Wednesday’s Words: Gratitude/Goodbye, Hello, Thank You

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Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson 2018

A late afternoon in November, home territory. Walking as one is meant to, arms swinging, head swiveling from this to that, feet sure and frisky on leaf-strewn sidewalks. A veil of frostiness overlays an opulent sunshiny sky. The taste and sight of all is clear to the tongue, bright on the retinas. I can feel the atomic life within each cell, a complexity of heat and light as it stirs, an energy of miracles. Brain to heart to sinew fires frissons of electricity.

I look up. Sky cradles a moon that silences the blueness, a small signal of dusk shading transparency. Cold dashes my face, snaps at my heels, scours thoughts. Red and orange, blue and green and yellow: this coloration of life is like a buffet of delicacies, a sustenance of happiness, I think. Spirit billows and thins, a swinging door from earth to universe, all that imbues this day. I gorge myself on aliveness.

The high nests are brittle, birds on the wing gone to exotic places, to beauty of other trees. Except for the crows who cannot bear to leave, and tend to one another, mark my passing with shrill greetings. Suddenly I long for cardinals flaring against wintry plains, festooning treetop bony limbs with their artful attention and a promise of hope, rejuvenation, celebration. I blink at fiery leaves in piles and see strong wings rustling. The birds of my childhood left long ago and yet they still sing.

My lungs fill with this gorgeous air, then my throat closes on a sprinkling of tears: that elegance of snow in Michigan, which fell like manna, yes. And, too, a shroud that nonetheless glistened as it shielded the dead. A desolation of white finery, the land stark but at peace. We attended the grave site as shy visitors, more speechless than prayerful, knowing you were aloft by then. What has exited cannot be called back. And who would want to? This amazement of our doing and being is a sliver of the whole. You are no longer akimbo in the midst of the chaos. But free, yes, that was what you awaited.

The new snow, a veil of tenderness, its cold melted by our soft breath and warmth of this skin that keeps us intact, whole, as long as needed. We touched one another lightly, fragile in the chill and emptiness. Reminded of ties that bind tightly in life, so loosely at the end and we fail to accept either sometimes.

But here, as I continue my blissful Oregon walk, so empty of snow, of dying, of grief, I find all the gifts of the day and its messages: Be not forgetful of the abundance given. Be not greedy for more. Be not angry at loss, for out of loss also comes renewal. Be not wistful for what is done and gone. Be not quick to forge barriers where none are even needed. Be never afraid to live life with passionate love of its entirety. For we are alive this long and no longer.

Be in this momentary grace, treetops whisper as they play catch with the moon,  they who see much, keep secrets.

This late afternoon of dying leaves and glow of moon and remembrance of snow, heart deeply beating, body tall and strong, spirit and mind leveraged by a persistent joy. For all of this, I am grateful.

 

 

 

One Eager Hostess, Short on (Perfect) Talents

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I have a somewhat secret and intense leaning toward hospitality. It especially steps forward every holiday season. The problem is that I have perhaps less talent than interest and desire. Also a smaller budget than allows for all accouterments and provisions I’d appreciate utilizing. And time can feel squeezed. But the truth resides more with the “less talent” part. Christmas, in particular, would be a welcome and industrious time of year except for this reality (allowing for obnoxious commercialism and its wearying impacts).

To start, I am not a great cook–alright, perhaps I am not actually a cook, at all, now. I’ve done little the past twenty-plus years (my husband cooks when he’s around– we slap something together at last minute or we eat at a restaurant/ order take out– after years cooking for my family. And I admit I cooked out of need, in a utilitarian fashion for the most part. Though I created full meals every day for five kids and spouse plus neighbor kids; used recipes from multiple cookbooks; learned by watching the few relatives whose cooking I admired and then determining to do better…well, I just got by. I did feel enthusiastic about baking. I deeply appreciate carbohydrates and sugar and spices and nuts and all. I turned out predictably delectable breads, cookies, cakes and a few pies, though pastry could be challenging, requiring tiny and major repairs. But baking seemed was a fun part, nearly recreational, not a required duty of my household responsibilities. Thus, it might get put on the back burner.

I grew up with a mother who loved to cook Southern, all-American hearty food. She, however, shooed us out of “her” kitchen so we could focus on studies, music, sports, and attendant activities–along with dates and church interactions (sometimes that could be the same). Yet it was through no fault of hers that I had lackluster response to an invitation to help her cook. Help make the family recipe for apple strudel? Yes, come get me anytime. But the rest was left to her and siblings with greater interest. Luckily, I could be persuaded to prep veggies and stir pots and make coffee and tea.

Preparing the dining room table, however, was right up my alley–especially for special occasions. I could unfurl and iron any tablecloth with napkins for ten without snafus. I could shop for and arrange the centerpiece with gusto. And I was eager to tidy the mail-laden buffet and organize records stacked atop the stereo cabinet. I looked forward to studying the china cabinet, all those dazzling groups of china and crystal. And give me the place settings so I can complete the whole look. My mother taught me early where each piece of (freshly polished) silverware was meant to be as well as the several assorted dishes, glasses or goblets and after dinner cups with lovely saucers.  Ah, table artistry was worth developing.

From the kitchen floated rich and tantalizing aromas as I went about my work, anticipating the doorbell ringing soon. Her bustling good nature was reassuring, the clattering pans a hearty accompaniment. I’d scan the living room a last time–did we get the errant dust, were magazines and books in their places and pillows plumped, was the baby grand piano duly shining and lighting good but low? Were the fresh tapers in their candle holders and lit? The flowers at their lively best? Cue the music–also my choice unless my father had already chosen symphonies. I was filled with excitement to greet the first family members or other guests.

Thus, my parents entertained off and on but even with family we shared good meals and an attractive table. I learned at a young age how to welcome all who entered our home. I also became attuned to smallest details (my mother, a fine seamstress and milliner, was all about color and details of design). I surely found it akin to setting a stage for the coming scenes, was carried along by anticipation and curiosity about the next restive hours. Anything could happen here, my writer’s mind informed me, and the backdrop felt and looked good.

So I had fine examples and practice for throwing a good party and for concocting delicious if standard meals. Mom knew she was no gastronome, but she did so well all that she knew, and we loved her scrumptious, near nightly desserts. (This was before the food culture proposed self-deprivation or at least self-restraint when it came to that fine finale.)

