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/Short Story: Ms. Regina’s House on the Corner

Tanya and her mother read the column in the Obituaries section and they released a gasp in concert. The deceased lived five houses down the block. It was true they hadn’t seen her watering her flowers for months–some hired hand now did that task. They calculated she was 85 when she drew her last breath. Gone from the neighborhood. The entire planet.

Regina Ludlum had been the Headmistress of the Moss Highland Girls’ School for four decades. Tanya’s sister, Melanie, had attended years K-8 but she had not. Her mother came to prefer their good public schools rather than the parochial system, and at last won the argument with their father.

Mel had congratulated her on such good fortune. “You won’t endure the pressures for perfection, or all the knee bending, and the reverence for snotty staff. Though you kinda have to hand it to Ms. Regina,” she said, giving Tanya a “high five.”

Ms. Regina– she wanted to be addressed that way; her family’s origins were Southern, people speculated–was legendary for her intellectual prowess as well as vast organizational skills. She was also a good fund raiser twice a year. Many wondered why she’d ended up in such a small city, but she had the inheritance of her great uncle’s house. Her family heard this had brought her from Italy where she was studying some arcane art like gold leaf restoration in ancient buildings and exquisite crumbling homes.

Regina Ludlum was possessed of a quirky beauty defined by a loping, lanky grace; delicately shaped hands that nevertheless seemed a bit large; and bright eyes crowned by the most dramatically arching eyebrows ever seen. Her dark hair swung at chin length, neatly cut, and it framed her features perfectly, kept the emphasis on high forehead and penetrating gazes. Even when it turned white and her facial lines drooped, it suited her.

Ms. Regina’s presence was quietly imposing. Poised, entirely civil. Her capabilities were never questioned, and her students’ competence reflected her successful methods of direction, their parents said when Mel complained. But it seemed no one knew her well, at least not at school and not in the neighborhood. She remained pleasant but restrained, enough so that a mere “hello” seemed at times too friendly a gesture toward her–she’d give a quick nod and smile wanly. Or, if she was feeling generous, raise a palm in greeting, then keep on.

Tanya waited for news of her house sale, for it was this that had long drawn her. The ancient uncle who had owned it had passed when she was only one so it was just Regina Ludlum’s domain in her mind. When estate sale signs were placed along the sidewalk and at two corners, she was eager to discover all she’d longed to see.

Her mother said there was something inherently disrespectful, even distasteful about such a thing. All that gawking and buying of another’s personal property by an acquisitive public… but Tanya waved off her remarks. Her mother knew she was going to be an artist and was fascinated by houses, the things they held. Plus, she was now eighteen, fully capable of consideration of others’ property. And she wasn’t going to buy one thing.

She also knew her mother would be at her for detailed information when she returned. Even if she was too self-righteous to admit at the family table. They’d go fall shopping, have lunch tomorrow, and she’d give her a full report.

The Ludlow place was a large two story home, easily over a hundred years old, and painted a pale yellow with white trim. It offered a pretty covered veranda with overflowing flowerpots still hanging. Several people were already entering. The heavy carved door with beveled glass opened to a living room with a side staircase, steep and fashioned of polished, worn original wood. Small stained glass windows welcomed autumn light at each landing. There were other stained or leaded glass windows atop or alongside regular ones in the pleasing space. The light was dimmer in these areas; there was a huge chestnut and a big leaf maple out front.

Tanya wandered further into the living room, not unlike their own but much bigger, with a grand fireplace and brick hearth which displayed an array of large figurines. There were really statues, a couple that came up to her knees, some classical in design. Women, of marble or alabaster–one in a flowing Grecian gown, another a glowing white nude; an impressive, rider less brass horse with front leg raised and head up; a ceramic stylized bird that was most likely a blue heron but with an Asian flair. Tanya’s fingertips grazed them each lightly, and as she went on she wondered where they came from. Europe?

Did Ms. Regina travel often? Were there fine mementoes to be found?

There was a smaller study of the main room. A deep brown leather armchair for reading, a long narrow desk with matching desk chair. Bookshelves about empty; book sellers had already come in, cleaned them out. Textbooks were for some reason stacked on the floor along a wall. Several oversized art books still in a book case tempted her but she went on.

In the expansive dining room there was the usual, if one’s usual included bone china, crystal stemware, a silver set snug in a velvet-lined case, pale green and blue glass vases of elegant design, serving dishes of sliver. And then pitchers–five total, three of which were more rustic pottery. Tanya wondered if those were for iced tea, while two clear lovely glass ones for fresh lemonade or chilled water. Or vice versa. And with whom did Ms. Regina use all these items? It was so big you could well seat fourteen at the massive–was it mahogany?– table.

The large spaces were empty of much feeling; she wasn’t sure what she expected. Maybe lingering energy of laughter, high spirited conversations… Did she have many visitors? It was possible, of course; no one had a daily eye on her house. Maybe she got tired of dealing with so many kids and teachers at the end of school days; it was a tiring job, she suspected. When she retired, she might have craved solitude. Yet as Tanya thought about the possibility it made her feel lighter: Ms. Regina chatting away on a ton of topics, her smart comments filling the air. And they’d enjoy cold drinks and pastries on the fancy veranda.

She had never seen or heard Ms. Regina with a large outdoor gathering over the years. Not that she should have. Tanya was busy with her own life, not too mindful of the woman. She had read glowing newspaper articles, had seen her on television, heard the stories from kids who had attended Moss Highland. Oh, she’d seen her come and go to work or a store, but only a glimpse was caught as she parked her shiny black Buick in a double garage at the end of the curving drive. Then she entered the side door, Tanya had noted. There was a gigantic back yard, however; the house and its plot took up a third of the block.

Now the kitchen doorway swung open so she moved on. It had been updated with high end appliances, two rectangular skylights, a huge quartz-topped island with matching counters and refinished wood cupboards. Tanya moved to the side. More bodies crowded in and examined everything, exclaiming over this and that brand and culinary tool. Two sets of everyday dinnerware of pretty hue and decoration were stacked up. There was a shelf on the wall with more than a dozen cookbooks featuring recipes from around the world. It was clear Ms. Regina knew how to cook with skill and flair. There was so much light there it was friendlier than the rest of the house, so far. At the back wall which overlooked the expansive yard was banquette seating, with cushions adorned by a fabric design of copious green vines upon rich ivory.

