Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Matilda Johansen’s Help from the Postal Service

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She hesitated before signing her name, as she often did. Should it be Matilda or perhaps Tillie or the name he always preferred, Mattie? He was only the second one who ever used it. The other was her mother, who landed on it when she was two in protest that her father required his only daughter be named after his grandmother. It conjured up no nonsense pioneer women, yes, but ultimately they were someone’s domestic laborer, they worked themselves to death like his grandmother. Her daughter would be independent and more. So Mattie was also used to the name Tillie, as teachers used it in school and then school chums used it, too. But she was her mother’s Mattie at heart, despite her father’s good intentions. In secret, she supposed, she would truly just be Mattie.

Well, she thought, licking the flap of the envelope and pressing it down with slender fingers, the recipient of the letter never objected to anything she used. Mostly she signed it Mattie; once it was Tillie. And–she pressed envelope against her chest–she really wanted to sign it, “Your sweetheart.” But that was clearly not right, not now.

She put on her light rain jacket–the low grey clouds suggested another day of rain–and walked the six blocks to the post office. Mrs. Melcher was raking leaves ahead of the weather, creating a giant pile in front of her porch, but she waved at Tillie, such a pleasant young woman. Mr. Harry was rounding up his fancy poodles after a walk and sharply nodded. Other than that, the street was mostly empty of traffic and yards were vacated later in the day. The neighborhood had been calm and orderly since she’d lived there. It was a place without drama, and that was reassuring and irritating at once. Mattie wished for more in her life but was always quick to find gratitude for what she had: a little house, a teaching career, an indoor/outdoor cat that had managed to stick around ten years, two close friends and a vegetable garden.

Except she missed Alan. Still. That was why she had begun to write him. Once a week.

Mattie was a fast walker. She clutched the letter in her side pocket and thought of him, how he’d outpace her with his longer legs and then she’d speed up and they’d end up racing each other to the corners, laughing. Sometimes she won. Such a simple thing, but it was another example of happiness she’d collected like she had many discovered, common stones. They were set out on the table for morning light to wash over. Then their real textures and colors were brought to life. Just as it felt was with the plainest stones illuminated, her day was given pricks of joy with each new reveal of the more lovely past.

A big white truck honked at her twice and the man gestured crudely at her; she stepped back just in time. Thinking of Alan did that–it took her to another place so that her present world was shined up, partly recreated. She kept her eyes on the downtown traffic clotting along the street, then came to the post office. Once inside, she cheerily greeted Annie working at the window, slipped her letter into the mail slot and started toward the coffee shop. She always got a cappuccino after she mailed his letter. To sit and think over what she had shared, to wonder how he’d react. If he’d react. To imagine him there across from her, smiling so readily and with that smile, stopping the world.

******

Annie knew that the woman had had a hard time when Alan left her; who didn’t know? It was a fishbowl town. Twenty years ago they’d seemed content, but in another five the marriage crashed and burned one day. Steady Matilda Johansen was left stunned. In shock, one might even say. It had taken a long while for her to get back on top of her job teaching theater and English at Elson Middle School. Or so Annie had heard; her son carried gossip to her from school. But it was apparent whenever they met at the post office–that dull look to her eyes, the absentminded nod. Understandably/ No one married with the idea that the love of her life would leave.

Alan was the sort of guy that everybody liked, gregarious and easy going, smart but not lording it over anyone; great at his work as supervisor of the pottery plant over in Waverly but more ambitious. And good looking. Annie thought he was a little exotic looking; everyone thought he was Italian but he said his mother was French-Canadian, maybe that was it. But he had an extra something that made people want to look at him more than a minute. If he knew that, he never let on, and always talked his wife up. They had made such a solid couple, sociable, generous with food at potlucks, attending the Methodist church Annie did, engaged in several community events. Annie secretly envied them their partnership.

Then Alan got a new job in Waverly, a managerial position at a outdoor/adventure company. It required longer hours, occasional business travel. So Annie wasn’t surprised when he was absent at many events. She’d shrug, say, “It’s the cost of ambition, he loves his work and wants more”, and she’d laugh a little too fast. But they bought the house; things went along.

Until they didn’t. Someone he met at the new company, people said. Marilyn was the name. his old work buddy let it slip that she was in Human Resources, and her looks, well, they matched his. So Alan divorced his wife of eight years and moved to Waverly and married Marilyn. People shook their heads, but things could be random, good men fell, lives changed.

But the one left behind? She isolated too much, the warm sheen she shared with him wore off, and she was apparently emphatic she was done, no dating, period. But she was a devoted teacher and began to win awards; this brought her back to a much better place. Back into her old circles, a life that mattered more. The whole town was relieved for her, as she was a valued citizen.

Then she started to write Alan letters. Annie couldn’t help but notice the weekly drops of carefully addressed envelopes, even if she’d tried not to. It had been going on for a month. Why would Tillie write that man fifteen years later? He was still married as far as anyone knew. Not that they cared. No one had seen him around in all that time. he had flown the coop and word was, though, he had kids, moved up the ladder of success with that Marilyn. It was a shame for Elson Middle School’s favorite English and fine theater teacher, but such was life with its hard knocks.

******

Dear Alan,

I can’t believe the leaves are not only brazen colors already but falling as fast as they turn. The summer was gorgeous and languid and then gone. But you know autumn is my favorite time of year, air clean and musky, sharp with cooling temperatures. I sit with Ginger Lily–my cat, if you recall–on the back porch and watch the maples catch fire in the fall sunshine. I know you’d like seeing this.. And Ginger Lily looks a lot like Tucker, our long gone tiger cat. She’s getting old and settles into my lap a good hour. I’m glad of her company, though she has little to say. This house, though small, would feel empty without at least this fur creature.

I imagine you’re doing well, are so beleaguered by work that you have little time to think of me. I always knew you’d rise to the top, as the best often do. I understand. (You had a family, I heard, at least one child– but a boy or a girl? How fortunate you have been.) So I try to imagine you in your office. Head bowed as you work at the computer, hand running over the shock of dark wavy hair when frustrated or just concentrating hard. You would play with a pencil, quickly laced it between your fingers over and over. And sometimes bite your nails. I used to nag you about it but we all have our foibles. Like, I still twirl and twist my hair when grading papers. And still forget to wipe down the bathroom counter after I splash a ton of water when washing up.

I saw the Hunter’s Moon with my buddy Lydia–she loves the skies, too–but thought of you. It was enormous and so warmly hued that it looked like a giant orange masquerading as the moon. Remember how we’d go sky gazing? Willard Point and the fields out by Rossiter’s Farm and the western hills and forest where we set up our tent for a weekend away. So dark there you couldn’t see your feet when you had to get up at night.

My teaching continues on as before. Not much changes from week to week. I so appreciate my students; they work hard on crafting a decent sentence, to inhabit a role in a play, to open their minds enough that they can see the value in creativity more unleashed. Well, most of them do. But I never give up on any of them, you know that.

And I never gave up on you. I look forward to writing these letters once week. It would be ridiculous to others if they knew. But I sense you near when I write. I know you are, still. We had so much, didn’t we? It is sustenance to my soul to know this.

Yours, Mattie

******

“Every time she sends one of these, I either want to throw up or scream. This is number four. It has to stop, it’s gross!” Carly’s eyes shone with outrage, then glistened. She tore up the page of blue stationary. “It’s just lucky we keep getting home before Mom does.”

Kendra leaned back in her chair and frowned. “Yeah, she hardly ever is home before 8. We do have to end it. Strange…But we never, ever tell Mom, right? We can handle this somehow. There is no return address but we can find out where she lives, somehow. Didn’t Dad say she was a teacher when he explained he was married before?”

Carly, a mirror image of her sister, raised arched eyebrows, eyes wide. “Hmm, right. We’ll figure it out. The Twins Shall Triumph. Again.”

They high-fived and went to their room. It took all of four minutes checking out the two schools in tiny Littleton, twenty-one miles from Waverly (an actual medium-sized city, thankfully). There had to still be a teacher with the name of Matilda Johansen. There it was…That was her full name, they guessed, though their dad had called her Mattie when he admitted he was married for eight years, that she taught kids. But then he met their mother and she swept him off his feet, and he didn’t feel too badly about it, because leaving the Mattie person meant he got to have them.

“My girls, the best in the entirety of the universe.” He said this as he grabbed both of them in a giant hug, and at 6 ft. 3 with a few extra pounds, they felt cozy and safe in his embrace.

They thought of this more than they wanted to. Or they wanted to but found it hard to think of him, period.

