Days of Loss, Treasures Revisited

All photographs by Cynthia Guenther Richardson copyright 2017

I’m not able to write fiction today; it takes me 6-8 hours per short story posting. It might be feasible if I propped my eyes open all night, even made a pot of coffee but I drink that substance sparingly so that’s out. I’m a bit weary but have now paused after hours better spent–have to say it as today it is certainly true– with my extended family than at this computer. And believe me, I am madly in love with writing. (Posts this short are like teasers; I always long to pick and play with more and more of those acrobatic words.)

But it’s Memorial Day. A day set aside in remembrance of those innumerable ones who have given their lives defending our country. And it is a somber day for other reasons.

Over the week-end in my city two brave people’s lives were lost while stepping in to defend two teen-aged, apparently Muslim girls who sat on a train enduring hate mongering. A third man is still in hospital with severe injuries. The perpetrator–who spewed racist epithets and threats then resorted to deadly knife violence when well-meaning strangers intervened–was soon arrested. But what was done was done and so fast. This happened not that far from my neighborhood, on public transportation that thousands routinely take to get to work, to home, to see friends, to attend events. It is a horrific crime, a nightmare of a reality to victims’ families and friends. To the witnesses.

And then I think of Manchester. And so many other places and persons, countless intolerable losses that permeate our earth, this home we are to share.

So I felt strongly this was a time to even more appreciate those who matter so much to me. To pause in prayer and slow way down. I put aside thoughts of writing and now here I sit thinking. What visits me with increasing familiarity is that mixture of sorrow, incomprehension, gratitude laced with tenderness. Inside my essential being remains glowing embers of hope. I don’t always see why, but faith in goodness is rooted there. What language can muster any order or sense from cavernous depths of human despair? Such pain nonetheless can reveal in its darkest moments a relentless, fierce pursuit of hope…We work to believe and find strength as we connect through the haze of doubts.

So I shared ordinary activities today that mean so much. I gathered with family to share a table full of good food, and hugs, ideas, anecdotes, experiences, passions. We are all talkers sooner or later and it can go on a long while, wave upon wave.

We spoke of the violence. But we also talked about rock hunting (saw new ones my son brought), health and healing, true love here and in the beyond, books, beading and jewelry (niece), yard and electrical work, dill potato salad (I make a good one) and delicious chicken linguine and baked beans with unusual ingredients. Packing up and moving to new homes, making custom T-shirts and hats (son and sister), print making (sister-in-law) and photography. Carburetors (one brought as a gift) and vintage cars and motorcycles rusting or running. Being an active jazz musician at seventy eight (brother). House painting jobs and the risk of carpal tunnel. Pyramids, aliens (son, his partner, niece’s partner). Outer space exploration versus earth sciences (I was thinking of this more than speaking). Grandchildren growing up and away, skateboarding (son is a pro), jumping on a trampoline (I enjoy with grandkids), learning to drive and also driving as downright irritating. Also learning to play piano to better compose music. Cherry and marionberry pie with ice cream to savor, even admire. And mentions of those not present: they are always missed. Dogs abounded, which was good. My sister’s attentiveness, smile, and hug were better. I enjoyed her fun yard art; she likes to paint creatures salvaged at estate sales.

If there were captivating characters ready made for short stories… well, beloved relatives could fit the bill fine. A family, as we know, is designed of custom- created individuals sharing genetic, historical and/or emotional material. And how fabulous that is, you have to agree. Except when you feel it may not be so all that, or not all the time. We all have opinions and viewpoints, after all. We can find ourselves at cross purposes and out of key as well as filled with exquisite harmonies made by all (which has layers of meanings for me since we are a musical crew).

I am glad to report today was like a satisfying gift bonus, as when you open the main package and then discover goodies hidden about the expected one. It was reassuring and invigorating to mingle with those who are interesting, goodhearted, often (dryly) humorous persons. And who feel like real friends, not obligatory ones.

Add in packed-with-info phone calls and lengthy texts that count for more time shared–not all are family members who reside in Oregon. Space can be healthy and good except when you really want them all with you. Close, safe.

