Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Making a Stake in Reclamation

The raindrops pelted me with snappy wetness; wind was gusty and chilled just right. Ah, an early autumn downpour, crispy leaves scuttering about, the earth emitting its scent of greenness devolving into decay and fallowness in the weeks ahead. Not yet winter and not fully fall, this transition period will display fickleness–one week a bright balminess again, the next, an earlier darkening horizon with clouds gathering water to disperse.

My upturned face ran with raindrops, my jeans grew soggy, my breath was taxed by steep paths, then I found my pace along the terrain. And every step brought to mind singular words or phrases, as is so often the case. This time: cure, curative, restoration, claimant, clearing, rejuvenation, reclamation. Act of reclamation. Then only the quietness of woods and steady beats of my feet.

By the time I got home I asked myself: claimant of what, exactly? A cure, of what kind, for which sort of malady? Clearing… of smoke, land, people’s minds, clearing away of debris? Rejuvenation of our fire-hollowed million acres? Reclamation: that has been the urgent word for a few days. It first conjured up a picture of people standing up tall, a solid force and laboring to make right what is wrong. Our people in Oregon. The American people.

Still, my brain scanned examples of reclamation and came up with a mediocre plot of land that lies in sad shape. Someone passes by and sees it is disused, or poorly used or even overused. He/she is challenged by the task of rehabbing it, considering something better, different. An insignificant spot altered so that people may come to enjoy. That person asks for help. Flowers or vegetables are planted, a bench or two installed, an old wooden table set in the shade of a revived apple tree whose white blossoms glow in the sunlight, and the fruit ripens, is picked and well enjoyed. Soon others gather to swap ideas, share food, play dominoes or chess or cards.

I consider the art of mosaics, how often they are created by jagged pieces and slivers of glass or ceramic or rock that have been broken and then salvaged to construct a work of art, utilitarian or an object of beauty to gaze upon appreciatively. The useless pieces were reclaimed, refashioned into something of value to the maker–and maybe others. Something that might have gone to waste since deemed useless has been reclaimed.

I consider these images that unfurl like stories, and then people I know. How do we restore our lives in response to the stresses and worries of these days and nights? Or is a basic restoration the wisest goal, with so many influences intent on determining otherwise? Restore to just what, now?

I keep hearing from friends and some family that they are beyond weary of it all. The novel coronavirus’ demands and restrictions and continued loss of life; the historic wildfires of the West/Northwest; the ever increasing political turmoil; loss of jobs and homes–that they have begun to feel more impotent each day. I hear the telltale flatness of their sentences, a symptom of depression, and worry. I call them, text them. Daily there are articles about people experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from being so long ill from COVID-19 or working brutal hours helping the critically ill; from losing all to the fires out West or to hurricanes; from worry over, or participation in protests to address racism that can turn ugly and get way off track. And reported erroneously–as so much seems to be, more and more– in the media, as well.

How do we manage, then, monumental stress and uncertainty? It is no longer just one thing or another, but a number subsequent events–depending partly on where one lives– that have us tied up in knots. We know to try to stay better connected to one another even if virtually (who could have imagined this–like sci fi come to the fore–main mode of connection just 7 months ago?) and getting enough rest, exercise and eating decently despite lessening appetites; and taking time to enjoy whatever we each may find. Taking time to be together, even if six feet apart-but even that seems harder, at times. We are just tired.

Recently some friends and I had conversation about how people can reckon with painful, sometimes sudden, alterations in their lives. After the initial shock of a negative life-changing event lessens–which may take weeks, months or longer–individuals embark on various courses. They may do nothing, unable to find motivation enough other than to survive. They may engage in more group activities (even online) to help stay the profound sense of loneliness that can accompany the sadness. Or they may take up a project that fully engages, whether building something or repainting or repairing the house (hardware stores are doing well). Or some may lessen tension by enrolling in a Zumba class, running a few miles a day, doing yoga. Therapy is an option and if it is good, people can learn how to cope with stress and fear, and with PTSD triggers to then minimize overwhelming feelings of helplessness, deal better with nightmares and intrusive thoughts or images of the trauma. Or sessions can help one learn how to grieve more fully, then finally begin to live without the loved one who was lost, or the job that was taken away or the health that is undone–and finally, one hopes, go on, day by day.

Others might retreat into solitude and prayer or other meditative activity. The person seeking relief may choose to work longer and become the last one out of the office–or be very late turning off the computer if working at home, one’s partner calling out to “come to bed, please.” They also could engage in addictive behaviors that may temporarily induce a numbed disconnection from unhappiness they push away. This can occur even if they were not originally given to problematic drinking/gambling/sex/shopping/falling into love affairs– to name but a few.

It all comes down to rooting out some relief from realities that plague people. But a foundation of healthier ways needs to be built somehow if life is to be improved beyond a short tie. When there is psychic or physical damage, repair is needed. To reclaim something can mean to save from the refuse, to gather remnants left and make anew from ruined bits. It might mean the person needs to move away from haunting errors made with a change in locale or leave a toxic person. And it requires getting perspective and some control of conflicting parts to remake a life so that it works better. This, rather than you being worked over by it. Because unless a life is essentially habitable, it becomes a kind of prison or worse. And little can feel worse than to feel caught in the same bad place, helpless.