This Mattie was of no importance to them, not until a month ago when the letters started, and what nerve that took, sending them! It was wild that she taught English and theater. They both liked those subjects, were close to her students’ ages.

And they recalled their dad had said her name with a bit of softness in his voice, then said no more. That was two or three years ago when they had gone fishing with him….

“It all gives me the the shivers….I mean,… does she know something? And how do we find her?” Kendra said in a whispery voice. “This idea is crazy. Do we get Michael to drive us over and show up at her door?”

“No, no way. I don’t even want to see who this person is, who has to butt into our lives all of a frickin’ sudden. Let’s just call and leave her a message, threaten her a little, you know?” Carly sat up, hands balled into fists.

“No, don’t be stupid, no threats on a voice mail! In fact, how do we get her number?”

“We can… just call the school, ask for her.”

“And if she answers?”

They readjusted the pillows on the bed behind their heads and stared at the laptop, open to the school staff page. Matilda Johansen looked like a basic teacher type person, not a madwoman; she was almost nondescript, not even worth mentioning her looks. No wonder their dad left dull Mattie for their mom. And their mom was smart, practically ran the company, finally. They didn’t have to say these things aloud. They knew their mother was beautiful when younger. Sort of even at present.

But she’d changed a lot in four and a half months. They all had been changed.

“I’ll call,” Kendra said, “you’ll get way too emotional.”

Carly punched her shoulder and Kendra punched back.

“Stop it. We both want this to end. I can’t stand reading her pathetic lovesick letters. It’s so awful and wrong that she does this. And Dad would not even read them, he’d toss them from the start and tell her to get a clue, it was over at least fifteen years ago.”

Carly pulled away, gave her sister a side eye. “Would he? Do we even halfway know that is an absolute fact? Maybe he—“

“Stop it, just let me take care of this…” Kendra said with less conviction than she desired, voice wobbling. Before another moment passed, they were both crying, their arms about each other.

This was getting to be an old routine. Just mention dad and then slobber-cry.

Their parents had been fighting off and on for a year. Money stuff, petty miscommunications, the girls had to do this or that, the other parent against it. It had gotten tougher to come downstairs in the morning on week-ends, not knowing if they’d both be there or if the one who left would be back before night. Sometimes they’d wait until it was quiet, until both might have left. So they could eat breakfast in peace together.

They always had each other.

They stopped when a few hiccups subsided, finally stood up. Looked at each other, chins tilted up. It was like looking at themselves only different. Thank goodness.

“Tomorrow morning,” they said in unison.

******

“Elson Elementary and Middle School, how can I help you?” The woman spoke as if stifling a yawn.

“Ms. Johansen, please?” Kendra clutched Carly’s hand. They had under five minutes, then they had to leave for their classes in tenth grade.

“She’s in a meeting right now, can I leave her a message?”

“Can I leave it on voice mail?”

“One moment.”

“It’s ringing!” Kendra said.

“I can hear it, speaker’s on, the volume’s up!” Carly hissed.

A woman’s low voice with a melodious lilt came on. “You’ve reached Matilda Johansen’s office, and I’m away from my desk. Please kindly let me know what you need with your name and number. I will return your call.”

“Oh. Hi. I’m–well, you see, I’m calling because my sister and I need you to stop sending our father letters. Got it? Our names are Kendra and Carly Weatherford, his daughters who have a mom who loves him. And who he has… loved.” Kendra began to sniffle, then choked up so badly Carly tried to get the phone from her hand. She resisted and kept on. “Sorry for crying, this is hard to do but you just have to stop. Because–because…” she put her phone down.

Carly pried the phone from her fingers, took a deep breath. “No more writing him! Because it’s wrong. And– Alan Weatherford died last June!”

They gasped for breath as Carly hung up. They had never said those words to anyone they didn’t know. Just forming the syllables out loud hurt. But telling this crazy woman–this ex-wife of their dad’s? Why did she have to butt in and make things harder? It made them feel like they were lunging into a deeper dark pit so they grabbed each other, eyes gushing.

“Okay, we did it and now we have school,” Kendra said as she pulled away from Carly. and they wiped their cheeks with their sleeves.

Hal honked his horn three times, as usual. They counted on that. They grabbed books and coats and left, slamming the kitchen side door hard behind them, windows and door a-rattle as if in applause.

******

Matilda Johansen, Tillie to friends, Mattie to only two others (three if she counted herself), listened to that message three times.

Then she dialed the number from which it originated.

Carly answered immediately, put it on speaker as Hal drove unhurriedly. Kendra did not want to talk more.

“It’s Matilda. I guess it was you who left me that message? I knew something was wrong…Oh, no, you said–He’s…? I mean, I heard from him–the thing is, he came to me. In a dream….I guess.”

“Are you serious? How can you call us back? He was in a drunk driving accident…not him, the other guy killed him!”

“Oh no! So that’s why he walked into my room when I was staring out the window at constellations. And he did speak to me…I thought, well, he really needs something. I didn’t know what. I didn’t know how to get a hold of him but I knew his address. So I decided to write, see what would happen, that’s all. I didn’t know for sure if he was still there, still married or what…I thought they come back to me or someone would write somehow…”

Kendra bent over the phone. “Matilda. Mattie. It’s Kendra, that was Carly, my sister. He spoke to you, really? Well. What did he say?”

“Makes no sense, she’s nuts!” Carly said, poked at her sister’s thigh, looked out the window then toward Hal. he looked in the rear view mirror but said nothing. He knew when to shut up.

Kendra put the phone up to her face, as if trying to see her. “Wait a second. What could Dad possibly say to you, of all people? He hasn’t even shown up for me…us…”

Mattie cleared her throat once, twice. “He was like, foggy, you know, but I knew it was him. He said, ‘Don’t worry, Mattie, the stars and I watch over you all.'” She clamped her mouth shut with her free palm, turned away from her door where a student waited to see her. Willed herself not to lose her control. She had known it, she knew it already, didn’t she? That he was gone from the earth? She saw him, in her room.

The girls were stock still, bodies sharing a fine electric charge that ran up and down their narrow backs and triggered memories. They used to be afraid of the dark, little kids always checking under their beds, in the closet, begging for a bright night light. Their parents didn’t think it necessary to buy them one. Their dad said the stars were there to comfort them all, like shining points of love. And then, tucking them in, he’d tell them: “It’s alright, I’ll always watch over you, from here or afar.”

“Oh, yeah…” they said.

Mattie heard them. And knew they all realized he was doing just that.

“I will stop sending letters, of course. You’re right, it was a strange idea. But when he came to me and said that, I deeply hoped maybe he was around still, maybe he was in trouble or all alone, and I believed he needed something from me, you see. I guess it was absurd, but–“

“No. We see. I get it. Sorta,” Carly said as the car lurched to a full stop in the school parking lot.

Hal turned around, held both palms up. When they ignored him, he got out. He didn’t know what to say about their father dying. It scared him. But he waited for them to come out. He was a trusted third in their twindom.

Kendra sighed. “I think I do, too. I can’t imagine why writing–I mean, think if our mom might have found them!” She looked at Carly. “I guess you loved him, too.” Carly nodded in agreement.

“Yes.”

“Okay, then, we have to go now,” Carly said.

“Yes, alright. And I’m so very sorry that he died, girls. He was something else. But you know.”

“Thank you,” they said in unison.

******

The next Saturday afternoon Ginger Lily sat at the front door, meowing with her best complaining voice. Someone was knocking, but Mattie was in the kitchen rinsing off sweet potatoes. By the time she wiped her hands and opened the door, no one was there–only a car racing off. But there was a big bunch of potted rusty-yellow mums with a little note card.

Dear Mattie,

I think you did the right thing, writing to our place. Dad sent us a message through you. So he did need you to find us and talk to us. He really cared for you to trust you that much.

Maybe one day we’ll meet, maybe not. But we’ll remember this.

Thank you,

Kendra and Carly

Mattie picked up Ginger Lily and went to the back porch to sit awhile. The leaves were twirling down so gracefully; the big trees were shedding the old ones so fast. She knew it had to happen but she mourned the castoffs a bit. It might be a lonely fall and a slower and colder winter. But she could keep writing to Alan. She just wouldn’t have to send them anywhere. He’d know she was talking to him.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Check One- Spiritual? Religious?

The question for me is: can we not choose both? I can and do, but often in our roiling, defensive, divisive social milieu, it can seem wiser to keep it all to myself.