All this comforting history prepares and buoys me. Still, I have second thoughts each time I start to plan for holidays. It is an insecurity of mine, not being the desired whiz of a wife and mother, a devoted healer and comforter at the domestic altar of the kitchen. For one thing, I am not too wise in the ways of fresh fruit and veggie smoothies, the benefits of kale and heritage tomatoes and hormone free meats and organic everything. For another thing, we have family with all sorts of dietary needs: vegan, vegetarian (I didn’t know there was a big difference until a few years ago), gluten-free, lactose-free, soy-free, poultry-only or no legumes or no shellfish, and occasionally not even fresh salmon (one of my top foods)… versus “bring on the whole feast” that most families must get to enjoy. Each gathering requires careful lists for tricky diets and we painstakingly figuring out menus–unless they bring their own dish, which can happen, thankfully. It requires both my husband and myself to pitch in–and an early start. It requires stamina and skill. I suppose all holiday meals do for everyone. I’m not quite up to the feed bits, clearly, but it works out.

There is also a personal characteristic, a defect, I have to battle: perfectionism. I’ve worked on this my whole life. I understand from where it derives in my childhood and youth. But I don’t like to do things poorly–okay, I tend to prefer those activities I know I can do extremely well, that are road tested and time tested and end with the same result: a job very well done. I have made progress on this, though. As a young woman, I would not even attempt something I didn’t expect to excel at accomplishing. I could become paralyzed with the fear that I’d fail, so the experience of learning could be flat out miserable and my sense of self felt pummeled by any incompetence. An “average” grade was not even considered, an “acceptable” result was not worth anything. Thus, I did not even begin. What a miserable decision that was, for I felt worse about myself for not even trying–who of any fortitude just gave up? I couldn’t win.

In time the realization dawned on me that a lot of pleasures, perhaps less important but worthy experiences, were being missed. So I began to get more adventurous out there in the land of imperfection–which dominates so much of human life, anyway. And I also learned how to compromise here and there. Thus, if I was not a great cook but an average one, I could make what was better for me to make comfortably.. And if I felt unqualified to execute a  huge celebratory meal, I could focus on decor and other preparations. I could give even more energy to people, which is what I love most about gatherings for holidays or any occasions.

I was looking at older pictures recently of my granddaughter and grandson decorating sugar cookies with me after I baked them, and gingerbread houses and other activities. Happy memories, now that they’re 12 and 15. It brought to mind a conversation I had with Avery, the older one, at our Thanksgiving. She said she’d recently made a specially flavored vegan cheesecake and shared the recipe.

“Wow, I’m impressed!” I told her. “I know you’ve always liked to cook. You know I don’t…and I sure could never do that. I bet it tasted great.”

“Well, you can find out,” she said smiling. “We could make it together here sometime. You make good cookies and we’ve done that together– so now we can make cheesecake!”

I thought about that a minute; it made me feel nervous, this new recipe thing. But she was right. And she can teach her grandmother something good. It’s the time we spend that matters so much, not whether something gets a little too brown or the icing is a bit thin. It brings to mind another occasion. I like to take her and her brother ice skating  and just last week I posted a picture of Avery and myself on Facebook  from 2012. We skated a long, hand in hand. She didn’t know how to skate confidently; her brother was a bit wobbly. But I do know how to skate well, it’s an old passion of mine. However, neither of them ever balk at getting out there. They are glad to hang out and learn a little, too. So when she saw that picture of us, she responded, “Let’s go again soon!”

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Avery and me, 2012. We’ve skated since then–she has improved!–and it’s definitely time to get on that ice again!

I love being active but lately have lagged some (see, again this note of failure to do better, how maddening). Today I had a check up with my cardiologist about recent episodes of too high blood pressure. We talked of the aging of arteries (drat) and how I should take up Zumba or other dance classes again, hike more, join a new fitness club to blow off steam and get my heart pumping harder, better. I have had coronary artery disease for 16 years, diagnosed too young, but I have been determined to not let it take me down.

Then he leaned forward a little to ask about recent stress levels.

Guilty, as charged. My basic core serenity has frayed some, even flown out the window too many restless nights. One night recently I was awake until 6:00 a.m., then slept for four hours. Quite the experience, watching the sun rise out of the thick darkness, which feels like a too hot and heavy blanket when I am worried.

“Well, yes, I’ve likely had more than usual stress. It’s the holidays, for one thing! And my husband travels way too much and works too hard and he doesn’t like to go to doctors and i worry about his health…. Then I have a couple siblings who have been dealing with tough stuff. Thank the good Lord my adult kids are doing well!”

“Got to work on the stress, Cynthia. Blood pressure is labile, for some more than others. You respond to life deeply, and you need to find more ways to relax. Your slowly aging arteries gradually also get stiffer which causes blood pressure to increase some. But your stress– that can be managed better. Right? But I need to add a new medicine to bring it down and in a month we’ll check in again.”

Right, just relax, I’m not so young now as when first diagnosed–and perhaps not much wiser. As we wrapped it up, Dr. P. shook my hand warmly as always, wished me a merry Christmas and told me I am still doing well, overall. But I kind of missed being told I am his “star patient,” as he has said for so many years. (I outlived my projected “end date” and that is still the gift he gives me with all his care. And I do count my commitment to greater well being.) But honestly–the perfectionism thing again, I have to be so much better at managing heart disease than others? He was so right, I need to intercept smaller but cumulative tensions that can creep up on me. Remember how much I enjoy my life, all I have to look forward to still living. Remind myself to have a good time no matter the worries that come and go. Let go and let God help more. Life is full of eruptions, fissures and letdowns; it is up to me to keep things in perspective and have faith in human resiliency–with support.

So, give a little, take a little: my husband mostly cooks, yes, but I like to create a seasonal atmosphere that feels special and attractive as can be afforded (not too much, just enough; no commercial Christmas craziness with gaudy or cheesy items all about). I enjoy buying personal gifts for our crew and wrapping them prettily to place under our fresh cut tree. I can amp up the Christmas cheer with a little song and dance, throw in good hugs and welcome each person at our door as my spouse contentedly sweats over the stove. I derive a lot of happiness from doing what I can,  the best that I can do. Even if imperfectly.

( Below: Grandkids’ gingerbread houses, a few years back. My cookies with their decorations. I love the snowiness. I’d knock on those doors anytime! )

 

The Bus to Betelgeuse

Photo by Robert McFarlane

He disliked buses, their narrowness and heaviness, built with two skimpy rows of seats crammed against moving walls, the invasion of strangers’ bulk and breath so close to his space. The walls looked stationary but trundled through the mayhem of city streets while stale air blasted. Still, they were indispensable.

Cars weren’t much better, just smaller. Michael hadn’t owned one that had run more than a few months at best. Taxis were worse with tons of humans occupying the same places day in, day out, and being trapped with a driver who couldn’t bear to stop talking or wouldn’t answer one question decently. He’d relented and taken buses for three years now. And this one would be carrying him along with other restless or drowsy people for the next two hours, a marathon in his view. He didn’t know if he was up to it and stared ahead into the unspooling velvet of darkness, half-wondering if there was a stop where he could still jump off.

Elena had never understood Michael’s attitude about public transportation, but there were plenty of things she didn’t get yet.