I have actual experience with all this, both as a counselor working decades at mental health and addiction treatment agencies, and in my personal life. Client after client came to see me with complex, weighty issues. They were at wits’ end and worn out and often on the brink of giving up entirely. Some had arrived after being near death for a few reasons— or had met death and then returned unhappily to the living. And the circumstances were far more varied than one might think.

One person was desperate to meet, with bad injuries still healing after a private plane trip that resulted in a crash. Yet this person continued to see the pilot, the love interest, who was untrustworthy, abusively dangerous. My client had developed an addiction to both prescription and illegal drugs in part due to the availability from the wealthy partner. The client’s well bred family had given up and from the hospital sent the person right to treatment.

Another person who was homeless with addiction and mental health diagnoses was finally getting substance free, yet still had the problem of where to live safely with a mangy but beloved dog. Housing was severely limited; there was no income until disability was applied for and gotten, which took a long while to obtain. There was no care for the dog without money. So we had to cut corners to secure pet help and temporary housing,

An adult was the only one left alive after her family was murdered by nephew in alcoholic black out. A teen grew up in a home with “routine” domestic violence; she had became a runaway and a dealer, lost in every way and angry. Another client was raped but no one believed the truth; he started to drink 7 days a week and dropped out of college-he was hoping to become a doctor.

I listened to human tragedies every day. How could I help them recover? Show how to rebuild their lives for the short and long term? Because the reality is, I could have used every therapeutic tool in the book, shown compassion and patience for months, but if the individual was not prepared to do the tough work of changing his or her state of mind or circumstances, I was not going make the difference I desired. Being ready to change was equally a key, perhaps even more than gaining new choices and life skills. This sounds harsh but consider what happens when one does not want to heal, to change: more of the same, or nothing.

It might surprise some how not ready people can be when you get down to the bottom line, despite their pain. But I understood this. The more life errors or trauma experienced, the less able a person feels to hang on for the long run, to start to recover and move forward. It takes exhausting and mind boggling efforts when already feeling on empty. So when there was any spark noticed in a client–that they realized life could still be worth living and there was hope despite the rawness and bleak view, I was holding out my hand, carefully but surely. I felt that when someone at last took it, he/she was willing to give a different way of living the barest chance. And we all know one spark can make a fire, and a small, well tended fire can do much needed good, especially when you are not truly alone.

From an early age, I was given some challenges. Those who have followed this blog know I experienced childhood sexual abuse. My mother, who suspected it, did not protect me nor tell my father or anyone of her fears. I was cautioned to stay away from the perpetrator at 9 years old. So it continued 2-3 years until my beloved oldest sister divorced the man she’d so hastily married wasn’t right for marriage (and she learned afterwards was a pedophile–and heard of my abuse when I was 35, she was 48.). It was like being caught in a corner with no way out and no one to call for help. Everything boiled down to survival and I knew so little about that then.

But that was just the start. If someone is abused and no one acknowledges it or helps, more trauma arises from that terrible error. In fact, it may be the worst of it. The secret was kept; the adept pretending that all was fine increased; feelings of worthlessness, failure and loneliness increased year by year. And behaviors tried out to lessen the relentless discouragement, confusion, and fear were increasingly unhealthy. Abandonment in dire crises is a hard one. I just had to learn how to swim in a vast stormy sea.

And then what came happens when life is lived as if stumbling through the dark with clumsy bruised feet. More victimization from various assaults; drug use both legitimate (our family doctor prescribed my first tranquilizers at age 12 due to not being able to sleep) and later illegitimate to dull the pain; the drug-fueled, PTSD-laden breakdowns at 15 and 19; and much later, alcoholism and treatment centers. Retreats from death.

Less positive choices for a life path was made harder by being a magnet for a dangerous boyfriend and later unstable/abusive/neglectful husbands (and, occasionally, “friends”). Including a criminal who took whatever dignity I had somehow redeveloped, as well as what money I had. And for most of that relationship I was sober; I had naively thought he was different deep down… Clearly, I hadn’t righted my life yet. I did not have the corrected map or enough wherewithal to traverse the right roads. There was no sure reclamation going on until the two teen children still at home left secretly with me. This was, for me, about the worst it could get. I was devastated that the work I had put in was still not my salvation. But I would not give up.

After all of that and with more therapy, I had enough. I sometimes wondered if I was one who might not recover, never make my life whole. It was either create a different life or get off the planet. i abstained from relationships for years. When I was out of money awhile between low paying jobs, out of nowhere came the gift of work I then believed was not for me. I could pay the rent and buy food (my19 yo son helped out); that was enough.