Not only these days but, honestly, as long as I have been here we’ve been offered a plethora of options for personal belief, endless pegs on which to hang our hats at doorways into various faith systems. “Step right this way!” It can be brain-stunning, considering the bombardment of ads, social media platforms and random videos. Some revolve around specific diets; some require certain forms and lengths of meditation or prayer; some involve lifestyle changes, such as leaving modern technology and possessions behind; still others insist on engagement just within that proscribed community; and often the center of it all is an allegiance to a religious–or spiritual- leader. They may ask of practitioners certain ritualistic behaviors that may be forbidden to “outside” persons.

Though there are often several cross-over elements to faiths and practices–an aspiration to enlightenment, whatever that is for the group; a belief in the wisdom of the earth; a commitment to times of ascetic, solitary devotion to core beliefs–there are also clear divides. I bump into some of these out in the world: a unique dress code followed; jewelry worn to identify a wearer as a follower of that faith; tomes read that are reflective of one’s serious study of that belief and none other; café discussions that devolve before long into arguments. And the various posters hawking this natural lifestyle or that set of soul-and-body-purifying methods, or meetings to instruct one of an avenue less travelled. They all state they lead to “a well being of wholeness.” And maybe we are a bit more fragmented in 2021…so some might be tantalizing, while others seem absurd. A few beliefs are popular in our culture; some are decidedly not. And how far can a philosophy venture before it is considered a “fringe” movement? There is room for everything out there.

Or is there? It likely depends on where you live and who you are. I can’t say being Christian is easy on the Northwest. Then again, I had not thought of it much one way or another–then it turns out not everyone tolerates other peoples’ faith affiliations… Who knew the liberal West could be that judgmental? I am a left of center sort of person but, then, there are just lots of rumors out there about what my faith means and what it does not. No one asks for my ideas or experience. I want to be nonjudgmental of the naysayers. But hope for more respectful and open discussion. As recall it really was more likely decades ago.

The one thing many people contend is that religious principles and beliefs are in opposition to spiritual ones. Distant from one another, not at all the same. Choose one or the other–but the two do not mix. Or so we are encouraged to think. Here are the first three definitions from Merriman-Webster says:

Definition of spiritual, adjective:

1: of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spiritINCORPOREAL spiritual needs

2a: of or relating to sacred matters spiritual songs

b: ecclesiastical rather than lay or temporal

spiritual authority, lords spiritual

3: concerned with religious values

Yet they remain separate to lots of people despite there being an overlap that is significant. Religion generally gets a side or back seat, if any seat, at a proverbial round table talk. Additionally, we learn early the two topics that are most incendiary are politics and religion. Humans wage wars over both–at great length and to great losses. Maybe that is why some are loathe to address actual religion. We too often tiptoe about it–that is, unless we are moved to speak up loudly/protest/rally in the name of whatever we hold dear. I grew up in the 60s so know about protesting. But when it comes to my faith, I do not unleash a humungous voice, usually. In fact I am very often quiet in most arenas. And I don’t like the sense that there is less and less choice for being able to share, to talk, to discuss openly– without penalty.

When did t his shift happen…? Over a lifetime I have sat around many tables, energetically engaged in debate that have led to insights with deeper understanding. A welcoming energy has been noticeable as ideas were bandied about. Bridges were constructed. Even with topics religious and political. Yes, there can be conflict and words one wanted to retrieve at the end of it all. But it wasn’t an exercise in disrespect or worse, cruelty.

More recently I have become more habituated to being quiet about things of the spirit unless I think present company will tolerate, perhaps enjoy, such conversation. Sometimes it is hard. My life is imbued with what matters most to me. As it is for most people–even if we are not conscious of it. We grow into such things and they accompany us on life journeys, shaped and reshaped, changed or replaced as we go. And one’s philosophy or faith is the same.

If I was still a serious seeker, perhaps looking for a religion, I would likely be overwhelmed. I tend to delve in, immerse myself in ideas–the nitty gritty. Because of that characteristic, I looked into various religions as youth and young adult–as young people are apt to do. Besides, I had had multiple experiences that didn’t necessarily cohere with what I had learned of the Protestant traditional ways of faith. Long before adolescence, I had a sense of deeply holy presence in my life, and divinity alive in complex realms of nature as well as human beings. I had difficulty finding words for this as a child and teenager but it seemed endemic to all natural-made life, and it reached far greater than the world beyond mine. And before I even knew what well-honed intuition and “extra sensory perception” meant, I was familiar with it within me. It never seemed unusual or extra anything. For one thing, my mother had it and used it without explanation or fanfare. In fact, it seemed almost a family thing. So–traditional church, spirituality, sacredness, intuition, everyday applications of belief and faith…it was all wrapped up together.

Raised in the First United Methodist Church by parents who left their childhood Southern Baptist and Church of Christ affiliations, respectively, when they moved north from Missouri, I was more or less at ease. (I later realized how radical a thing they did according to their Southern/Midwest culture.) I was shown that Christianity’s hallmark beliefs are based on Jesus Christ’s teachings: of love of God, others and one’s self; mercy; forgiveness; a deep commitment to supporting human progress–for the betterment of one and all; and personal accountability and authenticity. It made basic sense to me in my childish understanding and later, as I transitioned into adulthood. I learned more as I went, but these stuck with me even when it didn’t always add up to the reality of my life.

It was a moderate sized church community in a smaller city, housed in a building that Alden B. Dow had designed; it was lovely moving through it, gazing out beautiful windows. And what I heard was what I experienced. People were congenial but much more–considerate, quick to help others in need (not just at church), generous-minded, gentle mannered but strong in the face of tragedy. I went to Sunday school each Sunday morning, then joined the family in the sanctuary. I attended church camp many summers–fun with others and nature; participated in events at Christmas and Easter; and was confirmed in the faith at 12. My father oversaw the music; my family sang or contributed instrumentally–a favorite part of services was robustly singing hymns from pews or in the choir loft.

As I moved into teen-dom I was, for a time, in a Methodist Youth Fellowship; we were active in the community helping others. But I began to diverge from known entities and ways as I grappled with trauma, increasing drug use over the next several years as I tried to cope. Yet I was not one to ignore the implacable sense of God here, there, everywhere. I wrestled with often obscure but profound meanings of existence, the greater purpose of living. I drew closer to nature’s mysteries and lessons and sought out ancient Celtic ways (some of which still resonate with me). I read books on philosophy and world religions. I sought out magazine articles of other cultures’ spiritual practices. I became interested in shamanism and poured over Kierkegaard and CS Lewis and marveled at their different views. Then Joseph Campbell’s writings on classical mythology, Native American beliefs, Christian saints and arcane writings, Buddhism and meditation, white witchcraft and paganism, Subud, Bahai, parapsychology, the uses of graphology and astrology–well, the list went on for years…Some of this seeped into me as surely as Christianity. I sorted and tossed as I began to embrace enlarged viewpoints.

Did all this worry my parents? There weren’t arguments, but there was voiced concern. They felt I was far too serious, even somber for a teen-ager; so did many of my classmates. In time, I found more friends–those in the arts, those who loved to exchange ideas. Many of us became hippies, playing folk music, aligning ourselves with natural ways and means of living. But with the advent of the anti-establishment movement we became more politically engaged. That opened up a whole other vista. Religion could pose as nearly anything, it seemed; doctrine could have many facets and faces. But not all were Christian, of course. We were busy trying to be “free spirits.”

Heady times, dangerous times, passionate days and nights and beliefs to explore and dreams and justice to fight for. I became involved with Students for a Democratic Society for three years. By then, my parents were very concerned; no doubt their prayers were more fervent for my well being; we became estranged at times. I had begun to forge my own path out of childhood and their home. By 16 I had essentially left; by 18 I had literally moved on. Many ups and downs taught me to fight my own battles, alone or with other young adults.

Except that I still believed in God. Nothing was capable of shaking that up much or for long. I might have felt alone, been literally abandoned. But I knew I wasn’t, truly. And through it all, I felt and remained Christian.

Looking back, I have no complaint about being raised in that Methodist church. I left it awhile and returned to it, have off and on attended other Methodist churches wherever I have lived as well as others. For some time it all seemed bland, too moderate for me, but that also spoke to my tumult and hunger for different experiences. I was looking for greater passion to put to use in life, more effective activism in society– and a truer response to God’s ubiquitous presence.

By my early twenties it hit me that my faith could be as strong or weak as I intended it to be. That it changed as I grew up, went on. And that it didn’t require me to attend a church, though that was good, too, if it benefitted me and, later, my family. But the priority was that I live it, daily walk it– not just talk it. I intended to try always to adhere to the chosen tenets to the best of my capability, not get messy and slack off because it was challenging at times to believe, even harder to act on them. And it mattered that I continue making my sacred relationship with God my first priority. And take to heart Jesus’ teachings which were rooted in love’s wisdom and shaped by extraordinary courage in his own vexing, turbulent times–and yet serve scores in an often tragic, angry world.

