Elemental Changes

Partway into a hike at The Pinnacles National Park.
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

There are people who vigorously embrace life and if necessary, make it happen when odds seem against them; their vibrancy spills over. Others feel life is a fight they seem meant to lose, become embattled and embittered until giving up. What makes the difference? Who not only survives but can flourish– and who may not discover their potential or even the sudden beauty of living? We already know–don’t we by now?– that it isn’t money, although it makes a difference in obtaining necessities. Health can surely tip the balance at times.  It may well be love–partner, family, friends– that colors a life which overcomes hardships and setbacks.

Or might it be something more? Consider two people I have known.

He was a soldier once and it gravely altered things. There were times when I wasn’t so sure who he was, anymore, but that worry is long passed. He kept putting one foot in front of the other and worked it out in time. He regained the trademark warmth that signals extra kindness on offer.  He’s in Costa Rica now, then will be off to Germany, then to India, then Dubai and Australia and that is not the entire schedule for 2017. This itinerary despite having serious heart events in the past year, with more recent emergency and surgical interventions just weeks ago. He verbalizes little to no anxiety about expansive travel plans regarding health challenges. Rather, he shares the usual enthusiasm, a growing excitement that is leavened by decades of travel experience. He is also a photographer (as is his travelling partner/wife) who once took pictures for his leisure (as do I), perhaps also for documentation in military and private sectors. But he is far beyond that, having won several awards and exhibiting as well as selling many photos. Every trip, small or major, he expects to be a part of fascinating events happening in animal, mineral and vegetable worlds. His curiosity pulls him forward; he expects events to go well, despite hazards of travel off the beaten path, despite tough-to-treat heart disease. Despite knowing well how cruel the world can be. And he could be out of reach of medical help or even die. But he will not give in to health risks nor ease up on his passions. He forges ahead with anticipation of the good to come. His photographs will be rich, detailed, compassionate: full of the human (and other) life he so loves. Full of his determination to thrive.

He found the wit and will to carry on. He found the way to burrow through the ills and hardships and hew another door and then another where before there were few sound ones or none. The work of it–that is what kept him going, and faith in a greater scheme.

The woman was in treatment with me (I, her counselor) for a DUII (driving under the influence of intoxicants) but it was more than that. It was a result of too much pain. She often needed to bring her autistic son who wailed, kicked and growled if impatient or bored, tired, hungry and just because that is what he did. She managed the tantrums resultant of sensory overload and what she could not name with soothing words and firm arms about him. She gritted her teeth, blinked back tears as she dodged more flailing. It was tiring. She worked long nights; he got just fair care from neighbors. Her rent was increased too much so she had to move–again. She was tempted to return to an abusive ex-husband but finally admitted she’d live on the street with her son if needed just to avoid it. That choice was circumvented by cousins, not her favorite family but they had space for awhile. She and her son squeezed into a cramped room, made it their tiny new kingdom. There was the question about how much longer she could bear working the bar life, making drinks for men there for the strippers. This work and all that preceded it had made her brittle, eyes glittering with anger even when she forced a smile. I worried she would not find a way to open to the healing of being cared about even in treatment. But she dreamed of being a dental hygienist or an x-ray technician. If she could make it through this day intact. Which she just would. Her son needed more help so she worked double shifts here and there to pay for his needs and costs of her DUII. But she didn’t drink or use drugs. Showed up to all appointments, listened, shared her hard truth. Worked day by day to develop ways to heal, to strengthen. She completed that program, hugged me, told me she’d strive for a long term healthy lifestyle. Happiness did not seem so illusory to her: “I’m making it happen–for me, too, not only my son.” Later she called. She was looking into funding for college.

What makes various individuals go forward rather than stall out–and finally give up?

Hope has something to do with it. If one cannot begin to envision any positive future, even if it is the next hour or day, it is terribly hard to muster a shred of strength to hold on. That extremely tender seed of hope can generate more roots to keep a life upright but is at risk of withering without nurturance.

It may not be a person who affects the difference, or not direct contact. Sometimes reading something by one you admire clicks and you become connect the dots for yourself. Books helped profoundly sustained me while growing up and beyond childhood abuse, whether it was fiction or nonfiction (drawn as I was to philosophical or spiritual writings as well as good yarns and poetry) or even choice children’s’ books (a too overlooked go-to–try Peter Speirs’ picture  books or Shel Silverstein’s tales of fun and wonderment). Or it may be a teacher or boss who becomes a mentor, an ordinary neighbor who never fails to be interested in how you are, or a dear friend who supports you by just showing up with love. Many can offer us good doses of strength or hope without fully realizing it. We need to be ready to accept it, even when doubtful.