“What’s the big deal? You’re picked up and moved from point A to point B for less than you’d pay for a crappy car’s maintenance and insurance or a parade of taxis. You can chat with neighbors or not. You can read or sleep. You don’t even have to pay attention to the driving. It’s perfect, really.”

Michael waited for the final word. She had one more often than not. He knew what this one was.

“Besides you’re an actor, you should be grateful for the chance to study human nature closer-up. You can even be anyone you want for the ride and no one will know the difference.”

“It’s mostly tolerable and does the job,” he said and kissed the top of her head. She came up to his shoulder but she always seemed taller–until she leaned close. He put his nose to the crown of her head: a minty-herbal scent. It was as much her signature as the sheen of long auburn hair or the pale dash under her chin, a reminder of a fall at two years old.

They’d been together long enough, three years now. Each morning she went off to her computer programmer job and he–if he got lucky and his agent called–showed up for a couple auditions and tried to impress. He was moderately well paid for acting the last twelve years, which said something. Commercials and the stage, a bit part in a couple of indies. The first had been his bread and butter but lately he’d been hired for fewer.

George, his agent said: “Frankly, being thirty-eight doesn’t help; each year you’ll be older, less handsome, it’ll get harder. What’s your back-up plan?–not too early to get that going.”

It shouldn’t have shocked him but it did. He didn’t look old according to Elena or those who did hire him. His resonant voice was in strong and elastic form. His looks were as useful as ever, good enough like his physique. But it all could be crumbling under his feet, he being the last to know. Michael had no “back-up plan.” He wasn’t counting on Elena, of course, it wasn’t her responsibility to uphold his financial health. Though she did, at times. He didn’t tell her much about his bank account; it was one of those topics he intended to continue to avoid.

So when the final paycheck from Tiptop Organic Jams and Jellies covered his portion of rent in their Chicago flat, with only five hundred left over, he started to sweat. Nothing else materialized the next three weeks. He had a little in savings but it wouldn’t be savings if he spent it all now. It was his rule to forget about it. Only a dire emergency could make him ransack that little nest. It wasn’t to that point. Yet.

Then his cousin called. A fill-in plan presented itself.

Leon was Michael’s only male cousin. He’d inherited four car dealerships his father had begun and built to sterling success. Then he managed to run them even more profitably after Uncle Craig dropped over from a heart attack. No one missed him –a loyal friend, a bulldog of a boss–nearly as much after Leon got hold of the business and upped their salaries.

Though they talked every three or four months or at least texted, the last time Michael had visited (with Elena) his bigger-than life cousin was at a New Year’s Eve party a year and a half back. It was held at the overly grand (“mammoth cracker jack of a house” Michael warned Elena, giant-sized to fit his cousin’s personality) in the ‘burbs. Three young ones and a Labrador running riot over expensive carpets and hardwood. Leon’s wife, Meadow, smiling as if her mouth was wired open. It was likely to show off the blinding white capped teeth. But Michael missed that crooked front one; there was something endearing about it all the years he had known and cared abut her. Everything was overdone, reflective of Leon’s fortune. Michael tended to feel as out of place as a beat up tan Ford truck in a showroom full of gleaming Aston Martins. It could have been much worse, this was his cousin, after all, nothing was big news. Elena went into social shock.

Leon–affable, expansive, hyper as ever–was too busy wheeling and dealing in the back so-called game room to talk more than a moment. The booze didn’t just flow. It had started to transfuse guests’ blood by eleven o’clock. Troublesome mischief percolated under the surface, you could see the looks, feel the air crackle with a hilarity that veered toward old insults or fresh complaints or ill-mannered desires. He wasn’t delicate of nature but Elena paled, the combination of such affluence and drama was too much. They left shortly after midnight though they’d been invited to stay overnight. He might have done so but she declined by abruptly leaving while he was trying to decide, coats on his arm. He felt he had little choice but to follow her. He was disappointed that his cousin’s life seemed drowning in ostentation. But it was his money, his choice.

“So, I’m thinking I could use you this summer, Bro,” Leon confided after they caught each other up the first five minutes.

Michael felt suspicion rise up as he poured an oily cup of late afternoon coffee. “Bro”–a blast from the past. He sank his teeth into a third chocolate chip cookie. He could hear Leon chewing gum, a habit since he’d quit smoking. His cousin had an obnoxious talent with gum since he was a kid. The more agitated, the more snapping and cracking. Leon once could  blow bubbles like nobody’s business.

“That right, Cuz? What’s up?” He took another small bite.

“Well, you know Amy and Ian are natural hams like you… but I can’t get them to go to the children’s acting school out here. They’re eight and ten, why wouldn’t they want to play make believe with other kids, learn the skills if they like it so much? They think it’ll be boring, of course. So I was thinking that you’d come out for the next few weeks, get them going so next fall they’d be primed, set to go to the after school program.” He paused for a breath. “You working now?”

Michael stopped chewing, crisp cookie turning to mush as he looked at the street scene below. A bus stop was at their corner and all day people clustered and broke apart, gathered then disappeared inside cranky city bus doors. He wished they’d move that stop so he could get some relief from it all when at home.

“I’m not a teacher, as you know, and certainly not of children. Never taught a kid one good thing on purpose, anyway. I’m just taking a break between jobs.”

Did his cousin really think he’d throw away summer opportunities trying to teach his kids acting–a little family fun?

“Aw, you can do anything you put your mind to, teaching kids is nothing. They look up to you, Michael, they point out your commercials every time like they were Oscar winning moments. They think you’re famous, friends find you impressive. If you taught them fundamentals, they’d be motivated as heck to learn more.”

“Nice. But unfair, Leon, to put me on the spot. Besides, ever think I’m out there, doing my best footwork every single day? Or do you think I get good jobs waiting around for the phone to ring, one solicitous summons after another for my rare talent?”

Leon laughed. “You and those words. Naw, of course not, but I’ll bet you have a spare couple of weeks, at least. I know you aren’t in any plays for now–Meadow keeps up with Chicago theater gossip, we donate money everywhere… We’d try between your jobs. Twice a day classes or one long one, a big performance at the end….we could have friends over, make an occasion of it, opening night sort of thing!” He covered the phone with a hand and spoke rapidly to someone in his office, then returned. “Think about it. I’m too busy to talk more but wanted to put it out there–”

“Where would I live, Leon? In your servant-supplied guesthouse? Or would Meadow deliver breakfast in bed with a blue-black rose in a crystal vase?” It came out sharper than expected. The imagined scenarios were weird and ridiculous and he was verging on rude. He was ready to say “thanks but no thanks” and just hang up, sit on the back balcony and while the time away until his agent called. “I take that back, really uncalled for.”

But Leon erupted into a chortling; likely whoever was there looked his way. It took a second for him to start again. “Michael, we have this house with seven spacious bedrooms and only four are occupied at the moment. Your own room, en suite. The one at the back facing the pool as you like it. Come on, man, what a deal. You can swim and tan and teach my kids how to make more drama and I’ll pay you a couple grand, okay?”