This long week-end also afforded more time with my overtaxed, oft-traveling spouse. And since the hard and daily rains have ended and we’ve been able to get out and about more, we revisited a few places we love. Birds singing their small hearts out was exquisite, even poignant; how they moved me. I leave you with scenes from nature’s variety which proves a constant source of renewal. So I can be and do better. So we can go out and love even truer. Bravely, despite risks. This is basic wisdom. Other peoples in other times have used it well; so can  we.

Noble Woods, Steigerwald, Vancouver Lake 100

Sal and the Phases of Sanity

 

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Sometimes Sal didn’t know whether she was losing her mind or imagining it, but they both held weight enough to make the insides of her eyelids feel prickly, almost unbearable after looking at reality too long.

Well, it was the heat, she thought, which was bad already. Or maybe those brown speckled eggs delivered by Horace Tate to her mother every other morning. He had enough regret to poison anything, her mother said and all because he was jealous Sal’s dad married her first. Ma had a passion for those eggs in ten different ways; she cooked more egg-based meals than anyone else. Sal ate them out of duty but her dad with relish; it must have galled Horace to know it. She thought she knew what the man felt, because she was run by something unreasonable, too. If only she could figure it out.

Her different take on things might be due to the fact that she was born too early and her twin brother didn’t follow along, not of his own volition. Sal did feel something was remiss despite not knowing him beyond the dark waters of the cramped womb. But she rarely thought of him; she didn’t actually know him. It was her mother who sometimes blamed him, and even her, for Sal’s dreamy, ponderous views.

“Maybe he was crowding you out, poor thing. Or maybe if you had taken more time, you might have finished up in there better. There might have been a son, and a friend for you. But what it is, just is.”

“I don’t see how that’s any comfort, Ma. Or nice to say about us.”

“It’s not meant to be. It’s a possible explanation of your ways. Either that or you only got your father’s blood, which means it’s about hopeless.”

She laughed and gave Sal a swat with the tea towel as if this was a joke between them. Dad was a mechanic but also writer with only three poems in print so far, one in Poet’s Corner of the newspaper and one used for Lane’s Chapel and Mortuary ad. That one was more like a jingle, he admitted. The third, though, was accepted by a small literary journal and he displayed it atop the fireplace mantle. Sal didn’t know if she was proud enough of him but she liked his poem. And he liked her attempts.

Sal had read that losing one’s everyday, normal mind could be stimulated by a sudden turn of events. A shock could do it. Her friend, Marly, had told her that even a sudden shift of wind or barometric pressure could change brain function. In that case the mind might go off its usual rhythms but then get back in line, she’d added, by better weather. Sal scoffed at such a thought but who knew for sure?

This morning, like most, she had sat through classes like a puppet of her better working mind, doing what she needed to do, saying what made enough sense that teachers always called on her first. She had smiled her best which made two boys spin around and chat with her, one even saying she was too dazzling for daylight. Well, in different words, per Marly: “your sunny hair blinds me.” Sal thought him an idiot even though Marly assured her he was quite popular.

“Well, there you go,” Sal affirmed. “Idiocy, part and parcel.”

“You need to wake up.”

“Half-asleep is better. It’s a bit like a dream state and therefore easier to abide high school.”

“Creative types all go bonkers eventually–watch out.”

“Let me be full-on nuts, then. It’s preferred to full consciousness in this slight town.”

“‘Slight town’! Honestly, Sal! Where do you get this stuff?”

But Marly was right, her flights of fancy were getting out of hand. Like the time she was walking along the edge of the road and imagined she could leap over all the cars and land unscathed on the other side. Or the time she was swinging on the river rope swing and started to climb to the top of it, then onto the huge oak branches. Marly and a couple of passing guys yelled up at her.

“Hey! What are you doing? That’s too high!”

“I want to see all the way to heaven or the Arctic Circle, whichever comes into view first.”

“If you fall, you’ll see something a lot worse–please come down!”

Sal considered staying there–she liked the speculation that she might reach the ends of the world–until they left, then heard Marly’s voice shift into hysteria. She slid down on the rope, swung away from the trunk and jumped off. She was, at least, ahtletic.

More than once in the middle of the night she’d awakened sticky with sweat, the darkness claustrophobic, the night rattling about her room and making their outbuildings and trees and fields disappear under its sweeping force. She was sure she heard something or someone howling or moaning. She felt so alone.