But there was rapid skill development and a surprising passion for the work even as I resisted the encouragement to become a fully certified counselor. The work was with addicted, emotionally ill, gang-affiliated, and homeless youth. Even as I said no, I returned to college. My work got better. I healed faster with more help. Still, for six years, I was one of those who worked every hour I could–to pay the bills but also to keep well occupied–and attended classes and studied. But when home I withdrew from the world. I prayed, wrote, walked daily, danced–took care of my self, tended to my children the best I could. Parenting demanded I be involved and responsive, enabled me to yet love deeply. In time, success seemed more reachable in the ways that mattered. After that, another marriage and there came decades more working with vulnerable adults and youth.

I found more and more happiness, despite difficulty. I stopped feeling terminally unique, too. A deep relief that was.

The point is, reclamation of life can take awhile. It can demand you give more, to make good on tentative promises to yourself and others. But it does come to pass.

I found it a long journey; I remain on the lifelong path to greater understanding and well being. It is alright; I enjoy learning immensely. But I had to build up endurance. Had to keep searching for the light through shadows, sketchy twists, off-road forays. I transformed the old feeling of being a maimed person with mostly deficits into being changed but not ruined. To being able to regenerate were injuries had slowed it or stopped it before. To having a capacity for problem solving and adaptability. I kept giving the pain to God, and it works. I gave my more tender self to creative work that improved. It happened in bits and pieces but each time there were clearer insight or better choices made, there was progress. And I was grateful for any small step forward.

Reclamation of life: we can do this for ourselves. Likely you, too, have already done it many times but perhaps didn’t know how potent a thing it was. Then hindsight showed you how much it was you undertook and overcame. A fighter for good, a creative force, a change agent–yes, you.

I came back to the core of who I am–as valuable as others, a capable person. Someone worth respecting and caring for. It was first hard to believe. And strong, as I found I can endure many harsh surprises, losses. I have, with encouragement and care from many, retained a heart for life and for others. An “optimistic realist”, I will hold up hope, but give me the full facts. No excuses or white lies or fudged numbers. Give me the truth, first and last, as it is best known. I am not good in the dark even if I can manage it. Turn on a spotlight– or at least a homely candle burning orange and yellow in the maze of life.

So, back to the conversations I have had lately about how one deals with all these crises that millions are trying to cope with these days. I can only think that we can do it, because it has been done before. We do have what it takes. We all suffer; we learn how to persist. People have the remarkable characteristic of resilience and when it is coupled with concern for others as I have seen in Oregon since the wildfires devastation, this is true power being witnessed.

I know at any time conditions can change in a flash. Meantime, I am going on despite trials making my own sort of reclamations as follows:

*Remember we are each part of the infinite and eternal design of the universe. –I had to get this one out of the way, because it informs all I do and believe. It helps me keep things in a more reasonable perspective. Maintaining my spiritual life just makes the difference. (Others may not agree–I try to always respect this.)

*Assess the situation based on facts as they are known. Do not close a blind eye when both clear eyes open is what is needed.

*Develop a plan for longer range goals (even a day, week or month beyond this current moment) by brainstorming options; be open to thinking outside the box and hearing others’ ideas.

*Proceed with caution but take even a small action– with expectancy of a some good progress to be made within one’s own life and potentially within a community.

*Use common sense. Sometimes humans overthink a problem or situation to the point of dead-end idiocy. Trust the gut; we were all born with instinct and intuition. (I should have done so long ago…)

*Exercise compassion, even when–maybe especially when– angry or confounded. Pause to pray or meditate, and that one’s perceived enemy to be truly blessed, not cursed.

*Stand up. Be heard. Claim your space and change one little thing. Make right what can be made right in your sphere, and work to support others who endeavor to reform what is unjust–that is, whatever stymies human flourishing. And may we keep out planet alive with more people fully caretaking of–not wasting–its vast gifts.

*Hold on. Some things cannot be rushed or altered at the moment. Timing makes a difference. Patience can mean everything. But then go boldly.

*Find worthwhile meaning in small moments, too; praise them all. What we have after we lose something or someone is ourselves, and some faith in what we cannot yet see but hope for, and anything we can salvage to begin again.

*Remember: no matter your pain, it has been felt before. No matter your grief, it has been mourned by another. No matter your aloneness, you are still part of humanity and someone cares. Ask for help; be found. Then help others who seek aid.

*If you can laugh despite the tears, give that to yourself and others. It shakes free some heaviness, lets more light in, brings relief.

*Create something. Anything you like. Give it away if the spirit moves you.

*Go and sit under dancing trees or move through fields or mountains or walk by water or rest among cacti and watch for coyotes. Open a window to the sky and listen, smell, touch, see. This is much of the wonder of life, given to you.

We can be well enough restored–as long as we have breath and our hearts beat–even in these times. It is not so likely it will be the reality we have known before…but nothing is static. Living can still be embraced and improved upon. It has been done before. The world has suffered in some terrible way, always. We being an adaptable species have managed to go on thus far amid devastations. We fail at times, but we also are compelled to try once more. We will wake up each day to see what is going on, and we will participate in the unfolding by being present and accounted for. I have gotten to 70; so also can you carry on the best you can.

I believe we are meant to be like angels for one another while we walk this earth. We are meant to illuminate the pathway together. We are meant to see goodness in one another, make compassion the rule. May we, then, comfort and help one another as we navigate rough waters and no matter what lies ahead.