Michael’s eyes locked on the next bus coming to a halt. “What’s that?”

“More, then? I doubt you could top that right now.”

“Two weeks, huh? I might have to come back to the city for jobs, you never know.”

“Three weeks at minimum, okay, plus add a few days for rehearsals, right? We’ll revisit the money later.”

“I’ll think it over,” Michael said, considering his bank account, how it longed to tally greater numbers.

“You do that, Bro, talk soon,” he said cheerfully and rang off.

******

Elena came in and let the door bang shut, then dumped a bag of groceries on the kitchen chair. He told her what Leon had said.

“You’re not even close to him, Michael, you hated being out there last time. You talk on the phone, what–twice a year?”

“A lot more than that if you count texting, which we do. Hate is a very strong word, I found it discomfiting. You hated it. Anyway, I’m the poorer one in this flat. The fact is, I can use that money.”

“You don’t need money right now, I’m working, you’ll get more jobs. You always do.”

“That’s yours. I make my own. And it’s been a bit of a dry spell…I’m getting older, maybe that’s the slow down.”

“Oh, poosh-wah, you’re the perfect age.” She kissed him as he freed the carrots and potatoes from plastic bags. “So you’re going to the hinterlands to teach your niece and nephew– what? How to pretend more? Do they even have talent?”

“I don’t quite know. Amy sang pretty well even at five and has taken loads of dance. She’s ten now so odds are she has more going on. Ian may or may not, he’s been into skateboarding…It doesn’t matter. I can use this money so I should do it.”

She took a jug of milk from one hand and then an egg carton from another, appraising each as if she wasn’t sure what it was, then crammed them into the refrigerator with a  shake of her head. “Seriously? Odd idea, but it’s your family. And bank account.”

But Michael had decided. A couple of weeks in the suburbs might even do more good than harm. Maybe he’d re-think his career. He might even be a good teacher–a whole new option if needed. Then a cringe ran up back and neck, transforming into a furrowed brow. He didn’t even like kids much; he was awkward around them. He was an only child, himself. Even being around Amy, Ian and little Leon II, well, he never knew just what to say or do, though he loved them. They were family, after all. He repeated to himself four times, as if a mantra: two grand–that’s to start. But he felt less excited than before. He felt something else altogether, a hint of shame, a sense he was doing the wrong thing here, after all.

Michael was accepting money from his family to…what?…have a good time with and share his calling–that’s what acting was for him–with his niece and nephew.

What was wrong with him? And what was Leon thinking–first, asking him to do this but second, offering to pay him? Perhaps bribing him, if you wanted to call it like it was? What was he expecting of him? And then he considered. His father had died early from heart disease. He was not even sixty. Leon had just turned forty-one but maybe he, too, had felt the passage of time like a blemish upon the present.

And then it occurred to him that they both had careers that depended on selling. Cars or one’s own self, it was still a sales job so Leon was as much an actor as was he. It must run in the family.

******

It was getting dark, and a nighttime phantasmagoria of lights, moving and still, provided hypnotic relief as he settled in his seat. Michael had packed a bag in the morning, then attended an audition that went poorly at the Moda Nouveau Theatre. The play was stilted and ironic, not enough action or–dare he admit it–heart. The director was not one he’d have even enjoyed. It was work, but he wished he could find an old-fashioned meaty role.

He had met Elena for mediocre Italian before the bus left at eight-thirty. They’d talked about her coming out the next week-end, but they both knew she’d rather be at home or with friends than at his cousin’s. She’d only met him that one time and it had bombed. It was okay; he could always go back to the city to see her. The first night out he’d be staying at a good hotel to help ease him into Leon’s world. Elena’s generous treat, her way of trying to be more supportive, he guessed. But when they parted it was like she just floated away and he was left on his own for once. It didn’t feel bad.

When he had to embark, she had held on to his neck longer than usual, smoothed his forehead, hair. Kissed him twice, gently. He wondered if she was trying to tell him something but they had noting more to say. He’d call when he had something of import to hare.

The bus was nearly empty. Well, who else was going to head out to East Norwood this time of day on a Thursday night? What would be the point unless returning from an event? But despite the hard bench seat, he relaxed. His head filled, then emptied of miscellaneous things as miles ticked by and the road and country turned ebony. The visit might do him good or it might not but he couldn’t dispute right timing due to the need of monetary infusion. He suspected Leon would pay him more if the kids liked him, if it worked out well.

But as he watched dark shapes outside the window morph and recede he also saw Leon and himself racing down the big hill by his uncle’s older but big colonial house. The yard alone made every visit a joy, such private acreage. There were two rope swings hanging from tall trees and even a trapeze. A flower and kitchen garden that overtook a portion of land. A kidney-shaped pool in the back with a yellow canopy sheltering chairs and a round table. A fire pit where they roasted hot dogs and made S’mores.

Michael could make out the Big and Little Dipper without any trouble. His dad pointed out a few more constellations, including Cassiopeia and Orion–the last Michael’s favorite. Orion was a superior hunter whom he felt was a nighttime guardian, even a slayer of monsters. And there was Betelgeuse, the cool red star with the silly name. A supergiant star beaming from Orion’s shoulder. Michael longed to see that red star up close. He thought it a powerful amulet captive in the sky, it was so bright, the ninth brightest they could see with their eyes, his dad said. He secretly felt its light pulsed at him so he made his own small pulsing, open-and-closed-fingered motion back at it, like a lighthouse beam flashing on and off. If, that is, no one saw him. Once Leon did but said nothing, just waved at the star, then ran off into circles, yelling at nothing.

They had freedoms at that house, in that yard, that Michael didn’t experience any other place. The expansive space and open air were like a drug before he knew what that really was. Everything seemed more fascinating, intense. He and Leon were “thick as thieves” as his mother said laughing, getting into minor scrapes, mapping out escapades. His cousin followed his lead back then. Michael always had a story plotted, an adventure outlined. The summer visits at his cousin’s was shaped by happiness. Even when he broke his arm falling out of his own measly tree so was half-lame all summer–Leon showed him things he could still manage. Even when Leon got tonsillitis so was bedridden much of the summer. Michael told him stories until he fell sleep, face pressed against the damp pillow, drool slipping from his thin lips. Or he’d bring him a worm, a frog, a colorful rock or piece of moss for the terrarium in his vast blue bedroom, anything to make him smile weakly.

Even when Michael’s mother and father divorced the summer he was eleven, almost twelve. They still went, his father and himself, but it was different at first, painfully quiet. No one knew what to say. Michael headed to his usual room  to stare out the window at the sparkling pool. Then Leon burst through the door, yanked him right out of his gloom. They went swimming and diving for hours, skin like glowing. Later, they sought crickets’ hideouts. Pretended to hunt with the dogs and makeshift bows and arrows.