Have I been able to follow through? I have made errors in my life, some grave and damaging ones. I have failed my own expectations, yet I keep on with it. Nothing destroys my belief in the revolutionary compassion shared and taught by Jesus, his radical acts of love flowing from the eternal, powerful knowledge and grace of the ever creative, universal God. And every day I am brought closer to the certainty that nature compels us because it reflects God’s intricate and astounding work in this world and those beyond–and that it is a gift to us, to learn and cherish.

Can I even talk about this in public? I just did.

Do I have to check one box or the other? Already have checked both.

Can I try to understand other faiths, respect other kinds of believers? I can. Somehow I also believe we are all entwined in the ultimate sense.

Is it likely we become more committed to beliefs by being taught from the beginning their value? But then by way or trial and error, recurrent discouragement and hope, human fear and spiritual-religious transformation, the resilience of our souls?

Yes, and more than that, God never moves apart from us. What our earthly eyes see is only part of this story. We need to better see with our spirits. May I live and move within God’s welcoming presence and vast designs of life, now and always.

Blessings to all who seek God, and may the seeking bring more unity and charity.

Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: The Benefits of Malaise

Chris couldn’t quite tell the difference between day and night. He knew if he said that aloud, Lana would stop in her tracks, eyes big as pie pans. At work he said only what was required. Oh no, that wasn’t right. He no longer reported to a job. He was a homebody now; he tinkered every now and then, he sat and sat. He wandered in his mind.

Day melted into evening into night into another dawn. The shadows on walls or floors lightened and darkened, lengthened and shortened. He watched them move about and thought how mysterious they were. Sheer ivory curtains swayed and fluttered when a breeze visited. But the light itself? It only seemed to dim and then dim more in waking hours, then disappear as time wore on. Once Chris pulled apart the curtains to peek out at midday and the sun was a spotlight that blinded him. He closed his eyes, turned back to his interior darkness, and the greyness of the room. It might make some difference if he moved about the house, just got up and left their bedroom for more than a few minutes, Lana had said.

Maybe; likely not.

In their room, he’d placed the antique wingback chair just so, then he could rest and fiddle with the radio on the little side table, punch the buttons of the TV remote–though TV didn’t much interest him. He had books, and every day picked one from the teetering stack. Flipped the pages as if he thought it engrossing when, in fact, he lost his place every other paragraph. If all else failed, he’d take five medium steps to the bed and flop down, stare at the squiggly lines in the ceiling until he grew drowsy.

Lana said it was almost like his room now, in the same way the far end of the sagging mauve velvet sofa was their cat’s: Captain’s spot. No one thought it wise to move him, especially after his eyes closed. Chris agreed it might not be wise to move himself, either. But Lana came to bed around ten-thirty, as always. Gave him a kiss on his cheek, smoothed the damp T-shirt against his back. He couldn’t bear to face her much of the time, those eyes that saw him. He squeezed his more tightly closed.

At least she had become more silent like he was, as there wasn’t much more to add to it. The facts: hiding out in the room, his too long pause. Languishing in your bitter disappointment, she said once, tears held at bay as she turned from him. He could not argue with it.

******

Lana carried on. For her, life went on if edited to feel differently. There was still cleaning and cooking–tidiness helped with her feelings of misalignment, the stress of his distress, and he still liked good meals though he ate half the amount now–and errands and bill paying and calls to family to try to reassure. But even if she had expected Chris would get a hobby or become a bona fide handyman when he retired–granted, it was a very early and forced retirement, as he said–she was so in error. At least at this point. Not that this bothered her. He read; did crosswords (just easy ones, she noted); he took out his ancient ukulele a couple times and attempted to strum a tune. And he slept. How he slept.

What wore on her was that he had made their bedroom his cave of isolation. It was their bedroom, not just his only she only needed it at night, she supposed. But if she stepped in during daytime, she felt a temperature change. Coolish when it should have been warmer up there–they’d never gotten the planned central air–what with summer going heat-wild but no, it was a strange well of shadows, and it seemed the walls insulated Chris like protection of earth about a real and deep well. She’d open up a window to air things out and he’d half-shut it, as if too much oxygen might be harmful. He kept a fan going all the time, facing outward so stray warmth and breath was sucked right out.

He is trying to live in a vacuum, she thought and it made her shiver.

After breakfast, while he leaned back in the ancient wingback (she’d spent too much money to re-upholster it in a fine wisteria print–how was she to know he’d be let go?) and stared at things she’d not ever see, Lana went to the market. Up by seven, put the kettle on, take Chris his breakfast on a tray, eat her own thick slice of bread with a nut butter and jam, then off she’d go. It was a sure thing to keep her better afloat. And a break from his melancholy.

The colors! The mix of voices, casual elbowing. The foods displayed in an artistic way–she’d gawk while fingering things. In her hands, tomatoes were smooth as silk, plump with juice; potatoes with their earthiness were weighty and consoling. Herbs were held to her nose; the aromas carried her away. The onions were pretty with papery skins and friendly, unlike when she chopped them for stews or tacos– in seeming punitive response they made her cry a bit. Then strawberries, black raspberries, raspberries and figs, peaches and apples–all called to her as if she was exactly who they were waiting for, and she was delighted to carry them home.

Sometimes she’d sit with her bag full of sustenance and watch others come and go. Mothers wheeling newborns about, older men with sunglasses perched atop balding heads, little children stopping play to blissfully bite into ripe nectarines, juices dribbling down their perfect small chins. Women with eyes bright with relief and happiness like hers.

And my, those astonishing flower stalls.

Lana was not that talented in their yard–mostly, she weeded and beat back bugs that nibbled away, trying to keep things going. So she bought flowers at the market in armfuls. Chris tended to complain that they’d wilt and be done so what was the point? But she had a collection of odd and lovely vases, even a few antiques scrounged over decades from flea markets and garage sales. She loved the act of preparing bouquets, the gentle separation of stems and trimming, arranging this way and that, in just the right vase. They were placed on tables throughout the house, each room they graced sparking with beauty. She smiled as she entered and exited and grazed their bold or pale, tender blooms with her fingertips. Their unique fragrances followed her from task to task. She sometimes thought she’d like to take a class on flower arranging, make it more than an amateur attempt. She thought, too, she’d like to wear them in her hair.

It was an hour or so that Lana spent at the market. She was lightened by it, always looked forward to chatting with neighbors and vendors. It assured her she held a welcomed place in the world, as did they. But then she had to go home.

Not that she didn’t have a place there. It had just shifted as their foundation trembled; big parts of their life were no longer settled.

Chris had fallen away. And she was taking care of him, trying to keep him from tumbling further. And if that meant bringing him meals and seeing that he got a good shower every couple days, she’d do it.

******

He might have done something different, he thought many times a day, so that he’d have been kept on as supervisor at the plant. Eighteen years there, unheard of these days, and yet he was one of the first to go when the pandemic stopped the world. But it was done, he reminded himself, and that was how it was–why wear out the simple truth of it with all his self-doubts? He was getting older, business was poor, they could do fine without him, it turned out so fare thee well old man.

Why it mattered so much he didn’t know. The job wasn’t something to brag abut, it was good work fairly well paid. He and Lana were not going to go hungry or lose their bungalow bought thirty-some years ago. So they wouldn’t likely redo the two bathrooms. They might not eat as well as they liked and no longer eat out, of course. Captain, their fat grey tabby, might have to endure nail cutting from him as all that cat upkeep business got pricey. Vacations might have to be cut the next few years, maybe forever, he wasn’t even sure yet.

They’d be okay. Still, it felt like a punch in the gut.

And what came next?

These thoughts coiled and uncoiled in his brain as he half-dozed, so that when he awoke with a start as a truck rumbled by he wasn’t sure if he had just dreamed of Angus burgers burning on the grill or Captain racing away as he wielded nail clippers or Lana catching him off guard as she waltzed right past him in a beautiful green dress, her dazzling smile with tears falling. Maybe he was recalling the past in altered form. There certainly wasn’t much going on in his present life. The future? Anybody’s guess. Chris could be nostalgic as much as he chose. It didn’t change a thing.

The life beyond the windows on their second story room barely pulled at him. He knew the Carters were jamming as many suitcases and bags as possible into the back of their camper van. To the Southwest in August, they’d informed him a couple months ago. Tom Hannelly had broken a leg when he fell from his cycle racing down country hills; he hobbled about in an unwieldy cast, swearing a bit. Tina and her three dogs were out three times a day; she now worked from home. And Margo and Danny were maybe still getting a divorce after the pandemic but for now they were a team trying to make it work, their two teenagers in need of cohesion.