(Note: those referred to as clients are composites of people I have known over many years of counselling positions.)

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Over the Ramparts We Go?

It was my intention to get up at a decent hour and head to the coast with Marc for at least a look-see. It was to be a considerable consolation to visit the Pacific Ocean for a day since we are not yet taking a hoped for road trip through eastern Oregon and Idaho. It meant I’d re-post a piece from a few years’ back, something I’ve rarely done in ten years of writing and posting on WordPress. But for such a great reason.

I just wanted out. To embrace some real freedom. Out of our home, out of our city, released of some of the binding constraints imposed by Times of a Most Terrible Virus. I had read about “quarantine malaise”, and I considered that it might be creeping up on me a couple weeks back. This day trip was a healthy act of self-care–for Marc and for myself. Blue skies predicted! The roaring lull of big waves guaranteed! Piney forest air plus sea salt=a thrill+peace. An equation for a span of pleasure.

Over the ramparts we go, then! Face the relentless threats semi-armed and mostly fearless! Off to sea and its radiant, wild delights!

However, life is a chameleon that will trick you despite solid strategies to avoid any such tricks.

Last night a chronic health condition flared badly and as usual with bad timing it followed me to bed, where I attempted to fall asleep, not fooled by my desire to do so. This is not a new thing; I have years of practicing the inexact art of living with insomnia. I sometimes am victorious without any aids; most often I sweat it out. But I can give in and take half a pill of something that seems much more benign than not halfway resting. Luckily, when I finally seek an aid, a little medicine goes a long way toward a triumph. This is noted for those of you who haven’t followed me long: I am several decades past being a drinking, pill-popping part-mad woman, a user of self defeating escape routes. For any reason. Some nights I nearly (but not truly) regret that–at wide eyed 4 a.m.–but persist in the ways to wellness. (I might add that I savor Sleepytime or Tension Tamer tea nightly, perhaps even Kava tea a couple hours before bedtime.) I know where I am headed by 11 or 12, and it isn’t always kindly there, no sweet rocking chair drowse, despite a fine book.

But I am lying there (alone–made the smart move long ago as he also has sleep issues) with intermittent punching of pillows to reshape/ reposition them, re-smoothing sheets (or even re-tenting the top sheet about my head), re-settling limbs into a tolerable degree of discomfort, listening to and shushing hidden innards griping–yes, lying there and thinking: This is not what June was to be. As if that would be a revelation to anyone in the world. I repeat a variation silently. This is not the life I had hoped for at 70. As if it was planned for by the 7, 17 or 37 year olds, the middle aged folks and beyond when one might feel a tad more secure or at least on near horizon. All humanity has been aghast at what lies beyond their door–and also inside it, at times. What on earth is next? I shall not fear– but fear I do now and then, as one does.

I get too hot, toss off a a layer. But the vexations begin even as prayers are recited with earnestness. And any whiff of gratitude is often noted on the bumpy night path. I can still breathe, no coughing or fevers, I am okay, overall, so far, and we have food to eat, and family not far.

Last night I was fortunate: it was not even 2 a.m. when I last looked at the clock. Which I do try to not look at, but I tend to count how many hours I will need to function. Say, at 2 I will still need at least 6 –until 8 or 9 in the morning–to function reasonably well. But this is not often fulfilled on that kind of night. Rather, hit or miss, take what you get and be glad to awaken feeling like an only slightly less than average older human, overall. I might get to sleep at 2 awaken at 5, finally sleep at 7:30 again, get up at–gasp–10. It is a messy way to live in some regard but works well enough if it must.

But not this morning did I roll out of bed and feel fit enough. I surmised I may not have deeply slept, at all–a blur of soreness and uncertainty, getting up and down, reading, trying to not check my phone, then at last almost acquiescing to sounds of the fan on low and a meditation app on repetitive ocean waves. And there is a fragrance diffuser that releases something like a lavender scent. It wafts about, then lingers only briefly as if reluctant to bear witness to my wrestling. There is a small lavender sachet under my pillow, though–a back-up.

All this did not spare me of dreamy fragments and waking exhausted. (I always wonder what planet I was on, what was that room crammed with people who looked like escapees from an old fashioned carnival?)

I came a bit more awake. The heralding sun sneaking through slats designed a stripey pattern across carpet and skin: a show of shadow, light. I watched it move, barely–I don’t see well without help–and it shimmered. But it was really the first morning I have lain there (since March) and had this thought: why must I push off bed covers and press feet to ground and run water for a shower and get dressed to greet the day? How is this day any different from all those that ran, pranced, crept, and slogged before it? But I kept on and dash it all to any doubts that came.

The high ramparts I saw in my mind were daunting, the views a mixture of dismal and enticing. It took me awhile to think that over and then: was I depressed? Not really; no classic symptoms. Generally speaking, depression and I are not cohorts much. The feeling has been different… lazy, dumbfounding in its ordinariness yet with streaks of strangeness. Distracted even when engaged. Maybe I was only in need of a break from all the reality we are forced to reckon with day in, day out.

