closed, hugged herself: Peace roses, perhaps, come the morning.

 

 

Framing Life

noble-woods-irv-walks-030

The theater of living provides an endless array of delights, an intriguing jumble of conundrums. A panorama of mystery that goes blood deep and beyond. It throws me for a loop at times, can wound me, but I relish again a brighter state of being. It is a numinous realm that we move within, if only we can stay awake to become more intimate with it. Or I should say, it is magic, the sort that is the real stuff, unadulterated.

I would guess living with someone who thinks like this is not simple. There are pros and cons of working at living a creative life propelled by a spiritual bent. My days and nights are underpinned by deep roots of belief in a higher power whom I call God for the purpose of easier communications. (I don’t know what God’s true name sounds like but I feel it often, everywhere.) For as long as I can recall, I have sought to tap a source that is omnipresent, if often constricted by human definitions. It makes me not content to skim the surface of things, as there is no impenetrable “surface”–the exterior I see beckons and what lies beneath is a richer extension of it, a spiraling variation, another chain of possibilities. And guiding me is the constant sense of being connected to earth and to humanity while being tethered to the universe. To the great knowns and unknowns.

As a young person, I assumed everyone thought this way. How could they not? It would be like not realizing lungs were the organs of distribution for crucial air to be carried into our blood, to our sinews and brain–and for releasing CO2. And that trees et al have a vital part to play. But by adolescence I at least realized we each experienced existence uniquely–furthermore, developed different ideas and ways of using them. What I see from my little window on the world may appear to encompass all but, of course, it does not–it likely cannot encompass much of who you are unless you invite me to your window awhile. Or I request information and then try to fill in the blanks, at best. So I’ve continued to watch, feel, think, sense, listen, take mental notes. And what is revealed is often amazing to contemplate.

Like the neighbor many years ago who I liked in a general sort of way but worried about. She was very well spoken– held a Ph.D.–and was guarded sometimes pleasant. But she also who kept us up at night, seemingly rearranging furniture, opening and shutting file cabinet drawers (we thought). She talked loudly to herself, placed alarming political messages on her car windows. I asked her many times to please be more quiet so we could get some sleep. I once banged on her door the next morning, demanding silence…she said, “Then call the police!” I felt perhaps she was mentally ill. I wanted to know her story and I cared–I was a mental health clinician then–but she wasn’t telling it. She was a powerful person who felt lost.

One day she packed up and left with her son, and the key to her distress and fear was shared with me. She had been a teacher in a school across the street from the federal building in Oklahoma City when it was bombed by a domestic terrorist. She was a witness and a victim. She never really recovered. She lost many; her survival was a nightmare day and night. I went to my place and wept, for her and for myself, felt ashamed of my lack of patience and acceptance. It hurt to meet my shortcomings face-on. But she had made an impression. She helped me see I always need to think a gain–not react but think and sense what the bigger truth might be.

So you never do know, until you know more. We live with one another in a world that seems prone to catastrophes more than ever. But we still have beauty and wonder. We can share tenderness and courage with one another. There are terrible things, yes, but there still is goodness and we must not forget that, either.

I suspect many who do not feel part of the entirety of life manage to frequently and temporarily disconnect. From themselves and others, global life and the universal ball of wax. There are so many ways to do it. I certainly once tried–I drank or used various drugs, I worked too hard, loved too much or badly, slept less than sensible, tried to lose myself in a multitude of ways. I had my memory jogged a few harsh times and fortunately recalled that to be awake was far more rewarding that sleepwalking through life. The last time–decades ago–it finally “took”. More or less, most of the time.

So, to go forth and embrace–a good intention tempered by caution as needed.

I might appear hobbled by an insistent interest in too much, a magnetic pull to whatever is perceived. For example, walking with me may require forbearance. I start out fast, prefer to go quickly, yet move in fits and starts, pausing to take a closer look at a vine against a fence, a white porch with a green chair, a tree branch with three yellow leaves against a cloudy sky, a scarlet flower that lies amid crispy curling leaves. Then comes a lady in a bulky coat and floral scarf. She bends over to pet a grey Persian cat who has chosen to rest at her feet. The sun emboldens the space; the cat languishes. It shoots a glance at me as I hesitate behind the woman; it has green eyes. The lady and I smile, nod, move on. I feel good. I liked how her eyes warmed, the woman’s not the cat’s. The cat is gorgeous, tolerant, regal and now addresses more important matters than my admiring words. We have, afterall, already exchanged flick of energy, that recognition by one being of another.