They all cannot likely save us, though the poet Rilke offered me more bravery with one short line. We learn we alone can only truly save ourselves, that’s what he meant–even if/when God is called upon and we are certain we’re at last heard. Our necessary labors are distinctly human; we are charged with handling a great deal. There is no better way through life than staying alive, anyway, taking stock and going on and rooting out the beauty. Because it is everywhere if we look and see.

Anything that augments healthy possibilities and inspires us can provide more impetus to stay with small or large goals, whether just getting up in the morning or addressing a tenacious problem or designing bigger dreams. I find music, nature, walks, spiritual teachings and prayer, family members and friends can make a fine difference in helping me sustain a good attitude and better energy. They are hope inducers. Yet there are times when hope may seem a kind of foolishness, a teasing concept that cannot be applied to complex and critical needs. And then what is the doable choice?

I maintain even when there is not nearly enough hope or inspiration, not a wealth of support or wellspring of handy resources, still the human will can accomplish wonders. Yes, a most basic human characteristic. (Better, in my opinion, coupled with the Divine.) We were given such an iron tough and resilient will for good reasons. What else comes to our service countless times? What enables us to endure when all else seems impossible, irrelevant? We don’t have to live only by basic instinct, by fleeting intuition and feelings that come and go. We can be decisive, make a choice to keep on despite the odds. To attend to the need of each moment and be open to options, no matter how far fetched they may seem. And if we also offer and welcome a little cheer, we might, too, have more hope replenished as we go. There are those pesky birds that sing for one another and us at dawn, the caring that arrives in a surprise card or well-timed compliment, a moving scene in a film or story that opens us to loftier thoughts and hearts that re-engage. But even without those luxe moments, we share a common denominator of a human status: that sometimes unattractive yet awesome might of a deep internal urge to just persevere.

Our will. To hold on. To go on.

As an addictions counselor, it was interesting to see who could and would make needed changes–that is, who would stay clean and sober and who would succumb to the siren call of substance abuse and dependence even while in treatment. Or, shortly thereafter and return to services again. My teammates and I would wonder over clients, try to tailor treatments to match the Stages of Change. Developed by Prochaska and Di Clemente, two psychotherapists who developed the model in 1977 to first address nicotine dependence. It remains a useful model, a guideline, regarding many sorts of behavioral change.

Were my clients “Precontemplative”, i.e., yet unable to even see the problem? Were they in Contemplation, aware but not interested in commitment to change? Was the client in Preparation, now planning to take some kind of helpful action? After that, perhaps in fits and starts, Action begins, when one is engaged in the work of altering problematic behaviors. By the time someone manages to land in Maintenance, new habits are taking hold. Both behaviors and attendant attitudes are visibly different. But without a person’s considered moment of decision to make a choice for something different, there can be no contemplation or planning, no action, no ultimate difference in lifestyle or mental health. It was my challenge to provide opportunities for insight and–I hoped–resultant change, to help the person come to that critical point. However, in the end, it was always the individual’s will to change or not to change that made the actual difference. When the stubborn will is engaged, so much can begin to occur. The process of healthy change is a wondrous thing, a human architectural feat of light and flesh. Believe me.

The original question posed was: why do some gird themselves and go forth to seek solutions to problems and embrace life wholly–while others quit? I posit that it is finally our will to go one way or another, our choices to make the helpful or harmful difference. Wanting things to be different doesn’t do much–we can desire change for all sorts of motley reasons (even specious ones) but in the end we often really don’t want to go there.

It is up to us to determine what we most need and then what we are willing to do–what sacrifices are acceptable to us, how much suffering can we endure if required? Because this living is full of those matters; no one gets away with blithely slipping through their time here. There will be matters of heart and spirit, mind and body that will charge right into our tidiest days and nights; losses that will empty us of grief more than once; circumstances that we never planned, that care nothing of who we are or what we have. But if we possess the will to endure, greater courage will build. If we foster that will to hang on, better possibilities can unfold in time. If we have that will to say yes to this life rather than no–even with heartaches and what is unfair and far worse–the strength to stand up and live in more hope will grow more than might have been imagined.

It may take time to pause and sort it all out before choosing. The essential decision to hold fast or just let potential opportunities slip away has to be made. That turn of mind will generate momentum that may radically change your life; it can also just keep it moving right along no matter delays or hurdles. Like my brother, a still-undaunted, big-hearted traveler who meets each challenge; and that good if toughened woman I think of with chin up, stride strong and vision more clear and bright. Many came through my counseling office and returned to the world with lives salvaged: they hurt and struggled and they persevered.

The two people highlighted here take a firm hold of circumstances and determine choices which have greater value for their aspirations, ordinary or grand. And they reach beyond themselves, strive for some greater good. As such they remain two of my everyday, unique heroes.