The last bit he knew because Lana had updated him. He hadn’t asked, he never did; he counted on her to be the bearer of news. And most else. And like before, she was there with what he needed, even though he had been in an unfamiliar survival mode. She was his safety net.

Chris heard her come in and shut the door, jabber to Captain. He wondered what she’d bring him from the market for a snack. Then felt the guilt wash over him. He was stuck in this room–and didn’t care that much. He put his feet on the footstool, settled into the wingback and felt the tide of sleep lap at his mind, threatening to take him again. But he was sorry he made things harder for her. It’s just that the most pressing thing was how many lines were creeping across the ceiling he had almost memorized. And if he was ever going to look further into it. Beyond that, the room was getting stuffy despite the fan on high all the time–but there was enough good air, he presumed, to keep sitting there indefinitely. It just took too much effort to face what lay outside these walls, beyond the tiny corner of his life. Discomfort nagged at him and he shifted. There came a niggling restlessness that he ignored. He dozed once more.

Then her footsteps, steady but light, the only footsteps he loved to hear. Did she ever miss hearing his on the stairs or running down four steps into the breezeway and across to the garage with its apartment built on top (that had been empty since Teddy had left for post-grad work six years years ago, good for him) or grilling on the deck he had built last year? Did she wait to hear those steps as he waited to hear hers?

He felt the slip of breeze with a touch of cool sail over his eyelids, neck, hair. He stretched, got up, went the distance to the hall, then the bathroom–the farthest he had walked in some time.

*******

She spent a long time sorting and preparing bouquets of multi-hued dahlias and roses with sprays of greenery for three rooms. Then several minutes fixing the zinnias so they fit a smaller orange and white swirled glass vase with fluted mouth. She picked the freshest, brightest blooms, placed them in the water, patting them when done. She also nestled a mix of berries in a well used white ceramic bowl and brewed tea, Lady Grey, for his mug with its red-winged blackbirds motif. It didn’t much matter that he might not notice these things. She wanted to do it for him.

When she knocked softly, then entered their bedroom, she was surprised to see Chris showered and dressed in shirts and a fresh T-shirt. It had been almost four days since that had happened and it had almost scared her.

“Here you go, tea and berries, and my, you look nice, fresh.”

He gave her a weak grin, let his eyes roam over her; they landed on her hips a moment, then her shoulders and neck, her face. Remarkable, really; she always looked good to him. It had been awhile since he had really looked at much less seen her and her trim form and bright expression stirred a light flutter in his chest.

“I needed it, I suppose.”

She set down the tray after he put the radio on the floor. That old thing, a cumbersome black radio that he’d kept for twenty years and repaired twice. She heard him fiddling with stations sometimes, until he settled on local news or programs with old standards, as ever. She hoped it never broke down for good.

“Berries again,” he murmured, and pinched one between thumb and index finger, popped it into his mouth, groaned in appreciation.

She knew he enjoyed them, as much as he could. She watched him test the tea, blowing across the top of the mug first, then nod. Smoothing her chinos with damp hands, she said, “I’ll leave you to it, then,” and turned to go.

At the door, she heard him stir, then say her name. She turned and saw him sitting forward, mug set back on the table.

“I’m sorry, Lana,” he said.

He had said this often enough that she was sure he was, and she knew he meant it to bridge the narrow but obvious gaps between them. She had tried for two months months to be patient, to let him work it out, to be positive with fewer words and yet she hovered at the edges of his malaise, waiting, tending, praying, just trying hard to accept. The bee sting with the honey, she recalled her mother telling her of the flux of things in marriage.

“Drink your tea, it’s good tea, eat the berries, you’ll feel better. I’ll make a peach pie later.”

She smiled, started through the doorway but looked back a last time. He was hunched over bowl and mug, head in hands. So she went to him but sat on the bed a few feet away.

To speak or wait and listen.

His head felt thick as pudding but the promise of peach pie was so good gratitude welled up. Could a pie do that to his impoverished soul? How long was he going to let her carry the load while he suffered hurt pride and a loss of direction, still as a sloth in the heat of summer days and nights? She was near him and he ought to speak to her but Chris noticed an ant cross over the worn wood floor boards, then another and another, an orderly line in and out of shadows. Ants had purpose, they got so much accomplished, putting him to shame. And when had they started back in? Was it about fall already?

Lana lay back on the unmade bed and the feather pillow, long gray hair (no more beauty salon visits lately) strewn about it. She took a quavering breath in, let it out. Touched the silky sheets. It was a good bed; it had served them well, had been a nest and a briar patch and a chalice of sorts. As she closed her eyes, weariness engulfed her. Was she really that tired out? She never felt it when on her feet, moving and doing and looking forward. But here, in the middle of day, after flowers and berries and hearing his deep regret again, she felt nearly overwhelmed by the weight of their most ordinary lives. Her broad palmed, practical hands were crossed over her chest; the heat of them and the oppressive room pressed upon her. And she understood the need to sleep more.

And then he was beside her, a zinnia in hand. He touched it to her rosy cheek, traced her firm jaw, lips soft as dandelion fluff. She opened her eyes and what she saw was a small relief, and an offering, a remembrance of love. She took the flower, lay it aside as he lay down. And then he held one of her hands in his and they closed their eyes, midday sunlight peeling away bits of slinking shadow. Captain pounced, then lay at their feet, and a trickle of incoming breeze from a slightly ajar window felt like a spell or a blessing rich with jasmine. It was daytime but it might have been night, as the room felt so much more theirs as they settled close to each other, and it was not a fortress nor a place of doom. It was only a room of comfort.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Getting Lost and Finding One’s Way

Photo by Aleksejs Bergmanis on Pexels.com

I’ve been this way many times but manage to take one turn off too soon. We are heading into city center and a primary destination of Powell’s Bookstore, a favorite place recently reopened. Anticipation pumps up adrenaline. But I am embarrassed and frustrated about missing my turn and try to discern my way within a warren of unfamiliar streets that skirt the area desired. How did this happen? The traffic is moving along at a fast pace; I am talking with my daughter as I drive and didn’t bother with GPS because I know where I am going. Good reasons or not, I know I need to find 10th or 12th Avenues–or any north-south streets, for that matter– then head to east-west Burnside Street. It’s simple, after all; I know this city. Until I get turned around in notoriously puzzling hills in this section of SW Portland.

I shake my head, tell Alexandra, “I don’t know what happened, I do know where I am going!”

Or so I thought, until that glitch. I dislike being lost, truly lost. But I am only momentarily a little lost. I just need to relax and think clearly, but it is as if I am snagged in a quirky, confounding landscape. I turn this way and that and no matter which way I go I start to feel disoriented. What has happened to my internal compass, so accurate 99 percent of the time? Then she maps things out on her phone, calmly instructing me, sorting things out. Is this what adult children do when their parents get older and older? This thought makes me more irritated and impatient–me, a very patient and competent driver who always finds her way. I joke that this is why an exacting paper map to smooth on your lap to survey the whole picture works very well. And I want to defend myself and do, at which point she reassures me everyone gets lost at times, and the SW hills area is a tough one to figure out on the fly. And it is not a big problem to find the route out and get back on track.

She is correct. She consults her phone and shortly we are headed in the right direction, out of the maze and into the bustling city center. And before long we are in NW Portland, by the bookstore and coffee shop and all else with which we are familiar, happy, relieved to find still intact our beloved, recently beleaguered city.

We have a lovely afternoon. How can book hunting amid endless shelves and stacks of books with Peet’s excellent iced coffee in hand not be wonderful? It is akin to release from a year in jail-like isolation to wander down streets and window shop, walk past groups of chattering people, our eyes sweeping over interesting architecture. Smelling pungent scents of new and old books, noting heft and beauty of each in our hands. Add easy laughs and good talk, something we often plan but rarely get to do, just the two of us, anymore. A successful time for this mother and her youngest daughter. A sense of things being just a little more normal in the world–except for the masks, except for much less crowded stores.

And then, on the way home, I somehow fail to maneuver into a congested lane to avoid funneling onto the freeway, so there we are, caught up in accelerating clots of after-work traffic. Luckily, no true traffic jams. Luckily, I know where I am going. All I have to do is take the right exit and I do. This time Alexandra suggests a lane at end of exit ramp that is not the right one, so I am forced to turn another direction. But it is an easy fix.