My husband waits a few steps apart. He looks on the ground for the odd rock, interesting sticks, the bit of detritus worth a moment. He, too, is present in experience but the wide arc of scanning, a review of everything does not move him in the way it does me. I want to absorb the lovely strangeness of life, its willful and predetermined responses. To be open to its vagaries. Let it all trickle through me as if I am a sieve, catching and savoring the choice parts amind the  big picture.

One way to immerse myself in this buzz of daily living is taking photos as I go. I carry a camera (other than phone camera) everywhere. I seek to frame the richness of territories and persons within it. Grand or humble designs of civilization and the natural world that may open like secret chests when I attend them. There is a vibrant energy inherent in any moment, a tableau, an object. The life force is a basic phenomenon; it animates all living things. I like how the French put it: esprit de vie, or life spirit. It emanates from all things in some way or another. My camera takes charge as soon as I push a button. What I see again in the resultant photograph is not always what I think I saw. I am often surprised by the more or the less of an image, but in the meantime, I have chosen to focus in the here and now. To be open to what crosses my path and vice versa. And most often it shimmers with something, a vibrational presence, a welcome, a dazzle of curious joy.

It is simple and exacting at once to take pictures. But I don’t worry about becoming a great photographer; I expect different things of this happy habit. I do aspire to note and capture some essence of a thing or being. I want to see and find truth, the one nestled within another. What astonishes is how much variety of life there is, how what is similar, especially human beings, can be so alike yet distinct. All this patterning and deviation from pattern arranges a vivid criss-crossing, a panoramic verve. And I value the peculiarity of being human, that we have personal identity, a spirit we can claim as ours due to DNA, group culture and life circumstances as well as our relationship to this greater picture. To an ever-evolving and sacred map of infinity.

Earth. The plant and animal life it sustains is a freakishly complex yet flexible work, in process of being born, growing and living. Dying. Rebirthing. That little remains static is essential to the scheme. We witness its suffering, too. I give my attention to this composition of energies. I don’t want to be distracted or seduced by spectacles that lack substance. Fabulous work is going on quietly beneath our noses; dramas unfold in nature and lives that we barely can imagine. We inhabit this place with minds intent on other things, on the minutiae of daily routines, demands of work, wants and basic needs. We rather too often take our beating hearts for granted until our living is under siege. Unpredictable events are spawned by weather or political conflict, or disharmony between friends or strangers, misunderstandings within our own families. How can we allow ourselves to be waylaid when we have brains wired to make choices–smarter ones? It happens so easily.

So begin again, I think.

I awaken and come back to the body’s reign. I sit down at our too-cluttered table, drink tea, welcome another chance to survey more unfolding of events. I pray for opportunities to learn and love, to better trust my instincts, my evaluative skills. I hope for rain and sun; both are necessary and appreciated.

I do value my traditions, principles and insights, yes. But I also keep strong my desire to learn more of what I do not know or understand. I want to honor these moments I am given. That includes clarifying a more thorough view of what being alive means to people, to me. I care not only about what works, symmetry and a flawless synchrony but about errors and anomalies. It all is here to explore and consider. Life is a empowered by its essence of one sort or another. As creatures set upon this globe, we do not have to do much more but stay alive in the end, I suppose. But it flourishes with our contributions, hopefully for the greater good, not just our own. Experience is truly transformative when we participate in the creative actions that occur each day.

So I watch, I listen, I aim and I click the camera button. The photographs tell me generous stories. I am filled up as I enter the moment and share it. They give me a way to better understand. And the taking of a picture also gives me freedom from this nattering self. One moment is suspended, is a gift, even as it is already moving through and beyond me. I am important enough but so is all that is before me, incandescent with matter and spirit.

Discover and believe. Live and strive. Do not forget to offer your beauty and help to one another. Become your own best witness to the smallest of miracles.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.