It might have something to do with the number of losses in the past couple of years: four. Her aunt from asthma, her neighbor Jill in a car accident, her drama teacher, Mr. Johns, from cancer. And Millie, her beautiful tawny cat, a coyote’s prey. It was the easiest answer. Too much dying, not enough creation happening.

Sorrow could make people crazy enough so you’d want to step around them on tiptoe. She had seen that with Uncle Lonnie when Aunt Char died. He mowed his yard twice, then proceeded to mow everyone’s, like it or not, the riding lawn mower whacking off flower blossoms and chewing up weeds and fallen branches, spitting out stones and dirt clods out, a terrorizing, regurgitating beast. Her dad had suggested he work on farm fields, that could be beneficial to all. No luck. It went on like that for two days, a couple of neighbors yelling at him, one threatening to call the police, an old widow offering food as if that could halt his grief-fueled madness. Everyone watched him and felt more sad.

Then he just stopped mowing and also talking to people. Just Rusty, his one-eared dog. Good thing for that dog, he said later when he came back to himself six months later, or he might have stayed right on that mower, never come back. And Sal understood what he meant.

Another answer came as Sal was walking alongside the river one spring afternoon, distracted by dragonflies dancing their airborne tango, bees swiping her head before zooming into flowers. It was as if someone shouted it: maybe you was just growing up. The thought attacked her like a nettle’s sting. She sat on the hill above the riverbank in new skirt and white flats, and put her head in her hands.

This was not considered before for good reasons. She had long ago planned on keeping intelligent, determined thoughts at the forefront of her brain, staying aligned enough with ninety-five percent of the world. Staying happy. She did not intend on being swept up in emotions she didn’t understand. They got people in tough spots from what she had seen. A measured five percent of unhappiness she would commit to such things as mean snakes, bullying kids at school, tornado weather, her mother’s terrible goulash and worse Eggs Benedict, bad headaches when she wanted to keep reading or writing, and her parents’ infrequent but loud, pointless arguments which could only be worse if they got swords out. And unexpected deaths. Things she could not control no matter what. There were lesser misfortunes and some worse even then death, she suspected, but in general, these were the things that had bothered her before she turned fifteen.

Now everything bothered her. It seemed like there was something new each day. Her English teacher had a slight lisp that took center stage it was so irritating. Their house needed a new paint job and she suddenly felt embarrassed by its blistered, peeling bits. Marly said things that were obvious and irrelevant and sometimes Sal had the overwhelming urge to walk away, just leave her behind. And her hair, the sunny hair that boy liked so much, was about to be cut off, as its waves snarled and its color seemed frivolous, and who wanted to wear a long, sweaty ponytail all summer?

The world, though, was the worst, the rotten state of affairs everywhere, the news that brought it down on her like a load of twisted junk. Sal tried to not worry about all the kids being hurt, the countries battling drought, wars and environmental hazards and…it was only adding to the daily loss of her mind.

Her peace of mind, at least. The sort that is a deep and steady comfort until you’re old enough to no longer escape such outside influences with a simple adventure novel or a British romantic movie. A fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie. Her father’s wink and flash of smile after her mother told her to wash the dishes for the third time when all Sal wanted was to sit on the porch with him and watch for Venus. Please, she now yelled inside her head, the stars and planets are all I can deal with right now!

She rubbed her itchy nose and sat up as a movement on the edge of bushes nearby snagged her attention. She leaned away from the tree and narrowed her eyes. If it was a snake, she was out of there. But a quick swish through the greenery revealed what looked like pale fur. A rabbit? A chipmunk or vole? She got on her hands and knees, then lowered her head to better glimpse the creature. A tip of a nose edged out. Sal flattened her length on the grass, peered across the expanse and tried to see under the bushes. The dark nose pulled back. She lay still, breathing slowed. Moments passed. She was about to get up and return home but sunshine radiated across her back and bare legs, a butterfly paused on her forearm.

A paw reached into the overgrown grassy space, then two. She got up on hands and knees. Then froze.

Coyote. The cat eater. Sal looked around frantically for a stick or rock to throw. It wasn’t as though she had never seen them before, they were common but noted in passing. Her grandfather had shot them a few times. She had never been this close.