At her place, we sit in my car and talk, reluctant to end the outing. I am so glad to have a few more moments together; she is animated, articulate, offers some of her daily life stories, then offers suggestions about an outdoor family reunion/picnic coming up. The first family get together in nearly two years that includes extra family from out of state. Masked and unmasked, all of us to gather to safely enjoy a few hours in blazing June sunshine–under the pavilion roof, under a canopy, extra chairs, grill and coolers lugged along. Once it is all coordinated well. More like normal, for once.

“We’ve got this, Mom, I do this all the time for event planning at my job,” she says, showing me links on her phone, talking logistics. I agree, she will help things go right, she has that knack. But she also has an eye on the time. It’s not easy to enjoy short periods of freedom when there awaits a return to a young family, the multiple demands and needs of twins trumping one’s own need to rest, even eat, work–much less play. I recall very well often lingering at the grocery another ten minutes, hiding out during yard work, finding a reason to delay a return to the fabulous madhouse shared with beloved children who eagerly awaited me. It is the reality: loving others fiercely while also yearning to care for one’s own self. But she says, finally, farewell for now.

I feel her leavetaking. The car empties of her shimmering, bristling, compacted energy. I see her in the rearview mirror, decisively making the way up steps to her home. Time for me to go home, too.

I know where home is, of course. I get there in ten minutes and sipping my iced mocha, I sit under the shade of towering, friendly trees and think on the afternoon. How several times I felt as if in a daze, and vulnerable to The Virus, to who knows what in the stores if I had to squeeze by someone. Then came heady joy when walking in the city under that blue jewel of sky, chatting with Alexandra at my side. Such juxtaposed feelings and moments. It is mind boggling how every person on earth continues to live with threats to our exposed human lives. Except those who do not live. We are, of course, as frail as we are sturdy.

And then I feel that accumulating heaviness descend upon my shoulders and mind. I have had a good afternoon, but I can slip right back to the grief-lined, deep well of restless silence. The lingering loss of a spirited granddaughter and her mother’s (another cherished daughter) everyday, secure life left behind, her harshly torn days, unsettled ache of night hours. The trauma a son experiences since hiking in a remote area and coming upon a violent scene of death of a person, that life gone horrifically wrong. The worry over a grandson’s health as he slowly recovers from Covid-19. The imaginings, the questions that run rampant in my head about the rest of my grandchildren: will they grow up brave and full of love and wonder? Will they- oh God please- just stay safe and alive a long, long, long time?

I don’t know exactly how to navigate all this lately. My head is clogged with it. I am dulled by rumination, stunned by all the events. The fallout makes me feel, at times, unwell. How does one avoid the emotional landmines of unexpected loss? Isn’t most loss unimagined? (Seven family members have now died over the last several years; who would have thought it?) But we cannot often sidestep what crosses our path. Or, frankly, never. The pandemic, for instance. And worse. It is enough to make me shudder and reel, despite getting up each morning and tackling or easing into each hour.

I remind myself that I have spiritual resources and mental resilience, yet cannot put my hand on a good and useful map. Every time I get lost in this life, I have to reinvent my way in and out of places of the heart, mind and soul. It can be like washing up on an island not even charted. I get off the boat/raft that carries me in and out of place and time, and make tentative footfall. But then cannot find balance enough to not stumble or sometimes plummet to ground. Gravity of earth, how tricky a superior force–and if body and mind are not in sync, it is not easy making one’s way after a long voyage. In fact, it isn’t too easy to roll out of bed, find the stable floor and walk in a nice straight line to the sink to splash water on my face. I am discombobulated. This is not my natural state. It is a state of subdued emergency that lingers.

I have a third daughter who suffered (for a year, to varying degrees) from Mal de Barquement syndrome, dizziness with attendant balance issues after leaving an old fashioned tall ship–a strange phenomenon. Seasickness on land. Or land sickness. (And she is an international traveler, independent, confident–imagine the distress over such loss of orientation.) This is an apt comparison when thinking of events during the last three months. I don’t get “dizzy” during most life crises. I function well, manage tasks, tend to others’ needs. Keep my emotions in enough check for all intensive purposes, though if I must cry, I cry; if I need to swear, I swear–and move on. The brain fires away; I take the steps required for the situation. I cope and cope and cope alright. And then, after things settle a bit more, I start to get tired, adrenaline losing steam. Lose sleep, acquire tension in a problematic neck that triggers big headaches, feel somewhat frayed by ordinary stressors, eat less as appetite decreases (chronic digestion issues flare). Mind and soul feel out of sync, thinking has less directed clarity, and I misplace my usual bountiful hope. Tears erupt and recede often. I forget many things throughout the day, have to remind myself again what it is I intend to be doing next. Time slithers by and I can’t make it behave as I desire. I might check the calendar to make sure what day, in actuality, it is. I ask myself: does it matter what day? People are dying everywhere and here I am, like a lame woman hanging from the curve of the earth, determined to get back on. For some reason.

Well, I am not in the moment, something I greatly value and am pretty good at being/doing. No, I am in the land of the grieving, the land of the exhausted, a place I wander through day and night, seeking a long lasting peace.

I spoke to my son, Joshua, today. We shared how we both feel this way since Krystal died almost two months ago. After his ordeal, too, then his son becoming so ill. I asked how he is doing with it all, how he labors with his commercial and residential painting business jobs while he also takes care of his family and himself. He told me what he always tells me: he creates things, that is, makes jewelry, paints scenes, makes music, rock hunts then cuts and polished them, works on his garden and yard, camps, builds things, like a handmade camper. And he holds onto Light of God.

“But I can’t even rustle up good enough energy or clear head to create much at all,” I admitted. “It can be tiring to even talk to my neighbor lately.” I think: My prayers have become weaker recently, too, as if signals are hampered.

“Yeah, I can’t do as much, either. I work and am at home and avoid seeing people right now; I need to have time alone. I rest more, yet sleep isn’t too easy, either.” He paused; I wondered over the pain kept close inside. He is a very macho guy but has a warm, responsive heart. “It’s the past and future that can throw us off badly. I try to stay in the moment as much as possible. The beautiful moment we have, or can make.”

“Yes, you are right,” I said, “I will try to be here right now more. Thanks, son. I love you.”

“You’ve been a pillar for us, let yourself rest more. I love you, Momma.”

How fortunate to have such a son, such daughters, I think again, even when we each pulse with our hurting. Even with our respective emotional junk seeping out everywhere, at times. The daughter who lost her daughter is going to get a summery pedicure with me. It is such a contradiction, to carry loss to the nail salon, us two sitting side by side, engaged in that pedestrian activity, chatting about nail polish colors, calloused heels. Another daughter shared her new Chaplain/ministerial website with me today, which looks good, and her job hunt for something different than usual is underway. The oldest daughter checks in with blurbs from an important Colorado visit, her paperwork for tenure, art pieces in progress. And Marc–well, he is back at work. At last.

I have more time alone. The buffer and elegance of a profound quietness. So much more time alone, so much quietness, it wraps around me. But he is glad to be working again. I can play my jazz, classical and Latin music all day long, dance anywhere I wish. When I feel like dancing. Sometimes I hum and sway, lift my hands to the universe.

So this is the only map I have right now. To be focused on the present, if possible. To be cared about and to care. But other than that, I may just stand still in this room a spell, sit on that verdant hill, eat this fresh food, read and write another line, speak to my friend about her own journey, greet my neighbor who is stony but talks to me a little. Take five steps forward, then turn, proceed down another rocky or warm earthen path, up the incline to see what is next. If unbalanced, pause. If stumbling, lift up each foot high and set it down firmly. Sit down, breathe in perfume of all the breezes from places unknown. Find a new spot, claim it, share it. I am my own mother, as my mother is not here in body, anymore. I lost may parents so long ago.

Because this is how it can be done, a piece at a time. I have experience with many things attendant to being a human creature. It is not an strange land but part of the process of being alive during seventy-one years. It isn’t just me, either; you are in the bigger story, of course. Even mine. It will take its own time, just slowly enough, this healing of being hurt then hollowed out, the dissipation of fears, the emptying of tears. I will find ways to release and let go, hold what is essential, the helpful truth-telling parts. And then the return of a strong embrace of ebullience can happen.

It is the circle, isn’t it, and we keep on moving with it. Sometimes we have to stand way back to see the whole blasted, masterful map. Other times we have to–at least I have to–get up close and find the identifying dot is and say “Yes, I am right here”–so that the greater picture will come into focus better.