So I didn’t look at the news on my iPhone before getting up–well, for just a moment. That helped only a little. Texting my son, then, about a casual family Father’s Day gathering in a big park didn’t help, either–I am glad of it but worry. I am sure we will try hard to stay six feet apart, we will wear masks, though my son tends to fight against a harsh reality made rougher with harsher impositions as if it was a fight quite worth winning. He likes to be in control, I get it. One of his sisters barely gets out, anymore–she works remotely–but naturally craves safe liberation. Well, agreed and agreed, my adult children.

I yawned and got up by crawling from one side of the bed to another–less walking required–slid down to the floor where soles of feet quite woke up, found the en suite and splashed cold water on my face, then turned on a steamy shower. Breathed. Dressed, brushed hair. I was doing it despite resistance and grumbling, achy spots. On to another day, sans leisurely trip to the coast for the time being. Probably best to stay off the beaches awhile longer, avoid any clumps of people there, anyway, I decided, though didn’t half believe it.

By the time I headed downstairs Marc had long been up and at ’em, doing what he does each morning. He has developed a marvelous cleaning routine since he lost his job–disinfects every vital area; 27 drawer knobs and 8 light switches; tidies up his work station for use; sweeps the balcony of anything fallen abundantly overnight from pines and maples and who knows what all, then checks every vegetable and flower. We have likely intolerable (sorry) kale, we have promising snap peas, and tiny leaf lettuce and faltering tomatoes and more in clay pots. My flowers seem happier as rain lessens somewhat and temps warm. (Though it rained so hard one night it recently drowned my confetti plant and three baby birds therein…awful to confront. Marc did this for me…) My hydrangea is soon to pop open in blues, the geraniums are coming along.

Sometimes Marc can be heard from far off singing out there, talking to a bird–or something. I call out but he doesn’t remotely hear me from the kitchen so I boil water and pop a bagel in the toaster. Several minutes more pass and he’s singing possibly opera, possibly his own made up song. His sweeping is new, as is his very presence, various ways and means.

Over the years of our marriage, he has been gone 500-75% of the time on business trips. And then was gone 14 hours days when working locally. Who is this man in my home? I admit this occurs to me… He has led one life while I have led another–quietly, industriously– except for week-ends, and only when he is in town. A shock when you realize you married at 30 (second for us both) and all those minutes and hours swept by full of kids and work and moves and then– solitude at last. And now you are 67, 70 respectively. What actually happened with all that, and now what? Another vexation at points. But I have thousands of photos to more clearly identify who we were and gradually became. (Same with five children.) It comforts me to look at them; I know what we have been through and achieved yet need reminders.

Because right now I might feel puzzled by my own face in a mirror– Cynthia, seeker of clarity, swimming through the murk of the 2020 Miseries. His attractively aging face? Getting used to it more and more. Even he must get used to it since he is not in dress shirt and slacks, now, and a black hoodie is perhaps a kind of relief, or a solace. And all of it a shock to his system and mine. Retirement is planned. Suddenly being unemployed is a hatchet falling but just missing you, leaving one breathless awhile.

It is a blessing and a conundrum, being at home together all the time. I can spot a similar congenial dullness or slight wariness in other couples’ faces. We all want to be good spouses, supportive more than ever for one another–but… “Could you please watch that show in another room? Also, leave the candles on that table as they were–try ear phones for your music more–and, oh, please stop interrupting me…”

Such togetherness is unknown territory but we prefer to have some fun. So, of course, getting out to the beach–anywhere at all–is a great idea. Better than Scrabble much of the time.

None of us had time to prepare mentally much less physically for a pandemic. We once had the nerve to think all was not so bad, even all was well. It is the deciding factor in nearly all we do. There are stringent limitations. Whole countries have been stopped in their tracks. Amazement at that, though we know it is the right way way to have responded. So, follow the rules and bide our time and yet we chafe at it. Social, questioning humans want to get up and go, mix things up, hang with others, explore places. The very thought that I cannot go somewhere any old time or chat with a neighbor without worrying about swapping germs–it adds up, a creeping unrest and then underlying surrender–both tiresome to cope with daily.

No, we cannot just “over the ramparts and off we go”, off to battle with something invisible but too often overpowering. There are some well suited to the battle, our true warriors of science and medicine. The rest of us adapt and observe the action; we try to ready ourselves the best we can for what comes. We live as we must live, working our brains to consider the previously inconceivable. We get up and do what we do in a blind faith that we will make it alright til bedtime, then get at it again… God or/and lucky chance willing.

I admit to feeling ashamed more than is comfortable. I can’t say I suffer so; there are fewer discomforts than so many have. I am not a medical employee or other front line worker facing often dangerous days and nights; I am not ill with the virus; I have enough decent food and requisite paper goods today. I might not in time have all that but today I am standing on rocky but stable ground, in a life still woven in part of good moments, basic comforts. So I try to alleviate guilt in small ways, help others– but it never is quite enough. Then I get out of my head, try for better.