There was a pantry, too, and she poked her head in to note half-full counters–a heavy duty mixer, an espresso machine and other kitchen aids–and many cupboards each side of the work and storage space. Had there been a cook, even a butler, once upon a time?

Tanya extricated herself from the crowd that had started to bunch inside the kitchen–it was popular. She stepped down into the deep, wide yard. Cypress trees–were those Italian? -she’d ask her father– lined back and side boundaries. The lawn expanse was so green and flowery she felt stunned by its beauty. Birds twittered, blooms bobbed their heads as bees darted about. There also flourished a small patch of vegetables to the right–pumpkins grew fat and jolly–by the garage. There was a darkened mossy stone bench at each side (an old man was half-slumped on one, peering into sun dappled shadow, a hat in hand). And a teal-colored metal café table with floral umbrella and four chairs in a corner–and was that an arched trellis covered in twisty vines? A two-level fountain burbled just beyond the trellis. Tanya found herself pausing there, looking back toward the stately house, entranced.

This had to have been where Ms. Regina spent much of her time. Who wouldn’t? It felt a special place. Her family’s own back yard was much smaller with an aging trampoline in one corner and a charred fire pit in another; their flagstone patio was outfitted with worn outdoor furniture and a big gas grill–that was all. But this–this was lovely, expertly tended yet welcoming, a perfect combination. Attention had been lavished on it; the array of forms and colors, the deft touches were what the senses longed to claim. Serenity. Ms. Regina outside on her knees, trowel in hand, wide brimmed sunhat a canopy for her attractive face–this must have been her joy and relaxation for many years. It suited Tanya’s idea of her–the gentlewoman tending her plants considerately and with wisdom, as she had tended her school. But, she imagined, too often alone. It felt so…private, despite the cheery aura.

But where was the woman beyond all the gardening? There had to have been more of her. Everything reflected abundance. Tanya had heard there had been a baby grand piano but it was gone if so, carted off by some gifted child’s family. She’d expected to see more of something…. There were were paintings leaned against walls, some Tanya liked and some she didn’t with others turned away from view. She had hoped to find more clues than pretty objects, greenery.

Tanya left the resting gentleman in the garden and others trickling out, and once inside she climbed the steps to the second floor. Four huge bedrooms, three smallish bathrooms. The first two were empty except for expensive and heavy bed frames and dressers for sale, one frame leaned against the wall. Most had “SOLD” stickers already.

The next room had a shelf with several bells of brass or crystal on it. A sturdy desk had six fine music boxes with inlaid or carved lids; Tanya gently opened each one to classical melodies. They looked very pricey. There were small prints of birds, butterflies and plants, like botanical illustrations–and bed linens folded in zippered plastic cubes on the high bed. A footstool was at its side. A gorgeous pen and ink drawing of the very house in a tarnished silver frame that pulled her in. But no portraits of family of others–they might have been collected for relatives, wherever they were. There also was a rich worn Persian wool rug, a closet with three woolen jackets and a couple of rain coats that looked well kept.

She then noted stacks of poetry books on a side table, and it made her inexplicably clap her hands. Yeats, Whitman, Lorca, a Russian poet she couldn’t pronounce even in her head, a few women of contemporary times (Muriel Rukeyser, Anne Sexton), and several more.

This must have been her room, Tanya thought, and sat on the deep rose colored quilt that covered the bed. She was suddenly filled with the hugeness of the house, life lived there quietly, smartly. Alone. Melancholy pressed into her as she took in the room, then she left it to glance in the sparkling bathrooms with heavy claw foot tubs and high windows, then stopped at the last bedroom across the hall.

And she pressed her fingers to lips.

What greeted her from the door was a wedding dress with its long veil. The lace and satin were yellowing–she was afraid to touch it. Meticulous bead work adorned the bodice. There sat a limp cloth rose above the neck. The scalloped hem was stiff with fancy lacework. A leaf-and pearl-decorated veil was topped by a headpiece that seemed like a small hat which mimicked a crown.

Ornate, flowing and sumptuous. A wedding dress for someone who expected her wedding to be long remembered. Someone who had to be clothed in such finery to lavishly emphasize all-encompassing love.

She held the fabric to her nose a moment, breathed it all in, smelled a faint waft of cedar that must have helped protect it inside a hidden bag in the dark corner of a closet. It smelled of that time and it filled her with an ache, a warmth, barest echoes of fervent, lost words. It held deep commitment, a promise of a future of joy.

And loss of both. Somehow.

Tanya began to back out of the room, slowly. She wanted to close the door and secret the dress away, but she guessed dress and veil were also for sale; she didn’t look. It felt a betrayal to let them hang there, be touched by so many, then bought as just another vintage thing. She thought for a moment that she needed to own it to keep it safe, but even that felt wrong. It was Ms. Regina’s, she was sure of that; it had been meant to stay hers. All that pride, expectancy, excitement–then perhaps great sadness. But it was not for Tanya to say, and Ms. Regina was long gone. As she turned, her vision blurred and she dabbed wetness away. Anyone would think she had lost her wits in the old house, full of items gotten and treasured then so easily let go. Sold off as if exquisite nothings.

Gawkers, as he mother had called them, were filling the stairwell now and Tanya began to understand the pronouncement. Was she one of them?

As Tanya rounded the landings and pushed her way downstairs, the shoppers gathered with purchases at the table set up for business. She looked about then. Was there not one thing she should keep of Ms. Regina’s? But all she felt was a pressing need to leave.

She walked around the three-quarter veranda and there he was, the old man. He wore a perfectly fitted, grey three-piece suit, his hat now set upon his sparse thatch of white hair. He reclined on a rattan and cushioned armchair. She approached him, leaned against the banister. He looked up, bloodshot eyes blinking, and offered a slight, crooked smile. She smiled in return and took in a breath of cool air.

“You knew…” she began.