Leon didn’t have to ask Michael anything. He saw what the divorce was doing to him. So he was just there.

Nothing was hardly ever worse–maybe some hot headed fights he lost to him,  a few bad mishaps they still didn’t tattle on each other about but maybe should have–when he was with Leon, and usually things were much better. Back then, anyway.

Why and when had they left all that far behind? Money interceded. Ambitions of different sorts. They’d grown up, that’s all, and then time started to dribble away and then it somehow was on its way to running out, so many grains of sand piling up at the bottom of the hourglass. Pathetically small, those grains.

His phone rang and he, half-dozing, started; it was George, his agent. The bus was approaching its final stop so he let it go to voice mail. Michael grabbed his bag and got off the bus. The sudden cool of deepening night swept across his face. He breathed in as though starving for oxygen, walked at a brisk pace three blocks to the boutique hotel.

Before slipping into the big empty bed, he remembered to check his message.

“Michael, good news. You aced it! Interlake Transit Corp. wants you for their commercial. Maybe an employee training flick, as well. The one in Wisconsin, remember? They pay very well. Call me back tonight so I can get back to them bright and early.”

Michael dialed his number; it went to voice mail.

“George, really, the transit people?” He snickered to himself. “Sounds excellent! But not until I’m done with my family business. If they can’t wait a couple weeks, I’m not their man. Not even kidding.”

He turned out the light and stared at the ceiling awhile, wondering what lay ahead. He drifted off. And in the theater of sleep he saw Leon running along the creek behind his mammoth and overwrought house and he was trying to say something, his hand gesturing to hurry up, to follow him. He was calling with lighthearted urgency, shouting out Michael’s name, so Michael flew toward the creek to catch up with him. Rammed right into him so they tumbled into the shining dark creek, then rose drenched and howling like happy fools, like common kids, while Betelgeuse threw its distant but fiery brilliance–perhaps a signal—upon them.

The Game: Why We Play or Not

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Games, a good thing, right?

A thought keeps circling my mind: to be (and play) alone, or be with others, or with others yet remain alone…and what really defines “alone” in our often virtually designed, tech-impacted world?  Is it a positive thing to be alone–or not? Why is solitariness often abandoned in favor of disposable distraction?

More researchers are stating that engagement with others helps us live better and longer, enlarges our perspectives and guarantees more happiness. It is said we engage less real in community gatherings yet we are not so at ease in solitude. To be solitary is not that desirable, it seems, at least not as manifested in the twenty-first century. Alone time can be toxic to health at worst or unfulfilling at best.

How does a person manage an experience of hanging out with her/his singular self? Increasingly, it means reaching for an electronic device. It is so common, most likely don’t take note of what they are doing: it is now automatic. And as they text, for example, they don’t have to worry about how they look, the way they speak, what their emotions reveal. They can avoid or make things up. Alter the truth if needed with an emoji.

This has been on my mind since I visited my daughter in South Carolina. I watched in a confused state while we strolled about a pleasant riverside park. There were a dozen or more others wandering around with noses to cell phones, their movements goal-driven, quick and mostly silent. I kept waiting for someone to talk, to interact with one another. The relative silence was spooky. It was like watching random groupings of robots clothed in human flesh and clothes. They did not seem to notice one another or surroundings. But they were sharing some sort of experience in a parallel manner.

Looking for a reference point that I might comprehend, I flashed back (no pun intended…) on the late sixties and early seventies parties where the participants dropped acid or used other hallucinogenic drugs to then enter individual kaleidoscopic, madcap adventures of the brain chemistry: together yet separate in their altered states. But they certainly emitted various sounds, even discernible language. There was music in the back ground or someone was inspired to make it on a guitar or a flute or a big drum–on pots and pans or one’s own voice would do. There were physical and emotional exchanges, for good or ill. Discussions that ran in labyrinthine circles. I can’t say such gatherings were the best times of our (hippie) lives, but we did interact in all sorts of interesting ways.

But this was not like that–it was something foreign to me. I felt almost disoriented just watching. Then my daughter got me up to speed. They were playing Pokémon Go. I had never heard of it, so she briefly explained and we walked on. But I kept looking over my shoulder or noticing more of these young adults and no-so-young ones following visual cures or directives given by their phones.

Their phones. I just didn’t get the point, but clearly they  found it entertaining and interesting enough to spend a sunny afternoon doing.  Since then I’ve read a bit about Pokémon Go and have seen my grandson play as well as plenty of strangers. But technology and what it creates–and what the companies market—is the issue.

There are two attitudes circulating about the effects of electronic gadgetry–i.e., tablets, e-readers, video games, cell phones, personal computers, televisions and any others I have left out due to my ignorance. One espouses the multitudinous wonders, the vistas we now can explore,  altered and perfected realities we can enter into with a click, flick and swipe. This view espouses an interesting “benefit” of the latest manifestation of Pokémon, insisting the game will rouse indoor-inhabiting, computer-attached children and friends and deposit them in an outdoor setting. They can wander about together capturing wild and tiny critters that dwell within the augmented reality. This is a sort of socializing, I gather, an enhanced by electronica fraternizing. And one of the motivations for development of this game was to encourage people to get off their couches and get out to the parks or anywhere else they want to engage in said playing among other human beings. And hopefully, they will watch where they are going and no one gets hurt.

Which brings me to the other viewpoint, namely that people are already becoming more isolated–often seemingly by choice–due to keen interested in entertainment that has nothing to do with direct (read: three dimensional) contact with people. I glanced at an article with a photo depicting a man and woman using their laptops side by side at bedtime, No physical contact, no verbal interaction going on. The question posed: is this your relationship? In other words, was technology becoming the interloper?  Well, of course it is. And how many people find this rather perverse, that manufactured devices–can separate one from the other while captivating each? That the express purpose of said devices is to entertain and purportedly inform the operator of the object and quickly? (This is not about what computers can do to help compile and order data for business and other organizational needs.)

Sometimes it appears to be another fancier variation of the ole “divide and conquer.” And yet people are mesmerized. (Alright, I am now writing on my laptop. My last electric typewriter is packed away in a closet–and the effect was the same when I used that keyboard and paper: I wrote alone. But corrections were perhaps harder and more trees were used up, okay.) I think spellbound is an accurate word for what can happen when we turn on that magic screen which does fascinating and weird things the moment it lights up. We lose touch with other matters and persons because it is all-encompassing, corralling our minds and deluging our senses with input that dazzles or mollifies.

But I have digressed. This topic is so big, and like its actual manifestations it can nab a person and stir up realms that I only peripherally imagined thirty or forty years ago. I find myself wondering what George Orwell would think, what Frank Herbert would say, how Ray Bradbury would respond to this present state of tech affairs. Would they be horrified or flummoxed or gratified?