Endurance and stamina as a way of being: this comes to the fore as I eat breakfast on the dappled balcony among trees. Flexibility of thought, and creativity of spirit. Patience and acceptance of what cannot be changed soon. If I am a little wearied by things–more than some, far less than others–I also have motivation to make each day better. Even this morning despite a weight of burdensome something.

We decide to take charge and go to the wide river, follow it like one follows the intelligent lead of a favorite teacher. I act as if I have energy and somehow it fills me enough that I make an hour and a half with Marc in and out of woods, past unique houses and a variety of boats, past teens splashing and laughing, and older people smiling at their roused and thankful dogs, and singles speeding by on racing bikes or running, hair flopping, many hands and smiles signaling hello. This is how it happens, how I rediscover what it good for me–even writing this simple post is a balm. It’s all in the living, one moment after the other, in any satisfying way it can be managed. The harder times, I pause, then just hold on–or let go as seems best.

Tomorrow I am meeting my best friend, a born fighter with significant battles already won. We’ll sip tea even in the new warmth of June, chatter away at six to eight feet apart, take to the winding park pathways, and laugh easily despite life’s harm and worry. It carries us better through the rest of it all. It makes us stronger and happier, and that matters even more these times.

Monday’s (Imagined) Meander: Caves of the Mostly Brave (or Trying to Be)

Out of the belly of the earth arose exquisite contortions of rock and urgency of shadow, dampness that imbued spasms of light, the innards powerfully compacted and faintly acrid, and much was bright with echoes. But there were footholds to be found despite precarious twists and narrows.

It was a testament to primeval life, and we were foreigners who somehow knew to find our way unless we allowed defeat. We dug in our heels, squeezed through one cavern to find one more confoundment, a puzzle of clefts and tunnels, and we clawed our way as necessary to some distant denouement. The frightful possibility of newness, that exhilaration at the ends of somewhere else that told us: home again.

It had been there before–the wild abundance, the thrumming heart of the living, the aptitude for miracles. It could be discovered again, no matter the hunger and thirst, the dead and dying, misbegotten missions and twisted greed, the terrible paucity of compassion and the careful support without which the way can never be navigated well. One stumbles and falls, one needs hands to at least begin to stand.

Why was this all known to Symsha, the scout who scrambled ahead?

It was written in the cool brilliance of the vast pulsing of stars and the fiery core of deepest earth. In their own blood and bone. It was the code, the pass key, the gift that unlocked it all. From dis-ease to revelation, they could find their way if they’d only pay attention.

But if ever there was a need for a potent sign to hear, a saving word to hear, it was now. And Divine Love waited for all to still, empty of self interest. For the world to reconnect to its own wisdom and its people to wake and rebuild outward and upward once more. To understand: they were meant to exist even higher than the angels– but only if humbler than all else. That was one part, a necessary start to a victorious endeavor, a fight for true freedom.

And so on they crawled and groped and scraped from belly to mouth of the claustrophobic, mesmerizing caves.

There was more to this than they could imagine but Symsha knew it was well that they did not. Greatness was greatness only when unaware. And Symsha was only a guide.

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: We All Die of Something

Ruby red, small fisted, dauntless royal heart,

heart that has born me up, loaned me a life.

This heart that runs of its own accord,

with daily rescues, with my will as cohort.

How it keeps thumping, pushing,

sweet talking despite time or errors, passions

wearing out me out, the cumulative years

like sand falling, driven against stone,

and wind gnarling the once green tree.

 

I call out to it even as it labors,

don’t let me down, dance me just so,

grow old at home behind the light armor

of ribs with a proprietary peace.

And still it heeds my pleas.

I carry it into the ruins of the world,

into dangers of ordinary living,

and tentative runs with silver hair flying, on walks

with legs that push until my breath shortens,

squeezes me to a stop. I count the seconds,

eyes widely watering, back to passersby

until we can go on, panting,

dash through tender or cutting rains,

under sun’s umbrella, in moonlight’s whisper

and the trees, who know everything.

You feel with me as they wave, rivers flash,

and other creatures call.

You feel because I feel. Or is it

the other way around, my friend?

 

The rest we manage, too, madcap

mysteries and random muttering spiked

with bolts of anger and deep weeping wells,

sorts of things few might admit but we cannot deny.

We are comrades, more than this,

confessor and confessed,

body and soul.

 

So today when the one (who 20 years ago

salvaged us) intones with smile and handshake

doing well once more, keep up the great work,

stop worrying because you know

we all die of something-

I lift you, my heart, out into the world

feeling more brave and sturdy but this, too:

five more years, ten more years. Please.

When all that exists for us is this moment,

old heart, so let us know the glory of it.

the golden romance of another reprieve.

Good heart, it only comes to this, 

that we shall live and live and pass as one

 

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: What Goes Here, Woman?