“Yes, I knew her,” he said, gravelly voice low and well enunciated. “Did you find anything of interest?”

She hesitated. “Well, I found a wedding dress.”

He took his hat off to smooth back fine hair, then placed it on his lap just so. His gaze stayed on the hat. “Yes, that dress…”

“It was of course for her…oh, now wait, was it by any chance your…”

He looked up, sought her eyes with pale blue ones. “Yes. Back when we were fresh, full of the dickens and love. Right out of too much university we were, raring to go.”

Tanya half-sat on the banister as anxiety rippled her stomach. She didn’t want him to feel badly–maybe fall apart–as he rested in the breezy September morning. The barest scent of winter chased after autumn leaves in the side yard so that they knew more change was coming. They would each leave, soon. What could she say to him now, how could she comfort him? She was eighteen; he had been alive so long. When she didn’t speak, he continued.

“You don’t mind me telling you, do you? I saw you in the garden–maybe you knew her, too.”

She nodded. “Yes. I mean no, it’s okay. I sort of did, and admired her.”

“We were married for eight years, that was in Boston. Then I got a job offer in Los Angeles–I was a lawyer, got a big opportunity.” He pressed his forehead with the heel of a palm, studied the floorboards. “She was an art historian then…and didn’t want to leave her work. She taught , worked in a museum. See, it was the east coast and smaller and nicer than L.A. She said, ‘A fast lifestyle, glitzy people! Must it be your work, first and last?’ That’s what she said to me over and over. I said, ‘But think what I can do for us both, think of other options for you!’ On it went until we had heard it all enough…”

The wind gusted; a flurry of dry leaves rose and fell. People were coming out, going in the front door as they hid there, speaking of more personal matters. Tanya wanted to reach out, touch his hand but refrained.

He re-creased the top of his hat, patted it as if with affection. “So that was that, miss. It was tough. Unusual those days, people leaving a marriage was almost unheard of, at least in our group. In point of fact, she was ostracized for not going with me, not being the dutiful wife. But we left each other for things we deeply believed in. Still, I often have asked myself: for what?”

He brought his gaze to Tanya; so much was there that she looked away. The man stood, held out his arms to the seen and unseen world with a weariness, then dropped them with a slap against thin thighs. Tanya felt as if she was listening to a confession; it made her a little embarrassed, but his honesty was touching. She felt more sadness for him than anything. She took a step closer but not too close so her concern might make him think she found him some dotty old guy. Because she knew he wasn’t.

“Time slipped by so fast. My career was a great one; hers changed but it was fulfilling, too. It happened that we later wrote one another. After a long time we no longer did. On my sixty-fifth birthday, she sent a last card. And now…”

He leaned with one hand on the banister, the other held up to the sky but she could see his legs were weakening so she grasped a forearm.

“I remarried, a nice gal, but only for a minute–it was nothing, nothing much, at all. ”

Tanya feared he might be weeping but he wasn’t. He had closed his eyes and squeezed them tight. Then he stood tall, placed the hat on his old lion’s head with a sharp pat.

He held out a hand to her with a genuine smile that opened his wrinkly face. “That’s the story, at least partly. And I am Martin Ludlow–please excuse my manners.”

Her jaw dropped a bit, then she got hold of herself. She felt the warmth in his hard, lined palm. All the life lived and still left there.

“Tanya Oppenheimer. I live right down the block.”

“A student of Regina’s?”

“No, an admirer from afar. She… inspired me though I didn’t know her much at all.”

“Like me, then, inspired long from afar,” he said. “A pleasure to meet you–thank you for listening to my revelation. Best wishes for a good, long life, Miss Oppenheimer.”

Then he bent over to grab a small bag by the chair and handed it to her. With a turn on his heel, he took his leave. He clomped down the stairs and strode off, a bit hunched over but head held up. When he reached his silvery car, a driver popped out and rushed to his side, then opened a back door. Martin Ludlow stooped just enough to get in and the door was closed.

He was once and for all gone.

Tanya lingered a bit before going home, wondering over things. Regina Ludlow. She had kept his name. They had both kept each other in their deepest hearts. Two aging persons still in love. Maybe they got what they needed, and maybe not, she surmised as she dawdled along. But she was relieved she had finally gotten access to the home.

It was only when she no longer could see the lot with its house that she thought to open the bag. It was the pen and ink drawing: Ms. Regina’s on the corner.

Wednesday’s Words: Wildfire Nightmare

This is an old picture taken near city center; what I see out my own window is far, far worse.

The sky beyond our conifers and deciduous trees turns pastel orange before 4:00 pm, and the jittery air beyond is clogging up with smoke. Since last evening we have been under a Level 1 warning for wildfires, which means our bags are packed, our documents are gathered and we are alert to changes in conditions. Our particular Oregon county–Clackamas Co.– is already partly engulfed by fires; a third to one half on the fire map is noted in a critical state, a deep red color. Though these are not yet too close to our home, they have already destroyed so many properties. We don’t know how many acres are charred, or what the loss of life and property is yet. But we have packed our bags and are alert to the ongoing reports and notices. Where will we go, with COVID-19 still circulating? An emergency shelter site? We’re thinking on a workable plan.

It is very difficult for firefighters and other agencies’ aid to keep on top of multitudinous firestorm areas, as we have been experiencing higher gusts of wind a couple of days; foliage and trees are so dry that ravenous fires spread rapidly. And we cherish our a multitude of trees, including this spot where we are. It is a fraction of the greater state of Oregon. There are 35 devastating wildfires burning now. And worse in California. There are some burning in the State of Washington, our neighbor across the Columbia River and Portland metro.

We have a yearly fire season; the Columbia Gorge in 2017 was a bad season. This time they are occurring in areas not often impacted, not ever as huge or close to suburban spots and many small towns. Thousands have been evacuated from the area, but south/southeast of us. Our governor has declared a State of Emergency, as there are these various and broad areas of raging fires. In fact, it has been called “unprecedented fire behavior.”