I think of our national health concerns–obesity with its serious complications, heart disease, cancer, depression and anxiety for starters–which are connected at least in part with contemporary lifestyle choices. Are computers and their cousins part of a trend to cop out and opt out? Can they usurp our power to take charge and accomplish more and better in some essential ways? Surely becoming inert for hours before a screen, our eyes unblinking, our trunks in stasis, can be detrimental to our well being. And yet these habits and requirements are so integrated into our lives that we don’t know how to take issue with it or even if we seriously ought to do so. How to live with and without the distractions and aids that technology provides?

 

It may or may not have been simpler fifty years ago. But back when my friends and I were trying hard to study Kierkegaard and de Beauvoir, Camus and Sartre, it was the newly coined “existential anxiety” we worried about, spiritual and philosophical matters that triggered heated debates. Authentic Identity and principled ideology were major topics and we plunged ahead despite having more energy than wisdom. The responsibilities of our power of human choice, as well as awareness of one’s ultimately solitary existence, were plenty angst-ridden. What would far greater technology bring to the fore? We imagined, we read, we mulled it over and went forward with our lives the best we could. I can’t say my generation entirely embraced the immense changes we suspected were on the way. Some of us hid out, some tried and failed to make social change happen and some triumphed even while bobbing along with the cultural currents.

Later, in retrospect, it seems my own family had lived and toiled in a world more apart from others’. My parents certainly thought a television was unnecessary. We didn’t have one until 1963 (I was 13 then) and it was not much regarded with either respect or enthusiasm. We rarely watched it. We already had radio and the stereo. But mostly we were too busy. I won’t drive the details into the ground as I’ve written of this  many times. But our lives were chock-full of academics, friends, outings and camps and lessons, the arts, sports for fun and competition, church, neighborhood social occasions. I didn’t feel we lived differently from others–my friends had similar schedules, endeavors and commitments. If there was time for sheer entertainment, there were always more arts activities. Or reading for pleasure. Playing outdoors. Doing nothing on the front porch–or counting makes and numbers of cars that passed– or hanging out in the big backyard maple were options. I do not recall worrying about being either alone or with others. I got both–and less alone time. I was rarely bored.

There was not a headline-provoking, cultural review of whether or not we had enough time together or apart from our fellow Americans. There was work; there was family; there were friends and the greater community and world. There were activities galore from which to choose, many of them free of charge. But we either relied on one another or we relied on ourselves for engagement in life–not a major attention-consuming gadget.

These things have changed, that is for certain. Is it for the greater well being of human life? Or is it to our detriment? Both, it has been noted. It seems too complex at times to tackle–so much information is required and that even changes fast. I move back and forth over data and consider opposing  possibilities. Technology expands our understanding and reach of so much; it can provide solutions that are critical. Previously unknown options that may lead to illumination on many levels. But it also intrudes and confounds, diverts and can–I’m just going to say it–numb the human mind and heart. Puts us into a zone that is at moments indistinguishable from an eccentric, hybridized robotic mode.

Can we truly not bear just being with ourselves, living our ordinary, daily lives? Do we require ever more stimulation–the sort that is devised for us– to stay awake in this world, to feel what we think is actually better? A world that is altered beyond recognition? I suspect the question reverberates among human beings as all countries are provided more intriguing devices and diversions. These may be quick fixes to transform the moment–why not? Pick up the almighty phone, turn on televisions (one in every room) or laptops. The marketing and publicity budgets for these products must be monstrous.

But the questions lose personal meaning for me even as I note them. I don’t crave relief or distraction of that sort. I do not want artificial or superficial company. I’m not a purist; I have a phone, a laptop. I inherited an older Samsung tablet when my husband got bored with it and occasionally I watch a series I like. I just don’t long for quick fixes, not unless I count dark chocolate– useful for a few minutes of elevated serotonin as well an taste bud heaven. For one thing, the fixes don’t work that well. When you turn off a device, there you are, your worries and longings still swirling about. Sooner or later, they need to be welcomed or sorted or will nag you like a host of gnats.

Not that I am beyond a day of unhappiness, a spurt of anxiety or even thunderbolt of raw dread. But I find it better to sit with feelings, let them come and go. Or call another human being. Let myself just be present with a searching mind and soul. Once, at fifteen, at twenty-five, at even thirty-five, I could have answered: yes, my life is woven with this flood of damnable anguish and I want it dissipated by something, anything. Obliterated, even. I tried drugs and alcohol awhile to corral trauma and the demons that trailed it, but they were not powerful enough to change my life in ways I most wanted. For that, I had to take my own action under guidance of the Creator’s wisdom and Light. And reach for helping hands.

Though I do enjoy people–sharing activities, meals and conversations, prayer, creative expression and work– I profoundly appreciate being alone. No live wire technology. Just thorough quietness and emptier space, my own breath to breathe in, then out. It gives me opportunity to turn inward and outward, to scrutinize what is inside or probe the greater world about me. I don’t want or need any ultra sensations most of the time. I can be taken beyond myself with a mysterious poem, a forest walk, a song that offers truth or majesty or plain good rhythm. My own senses do a fine job even after all this time on the  planet. After all, that’s why we’re born with them, to be provided with a rich human experience, gather and file information in our remarkable minds, enjoy bounties of earth and wonders of each other as we go forth.

There is this life to live each day as I will. I enjoy many freedoms of choice. For this I am grateful beyond measure. I do not desire a constant barrage of ideas, data and entertainment that someone else devised to woo my attention day in and day out. I like that “off” button almost more that the “on” one. I embrace the natural reality within human experience–flawed as it can be.

My son–a pro skater, residential/commercial painter, seeker of adventure–and I were talking yesterday about crickets and nature.

He said, “I could stand in my vegetable garden and listen to crickets for hours. I can’t get enough of them. Or even a chance to just meditate, to experience what is right here. To feel the mystery, you know?”

Yes, I know.

Last night as my husband and I were half-watching the Summer Olympics, I suddenly heard loud crickets outside our windows. It was if they had waited, then noted the same cue and began in full voice. It is not a usual spot for them to cluster. We turned off the television and leaned against the screens, then went outside and listened. A veritable symphony of naturally synchronized cricket music. It was a small rapture to be their audience. On our walks we are often treated with different performances on each block.

So I would ask the tech moguls to rein in that greed impulse, to not utterly take over the unfettered landscape. Please do not alter these daily amazements, so much complex beauty. Can you imagine life with crickets that are virtual? I would rather not. Rather, let us always savor the soft darkness, the hosting trees and bushes, the crickets hiding shyly while their singing fills the air.

No enhancements needed. No augmentation of reality required.