“Get out of here!”

Coyote lowered his head, stared up at her with his legs set apart tensed, ready to spring into a run from or toward her. Did he really think this was his territory when the land had been in her family for three generations? Sal wanted to tackle and throttle it. Was this the one that took down Mildred when she was an innocent, chasing moths or rabbits along the treeline? Did Coyote think he could intrude on others’ lives, put an end to a life, one Sal had loved–all without consequence? It seemed so. Even the natural world could not be trusted to be fair. She knew this was foolish thinking; nature was the one reliable comforter she had found. Yet her distress made her blood rush, heart flutter.

Coyote stood opposite her, relaxing some, watching her tremble in the unfamiliar four-legged stance. She wondered if he knew she was a perplexed and aching girl who came to the river to ponder her destiny. How simple it must be to hunt and eat, sleep and mate, hunt and eat and sleep and have babies. Or was it? How could she know except by imagining?

There they were, eye-to-eye, face-to-face. She was bigger, but not that much, nor was she as fleet on the ground or as wily in the ways of sheer survival. If not prey, then what was she to him? Nothing?

His amber eyes held fast, gauging who she was, what she felt, and there was such clarity of focus she feared she might cry. It was scary to be found without armour, without being prepared. It was even more unnerving that Coyote was so confident. What was it like to know exactly what you were, the true intention of your life? To know who was prey and who was not? To have the keenest senses to discern when disaster was to strike or when all was safe? She was less afraid of him than amazed, undone by being held captive in the gaze of a feral creature. Handsome, lithe and capable. Dauntless and persevering. He had a life to manage, used instinct and skills to thrive. Coyote had a purpose within the scheme of all things. Even if it was staring down a teen-aged human being.

Sal felt Coyote reaching deep inside to take stock of her. Was she a strong girl? Could she defend herself if necessary? Was she brave and cunning, too? Was she quite smart enough to appreciate this moment suspended in time? To let things be as they were? Was she paying close attention to this world? Coyote identified her in those moments, then was satisfied as tail fell and ears righted. He turned his face from hers and trotted, then ran away.

He had come and gone–as easily as wind snaring green reeds in its thrall, then releasing them to the earth again. The air shone.

Sal collapsed on the hard ground and wept. The sun descended along the horizon and still she cried, her face melding with the rich, dampened earth, hands clutching bright grass, her arms and legs tattooed by tiny yellow wildflowers that grew beneath her. The breezes which found her sighed and fell away. Her hot tears warmed stones and softened twigs. Sal’s heart emptied itself. Everything listened. If she had had her twin he would have breathed and sobbed with her rather than let her grow up so alone. She knew that now.

From the underbrush Coyote watched her, sniffing the air. A thunderstorm was due sometime in the coming night. He knew the human would take cover before it was upon them. So would he, next to his little ones and mate. Just to be sure she moved on, he ran past her so that she looked up, wiped her eyes and stood, brushed off her skirt. She was sobered by the swiftness of so much change and the strangeness of living through it. Letting go what wanted and needed to be left and then going on. Sal looked around for Coyote but he was long gone. She was ready to go back home. Let her life unfold. It was what she had to do, be both dreamer and doer.

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Deep, Even Deeper This Pause

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It is hard to say when words will again flow without hesitancy, like odds and ends in a sudden stream I can snatch with delight. For my beloved sister  has left the land of the sentient, has entered another vista, far, far more incorruptible than this. I know such things, but it is as if she has gone missing and I do not know where she might have wandered, how to just be with her while being here. Not yet. How can one say, this is the measure of a life and it is shortened without our full compliance? The mind hears but the heart does not. It draws into quietude so resounding that nothing echoes. It is just human sorrow but it swallows me whole without a glance. This gaping ache pounds upon the center of me where the best parts have waxed and waned, where the wellspring that offers nourishment of love gives forth without end. I have no real questions. I know the present time has an answer and that answer is life, more life, here or there, this moment or another one, they are all a mysterious, elegant movement of the dance of being, our souls expanding to overlay others while still… we are asked to let go, each one. We are like fine lace shadows upon this landscape of changing light. We are the breath of the sky, the shifting wind offering power. I watch the branches of a tree shimmy and wave and want to take refuge there. Let me reach to heaven, too. Yes, yes, this life beyond life speaks to me. We live within that slender space between life and death. And endure the taking of so much. But this one earthly loss that cannot, will not be avoided: it undoes me today, it undoes me, leaves me flattened against a void where only God’s voice is known, where God alone hears all I cannot now speak without this thunder of weeping.