Unfortunately, sliding glass doors were left open a short while as potted balcony plants were watered early morning. Even before I came downstairs, I could smell it–that dry, noxious permeation of unmistakable if faint smoke. The doors were closed tightly again; we taped every window shut. We do not have an air purifier or even air conditioner. The good portable purifier broke a couple months ago. I didn’t think to replace it yet since my allergies don’t kick up until the leaves start to fall. So we’re sealed inside our townhouse. We’ve not needed the air conditioner as it remains evenly cool, even when temperatures reach mid-nineties. Why? Because we live among an abundance of trees…and face the west side, looking toward the Coast Mountain Range… where now the sky is not ordinary sky but a blanket of tangerine smoke that camouflages foothills and peaks.

It is ominous, strange. I feel secure here in the valley between mountain ranges. But now both an external and internal energy is powerfully unnerving, as if a suddenly unearthed demon spewed its breath across our astonishing and gorgeous topography. It feels irrelevant to calmly type as the smoke layers and bunches. The updates on fires are a constant background track to our days and nights. Just now another evacuation notice was posted, and people will flee with little in hand and hearts in their throats, pets under their arms and families rushing beside them. All the while knowing their homes will likely be gone, just like that. I cannot imagine such reverberating loss, not having endured it before.

This has been a blessing, to live within hills by rivers and forests, mountain ranges on both sides, beauty that is awe-inspiring. It has been both solace and joy to walk circuitous, challenging trails, visit rejuvenating waters that abound nearby. Now all we can do is wait out the horror of September 2020 wildfires and hope that the area is spared. Such a small word, hope, but essential.

Yet my words feel off-kilter as I try to think carefully–it feels uncomfortable or even wrong, for our state’s neighbors are not safe as they evacuate or wait to hear if they must go. None of us could imagine this, not here, not away from forested mountains. None of us are safe, nowhere near it yet. Not until towering fires are contained as dominating winds settle down–until our usual pure “green” air is near-breathable once more. It is enough to humble this woman, to threaten tears–but I remain vigilant, organized and prepared to leave all that fills this home if need be.

Think of us kindly, and countless numbers more. Discover and hold close all the gratitude for your lives. One never knows what is ahead–not in these peculiar and often dangerous times. I plan on writing another poem to share with you this Friday. Such is the nature of my own stubborn hope.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: When the Creative Well Seems Dry

Just when I was feeling pleased that I am never at a loss for inspiration or words that tell of it, I found myself being just that. I’m not over it yet, despite writing this post. My brain’s language function is operant but it feels as if there is little worth saying to myself, much less others. I was about to seek out writing prompts–not a bad idea–but I resist it. It somehow feels like cheating though I know it isn’t. We can get creative juices flowing in many ways. My favorite is letting notions and their language unveil themselves; it happens this way for me. I am grateful. Until it doesn’t.

A writer doesn’t look kindly on a very long pause. I know it’s the same for a composer, longing for a few measures of decent notes. Or an artist with the blank paper or canvas or metal sit there, accusingly blank, so that she also blanks out, at a loss. It might be hours or days; perhaps weeks. Longer. Anyone who loves to create–it may be a basket, a piece of jewelry or woodworking project, a new flower garden or a dance–knows what I mean. We are wellsprings of energy and ideas, then suddenly, we are not.

These days we might suggest it is the pandemic that has bled us dry of great possibilities. That seems reasonable to blame dry spells on, but I am loathe to agree. Lots of people are being productive–perhaps even more so now that millions are forced to be at home. At least I keep hearing of individuals starting afresh, setting themselves to all manner of marvelous endeavors: writing books, starting nonprofits, becoming supercharged political activists, redesigning their homes, discovering new talents. But for me life has bumped along in basic and familiar ways. I have managed to avoid the virus’ infection thus far. And I quit working in my chosen field a few years ago so open ended days and nights are not novel. (It is my spouse who now struggles with the impact of sudden downsizing.)

So what is my problem? How come I’m not getting more done, why do I feel it is not as comfortable to write? Maybe I am all written out. Tired of keeping fingers on the keyboard week after week. Weary of the life I do live, and of writing about it as if it is interesting.

It might start with basic ennui…lack of motivation related to feeling below optimum level of well being–the common malaise…that happened to me this week, as I battle with chronic health issues best as I can. Or, say, a friend or family incident might require that my energy move into a different direction, to another need. This happens, but less than when I saw family and friends routinely. Sure, I text, I call, we Zoom–we all know it isn’t the same.

However, this morning a daughter let me know that she had gotten “jalapeno hands”–look it up, it is real—last night after cutting up the peppers; her hands were extremely painful for hours, burning. And this morning their cat attacked her viciously enough that he might need to be sent elsewhere…for good. So I have had her on my mind, and wish I could run over to wrap my mother hug about her.

And I will note, as well, that Marc has applied for 100 positions since April and nothing has worked out–that gives me plenty to tune into other than what I want to write. I have studied how to manage things on a seriously restricted budget–like many others have done. I’ve even had a dream about adding up figures, trying to work it out. These are topics readers can relate to, so I could write of them more, I suppose. Note my lagging interest. Even though I do write memoir, I can’t so often write precisely what I live. It gets dull for me. And perhaps can be too tender a telling to share.

However, there are other times I feel my friendly Muse has lost interest and taken a leave of absence. I understand, if so. It can get redundant and claustrophobic in this head, the same themes rising to the top, like those songs on replay as I go about my business–and driving me nutty. Sometimes one has to stop all input, clear things out, take a break to rejuvenate.

I might also I struggle with a project a long while. Months or years. So many rewrites, countless excisions of bad adjectives, whole paragraphs, wimpy characters–until it can seem piecemeal, not a whole creation–and thus, becomes ruined. I feel used up then, and think the original idea was worthless. And sometimes it is. The manuscript goes into the documents files, taking up much space, and is ignored. I might get back to some of these–and maybe not. They may have served their purpose, been a housecleaning mentally, got me going in other directions. And I have only so much time. I am not 30, 40, 50…well, the years are not getting longer.