 

My (Very Loose) Plan for Becoming an Old Woman

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A mosey about the neighborhood with the real me; cannot keep me from daily power walking! (No, not my medium-sized mansion in background)

I was struck today by this thought: I may at times, with a sideways glance, look for a way around the inevitability of aging.

This lit up my thinking recently after trying to find a decent and authentic photo for my Facebook account. They tended to look a bit pasty, and as if some stealthy tilling was done along jaw, neck and eyes and then hadn’t tidied up well afterward. I gave up and used the one that is above. It’s authentic–I adore being outdoors! Plus I like seasonal photos. And it’s casual, my basic style these days. And not posed, really, a simple smile. I have a couple that I call my “semi-glamour shots” and they are kind of stagy/cheesy, as if I am expecting to appear on the jacket of a bestselling book shortly. I even took one of me at the computer. Well, that’s where I am much of each day, working on writing. (Pros must photograph those lovely other authors.)

But this was only the first of the triggers for my current ruminations about having once been younger (for quite a good amount of time) and getting older (I am so pleased I made it). And finally, what comes next (hold on awhile as I cram a lot more into my living). But I will get to the other reasons this matter visited me. (It’s not another essay on health issues.)

I realize this thought–that I may be avoiding the reality of aging–is not shocking in youth-centric societies. At least, US culture daily accosts us with a barrage of messages stating that appearing or even acting over the age of 30 or so (i.e., an adult)–or is it now 21?–is undesirable. Perhaps one day to seem more akin to a crime. This brings to mind the seventies film, “Soylent Green”, that disturbing sci fi story that determines various people quite expendable, primarily the aging. Charlton Heston did a bang-up job as our film hero in that year of 2022 (five years away…), a time when overpopulation, environmental crises, and food shortages are deemed of paramount importance. Sound familiar? I read there may be a new version coming out for our pessimistic pleasure.

We are, one has to agree, exhorted to be young– please fake the appearance. Until one’s dying breath, if possible. Our looks, habits, clothing, interests. People remain socially more visible until we start to age discernibly, so the goal is to fool the human eye. (Though I heard someone remark that by late thirties she felt already less visible, was called “Ma’m” as if verging on matronly so required the kid gloves of customer service reserved for older adults). But I am not needing or seeking public scrutiny so this is a relief in the end. I have shone and tarnished, have often rejuvenated and been laissez faire. It’s important how I feel about my life, not the best shot. Yet this culture insists that, as a woman, I am not expected to allow myself to age gradually, naturally and without rancor. It is admittedly a pressure I half-yield to some days. And then I consider that men have so few demands in this regard. I’m for a more level playing field. We are persons first and last, are we not? My husband isn’t forever young, either, and it doesn’t concern him much, if at all.

If it was only young people who were making these rules I might have more conversations with them about it all. I do recall once vividly thinking that “over thirty” was the end and there were moments I did not expect or desire to pass that line. Little did I know that this was the actual start of vaster and better beginnings. But I might ask today’s kids why age seems such a clear marker of human acceptability as well as desirability–and what do their ages actually mean to them in reality, and also to me? How does this impact our respective perceptions, except to bring into focus that we all are at blurred crossroads of one sort or another? But it’s not just young folks, it’s all of us. And it’s such big business, the attempt to stall one’s aging. Companies scheme and undoubtedly shout hurrah as they make their products a little more affordable to a greater population. I personally shop for bargains in face moisturizer but if Lancome (not even close to the most expensive brands) gets cheaper…well, there you go. If only we spent as much time on our insides as we do our outsides. Hopefully, we do, a vast amount more.

Growing up with parents who were older than almost anyone else’s when I was born was not a big deal.  I rarely gave their age a thought. They were busy, ambitious, thoughtful persons until they died at 83 (Dad) and 93 (Mom). I did feel there was a more “ageless” atmosphere at home than in many of my friends. It might have been also due to being last to get born; my oldest sister was thirteen at the time. The age span was fine; it was what I knew.

My parents entertained and my father taught private string lessons after his day job and Mom did alterations on the side so all ages came and went. I was as at ease with older people as I was with younger, perhaps more so. I early learned how to be conversational and courteous as I served coffee and cookies at bridge parties. But I also was included in discussions around a dinner table with astute grown-ups, many of whom were scientists, musicians and educators. Later, I could identify as well with them as with my funky or firebrand friends. It seemed a good thing. Adult interchanges were interesting, whether or not I agreed with or fully comprehended topics. I could ask probing questions; I could offer opinions and be counted.

That inter-generational style of living was repeated, though, in many friends’ homes, as well. We were not as segregated as we are now. Family dinners with as many as possible were common. The truly old were respected, beloved, looked after. They were not left to their own devices or shunted off willy-nilly. Who could afford fancy nursing homes? Who even sought them? They weren’t another part of the big business of aging yet. People took care of their own.