Okay, this direct question could be put to anyone, bold, commanding. But for me the question has several interpretations that slink around my brain lately. The inquiry is a twist on the common one: “Who goes there?” Except that I know who goes there–it is I, just Cynthia. The woman in question. One who has reached her 69th year, still sentient and fully conscious (on the mostly good days, anyway, as long as I don’t bring alcohol into it), and who likes supple black boots, fabulous scarves, books bent over into deep of night and spontaneous dancing with a little song now and then. A writer. A lover of family and loyal to friends. An introspective person who sees the world like a changing canvass of rich art. A woman who loves to talk with strangers anywhere I happen to be. Someone who has had several terrible things happen; nonetheless, they can and do happen to anyone, and I am sad for their sorrows. And I walk 2-3 miles daily if at all possible.

This much I cannot dispute.

But the rest–what is going on now with me as a result of what came before; what is more likely to occur based on present moments; and what is an intelligent response, though wait, why bother?–the rest is under review.

Not that it never has been before. How often I–in fact, our collective of humanity–revisit the status of personhood, often and perhaps that is embarrassing to confess. Are we who we think, do we prefer to be more, or less, or another altogether, and what the heck does all of it have to do with the routine and demands of daily living? There is always work at hand, little enough time to consider things. Yet how acutely we do engage in the study of ourselves. We are a species of the ruminative sort. We must prod and question to sort things out.

My state of mind is mixed. It’s akin to being close to a good fire, wrapped up in a soft and tensile blanket of contentment–while being aware of a feisty and potentially miserable porcupine outside the campfire. It may shoot its quills with or without provocation, with little preparation to deal with its displeasure. It might be a person with conflicting attitudes, a random car swerving too close, the relentless news with its fists up, my body’s jagged messages. Even how the wind already blows so cold the heating bill will be a tough thing. One more quill to eye, here and there. One must stay aware even in coziness. It is a matter of learning how to navigate life yet it feels harder this year. Would that we were prepared from the onset of our initial yowl. But we grope and gauge, try to figure it out.

Today I would quite rather write of all things good and true. I just came in from a glorious walk in surrounding woods. The sun is beaming, all the hues and tones of autumn transfix, the breeze is almost frosty, refreshing. I enjoyed the hour out as I do every day, rain or shine. So one part of me is steeped in such peace that a passerby might suspect I move from an ultimate calm. The other part is, though, laboriously picking apart knotty threads and connecting elegant strings of others so all may cohere. It is the same most days. And I don’t quite get why, though logic informs me there are several reasons.

Recently I hiked down to Bridal Veil Falls in the Columbia Gorge. I do this every fall. It commemorates my survival of a likely heart attack, not sure, I did not get to the hospital in time to know definitively. I write of it enough that old followers of this blog know it too well. Half-carried out by my husband, then we sped…home. I thought it was congested lungs even though I was brought to my knees, flattened by deep, intense squeezing in the chest area, the weight like an elephant–yes, it is that–on top of ribs and the feeling I was going, going, gone. I’d quit smoking the same year, had often run out of breath when hiking. So I went home nauseous, breathless, so exhausted I suspected I could not get off the bed again. Heart never entered our minds then–who has a heart attack at 51? I was strong and fit, especially since not smoking. I looked in my earlier forties, not fifties then–who worried?

The next morning I awakened with one phrase buzzing in my brain: It is my heart. I got on the phone and found my own cardiologist and got in a day later. Why do it that way? Usually a doctor refers a patient to specialists. But my primary doctor had thought nothing was wrong with me a year prior when I’d complained of very rapid heartbeats and feeling breathless on and off. “Anxiety and menopause,” he said and patted my hand. Would I like drugs to help calm me? No. I held back angry tears all the way out of the building, then lay my head on the steering wheel and wept. What was wrong with my generally healthy and strong body?

A year later: two stents over 18 months (first one failed), rehab stints and I started to make progress that was noticeable and trustworthy. Ever since, I’ve felt more well than not and last December another look in my arteries showed lovely pathways with no clogs or narrowing. It was about then I heard I’d already outlived my expected ten years so keep doing all I do. I respect and love my cardiologist, the same one who told me often in the early days of recovery when i got scared that we’re all going to die so stop worrying and just live. To that point, I reminded him heart disease killed my parents and two siblings already. He leaned forward, his handsome face smiling, that last visit and said, “Well, I say your heart is even stronger than before.” He did not say I was not going to die of heart disease. But it is a great thing to be this much better until…whatever.

I ran into a fond acquaintance who had a serious heart event recently with emergency surgery. We both were walking along the river. Feeling grateful, I spotted her and gave her a big hug. She had been in the hospital again with chest pain but was later released, deemed okay. I get how that goes. She is an admirable person, a VP of a commercial real estate company, a talented writer (met her in writing groups), a loving mother. After we parted, I thought: she is about the age I was. How did this change her? You learn that life can be torn from you in an instant, that it is a flimsy thing we carry our small lives in–even though it again surges with power, and heals.

So here I am, also still living as the days and nights come and go. But is that enough? Is the success of staying alive and grateful enough? What does it all tell me about the quality of my choices and actions? And what in those elicits appreciation from others? Or am I partly invisible, as we all can be invisible, even when we need to be seen? Is the hard work worth what I am now? Isn’t there much more I can and ought to contribute?