The truth is I can get story-shy for awhile, averse to writing. I despise those times and though few, they leave me sad and longing to write again. Even a title, a sentence, a phrase–so that is what I do. Write these on grocery list pads of paper or my “resource notebooks” stacked in a basket by my computer. Or junk mail envelopes, scraps of napkin, sticky notes left on my desk to gather dust, a book mark I pull out of a bedside novel middle of the night. And, too, I leave voice memos on my phone and check those now and then if I run too dry.

One way to guarantee a loss of writing impetus, and loss of confidence, is to think hard on something I learned a few years ago: a writer is not an author until his or her book is published. That means no matter how much work appears in anthologies or articles are printed in a newspaper or pieces are included in literary journals, the writer is still not, apparently, an Author. One can even be nominated for a prestigious literary prize (it happened) and still, “author” is not attached to one’s name or work. Being a blog writer also does not “count”, no matter how many people read the blog. Those who are authors state this in no uncertain terms.

Why bother writing? People who don’t write ask me this often. I have published this and that since I was a youth and yet, no book. I’ve not been bitten with a lust to publish a book, not yet. I think the “what if” came and went at least 15 years ago. It seemed like so much work for so little gain. I know how it is to send out a manuscript and have it returned, again and again and again–I mailed them for decades, that’s how long I’ve been writing–and also have done the online submissions route. I try not to think about how tremendous a number of writers are doing the same. Sometimes it has worked out alright, and that’s good. But no book. Not enough in print.

Without earthly gains, it is clear the reason I write is simple. And a cliche: I love it. I write because it is endemic to who I am so this act of creativity will not cease until finally I have no more wherewithal: no lucidity or strength to put a single sentence down and set it free, right along with my own self.

So I continue, yet can question if my writer’s warrior will has gone missing. Or the stories have gone hiding, lying in wait for another receiver, another scribe. And, for sure, I might have gotten emptied for a bit. It is a parched state of being. I realize intervention requires more of that clear, cool water of psyche and soul. It has to bubble up from subterranean places where words are offered life– so they percolate and permutate, slowly rise to the opening mind, and come to glorious (or acceptable; one cannot always expect marvelous results) fruition.

I feel sure my brain’s language function knows I am a receptacle for story, no matter how small and no matter if unread. The left hemisphere and right hemisphere are in cahoots with each other and thus, me. Never have I believed stories and poems (or anything artistic) were mine alone, if mine at all. I cannot gather and develop them without the mysterious sources of inspiration that reveal, clarify, transform and liberate them. Maybe only to a deep silence or beyond the ether–but that is not such a disappointing bit of alchemy. Go with the flow, it all works out.

Maybe the writing magic is akin to what happens in a farmer’s field. The farmer plants and tends, brings forth from the soil a cornucopia of necessary, beautiful, delicious vegetables and other wonders. But there are also fallow times for a field, when it is left idle to recover nutrients. And its fertility returns in greater force. Every creature, every part of nature requires time out, whether for night’s sleep or period of hibernation. Work still is being done–in an episode of restful repair, a quiet regeneration of life-giving substances and forces. The result is more visible productivity when it comes time to take more action. To once more plant the seeds, to tend, to nourish–until the wholeness of growth is ripe and ready for further use.

To let rest: this isn’t rocket science, as the saying goes, but it can prove an elusive concept to me regardless. I have to stop and remember important things, how forces and ideas work at deeper levels, how many have examined and embraced different ways of being, growing, creating. This has gone on for centuries; what my predecessors have found useful wisdom can well supplement my own. And alter it in significant ways. So I do use fallow times to read others’ work more, to contemplate spiritual matters, to be among the trees. To remain open. The simplest things can mean the most and replenish me more thoroughly. And when something new or just fun is experienced, that wellspring can erupt once more.

I know I will write more prolifically again. Perhaps better, perhaps not, though I am always reaching for a finer moment of creation, make progress as I continue. I can discover possibilities every hour if I am patient and attentive to life, let my heart, soul, mind and senses take it all in. The words will come and even if they resist my need of them, the stories are right here, at my nose and fingertips, waiting. The well will not, in fact, run entirely dry. It is only an illusion that my ego notes and fears.

Above my desk is a photo of a woman, eyes closed and leaning at her open window; her elbows rest on the sill, chin in one hand. She smiles as early sunlight gilds her skin. Below the picture is a quote from poet Mary Oliver’s work, “Where Does the Temple End, Where Does it Begin?”. I look at it daily, savor those words– how much more there is to hold close, I think, and am humbled and glad. The poet says:

“I look; morning to night I am never done looking. Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around as though with your arms open.”

Such sage words. And I wonder what else that woman hears and smells and loves and knows. See, this unknown woman is one of the necessary and golden stories, gifts I am fortunate to find.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: The Chase and the Interloper

It was beauty and anonymity that drew me there and away from the limelight, at least in part. And it was that which also sent me elsewhere. My life has been a mixed bag of easy accolades, tough anxiety, moments of fear and a hint or two of love. How might it ever be different, I wondered? How could it be worse if I returned to Huntington?

Right then it was another yellow day, a conflagration of blinding blue with sunlight, the sort that requires sunglasses to even peer between curtains at the sharp-edged world. I had grabbed the purple frames as the lenses are biggest, and after I had enough of a look fell back into bed, glasses and all, and let my eyelids close again. I had nothing of consequence to do until mid-afternoon. Then, another Skype meeting. Out of sight did not mean out of work, not entirely.

******

My bedroom is a sanctuary. The rest of the condo is trite and bland, the usual around here, and is rendered tolerable as I close my door and turn on one low-wattage lamp at bedside. No one comes in without my permission, not even my mother whose condo it is. I rent it from her –I won’t stay here for free–so she is rid of the prickling worry about lax or disreputable tenants. (Not that she trusts me with so much as a drain snake; not that I would use it–there is the maintenance guy five doors down.) And it has given me freedom to travel or hide out; it is not known as my home address. (That is Lisbon, a house last inhabited a short time a year ago. Or Tuscany, a small villa cared for and lived in by my brother, for now.)

But she owes this and more to me, she says. She’s the one who got me into the game. I was only a child, barely five for my first commercial. Now all this time has passed and I am grown and worn out already. She knows what it’s taken from me, she believes, but she also sees several pay offs. I’m not interested in what she sees, anymore. I’m trying, though, to feel more loving; we are better than before I came here.