Train to Happiness

Photo by Vivian Maier
Photo by Vivian Maier

Les had been rounded up by his mother the night before and made to pack a big suitcase plus his backpack. His back pack was a no brainer, the only place he stashed basics and important things. But the suitcase was filled with clothes he didn’t care about and an extra pair of shoes that made his feet hurt. There were two books to add, for English and math. He had homework to do. Les already decided he’d deal with it on the train ride back.

It was spring break. He’d travel eight hours, thirty-two minutes to reach his destination, if all went well. This was because his father, Dean, lived in Idaho but his mom and he lived in Wyoming. Dean actually lived with Les’ grandmother for the time being. That was because he was broke again and trying to get on his feet. The fact that Dean hadn’t really talked to his own mom for three years made it interesting, his mom said, but things were better now. They’d had a falling out, Les knew that. It had happened one Christmas Eve when he was nine and as a result he hadn’t gotten his new bike. Money always seemed to be the problem.

Dean was a good guy and an okay dad, if a little unreliable. He was a construction worker, and when he lived in Ohio (like they did until he was seven) he hadn’t made enough money. Out west the weather and times were better with more houses and businesses being built. Les could see that even in his town things had changed since there was a new canning plant. Workers had just started tearing up ground across the street for six new houses. They’d probably be so tightly packed you could see what cereal the next door neighbor was eating. It had been a big empty space as long as Les had lived there.

The trip had been a last-minute plan. Dean–Les called him that since he left his mom when Les was only three–had a gap between jobs.

“Come on over,” Dean said with enthusiasm. “I got a new blue truck –well, it’s used, but still looks new. Grandma is always wanting you to visit, as you know. We can hang out, see things.”

“Yeah, sounds good if mom agrees.”

“Of course–we already talked. Lara, I mean your mom, says she has to work extra hospital shifts this month so it works out. You’ll be fine by yourself on the train, right? I thought you’d like that and there was a deal. There’ll be adults to help out.”

“Sure!” The thought of riding alone gave him a charge. “Hey, should I bring my ball and bat? It’s my favorite thing, you know. We could play in the back or even the field.”

“Naw, got those waiting for you.”

Les figured Dean would run out and buy them after they hung up. The fact that he wanted to play ball with him was awesome.

Grandma Cora had always called Les once a month and sent him cards with frilly flowers and bright birds on them that said “Wishing you sunshine!” and “Missing you across the miles!” He hid them in his desk drawer so his friends wouldn’t harass him but he missed her, too, even though they only saw each other a couple times a year. She laughed a lot, had crazy stories and liked to buy him cheap but good gifts. And made really good red velvet cupcakes, among other things. Since Dean had moved in with her maybe he’d see them both more. He and his dad could go camping or riding bikes. Grandma’s house was just outside a small city but her big back yard opened onto pasture where somebody’s horses liked to graze. The Sawtooth Mountains looked like giants, sleepy and muscular against the sky.

Les leaned back, swayed a bit. Vibrations from the clackety clack and rush of wheels on steel rumbled through him. He watched the world go by and daydreamed. He did have company across from him, an older couple, close to Grandma Cora’s age. The man had caught Les’ eye and nodded. His arms were both tightly around his wife. She slept against him. He looked out the window most of the time, his face so still Les couldn’t imagine what he was thinking.

Les had been up since six and his stomach growled. There was a ham sandwich and a peanut butter peanut butter one in his backpack. He looked them over. On the ham sandwich was a sticky note in his mom’s neat, slanted printing: “#1 so it won’t spoil!” as if he didn’t know better. She had also sneaked in an envelope which he opened. Some cash, good, and a longer note. The scednt of ham and cheddar sandwich made his mouth water. He took a huge bite as he read.