So, anybody up for a game of Scrabble or Balderdash, a pick-up game of basketball or a hike in the mountains? We can throw in a virtual game along the way if absolutely necessary, I suppose. If I am thought to be antiquated, I’m alright with that. Computers and their ilk are a social norm now and can be enriching; they have a place in my life. But we all still inhabit actual human bodies and this remains our planetary domain– if we are fortunate. And wise.

Things of Little Consequence

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Someone asked me recently what my hobbies are. That gave me pause. I enjoy so many things, hobbies or not, so where to begin? But I answered: “Thinking might be number one…” She laughed incredulously, not understanding who I was and what I meant.

I spend a significant amount of time each day thinking. Not that I am unique in this. We think without even realizing it, surfing the brain for memories, connections between disparate matters, solutions to challenging problems, the causes and effects of feelings and events. Afterall, we are curious creatures made for verbal activities, outfitted with and guided by words that identify, inform, clarify, embroider and precisely define. So it is logical that even stream of consciousness bouts of verbalizing preoccupy us. And for writers of any stripe, words, whether given internal or external form, are tools that enable transportation to a world of characters, places and times that would not otherwise spring to life. Those consonants and vowels strung together feel like daily sustenance.

So, how easy for human beings to become lost in thought. To contemplate and wonder.

But when does thinking become pondering? Ruminating? When does such thinking cease to become worthwhile, productive? Once I would have said such a thing was impossible. Every thought had meaning and purpose–yours and mine–and if I thought hard and long enough I would find the answer sought. I followed my ideas and imaginings into mazes of speculation. Brief inspiration could capture me; soon I would be swimming in reflections. I adored ideas. A barrage of “whys” and “hows” accompanied me everywhere. Certainly I was not always a favorite student or child despite a proclivity for learning. I wanted even more explanations and answers. In fact, I can still ask more questions than some people can find the patience to appreciate or share.

My mother used to use the  word “brood” when describing some of my youthful cogitation.

“Why don’t you give your mind a rest?” she’d ask with a smile as concern tinged her voice. “You think too much. You’re a brooder, chewing away on things. You’re exhausting yourself. Maybe even me.”

Friends would sometimes try to shoo away my constant contemplation with a flick of fingers and a laugh. “Be cool, lighten up!”

Boyfriends would tell me, “You’re intense. Interesting, yes, but very intense. Where do all those thoughts come from, anyway?”

“Too sensitive, that’s what you are,” my older sister pronounced with a little sneer. I thought her too insensitive then so we were often at it. But how come I seemed different from so many? Was she right?

It was clear I was naturally more serious than light-hearted. Pensive, another sibling suggested. And, from the start, consumed by language–to sort it all out. My head was stuck in a book or journal when I wasn’t practicing my cello or working on figure skating lessons. I wrote songs, poems and stories, gazed out my bedroom window on a cloudy day and constructed kingdom that held a whole culture more vast and intriguing to me than the one in which I had landed–a Midwestern company town where following everyday rules was a major key to life success. Where most every yard was leafy and manicured. Where strenuous competition, no matter the activity, sustained my friends. I longed for something else and a creative life seemed the key. And that seemed to go with “thinking too much”…I thought…and feeling, let’s face it.

I did agree I needed to develop ways to put lengthy contemplation on pause. If everything was a matter of significant consequence to me, as my wise mother said, when could I catch my breath? Where was the balance? The needed R and R? It was hard living inside a mind that was always busy, seldom satisfied for long. So I found ways to find relief from an adoration of ideas and passionate responses. Anything that distracted, soothed or humored me without creating negative complications was an option.

I still hold to this, only variations on the theme. Because I did not grow up to be less introverted–though I enjoy people a great deal–or less contemplative, I’m afraid. Thinking remains a major activity I indulge in for a number of reasons–and due to being a human being. But I’ve continued to discover recreation–for its own sake.

As a youngster and teen I came up with such things as reading fashion magazines, those silly but visually sumptuous fantasy tomes. Pouring over the latest fabrics and styles, make up and hair creations. Pictures that delighted when I found more innovative fashion photography. From this activity came the creating of wall-sized collages with old cards, photos, magazine pictures, even phrases and words salvaged from many places. I liked to draw. Sketchbooks and scrapbooks filled up with pencil and ink designs, rudimentary still life pieces. And houses. I loved to imagine cutting-edge steel and wood houses made with indoor waterfalls, walls of windows that overlooked babbling brooks or verdant gardens and so on. (In 1962 that seemed revolutionary.)

Riding my bike and learning how to do tricks on it in a big parking lot were entertaining. Tree climbing rated high on my list. Ice skating was so important to me that I would brave zero temperatures to hear that zing of glistening ice beneath blades. The adrenalin surge alone as I gathered speed, leapt and spun was enough to convince me skating held magical qualities. I came away exhausted but cleansed of the week’s stress and my clamorous thoughts and feelings.

Dancing was a favorite. Turn on the stereo and move back some furniture and I was set to let all run a little wild–as long as siblings weren’t doing something in the living room or my father wasn’t teaching violin, or my mother preparing the dining room for guests. In which case, I could always visit a friend and have a dance-off, or attend a school or community center dance. I could dance across the back yard, trailing long silky scarves in the breeze. Relief, it seemed, was truly a dance away.

Singing was always a pleasure, especially if completely alone. Or there was someone to play piano in accompaniment. Or I would turn the radio way up. Singing in my room with door closed, crouched over guitar and trying to piece together lyrics with melodies for a folk song was also good, but a bit more like work. (That required problem solving, even melancholic brooding. Or when practicing an art song…well, I was less apt at those times to sing for sheer fun.)

All these mattered because they were entertaining, overall relaxing, and required less serious thought rather than more. And I do some of these things today because I came to know what keeps me healthy in body, mind and spirit. I also worked in human services for many years, which requires serious concentration and reflection. If I hadn’t had fool-proof ways to “let down” and step back from so many deeply challenged, even ruined, lives as a mental health and addictions counselor, I would likely not have lasted twenty-five years in the field. It comes down to self-preservation, whether one needs a break from one’s own mental gymnastics or others’.

A recent assessment of things, then, that interest me but are either frivolous, superficial or just plain fun. A few noted below.

1. Reading a wide variety of magazines, something I have written of before. I subscribe to eleven by last count. So many things to learn, to have fun reading about! I am apt to visit a bookstore and come back with one or two more. I read magazines to get a quick take on things, to see what the culture her or elsewhere (or a certain area of interest) is throwing out there. They can be read quickly. Articles become a springboard for further investigation.

But another reason is that I love the tactile experience of smooth printed pages in my hands. The graphics also attract and involve me. I tend to read off and on all day (including books), and find I can peruse magazines while doing other things as needed. I am amused, sometimes enlightened, and always distracted by what I find in magazines.

By the way, I still remove pictures to save for collages or my little laundry room gallery. I repeat, I read many good books, but that is another topic requiring a whole post of its own.