My parents seemed and appeared fine to me in their fifties when I became a teen and far beyond. Their hair was always grayer, then white by the time I hit 21–but there is an early grey-to-whiter hair gene. One niece had long, lovely and mostly white hair by late thirties or so. Others got a characteristic white streak in their twenties. That gene skipped me, the only one to yet have some auburn brown hair striated with silver. Siblings razz me about it. (And by the way, have others noticed young women are lately stripping their hair of natural pigment, then coloring it white-to-silver?–What is that about? A practice run? We older gals should be flattered to be so imitated.)

The parents we had did not grouse about aging. They did not tell me to beware the gnarly ills that awaited me. They were not complainers, true, but they also were lively spirits. I recall my dad sailing a small craft for the first time again in decades when in his sixties. He played tennis with me in his fifties. He took up photography when I was a teen, engaged and bored us with his indexed slide shows of travels they–and we–loved to take whether across the ocean or around the bend. They made music, designed attire, invented games, volunteered at church and elsewhere, went pop-up-camper-style camping until early seventies. I got breathless trying to keep up even though I ran close to the same pace. Their health was problematic at times. Heart disease is the family affair, but that didn’t slow them for long. And they remained lucid as they aged, luckily. How they enriched peoples’ lives, as their friends did, as well.

So what was undesirable, what was wrong with getting older? I truly didn’t see it a liability. We each had our own place, skills and talents and energy and caring to spread around. It wasn’t near what you’d term idyllic. I am not all that nostalgic; there were several trials and losses. They were people who carried burdens, too, as we all can do.

But now I am beginning to think of aging differently. For one thing, my husband has begun to speak of retirement, not yet but sometime in the not-so-distant future. Five years. Perhaps. I stopped working awhile back but he’s a tad younger than I am. It’s a shock to hear him say it, however. From the start of his then-unplanned career when only  20 and still in college he has had a passion for engineering, later landing in management with expertise in quality assurance. I’m not sure how he does the long hours he does. It can worry me. I left my career as a counselor at 63; now I am looking towards 67. It took us awhile to get here. We are supposedly going to soon just hang out together… until those sunset days and nights wind down? Seems like someone else’s story line at times–and will until it materializes in full. I am big on not borrowing from the future when we can inhabit only this moment.

I mentioned a second reason the light bulb went on about avoiding aging: one of our daughters just landed a nice chaplaincy job in management. It’s at a fine assisted living facility. It struck me that she is close to the age, early forties, when I finally left my position managing a thriving home care department in a senior services agency. Whereas she may be edging toward a pinnacle of her career. It seems funny it ended up like this.

I felt pretty young back then. My 350-plus older clients were often frail, with serious health crises and multiple life stressors. I had a calling for that work in much the same way our daughter does. But she is a chaplain while I was just a somewhat besieged mother and wife needing work, then discovered a knack for human services (but still wrote in ragged snippets of time). I fast took to the work as they were some of “my people”; i.e., familiar to me after years of enjoying many older aunts and uncles, my parents, neighbors and family friends. I found myself eagerly absorbing their colorful life stories and worrying about them after work. I wanted to help make their lives safer, more comfortable and valued so they could remain at home if they desired. It was a privilege and it altered my direction; it felt as if God had drawn me to service. My next work was with high risk, addicted, mentally ill youth and adults and it, too, was a passionate commitment. But I never forgot those older adults who gave as much or more than they required of me. I think of them, still, long after they’ve gone. Muse that I’m so close to the ages they were when I was with them.

Now here I am, smack in that part of the process forward and it is like entering some foreign portal I hadn’t mapped out.

When I got the news of her great job I checked out the place she will be working. It looks swanky to me. It is very different from the places I saw while visiting various   homes to assess my clients’ needs. The text states it is “a life plan community”–it was previously called a “continuing care retirement community”. It serves a few hundred people. I studied the attractive grounds and wondered at the money it cost, marveled at the diverse services, the recreational options. The gym was chock full of cheerful persons with pleasing wrinkles and crowned with gleaming white hair. They looked classy on stationary bikes, vigorous in the bright swimming pool. The lawns are very green, houses and apartments uniformly in good taste–it’s clear why people gravitate to such a place. I can see how it might stay a fear of fragility.

It’s a great place for our daughter to work, I’m sure. Still, the lifestyle it espouses alternately fascinates, perplexes and repels me. Plus I could not afford it, I’m sure. But would I want to live there? Set apart from a greater cross section of people? In such an organized and pristine environment? My innermost being resists it. I would rather have a refuge of unbridled countryside and the grit and creative vibrancy of a city–each close to the other as possible, as it is now. Retirement community settings appear limiting to me–at least now– whereas to others they may appear to abound in happy, healthy options at one’s back and call.