So I will get there. Get back to my sharper and brighter, hopeful and grateful self. But if you ever wonder where I am when I don’t show up on this blog, or question the rambling words I write, it is only this: I am working and breathing and trying the best I can with a yoke of life’s sorrows about my shoulders. (I know you have yours and are doing the same if not today, tomorrow.) But I do know my way back home. It is following my heart, nourishing my spirit’s yearnings, placing my feet on the trail and my vision on mountains and rivers, the wild things, ocean and trees and the rest. Those close to me whom I care for more each day. And those not yet met. This is where I live, inside an awesome mystery. Today, I am where I am on the intricate map of the living, and I cannot help but feel for us all, even ghosts roaming this world and beyond. I am tired so need wings to carry me above the fray. But what I see, I wonder over; the unseen is simply unseen at this moment.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Invisible

Photo by Lucas Allmann on Pexels.com

“Coming? Or is breakfast going to be your diner?”

Marni yelled upstairs toward Amanda’s and Tim’s bedrooms. Her son emerged immediately, his gangly length led by slipping, stockinged feet. She noted the hole in one sock toe. Darning was not a skill, though for her kids she’d do most anything. Darning socks was the least of it. He landed with a sliding thud.

She waited for Amanda, gave up and padded to the kitchen in her new navy scuffs with a trillium on each toe. Tim helped himself to eggs and sausage. She poured herself a big mug of coffee and sat across from him, chin propped in her hand. Every time she caught sight of her scuffs, she smiled to herself. Simplest pleasures made a difference.

As Tim ate, she thought over a conversation she’d had with her best friend a week ago. Lana had often suggested Marni begin to relinquish control of her family and was getting more adamant. “Or perceived control”, she’d added wryly. Now that Amanda was seventeen and Tim almost fifteen, it was time and then some. Time to get back into the workforce or into college studies or at least engage in a worthwhile hobby–ceramics, stained glass, anything but try to keep up her domestic goddess status. In fact, Lana insisted, Marni was the one and only such creature she knew–and that fact might give her a clue that it was an anachronistic state of being.

Their last lunch date was annoying to them both.

‘Unless you used it to build a gazillion dollar empire, let’s face it.” Lana smirked, knowing such a notion would never occur to her friend. “But, then, you’re undermotivated, being married to Rob the VP of Tomkins and Sons and a man with serious political leanings. You can afford to stay home, I grant you. The question is–“

Marni cut her off with a slice of the air with her fork. “You know why. I like being home and Rob likes me the way I am, and I am truly not ever unhappy as you think, so much so that I must go off in search of ‘fulfillment’, as you keep suggesting.” Lana’s words stung no matter how often she’d heard them, which was every few months.

Lana bit her tongue. Of course he did, Marni was everything he needed and more to aid and abet his career and keep their family ship afloat. “Yes, alright, I know…”

“Besides, we know you have a great career and travel often, are single and have one absent kid–so your perspective is askew. Not everyone is quite so independent and free.”

“He is not absent, he’s at university and busy practicing being an adult. I hope. I am also not what you’d call a free agent in my work position, either. And all you give me are rationalizations.” Lana sighed. It was useless to talk sense to her. “What will happen when they leave–like my Jason did? I had Plan B and C. You’ve spent years submerged in home life and you’ve well succeeded at all you’ve done. But don’t forget that dream you had recently. Your subconscious is knocking on your door, my friend.”

“It wasn’t a nightmare, it was just frustrating feelings emerging. Every mother has those!”

Lana’s highly arched eyebrows lifted. “Swinging high from a huge tree, people pushing and grabbing and pulling until you fall from that glorious moment of bliss halfway to the sky and then plunge into nothingness which wakes you up in a sweaty panic. Time’s a wastin’. Forty and counting, now.”

Marni toyed with her chef salad, then patted Lana’s elegant, bronzed hand flattened on the white expanse of tablecloth. “Relax, I’m okay. My life is good and you know it. Now tell me about your trip to Norway.”

“First commit to a spa day with me next month.”

“That’s easy, yes, if it has a eucalyptus steam room.”

Marni loved hearing about Lana’s adventures in work and life. Not that she hadn’t travelled some, attended concerts and plays, created interesting community events. But the truth was, she had long ago lost a taste for the kaleidoscopic, hectic, demanding world beyond her doorstep. She had long been aware of living in her own encapsulated time and space. It bothered her little–but lately, more often, for all the reasons Lana harped on. But what was actually worth more effort? Much of what mattered to her had gradually changed over the years–wasn’t that true of everyone? So she wasn’t as ambitious as she had once been, while most women she knew had gotten bolder, smarter, more accomplished. Well, once knew. She’d been left behind almost imperceptibly over the years and now it was an occasional meet-up, a shared charity responsibility. But sometimes they’d looked at her with a touch of envy when she talked about her life, while she found them more worn around the edges. If perhaps more confident in some ways. She’d make the same choices–would they?

But it was easy to be smug about one’s own life when you knew so little of the other person’s, or what all the options even were, she thought then. And thought again a few times.

When Lana and she had first met, Marni worked in publicity for a great regional magazine (which had become glossier and more literate). It was a good job, one that got her going each day and brought her to a restful closure, more often than not, by evening. But Lana had climbed the ladder fast, then moved on. And Marni stayed until Amanda was born and she never went back full-time. Then Tim arrived and it seemed right to be home awhile longer. Time passed. She followed the new parenting agenda. It soon felt as if she was on a train and there was no stopping it; she hunkered down, learned along the way, determined to excel at her more mundane job. But often treacherously difficult.

She thought over these things as Tim scarfed down the remains of his breakfast and slurped a latte. He watched her with dancing brown eyes and she smiled back.

She sat forward with a start as Amanda joined them–tall, lean, hair half-brushed, clothing disheveled.

“Okay there, Mom, or is that your third cup of coffee?” Amanda asked.

“Is virtual learning a reason to get sloppy?” Marni retorted, then regretted it as her daughter slumped into her chair.

“I’m dressed, not naked, right?”

Tim laughed, spewing latte, “Crap, no!”

Amanda threw a pinch of cold toast at him, then another.

“Enough, you two!” Marni did not think this exchange was hilarious. She longed for order at her tables.

Rob rushed by, grabbed his coat from the coat tree in the foyer. “Have a breakfast meeting at the club, remember?–See you all tonight!”

She rose, awaiting a quick kiss. He paused, blew an air kiss, and left whistling.

Go get ’em Tiger! she thought ungenerously and softly slapped at the countertop with a damp tea towel. She hoped the kids didn’t notice her irritation. She needed to get over the feeling of being snubbed by her own spouse.

******

With an hour to go before taking Tug, their collie, to the groomer’s, Marni later sought out Amanda in her room. After knocking and getting an assent, she entered and sat in the computer desk chair.

“What, Mom?” Her head was haloed in sunlight, a tangled cascade of hair resisting her brush-out.

“We have to talk about this summer.”

“Summer? It’s April. And I have to sign in for remote Calculus in a few.”

“Aren’t you going to apply to Blue Lake Summer Arts Camp this year? The due date is April 20 and you haven’t done a thing with your application.”

Amada rolled her eyes, pulled her hair into a messy ponytail. “Maybe, maybe not.”

“Why is that?”

“Derrick will be in town, working at the golf course as a caddie.” She rubbed her face with her palms to wake up better. “So, that’s a no, I guess…”

“You’d miss a fabulous eight weeks of creative engagement for…some new boy? He’ll be here when you get back.”

“Mom! You can’t talk to me about missed opportunities! I actually do lots of stuff, you know. What have you tried lately that has been remotely interesting? Sorry–but true. You barely know Derrick, anyway–he is definitely not just ‘some boy’.”

That was true–she didn’t know him much though they’d met; he was well mannered and conversationally adept so those were pluses but that meant little when her daughter was out there with him.

“There isn’t much more to say, but can we talk later? Class begins in a minute.”

Dismissed, Marni left.

Days like that she wondered what she was doing there? It seemed as if her children had gotten their footing well enough that her advice meant little to nil. She was what to them all? A glorified cook/chauffeur/ occasional therapist/housekeeper. And she had to get Tug to the groomer. His hair was everywhere; she’d had enough of that, too. Otherwise, he was the only one that minded her, anymore.

******

That evening she swung on the porch swing in tender, bluish twilight, wondering if Rob was really at Capitol Steakhouse for dinner with a cronie. She saw him less and les, yet it meant little more to her. Everyone knew who Rob Henninger was. She was introduced to new people with: “You know, she’s married to Rob!” and people would beam at her until they realized she had nothing much to add to that. Plus, Marni was not gregarious and did not have a paying career. But she was good for helming causes behind the scenes, so was handy to have as an acquaintance.

All Marni could do was write a little. But no one knew that, not even Lana, it was not meant to be known. Well, Rob did in the abstract. He was aware she got up before anyone else to spend intense time at her computer and closed it when the house became more lively. He knew she loved fiction, kept trying to write it, and that was enough for him to know. Well, he had his coin collecting, a holdover from childhood. He had his passion, golf. Everyone needed something pleasing to do.