I open my eyes to…nighttime. I painted these walls a dense dark blue; she calls it navy-black, I call it faux night sky. I prefer being on the terrace when the sun winks out but once my door closes, it stays shut until dawn if at all possible. I do not like daytime much now. I do not care for sunshine. I loathe being caught out there, unprotected, wholly seen, my narrow-jawed face with its chestnut-eyes and a grand tawny maned head all bared to society’s scrutiny. I did that already, over and over. It led to years of lost equilibrium. Of success-driven misery.

For years I was a child model and grew up in the profession. Did I even get to establish “equilibrium”? “Mariah Z, Mariah Z!” they yelled at every turn. By age 21 I’d had more than enough. One might accurately surmise I’ve not gotten over the blare of lights, paparazzi taking chase, my face and body splashed across billboards, my actions front and center on commercials, bit parts in movies leading to…what?

So: I do not easily or often sally forth into public places. It feels like a nearly forbidden land now. Even when I travel I take a red eye flight, wear grey or beige bulky items, a floppy hat I change each trip–they allow me to be almost unseen. An invisible woman, what a coup.

These days I don’t have to work, so I’m on a break until age 25. That gives me three more years if I’m careful of my outgo. (There’s little worth wanting, anymore–cash is like a handful of litter in my purse.) I do have a cat that has needs and wants, if minimal, and a friend or two I still trust and for whom I like to buy small surprise gifts, nothing overt. There’s nothing like money to cure you of money, no matter what people brag. At least, for me. Only my mother understands this, and that is for other reasons. She was born into it and so it little interests her as topic or focus. Fame is more to her liking, or fame via her daughter–me–without the huge hidden costs.

I know, people think I’m crazy to turn my back on it, to be so blase at this age–that I must have snorted too much cocaine or drunk too much tequila. Sure, I did enough of that and too young. But there’s nothing better than to step into the wings when the applause comes at you like an unholy din– and then just slip away. For me, the shadow of hiding was a magnetic force that turned my life to this direction. I got away–I just said no no no— and didn’t go back. I may never.

The cat -Sari- and me. We like to rest and muse on things or sleep. Sit by the deserted pool at midnight, or I sometimes swim a little but quietly as it is against the rules. Read by candlelight on the terrace–Sari listens as I read poetry aloud, yawns, licks my hands, purrs when I stay still. It’s not a bad life, now. I’ve grown accustomed to the rhythms of leisure, punctuated with nightmares that still wake me up too much, and I lie there and stare at my kindly night ceiling. Oh, the catwalk, the photographers’ studios, the constant travel, weather not stopping one thing even if you’re out there in the wild and half nude. The television cameras and directors shouting. And always random people touching my hair, skin, clothes taken off and put on, repositioning parts and pieces, my standing there rigid as they fix this, that, one more thing.

You stop being your own person. You stop seeing your body as yours. Your life hollows out; you are so many movable parts. A mannequin.

Now my living is separate from that life, or far more than ever before. Nothing can take this ease from me without my saying so, anymore.

******

I’m not agoraphobic. I use the facilities to swim; I work out daily. I go to the library, if only in evening. I shop at small shops for necessities when it isn’t busy. I take weekend trips with my best friends, usually to a country inn or we go camping. I take a flight to somewhere equally out of the way–not touristy. But there is room for variation. Or to fail to accurately calculate, depending on the outcome.

I, for example, love the huge wooded park two blocks away. Since I don’t go there at night, I visit Huntington Nature Park’s 125 acres once every month and walk it’s two winding miles of trails. It’s quite heavenly.

Since Mom’s condo is at the edge of suburbia (I used to live in New York York, people worked or played all day, all night), most adults work for a living so are not around in daytime all week. There are a few joggers zooming about. Mothers with strollers or, after school, groups of older kids on bikes or skateboards until they’re told to get out of the way. Older people with hands tucked into crooks of arms. Dogs let out with all ages and stations of people, and they cheer me, those furry critters who sniff my leg–cat! cat!- or lick my hands but say little that matters to me. Now and then a lone man or woman rambles about, sits on a bench. Some take lunch hour there so I avoid that time–those workers tend to watch people more closely as they eat, like it’s entertainment when they aren’t using their cell phones. I know; I have done the same.

So I go and relax among the others. It’s good to see people outdoors enjoying the greenery. I’m moving along, hiding in loose sweatpants and a hoodie despite knowing I, Mariah Z (Zentner), am not remotely on their minds. Not there–not out of context, for sure. A habit, trying for a sloppy incognito to blend in. And my over-sized sunglasses help. Plus, they are barriers to UV rays since becoming more nocturnal.

Today is like other days as I arrive. Sparsely populated trails but not lonely. Butterflies, bees, dragonflies. Dogs going for tossed sticks or to relieve themselves on every bush; toddlers toddling; a woman reading under a ginkgo tree. Then the densely wooded area and my feet pick up speed. I am not a runner but I walk fast as I note ferns, shadowy designs and wildflowers; birds fluttering and singing, squirrels chittering and racing about.

I shake it out, the knots and questions that can keep me captive when indoors: will I be a wastrel or a contributor to something good? Will I go back to Lisbon soon or much later? What about Sari’s aging–she is 10 already–how long do I get to keep her? My sneakered feet move smoothly over hardened dirt side trails, arms swinging, breath pulsing in small exhalations of effort as I speed up. Oxygen courses though my blood, I breathe better, my parts move in better concert and I am getting happy. Time ceases to have meaning as endorphins increase and carry me beyond myself. I can go on like this much longer than the park allows, on into the night if only I had the nerve.

There’s a flash to the left of my head, a red movement between trees. My heart rate jumps a bit as I search thickening trees and heavy brush but keep moving. Nothing much, a creature taking a short cut. But there–is that something? Maybe a person? Rusty colored jacket or shirt. Female or male? Why are they off-trail? Or is that a smaller trail I forgot about? I hear rustling of bushes and leaves from the same direction. I see a fork in my path, take a right. I feel it on my neck, in my gut–that sudden sensation, a primitive warning. My gait increases. I may consider running. I hear the thing moving closer but cannot place what it is yet. Coyote? Cougars, there are cougars around here, I think. But not smack in the suburbs, right?