2. Painting and drawing. Still. I was an art major in college…I’m even not sure why. But I could paint away for hours then, fill good-sized self-made canvasses with shapes made of oils or acrylics. But whether or  not I was any good, it gave me happiness. To this day I love art–to see it, make it, learn about it. So every now and then I take out my drawing implements–which I enjoy enough that I visit art stores fairly often to browse or buy more. Or I use the tubes of watercolors (about which I know almost nothing)–and have at it. Thoughts flee as soon as I prepare to make a colorful mess of things.

I know this seems unrelated…but thinking of implements and stores…I also enjoy browsing in hardware and office supply stores. Is that peculiar? So be it. It is another sort of recreation I like.

3. Sit on my balcony and watch the neighborhood do what it does, tend to my potted flowers when it gets warmer, sip tea or partake of a nice lunch. I usually see cats prowling around, too, or just sunning. The non-human animals have the art of relaxation mastered. (Little kids, even toodlers, too, I’ve noticed.) Or I gaze out my window in the living room and watch passersby on bikes (all sorts of those, even very tall unicycles), skateboards, roller blades, in cars (I play a game of trying to identify cars-the year as well– as they quickly pass). There are lots of dogs, children, friends enjoying friends. I can see towering, graceful trees that line the block. A church. Pretty houses. Like going to the movies, really more fun, I feel; you can make your own story if you want.

4. Walking and hiking. Yes, you can think a lot then but, oddly, I do very little of it. I feast on the beauty of neighborhoods or parks, the forests, beaches or mountains. Walking or hiking instantly release tension, smooth worry lines, charge up lovely endorphins, satisfy my large appetite for expansive sensory stimuli. It keeps me strong of heart and limb and clarifies my spirit. I also take photos as I go. See number 8.

5. Call or stop to see friends or family. Listen. Share. Laugh. Appreciate. Even forget self. Nothing like reaching out to forgo one’s own tedious thoughts. Enough said.

6. Watch–not for hours daily, just as needed–television’s HGTV, DIY, Travel, Discover, A & E, BBC America, Sundance Channel… you get the idea. (Okay, sometimes “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”, I’m sorry to admit it.) I like to learn things but that doesn’t often require any deep thought while viewing. I watch and am amused or inspired by others actions and ideas, new places I may never see, experiences I may never know first-hand. It’s like magazine reading but without the static images.

Here I need to add the radio, as it is another medium where interesting things happen. No, I don’t have an iPod. I don’t listen to iTunes. But I do love a good interview or new piece of music issuing forth from our speakers that broadcast a wide spectrum of entertainments from, perhaps, our primitive yet beloved radio. I just have to listen, relish the moments. And I can change the station, of course.

7. Linens! Yes, I love exquisite linens. Sometimes I go to the store, sometimes I leaf through catalogs, occasionally look online. I think the beauty and function of sheets and towels is a perfect wedding of qualities. Do I buy many? No. But I study them and wonder how they would look and feel in bath and bedrooms and enjoy every minute of it. I might get new things once every four or five years. It’s the dreaming that counts here. Catalogs afford me such moments.

8. Photography. It is instant meditation. I am fully present in the external world though the inner eye is also evaluating. I am not exploring thoughts, I am welcoming images. The way things are (or appear to be) engage, fascinate and refresh, especially nature’s landscapes. But also cities. People and other creatures. I am saved by the variety and wonder of the earth, of the possibilites for humankind. Taking photographs lights up a split second, makes indelible an experience, asks me to be focused on the world beyond my own. The mind stills, gentles while zooming in, then opens wide. Perceives life minutely. Differently. And when I examine the photos later, I often learn something once again.

9. Games. I am not likely to become some outstanding player but I like games very much. I do not play chess or bridge or even poker, nor many others. But I am good at Scrabble, checkers, dominoes, Uno and Balderdash (one of my favorites of all time). I can play gin rummy pretty well. I love outdoor games as well–horseshoes, badminton, croquet, bean bag toss, Frisbee, volleyball when I get the chance–but it’s still the rainy and chilly winter so table games are the focus now. They are some of the most fun times I have with my family. We used to have a game night each month. I might institute that again. What a rousing good way to pass the time. It’s the sort of thinking that tricks you into feeling your brain doesn’t need to employ fancy footwork, so to speak.

10. Music. I adore going to hear live music. I am not a bar patron often as I don’t drink. But there is some great jazz in this town. I do attend many warmer weather outdoor music festivals or shows. And there are concert venues that offer wonderful musicianship. Recently I heard a lesser known but fine German cellist play Dvorak, a treat. I always go hear Bonnie Raitt with one of my best friends, a joyous event. Coming up is a pops concert with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, which I admire. Music–it takes you both into the deepest parts of your being while lifting you right out of yourself. Enchanting.

11. Making chili. Or beef stew. Maybe cookies. I include this although I am not generally a cheerful cook. I used to cook every day for our seven member family plus whoever they brought home at the last minute. And I finally was just done with that. I like recipes when I must do this activity. Except for chili and stew. I can do those blindfolded without a second thought. The cookies? Well, those do require attention to the clock or responding right away to the timer foing off and I am usually reading as I wait…I always burn at least one batch. But sometimes cooking–just making a simple but delicious salad–empties my mind. Nothing like chopping onions, potatoes, carrots, celery and tomatoes to do that.

12. Getting out, looking at and organizing my jewelry. I have too much of it, mostly used for dressier work outfits until I retired. Much of it is “costume” jewelry; some is handmade, like fine art, or passed on to me by family. I turn it over in my hands, study decorative effects, then get out the metals and gemstone cleaner and shine it up. It takes some time–like shoe shining, but much better–and it is satisfying. I like to hold and examine a few pieces that were my mother’s. Sort things I can donate or offer my daughters. I rediscover earrings or necklaces long ago put away. They bring forth memories of certain events attended, people I was with, jobs I have had. Places where I first saw the finer jewelry and how came to own it. But wait a minute, I’m talking about reminiscing. That’s getting too close to thinking. I might have to reconsider.

There is always something else to explore, to seek. Small things of almost no big consequence to anyone. Except to my own peace of mind, that densely packed area where quiet pleasures can and do coexist with weighty–sometimes tiresome–ruminations. I could add much more: say, travel, making pillows, birdwatching, searching for handmade cards to send to people for no real reason, secondhand store browsing. But it’s late, so time to think about something besides this post.

And of course, when one thought leaves, ten more are ready to congregate and have a discussion. So it is in the human dominion of language and thought. I had to learn long ago: don’t demand that everything divulge its depths, its significance, all the time. Let it occur of its own accord, as well. Refuse to allow the messy, marvelous entirety of life be such hard work. Breathe in, let it go. Make some simple fun. Free your body, soul and mind. Those ideas and questions will always be waiting.

 

Yep, that's me, just being happy.
Yep, that’s me, just being happy.