The hike down to the beauteous Bridal Veil Falls was easy. Hard to think it hurt so much 18 years ago. But this time it was going back up that was hard. I managed the incline of steep trails fine. Marc and I had a discussion that turned difficult; it was perhaps foolish at first glance. He hates taking photos. I like to commemorate the yearly hike with one: victory! Yet I am often displeased with his results–blurry, off-kilter, too far off. One reason I like him to get me in a photo is that I always take pictures of family plus snap away at the tons of other scenes that intrigue me. I have few shots of myself taken when I was a kid (my family took few)-or even older, when our children came along, as I was taking their pictures for photo albums, of course.

Truth was, I felt a bit hurt after that last hike. Why did he not see how important it was for me to well document that I am still here and could manage the trail well once more? He got the importance of the hike; he did not get the importance of a picture being clear and nicely aligned. I said, “I want my children and grandchildren to be able to see it and know that, yes, our mom/grandma so loved hiking amid nature’s wonders and she did the trail one more year, a triumphant hike.”

We fell silent and I was sorry I felt so sad about it, and he so irked.

I think I get tired from all the laboring and even reaching goals, including small ones. I usually have a handle on what matters most when the chips are down and when all seems well. But how much can a life mean and how can we give it, share it, transform it endlessly? A I get older and closer to that still-nebulous but undeniable finish line, the reassessment is in earnest some moments. It is not the same sort of review as when I was 30, 40, 50, when there seemed decades left. In fact, it is this year of age 69 that has impacted me so differently.

It has been a time of surprises, shocks and reorientation. Of setting new courses and not having a clue where this may take my husband and myself by the next year. Of letting go of places (moving from a comfortable home to a very different place) and people (grieving others’ passing or grave illnesses), of greeting the glorious twins and wondering if what I have to offer my daughter and her family is enough. How to draw the line, too, when I am worn out. Of worry about money, how much to give and how much to keep. Of coping with emotional blows from any who shut me out of their lives–this has happened so rarely in my life, it c mes as a shock, the events flummoxing me. And I’ve dealt with my discomforts behind the scenes as mush as I can, as a responsible person, a wife and mother from my culture was taught to do when I grew up. I have discovered more flexibility and strength than expected–that has been an insight gleaned. caring for yourself doesn’t necessarily come more easily when older; you just see more quickly what is needed and get to it.

Where I was confident before, there has been some tentativeness. I do not want to pressure anyone. I don’t want to assert opinions not wanted. But, too, I’ve found that physical and psychic pain still may cut perilously deep …and the power of healing can occur even when not looking. It’s like limping along and suddenly you find sturdier legs, so you walk as if well, with shoulders up and head up. The soul is buoyed again.

So maybe I am getting a better handle on the changes and learning to ride the bumps. Resilience is our friend. Inspiration comes in funny places. You know how you think you have had just about enough for awhile and then you see a hummingbird visit the feeder, and it pauses mid-air before you? How you forgot the shopping list, wander about like an idiot until the important items come forward and it feels like a win? Then you go to the cash register and the cashier looks right at you, tells you how much she enjoys the fall color and sunshine, do you?– and she likes your jacket and really, have a good day because today is what we’ve got, right? It is the commonest things. It is the wisp of light that plunges into shadows, how one finds one’s way.

Every portion of my faith in God and living is based on the real likelihood of something good and rejuvenating that will counterbalance the difficult and damaging. Just when it doesn’t seem likely, it arrives– or I can create it. We are meant to always do creative work, inside and out, at home and at work, in our dreaming and thinking. Mending, altering, finding new parts for old fittings, unique solutions to knotty problems. No one lives without this gift. And how wise a thing that we are given a brain and will to use it–if we just do use it.

Most of the time I do know “what goes here.” I do not sleepwalk; I am in slumber or I am awake. I get up and open the blinds, take in the trees and sky. I make a mug of steaming chai and meditate. What is happening is simple: moving through another year, addressing its needs. I choose to surmount tough times and appreciate the value of each fulfilling moment, and the most ordinary ones. It is choosing kindness over being right or having the last word. It’s letting hurts heal and welcoming people who can care better. It’s finding ways through or around blockades. And holding close the blessings in person, in prayer, in actions. I can’t know what tomorrow will bring–health or illness, wealth or poverty, disaster or protection, triumph or defeat. It is still, at this age, a step-by-step dance, alone or with one another.

I do have a solid sense of who I am. There are a very few regrets lingering. Mysteries unsolved. Moments ahead that will ask much. Failures still occur despite best efforts. So then, what goes here, woman-person? What if I am getting older (even the leaves grow old and flare bright before the end, are wonderful as they drift and twirl back to earth) and it’s not the best or the worst of times, but a satchel full of curious odds and ends belonging to me? It is what I make of it; I will poke about and see what comes together. Maybe I need to pause, review again and again. I’ve survived, have had great times, grown the past ten months, and once more have counted God as my one irrevocable constant. And I expect more to come. As far as I know. I am open to highs and even lows, the many in-betweens.

That is my view of things today. It may always be the main stuff I know. (And I write what I know, so stay tuned if you like…)