I don’t want to bolt, I don’t want to hearken to the alarm of adrenaline but I am soon, indeed, running, my long legs covering ground fast. This is so old, fear rising up from the past yet worse, but I am used to having to hide, avoid fingers grasping, cameras flashing. Worn down by faceless crowds, vultures who just want more more thing from me. Yet this is something else. I count with my every footfall, one to twenty, and again. Calm down, I tell myself. It can’t be something bad, not here, I’m on a suburban park pathway, no one here cares what I do, must breathe, breathe, slow down, easy now. But the flash of rust is seen again as I turn my head to the left. Someone is running alongside me in the trees, and I see a medium build, a male. He glances at me. My feet pound the path harder.

Is there no one around there? What of the mothers with kids? Should I yell, scream? All my breath is used with this foreign racing onward, much faster than I thought possible. It must be a real predator, I realize, and suddenly my body shoots forward, my mind goes blank. My hood falls from my head, my glasses fly off as I jerk my head to look back but dappled afternoon light hits me, my eyes half-blind. I follow instinct, legs galloping.

And so we go, my lithe body a small advantage over the pursuer’s heavier form, my strength from years of dance and exercise a bonus, my fear the fuel used to move faster, fast enough to outdistance him just enough. He moves out of the woods and onto the path behind me. Please let there be an opening in the trees soon–and which trail leads back? I know this park but his footsteps are pounding the earth, a merciless sound getting louder. I start to pant, my mouth is so dry, chest tightening, burning. Sweat saturates the t-shirt under my hoodie.

In the distance, there appears to be a shape moving my way, or it has now stopped, but I can see hazy light behind an oncoming walker or whatever it is, a bright veil of dusty sunlight that may indicate a possible thinning of trees. I am not thinking, only seeing and taking it in. Not a big person, a kid is walking toward me, I can barely make out dark hair and cut off blue jeans.

I want to shout, “Leave, run! Get help!” but speech isn’t possible, only two legs running, hands bunched near waist as my arms close in to streamline as I hit a dead run, my voluminous, heavy hair flying. My heart wants me to take a break–but I must not stop.

There she is, only a teenager?–she steps off the path to my left and watches closely. I try to throw an alarming sound at her as I near. She bends over for something as I keep running– see me terrified, I telegraph her–my legs aching but feet behind me never break rhythm, either. She is standing up, this kid, something now in her hands, she steps toward me, then half-jogs until she comes up close, closer, closer and yells at me–“Hey! Chasing you?”– as I pass her and my eyes say yesyes! now scared for us both, but I can see in her strong hands a huge branch and just keep on.

“Mariah Z! “she yells at me, “I got you!”

And then a leaden thud behind me, a harsh masculine crying out, loud swearing. I just stop, finally, breath grating my throat. She is smacking him with the stick as he lies prone and then puts hands up, and she’s on her phone as I rush to her.

I look at him. I wipe my face, all my bones and sinew trembling. He is not someone I know. He does not have a camera slung over his chest. Pale-faced with two red spots at his cheeks, his dark t-shirt with “Mike’s Auto Glass” printed in black, a Detroit Tigers baseball cap askew so his balding head is apparent–he looks close to middle aged, is exhausted by the pursuit. And angry.

“You’re not…uh, Haley! What the hell–you’ve got her hair, I swear! Who are you, anyway?”

“What’re you talking about? Who are you?” asks the teen, then points to me. “You’re a predator and you’re messing with a famous person, Mariah Z, did you know that? Lie still ’til the cops come and shut up!”

She called in an emergency request, then put her booted foot atop his chest and held the branch aloft, right over him. I kept a foot on his ankles, then introduced myself.

“Right, Mariah Z. And you weren’t looking for any Haley, buddy. You were stalking me a good mile.”

“She’s got that right, I saw you creeping around earlier so I cut through on another path, remember that? Now here we are so stay down, you perv!”

She held out a square palm to me, which I shook, glad to have human contact for once. “I’m Terra Bonhiver, a die hard fan of yours! You really live around here? We all thought you’d disappeared.”

The whine of a siren cut into our conversation and we applied more pressure to the struggling man–who fortunately looked a bit cowed as Terra threatened to whack him again with the unwieldy branch. He was pathetic on the unforgiving dirt.

“I thought I had, too–disappeared…” I said and grimaced, a sharp twinge shooting up the backs of my legs. I felt like I’d crumple, and then I did, tumbling into a clump of ferns, but I had faith things might be okay soon.

******

I was helped up by both officers.

“YOu kay?”

What could I say to that? “Yeah, I guess.”

Terra gave the policeman and policewoman her statement after the man was handcuffed and put in the patrol car. He was wanted for a sexual assault. I could not stop tears of relief but brushed them away when Terra softly began to speak.

She’d been jogging before I had gotten started, it turned out.

“Jogging slowly, enough to say I was running but not sweating it, and I see this man lurking by the side of the trail. You know how you can tell when something is off? He acted like that, gave me the side eye, those looks a couple of times as I came near, and as I passed he trotted a bit behind me. It gave me the creeps so I sped up, did a zigzag through some trees. I know these woods–grew up around here. Cutting through took me to a main path closer to the open park. I was sort of debating what to do, if anything at all.”

The policewoman asked, “What made you go back, if you were worried about this guy? Why didn’t you call in your concerns? We’ll always come out to check on things.”

“Yeah? Just a teenager, Japanese-Hawaiian? Okay, I’ll remember that…” Terra shrugged, turned to me. “Anyway, I saw a friend in the park who said, ‘Did you see who I think I saw?’ I said no, who, and she told me it was Mariah Z, she was very sure. She said she’d been walking around and spotted her going into the woods.”

The police wrote it down. The next question: “What did that mean to you, then? You say you were scared but curious?”

“Listen, Mariah Z here” –she pointed at me–“is a world famous model and trend setter and a feminist, please don’t get me started…but that isn’t your realm, I get it.” She sighed.