But mostly, it seems exclusive and finally lonelier. I want to be all hands and feet in the greater realm of living until I can truly no longer be so. And then, who knows? I might even live in an RV, a studio apartment downtown or in a small room at the edge of a grown child’s abode. I hope to not be an aggravating burden to myself or others; I’d hate to leave this world with a bad reputation.

Alright, the rest of it may be that I don’t yet want to think about where this aging business will take me. It appears to be a bigger jog in the journey. I do know I don’t want to fake it. Nor make it more or less than what it is, another movement through a short time on a small planet. I don’t need to be anything more than who I am, just a better version, I hope. I barely feel much older than I did a couple decades ago except for a monitored, repaired ticker. Surprisingly, I even feel a great deal  better despite those telltale lines on my face that reveal my life. An elderly woman told me once that is a marker of aging: our deepest personhood not matching up with external changes.

I will get to the end, whatever that is.  Right now I never feel as if there is enough time to explore all that captures my scanning attention. There are people to admire and love and learn from, many of whom I do not even yet know. There are scads of books to read and stories to write (I can barely keep up with either), forest trails to hike, bodies of water to get wet in, visual art to make. Places that might use my hands, some care. And, ah, music to bring into heart and mind, to hum and sing. Today I bought two new CDs and played them at a good volume as I wrote, then danced about a few times. I have a mind to put on a long swingy dress and videotape the swooping about, pretending to be an interpretive modern (or let’s say “contemporary”) dancer again. For my children and grandchildren. So they’re assured I have always managed to have fun–and they remember to do so, too.

Life is a place I’ve made a decent, often very good, home and aging seems simply one more thing to accommodate. I am not one for the prosaic as much as for invention. I may not change much of anything. And I am more apt to plan for today, not tomorrow.  I have had personal experience with life being taken in a flash and then having it returned just in time. Best to take it a step at a time, see what unfolds, what I can do. Soul, heart, mind and health the priorities. Broaden those horizons as I move right along. Being old will feel like me, likely with all white hair.

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My sort of “semi-glamour” shot–ok, I know, it doesn’t qualify. There have to be more pretentious ones…(My Gravatar looks fancier!) But subject would benefit from retouch at the least; perhaps teeth capped, a vigorous hair brushing with full-on color, Botox, jawline and neck fix-all according to “Cease Aging Now” experts. I hereby protest! Will go on as is!
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Just kidding, here it is, a dubious semi-glam shot. Not so fancy! A bit of a hair trim (shows off the white; stays unruly by itself, just a tad snazzier. Fully 66. Cheers to all from the 1960s: we protested and braved new paths, fought, dreamed, achieved and stumbled, raised families, labored long and hard, and a great many of us have survived!
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Fave but current second best choice for fb picture, perhaps move to first choice if winter’s blast goes on: having fun outdoors, authentic while incognito. No ageism accepted no matter what faces I show! Let’s all just be people together. 🙂

Necessary Shelter

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Photo: Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Lane had sought refuge, she mused as her eyes swept along an obscured rim of earth, for the last time. At least here, for these reasons. A bracing wind off the ocean whistled about; her mass of coppery hair swirled and fluttered. She was leaning over the edge of a thick rock wall of the old shelter at a viewpoint high above what almost appeared to be everything. She hoped her hair wasn’t notable from a distance, like some fulsome flag heralding an emergency. The thought made her give out a sharp laugh. She would deny it, say it was a lie, both the alarm and emergency.

Was there an emergency? Well, she’d left the office at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, just sent a fast email to her assistant stating that she would be back Monday or communicate otherwise. The Friday morning meeting would have been helmed by Drummond; he’d have liked that as he griped about Lane’s overblown sense of entitlement. She could imagine him settling in place at the conference table, that rasp erasing his normal vocal reediness (too many cigarettes by 9:00).

“Lane Moorland needs a break, well, she takes off and we’re left to tend the messes so let’s just dive in, damn it.”

How he would bask in his substitute power.

Lane just couldn’t stomach it another minute, the upcoming changes, the demands from the board, the tension regarding new salaries. She’d packed a bag, headed to the coast. Checked in at a mediocre motel off the highway after driving for hours. There was a fight between a small hope and futility as she wandered the miles of beach. That she was freed of all that wore her out, the ghosts that nipped at her heels–that was all she wanted.