“Les, you know you can call me day or night. Or Aunt Roberta. I hope this trip turns out to be what you hope. I think it’s great Cora will be there, too. If your dad gets too busy or ornery or you get bored just call any time. Call when you arrive. I LOVE YOU! Mom.”

Les got the ornery part. Dean could get impatient sometimes; he wasn’t used to having kids around. But he didn’t have a bad temper too often. When he did, Les went to his room or outdoors. That worried him a little but Grandma was there. He finished the sandwich and got his water bottle. He was ready for a walk around.

The sleeping woman stirred, her elbow jerking, her ankles uncrossing as if she was going to sit up. But instead, she mumbled something and the man smoothed her hair, patted her shoulder. Les tried not to stare.

“On your own?” the man asked. His voice was very deep but quiet. His wife didn’t move anymore, just sighed.

“Yeah.”

“I guess you’re big enough. About thirteen?”

Les shook his head; he knew he was tall, a little chubby. “Just twelve.” He took a sip of water. “Going to see my grandma and dad for a week or so.”

“That right? Good thing to do.” He looked back out the window.

“You travelling a long time, sir?”

The man nodded but kept watching thickly forested scenery whipping by, lines and squiggles of greenish brown. Les waited a minute–he didn’t want to be rude–before getting his backpack and standing up. Then the man glanced at Les, his eyes so pale they almost blended into the grey shadows. The man’s face was colorless, too. It scared Les, he didn’t know why.

“Second day on the train now. Hard on Fran here. Whole trip was hard, to tell the truth. How about you?”

Les sat down. “I’m great. Left early and will be at my grandma’s and dad’s for dinner.” He wondered if that was the wrong thing to say to someone who was having a hard trip. “Haven’t seen Dean–I mean, dad–since last July.”

“Looking forward to it?”

“Yes sir.” He wanted to leave awhile, check out the other people, get something sweet in the dining car. But he heard his mother saying, Good manners, now; treat people well. “My dad builds houses. My grandma plays organ at church. She has an old house with a huge yard, horses beyond it.”

His face flushed. Why was he telling this stranger stupid personal stuff? Encouraging the man more? But he felt he should.

The woman whimpered and her husband pulled her closer. “That’s good, son. You enjoy every single minute with them.”

He turned his face to the window again. Les could see the lined skin around his eyes squeeze a little, then his eyes go watery. He felt panic for a second. What were they doing on the train, anyway? He felt his legs about to push him off the seat. He wanted to think about baseball season, wonder over what his grandma was making for dinner. If Dean was going to pick him up for a hug like he still did last summer. Les sincerely hoped not.

The man rubbed his face with his right hand and looked back at Les. “We just buried my son. Had the cancer but his suffering is done.”

Les held his backpack close to his chest, heart beating a little too fast.

“Just so you know why my wife is so unsettled. Both of us. I’m sorry. You should have friendly people on your trip.” He sounded so tired.

“It’s okay. I mean, I’m sorry about your son… ”

“Thank you…we just need rest. Won’t bother you anymore.”

Les scooched forward on the worn leather seat. “I’m Les Winter.”

He halfway held out his hand. Wasn’t that the right thing to do? What should he say now? Why did he have to say so much, period? Big mouth, that’s what he was, his friends even said he talked too much. He should just play with his phone and shut up.

The man took his hand off his wife, extended a long thin arm and his palm was so empty Les had to fill it with his own slightly damp hand. The man’s was dry, chilled, firm and he gave the tiniest squeeze for a second, then let go. He tried on a half-hearted smile that faded.

“Ken Haverson. Going home to California. Yes, thank you Lord, back home again.”

Les felt the sadness creep from Ken to him but waited as the man grew sleepy. But then Ken spoke again.

“You’ve been nice, Les. I hope you always aim for happiness, then you’ll get and give lots of it.”

Les watched the two of them sleeping awhile. They looked so calm and natural, as if they’d been side by side their whole lives. Then he got up and roamed a bit. He saw the landscape turn from forest to valley to mountains, shapes and colors flashing by like a beautiful story. But right then Les couldn’t wait to get off, not becasceu of Ken and Fran and their son. He just wanted to see Dean–his dad!–and grandma in the flesh by the train tracks, waiting there with arms open just for him.