The policewoman’s eyebrows rose and fell with a hint of recognition as she looked me over briefly. “And so, then?”

“All I could think of was that Mariah Z was going right into the trap, she was walking right into the woods where the creep was and I had to do something! He might know who she is and try to kidnap her or worse, right? So I went back in after my friend told me where she might be– but instinct, I guess?–I started at this end of the trail. And there she was, running like crazy and that guy right behind her. I grabbed a thick branch and when I came by him, I thrust it in front of his feet, he fell, grabbed me by the legs and pulled me down, was trying to get up and yanked my arm to pull me off the trail. But I had a good hold of the branch, hit him with it a couple of times until he stayed down and got quieter.”

She crossed her arms, smiled shyly at me. I stepped over to her and threw my arm about her shoulders, not about to cry though it could happen. But it was my turn, and Terra and I both sat on a bench. Just recounting it all was enough to send a shiver up my spine that somehow landed in my head. One of my infrequent migraines. I used to get more when flashes went off a dozen or more at once, but here it was, a train coming at me after all that had happened. The policewoman gave us a ride home in her separate car.

“Be very careful,” the policewoman cautioned. “He–and others out there–might know where you live since you are such a public person, Miss Zentner.”

She gave me her card with a number to call if needed. I felt sick to my stomach. Yes, I realized with a start, he may have known me all along.

And all I could think in bed was: Wait til Mom hears this one, she’ll want to move right in. Sari lay at the end of my bed–she knew just what to do when I was in pain– and I tried to sleep it off with the help of a nice white pill.

******

The next week we met at the park. I wore something I thought would be suitable for a famous model, a snazzy jumpsuit, just for Terra–but kept all else low key. I had been so sweaty, felt so terrible before. This time we were meeting less like two strangers and a bit more than acquaintances who had survived a bad thing. We were glad to see one another. She rather awed me, this young woman. Such self respect and presence at her age, she had some real power. I had thought of little else since that day.

Terra came alone as I had requested, and I brought a sealed brown envelope with a photo in it, autograph and all. I’d dropped a smaller envelope in there that had two, one hundred dollar bills. Not that she seemed like she wanted or needed any help; it was only fun money, she could treat herself. A tiny reward.

“Save this until you get home, okay? I just wanted to thank you now that things have quieted down.”

I admit I watched to see if the phone in her hand was going to sneak up to snap a picture of us on the bench. It didn’t. She looked pleased with my offering, guessing it was a photo.

“Thank you so much!” She beamed at the envelope and me. “So, you’re living in Huntington now?”

I looked out at the woods, offered a half-shrug. “Not really. I took a break to visit my mother who does live here. I took a longer break from the work.”

“Yeah, we haven’t seen you much in the magazines– or anywhere–for a long time. Are you okay, can I ask that?”

Her eyes were softer than I remembered from the week before, when she had seemed so bold, her tough attitude betraying sharper edges. But she was only a kid, fifteen, sixteen at most, with a shy softness that overshadowed, today, the muscle of a young athlete. She was shorter than what I’d thought, and her black hair hung loose and shining.

“I’m okay, just taking a long look at what I do for a living, making changes, maybe. And you? Tell me about yourself.”

“Not so much to say. I’m just starting high school, I love to play soccer and softball, and I like art and also clothes but don’t get dressed up often. I’m not the fashion type, I guess, but I wouldn’t mind being more like that, and really like your fashion stuff, uh, your work.”

“Soccer? I loved it when I was a kid but had to give it up. And anyone can be ‘the fashion type’ if you want to be–it just takes imagination and a little confidence-or you can just like clothes, as you said. You can dress how you like, it won’t make or break you in the end, believe me!”

“I guess so. It surprises me you’re saying that…I mean…”

“I make so much money, I was so well known, I must believe in it entirely, is that it?”

“You still are! People would about die to sit with you like this!”

“Oh, I hope not… Look, Terra, it has been a very decent career–of a sort. I got thrown into it at a young age–looks meant so much to my mother. But it isn’t my choice, exactly. If someone had asked me what I wanted to do when I was twelve or fourteen, what do you think I’d have said?”

“I don’t know…be a movie star? You can do that next!”

“Not at all. I wanted to be a marine biologist. Or a modern dancer. We lived by the ocean then, and I loved it more than anything else–except dancing…and I still want to do something more with my life. Must do more.”

“Wow, I see…To be honest, I hope to get on a pro soccer team. Or get to be an illustrator. Or both.”

“Now that’s what I mean, Terra–doing something good for others, for yourself. Not just look great. You have such a spark, are bold and smart.”

She shuffled her feet, tilted her head at me. For a few minutes we sat looking at everyone walking about, kids playing, saw pretty blue jays and the fussing crows and quick juncos. She liked nature, too. We chatted more about school activities, her own mother, someone who had high hopes for her oldest daughter. I enjoyed her company as time went by and thought, we could almost be sisters, she might be the younger sister I wanted…

But then she raised her hand and waved hard at someone.

“There’s my friend, Ally! Hey, Ally!”

I got up. “Time for me to go, Terra.”

She rose, too, but looked as if I had caught her in a devious act now that her friend started to run up to us. “I know, okay, then. I’m glad you came, I wasn’t sure.”

I took off my shades and gave her a quick hug. “You’re a good person, you know that, Terra? You took a huge risk to help me and I’ll never forget that, or you. I have every faith in you. I suspect you’ll do something great. I might check in with you sometime, see what you’re up to, okay?”

“Mariah Z, that would be unbelievable. Amazing.”

She gave me a wave as I started off with a backward walk. Then I took off with a self-mocking catwalk strut, posing this and that way for her and her friend. I could hear her and the friend clapping and their screeches stopping others who then stared at me.

Then I got out of there, though running in heels was never my forte.

No more adventures for a bit. No more semi-awed smiles. It might be time to go back to Lisbon and find something more interesting to do. To enjoy that certain light skimming the waves. Listen closer to birdsong and keep Sari close to me and well (away from the feathered ones). For who was I to them? And what more might I become other than a smartly smiling or smirking face which looked out at a fast spinning world?