The agency was a non-profit but it had been profitable, anyway. Fifteen years now, working her way up. The last nine at the helm overseeing programs for the homeless, for the hungry, weary and hurting. She got the money in, she got the action jump started and the right results. You could count on Lane to get the job done no matter how long it took, how many hands had to grasped and smiles exchanged with donors and movers she could barely withstand chatting up over rare beef at one more banquet table. While Drummond was yearning to be in her shoes and she had to placate and fend him off. Lane didn’t care what Drummond’s personal agenda was as much as she cared about an offhand shallowness when it came to greater humanity. He’d step around a quaking teen addict, cross the street without so much as a nod of his head and a dollar or better or offering their own tri-fold list of resources.  But she also knew Drummond had the experience, flair and political savvy to take over, that his biases could be shunted away from his primary goals: to have control at last and to do noteworthy good. His ambition would bring the organization more attention; that meant more progress and golden coffers.

Lane hoisted herself onto the substantial wall edge and sat, hands balancing her weight. Far below here was the powerful ruffling of endless waves, capturing her attention. Two young women sauntered up beside her, shot her sideways glances after they admired the ocean and beyond. They spoke to her, maybe what a gorgeous day, followed by, are you okay? But she recognized French; maybe they were Québécoise travelling the U.S. New adults at ease in nature, perhaps advocates for wolves or clean rivers but likely innocents in the world of politics, even conservation efforts. She felt their goodwill.

They noticed Lane’s exaggerated paleness overshadowing pleasant features, faded purplish circles beneath hazel eyes. Expensive pants, bright shirt and earrings in garrish contrast. They didn’t know how to add all this up or show their fleeting concern so smiled awkwardly. Continued down the trail into the forest, another sunny day in their blossoming lives. Lane wished they’d stayed a few moments longer, shared their optimisim.

The days of sunshine were just half a blessing; she needed so much more, but what? The answer always escaped her. She was less and less inclined to find it. The height from there to here, here to there was serious, vertiginous, the place from which Lane looked down was a marvel and a terror, sumptuous ocean now looking more just like an over-sized pond. Waiting to welcome her. She could swan dive into it, back arched, toes well pointed like the ballerina she barely had been.

She recalled the plane trips Grant had twice enticed her to take with him; he had developed a new hobby. She loved the plane rides even as her breath threatened to vanish. Their laughter spilled over with the adrenaline–riveting beauty below, the danger of his relative inexperience, being encased in metal in mere air. Even then she’d wanted to step out into the sky. In her sleep that night death came on the wings of a raptor.

Grant was perfect her friends said until she began to reply, Great, then please call him, because no, he wasn’t close to perfect. He was dynamic though also abrasive, smart, self-centered and nearly too good to look at. He was more interested in his ideas and thoughts than anyone else’s, he said, smiling, and he meant it. Grant was–she’d discovered this week after four months of dating–a long-time but anonymous donor to her agency. He had finally called her work number armed with a story about knowing a mutual colleague, a delightful person who had long admired Lane. That colleague, it came to light, was someone he’d dated briefly after meeting the woman’s ex-husband years back.

The mysterious person was Savannah, her own sister, who had died barely a year ago.

The pain was instant as he told her this, every nerve flamed and fired up and down her length. She bit her lip to keep from crying out. What sort of man cold-called the sister of someone recently deceased–someone he had even once dated? And then waited to tell Lane the whole true story? He was cavalier about it, irritated by her reaction. The connection was a good one, wasn’t it? She nearly struck out at him.

He went by Grant D. Evans around her city; he had been Dave to Savannah in another place years ago. She had no memory of her sister’s brief dating life after her hard divorce so his name had presaged nothing. Lane was shocked, furious, alone again in the span of fifteen minutes. He would leave little trace in another month or so, that she knew. But she still felt betrayed, and foolish.

What had happened to her life?

Lane sat down on the long rock bench against a shadowed wall. She had taken the sinuous trail up a less demanding part of the mountain for three mornings. Her reward for a sweaty neck and chest and aching thigh muscles–she rarely exercised, there was no time– was this decades-old place, built during the 1930s when the legendary Civilian Conservation Corps was in full force. Lane liked to think about how the men toiled to create trails, preserve forests, erect forestry visitor centers. And shelters for all to enjoy the view. How they must have put up big olive-green tents at dusk. Built a campfire, listened to nocturnal stirrings and calls as they drifted off to sleep. It gave her peace and reminded her of Savannah’s ranch. Which once was hers and now, an uncertain fate as family pondered its end.

Lane always brought a snack, this time an apple she nibbled. She wished it was her shelter alone, that she could put on doors and cover the windows for rainy season. That she didn’t have to leave. Which was absurd, a child’s wishfuless. But the longer she was absent from her high-rise in city center, the more she dreaded a return.

Not many others showed up at the shelter over a couple of hours. It was early September, kids were back in school, families too busy to come to the beach and mountains. A retired couple or two might drift by, greet her kindly and then take out binoculars, exclaiming in whispers over a whale spout. A vagabond or two–she could tell by laden backpacks, worn out hiking boots, wind burned faces. The last were friendly but just briefly. They had so many places to roam; she was clearly not one of them. She was what she felt, caught in limbo.