So she kept her ideas to herself. Her fantasy stories would draw giggles from her kids, a blank face from Rob. It was her quiet space, her private time, life outside the family.

Swinging gently, she thought of the current story she was working on. How, if it ever seemed good enough, maybe she’d finally want to share it, but with whom? Still, thinking of her characters, letting them walk about in her mind as if they were cohorts from an ethereal–yet very present–zone…this always cheered her. She pushed off from the porch to swing more.

The sweeping front yard was breathtaking. Daffodils proud and still along hedges, and daphne bushes letting loose their heady perfume to dazzle all who passed, and the delicate cherry blossoms so blush-white against the darkening sky. Marni feasted her eyes and soul on the opulence of early spring: nature in its powerful unfoldings held her in its thrall. She was welcome within it all. She never felt set apart by nature. Unlike her family. She was a part of all that occurred in nature’s stirrings. And, perhaps, art. Left to her own devices, unconstrained by timetables and ever-urgent voices. Her viewpoint opened to a wider, deeper vista then, her experiences a tapestry of peculiarities and wonderments. And nothing and no one could disturb the outcome of what she made of words and imaginings, but herself.

That was the rub, she saw with a shock. She had begun to feel less welcome in her family’s world, in the finely appointed home, the stratified society in which she maneuvered. But give her an hour alone with language and she was set free.

If only she might attend an adult summer arts camp. Like the one Amanda found meaningless this year after five years attending a diverse program, studying flute, at which she excelled. It saddened her to think her daughter might be moving away from such times. Tim had been drawn to outdoor camps; now he went on camping trips with friends and their less city-centric parents. A vacation is what all parents needed, her acquaintances admitted and she had agreed–though Rob always planned a luxurious trip for them in between his own career engagements. Trips that made her fretful, itchy with boredom by a turquoise pool as he mingled and played golf.

As Marni’s swinging slowed she was startled to feel a sharp twinge of desire, an ache of need for a new environment: the arts within nature’s arena. She felt like a flowering bush straining for more light and space. A plant stymied was like a life hemmed in, doomed to not rise up strong enough, eventually to wither unless given needed nurturing and nutrients. Oh, she’d go on being wife and mother. But beyond that, who?

She had to do something to move from the shadows, make her secret self known or be left behind. Barely visible, in the wings of a stage full of family bustle and drama. Indispensable, always at the ready. Rarely acknowledged.

Now she saw the sense of what Lana had seen, and knew things had to change.

******

She sat cross-legged in bed next to Rob as he snored away. She was scanning possibilities– book stores and art stores for part-time jobs opportunities; literary conferences for volunteer work; small spaces in the country where she might rent a studio or cabin for a couple weeks. She hopped from one idea to the next, dissatisfied, headachy and blurry-eyed. Personal brainstorming was laborious.

Until, a bit after midnight, she found something. Marni leaned hard against the headboard with a small “Huh…”

Rob mumbled, “Okay, honey?”

She patted his shoulder; he went back to sleep.

“Yes, I just might be.”

******

By mid-May the rains had slowed from a rowdy polka to a short waltz now and again. Spring was offering everyone an infusion of good cheer and the balm of brilliant beauty. So, one Saturday afternoon three -quarters of the family lounged in the screen in back porch, enjoying soft breezes, sipping iced tea with lemonade, snacking on pretzels and peanuts.

Amanda said in a rush of words, “I applied for a job at the golf course.”

“No brainer,” Tim said and went back to his cell phone.

Marni looked up from a warm dry jumble of laundry. “Doing what? You don’t like golf much.”

“At the snack bar right off the green.”

“You don’t even know how to make a decent turkey sandwich!” Tim snorted.

“If you went there you’d know it was just drinks and packaged snacks, dummy!”

“Good, you won’t accidentally poison him.”

“Poison who?” Marni asked. “Oh…Derrick is to work there.”

“I’d like making some of my own money but yeah, he will be.” Amanda blushed enough that Marni knew she had lost track of the burgeoning romance.

“I’m all for that,” Rob said, as he walked in following an emergency town council meeting about zoning problems. I can help you with references, call Stan–“

“No thanks, Dad.”

The family chattered on as Marnie folded clothing. Shortly she carried the heavy wicker basket upstairs to the five bedrooms, then stopped and left it on the hallway floor. Let them put away their own things. She entered a spare bedroom and rummaged in a desk drawer, found what she wanted and descended the stairs.

Waves of rippling laughter slowed her before she came to a stop at the open French doors. They had all seemed more relaxed the past weeks, or maybe it was her. The good weather had been part of it. But, too, they each had pleasing things going on–Tim gearing up to help with Little League; Amanda with her boyfriend, a new job ahead; and Ron playing more golf and working in the yard a bit with her. They both loved their yard and flower garden. But Marni had something of her own, too.

“I have something to share with you,” she announced.

They swiveled to her, eyes narrowing in bright sunlight, and fell silent. A flicker of anxiety crossed her daughter’s face, and Tim slightly frowned. Rob rubbed his cleft chin, a fidgety thing. She unfolded the long envelope and pulled out a letter, then cleared her throat.

“Dear Marni Henninger, it is our pleasure to inform you that you have been selected to join Wild Salmon Arts Colony for a summer residency. We have further waived half the tuition based on the merit of your fine writing sample. The residency session is to begin August 1st through August 31st.” She glanced up nervously. “There’s more but that’s the gist of it.”

Rob stood and took the letter from her. “Very interesting…an arts’ retreat, a summer school or what?”

“The residency people make their art. Writers, dancers, composers, artists. A dozen at most. The spend a month working on their creations, then sharing them with each other.” She couldn’t temper the excitement she felt and smiled widely at them all–but she wanted to shriek with joy.

Rob sat down. “That’s something, honey… who would have thought?”

The spike in adrenaline fell off and Marni’s heart began to sink. Didn’t they get it, at all? She could see Amanda and Tim were more perplexed than he was. But of course they would be.

Amanda spoke up, gingerly. “Oh, like my summer arts camp? That’s great, Mom…but what were you thinking of doing? Or is it more like a school?”

Tim gripped his knees as he used to as a nervous child. “You aren’t, uh, really craftsy–are you? What will you even do for a month? Make flower arrangements or something?”

She felt as if a giant bubble of weird giddiness was filling her head, or was it dizzying disbelief. Her own family! They didn’t even know who she was, did they?

“She does write in the mornings,” Rob interjected. “I just didn’t know it was so important to you, Marni.” His wide eyes searched her face.

She sat down again, set the letter on a side table, smoothed her khakis. “I write fantasy stories.” She looked at her hands, then her children. “I’ve started… a fantasy novel. When you all are sleeping.” Then she threw up her hands. “My gosh, it isn’t so strange as all that, is it? I’m going to an arts residency to write and enjoy a whole new experience with other people who love to create. That’s it! Get used to it!”

She jumped up and her daughter and son did, too, with a rush of flailing arms about her and words of congratulations floating around–while Rob stood back, wondering what this meant to him, to their marriage, to her. He felt proud, but also suddenly anxious.

“Fantasy stories! That’s too cool, you kept this from us!” Tim said.

“Mom, you’re a mystery, this is great!” Amanda said.”What next?”

She’d thought of calling Lana, but they had a lunch date tomorrow, so she’d wait, put it all on the table. It might shock or amuse her, but certainly please her. Lana was her greatest support even if she didn’t know it fully. Or maybe she did–she had a keen nose for truth and never backed down from it. Her caring was steady. She foresaw changes, saw Marni clearly before Marni had come to really see herself.

At the end of the day, when the kids took off with friends, Rob wrapped her in his arms a few moments, then retreated to the family room with a glass of wine and his sports channel. The house felt huge, he realized, with the kids gone so much these days.

Marni sat on the front porch swing, watching and listening. She wanted to discern the inner workings of the dark sky. It was all so great an unknown. Her skin got goosebumps, and she hugged herself close. Maybe it was best to mainly appreciate what she saw and heard and felt. Until she could write out her thoughts and sensations.

It all felt good and right. She had made a marriage and two children; none of it was an easy thing to do. But it got so familiar it all had blended into her, the good with the not-so-good, an everyday-ness. She was quite overdue to map new courses, to create more curious, astonishing worlds. To offer up what she’d long and secretly imagined.

“So. I’m not going to be invisible, anymore,” she whispered to Venus, set like a jewel in the crown of the heavens. As if Venus didn’t know such earthly and other things already.