It got so hot up there much nearer the source of all light. She drank from her water bottle, closed her eyes, lay her head back. Imagined herself flying out over the ocean, her arms magnificent, steady wings, her legs feathered rudders. Soaring, dipping and ascending again, she came close, closer to the sun until her skin was shot through with darts of boiling heat but she kept on. In the distance she saw another who was fleeing the earth. Savannah sailed up to her, kissed her cheeks, informed her, Time to do something, as if this was a prearranged meeting and Lane the elder must listen now. But of course Savannah was long gone. Lane was falling fast.

Her chin hit her chest when something stepped over her outstretched legs and her eyes popped open. She had fallen asleep. Her hand was wet. A big dog was giving it slobbery licks.

“Hello,” she murmured, but the dog owner ignored her as he exited the shelter, his Labrador pulling at the leash, spotting every sort of thing to hunt.

Lane stretched. Sought a gusting wind at the open side of the shelter. Her hair plastered her face so sky and sea were caught in a burnished net. She pushed it back angrily and swallowed rising sadness. Why was Savannah gone so soon? She should be there. Lane couldn’t call her for sensible, sane input; she couldn’t fly to Montana to visit her for a fast week-end, or wrap her arms about Savannah’s angular, steely body, an oddity in their family. From her clear heart and mind flowed acceptance when needed though she was not a talker. Savannah was a hiker, camper and fisherwoman. A horse lover and trainer at her ranch, along with her son Troy.

She was the woman Lane could never become as she tallied those fickle numbers and presided over another circuitous meeting, allotted and ran programs that seemed to barely make inroads. It had been far too long since she had sat in a saddle, known the joy of it.

The infection had been swift with target cited, the end swifter for Savannah. There was no good reason it should have happened to her. A confounding universe.

Forbidden hidden depths of grief roiled and welled and she caught her breath. Held it. She pressed against the sturdy rock wall, then pulled herself up onto it, carefully perched on the flat ledge of it with back against the shelter, knees drawn up to chin, arms tight about them. From here you could see much of the coastal forests and mountains, the bright sandy shoreline that curved around headlands and ocean…an undulating span of silvered blue that hid mysteries less rife with health and less plentiful than even a decade ago. Clear morning light unspooled across the waves, but in the distance the growing fog hovered like a threat.

It is all loss, she thought, everything fading or buckling under or turning out to be lies or vanishing before my eyes. Dying or soon to die. Or to become some beast I don’t understand, like the agency. It was about to merge with two small ones that were faltering. That would ultimately cost programs and decent staff even as her organization expanded. Costs would have to be absorbed, budgets further streamlined. And their patients would line up in longer lines, more often go without, unless Lane finagled greater monies, fought more fearlessly, pushed and pleaded for change, another surgical removal of what wasn’t profitable.

Drummond had that ceaseless desire to push forward, the hunger for the pursuit of more and more. He had the ego and nerves for what looked from the outside as a heroic struggle. But it was human services business, not charity; it got cut-throat like any other business. She had finally seen and known it was true.

Lane was tired. Everything within her wanted to rest. Her gaze followed the horizon and she breathed in salt and pine-infused air. It filled her up with longing, the desire to surrender.

Her heart had been thumping along all these years, carrying her each step along a twisty, bumpy path that was leading to something other than what she expected. What she really wanted. Now it sometimes faltered, she noticed; it was finding it harder to keep in sync with itself and her. As if it was trying to do this one thing but she was trying to do another thing. But what? What was she doing but dragging herself from one day to the next? One event as meaningless as the next despite everyone reminding her they were all somehow critical? To whom was it so important in the end?

Far beyond her reach and yet so close: the etheric transparency of sky was more infinite than the sea, its blueness more penetrable and also less known. It pulled her. Lane needed to do something, her sister had said.  She wanted to let go, to separate herself from the pettiness and meanness, the humdrum machine of life with its intricate schemes, the hunger and satiation and missions accomplished and frontiers not yet named. She didn’t even want to know. She wanted peace. She wanted to her grip to relax, her life to be released from itself and Savannah there to pass timelessness with. Slowly, slowly, Lane stood up and held out her arms. Wavered, then straightened her back. Blinked away tears autumn wind provoked, felt a shift around her as light-governed moments faded, the promise of endless sleep speaking to her narrowing mind where all was darkening, snug and quiet.

“Mama, why is that lady standing up there?”

“Oh, gosh…what now? Come here, Abby. Miss?…you gonna get down?”

“But she’s standing good, she looks pretty strong up there. Think she’ll fall? I don’t.”

“Hush, Abby. Miss, how long you been there…planning on being there? Maybe come down now, hey?”

But Lane was hearing the sea’s roaring inhales and exhales as a pulsing, vibrant thing. It filled her heart with energy even as her sight seemed to dim. She lifted her arms out, caught a sun-scoured breeze in her shirt, felt sore muscles in her legs harden and lock, her balance center in her core and in her being.  She felt something loosen; it tried to frighten her. She then suddenly felt those behind her, felt the question but she was floating, if only she could figure out how to keep it going….everything breathing together.

The older Native woman reached for the tail of Lane’s shirt, afraid to tug on it. She might feel it, yank it away, fall. Abby held her mother’s hand as they held the edge of that soft floral shirt tail, got close enough to grab her legs, the possessed white lady’s calves were right there. But Lynelle wasn’t quite tall or big enough to get purchase and make sure she’d hold her… and then the woman would just fall down the steep bluff, anyway, into the rocks, the ocean. That would be that and on her conscience.

“Hey lady, if you don’t watch out there won’t be any tomorrows left!”

Lane heard the child’s voice as if a brass bell was rung, as if a horn blasted a fierce high C, as if someone called her name across a busy street in a storm. She turned her head to see a young girl with snapping dark eyes opening wide, her brown, dusty hands held palms-up in emphasis. Lane looked back down at the ocean and shivered, lowered herself to a sitting position, then jumped off the wall, landing in a crouch on hard-beaten ground.

Abby and her mother crouched down with her, hands on knees. They looked at Lane hard, but the older woman lowered her eyes. She didn’t care to see what she saw, the ache and tipping toward more. The child spoke first.

“I knew you’d do it. You looked good and strong. But not so smart.” She uttered a belly laugh.

Lane shook her head, more to clear it than in agreement. “Sorry if I scared you…”

“You didn’t, not really.” Abby smiled, a missing front tooth making it even more friendly.

The mother of Abby stood up. “You did, you scared me plenty, I couldn’t get a good hold. I thought you’d take a dive, then what? How would I manage with any more? I’ve got good shoulders but I can’t be responsible for everything.” She raised thinning eyebrows, widened her small black eyes at Lane. “We all have reasons to feel tired out. I see you got yours.”

Lane stood on quivering legs, found the stone bench inside the shelter and sat.

“What was that you told me, child?” She addressed the girl though she stared out at the scene.

“Name’s Abby, first off.” She sat beside Lane, her mother to her left. “I said: if you don’t watch out you won’t have more tomorrows.” She shrugged, slight shoulders pumping up and down twice.”It’s the truth.”

“How did you know to say that to me?”

“Oh,” her mother interjected, “she says that ’cause that’s what’s told her when she puts things off, tells us ‘Tomorrow I’ll do that, tomorrow I’ll do this.’ Or she does something foolish, unsafe. I’m Lynelle Crooked Tree.” She reached across Abby, opened her lined palm to Lane’s hand, who took it. “You need to watch it like she said, you’ll be out of chances. See it all the time.” She squinted at the stranger. “Got a name?”

“Lane. You have quite a girl here.”

“Yeah, she’s a wildcat, that one, sneaky-smart.”

Abby found her way under Lynelle’s arm and gave her a hug, then she leaned over the other way, pushed Lane with her narrow shoulder. Surprised, Lane pushed back, very gently.

They sat quietly, Abby swinging her legs slow and fast, Lynelle Crooked Tree taking off her sandals, rubbing each foot, putting sandals back on, then putting hands on wide hips. Then they got up, first Abby, then her mother, then Lane. They started down the trail. Lane looked back at that shelter and hesitated, then thought about the two of them turning up like good fortune. She’d been half-uncertain what action to take, she had to be honest. She didn’t know where they were headed next, but she had to make a decision of her own that she could stick with and find worth it.

They walked along, and Lane followed without more thought. In a short time, they came to a fork in the pathways.

“This is where we turn off, the parking lot is that way. Okay now, later Lane, Creator willing.” Lynelle Crooked Tree gave a small wave, took Abby’s hand. They tunneled deeper into the verdant cool of forest.

“Wait, how can I thank you?”

But they were walking as if in a hurry, blended into greenery’s slinky shadows and dappled light like small birds, flickering, rustling, gliding away until there no more.

Lane walked on, blinking along dim pathways between the old trees. She knew what she had to do. Drummond would have his spot at the head of the table. She would find another place, maybe at Savannah’s ranch where she might be of use, helping her bereaved nephew with accounting matters or the most menial of chores. Just sitting with him at the fire pit where they used to share stories of their day, maybe dreams, but their worries were mostly left to the ashes. The prospect of it spurred her into a powerful run, and all that red hair threw off its own light in the watchful forest.

Photo: Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo: Cynthia Guenther Richardson