Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: The Gift of Caring and Learning to Receive

I am learning something new the past few weeks. I might not have to be quite as alone in my life as I crawl past the sudden death of a granddaughter. And worsened chronic illness, a year of my spouse’s unemployment, various troubles for five adult children here and there. And, yes–the pandemic, how can I note that last? The toll it has taken on humanity. On us each. That there might be care and aid for this woman–me, Cynthia–is amazing to me even after a fulfilling career offering help of all sorts to others. In truth, I was considering calling a therapist but put it off each week, waiting things out. You know…I can do this, it all takes time, I will get through this and be alright, I can tread water a lot longer….I know how grief fans open and closed and open…that sort of putting it off.

If you would, then, look above: the photo provides a semblance of what solace can be and do for me: losing self by creating an interesting scenario; meditating on curiosities and life’s beauty; being still; listening/watching/feeling. I could insert a photograph of the sea or mountains or a path winding through dense forest. Nature is clearly a focal point but not always. It might be playing favorite or new music or letting my own sudden singing flow; making a bit of art or dancing on my twilit balcony, hidden by trees. It might, then, be two lanterns, a solar kaleidoscopic sphere, and a flower. Sitting in the darkness as light sifts through it, seeing varied shapes amid softening colors. Birdsong in tiny bursts about me quieting at end of day, while the owl resumes its part with haunting calls. These cover me with ease, the simplest things. That presence of divine creation flows to and fro. I take it in, nourishment for my great hunger. I feel fuller, better.

Solitude–literally, figuratively–has been a close companion of mine for the duration of my life. Its arrival can be bittersweet, but first and last familiar, so an overall welcome state. Sometimes warm and cozy, sometimes cool and detached, it is like a second skin, a delight yet protective and flexible, as much a part of me as the blue myopia of my eyes.

I don’t think being solitary is completely a choice but an ingrained manner of living. A habitual behavior. I don’t readily stop to enumerate all options– and those that do come to mind are often due to being taught other ways. That one can have solitariness and connection with others–even though we are, of course, all by our human selves ultimately. But I apparently don’t have to expect always to be left to my own devices. A novel idea when first informed of it, and not quite accepted as truth. I am still working on it at 71; it seems that with age comes a bit of wisdom then greater leaps of learning.

Don’t get me wrong, solitude is a good thing much of the time; it appeals to the creativity I nurture, the writer and musician and thinker that stirs daily in me. I am at home with it in a myriad ways and for different means. And I was trained how to behave in the public at an early age, to interact with people in a civil, appropriately warm manner. It was a good thing. But solitude and being so much a solitary person–alone–are not quite the same, either.

Solitariness ceased being an action taken consciously–that drawing deep into self, figuring out how to endure then flourish alone, perhaps later with others –when I found myself alone as a child and desperately needed protection. But didn’t get it. Ever. Not even when my mother–a good mother but a mother constrained by societal expectations and her circumstances, her own fears– knew I was in need. I fended for myself and played my roles well enough. But then it was on to a turbulent and risky, oftentimes dangerous, youth and adulthood. Walking on a knife-thin edge while trusting my own intuition and sense of balance didn’t 100% pan out. Still, I developed survival instincts that, if not always physical rescues, were more emotional and spiritual saves. At a price. Surviving comes with a price one must be willing to pay. I have been willing. And able. That or give up, and never give up, I used to counsel myself, so outwit the victimizers, the everyday charlatans. Find the path through the world that allows you to stay alive, keep moving and keep sight of the Light.

I noted as a mental health/addictions counselor that such attitudes and behaviors are common for those who experience crushing, life changing events. If it soon is clear there is no rescue, no aid of any sort, clients devised creative ways to cope and survive. Or gave up. PTSD is brutal until it is understood and managed but in truth, there may be more harshness or (real or perceived) “punishment” and repercussions to cope with; life brings us a wide array of experiences. People can judge wrongly.

It takes arduous labor to move beyond this, years of praying (for me) and identifying markers or warning signs both within and without–to identify actual reasons for self defense and let go of misperceived experience. Then there is a pull back, and then construction of new coping skills. It is largely practical, not just emotional change. It becomes more natural to choose the healthy versus the unworkable response. And a person develops healthier perspectives, better decision making, freedom from past reactive or self destructive behaviors. It can be done, is being done by people every day. They learn to trust step by step–themselves first and, slowly, others.

If I know all this, why the persistent belief that I need to deal with life’s eruptions, twists and random barriers primarily alone? Habits are hard to change at the root. And they can seem comfortable, even when not the best. Change can be jarring, confusing, but it doesn’t tend to kill us; bad habits can and do. What can we do to save ourselves? Can I–can you–take new risks required?

Or, somewhat more complicated, can I actually “wake up” enough once more to see that I am being offered simple aid? We may think we are alert and smart enough….Consider how I had to pay attention anew, let go of old belief and practice other behaviors. It has just begun to sink in the past few days. The immensity of its impact has been worth musing over.

I shared this briefly before in a recent post, but there is a greater point to it. Skip this part of you need to but continue if you can…

I was grocery shopping on June 17 at 2:58 pm. when my phone dinged and showed a picture of my daughter, Naomi, standing on my front porch. I thought it was a weird joke she was making. I brushed it off and kept shopping, but my heart started to race. In a few moments I went outside to look at hanging flower baskets. And then I responded to her with disbelief: Is this real? Because Naomi lives in S. Carolina and only recently had driven to Colorado for the summer, where her guy lives–and I am in Oregon. When she affirmed she was standing on my porch, I nearly lost it. I raced home and found her and we hugged and hugged and I would have bawled if I wasn’t so excited. And then a bit worried about Covid-19, though we are both vaccinated. (That anxiety passed; we have been safe enough.)

Let me tell you something about her–besides that she is a sculptor, an award-winning educator, an international traveler, a brilliant woman (a talented/gifted-identified kid by 9, flew through college SATs at 11) who could flourish in any number of careers. Of course I am proud of her, as I am of all my children. But who she is can seem a true mystery and was from the start. Who creates block designs and buildings for a few hours without stopping, no distraction at just over two years? Then you get to know her more…although she explains almost nothing abut herself….And when she knows and cares for you, her loyalty is deep and wide. She has heart far bigger than her 105 pounds can keep to itself. She has soul, the kind that is hitched to the stars but swooped down here to see what she can learn and offer. She has a dry, quirky sense of humor, can offer lightning speed solutions to many conundrums, can be so quiet you have to look for her nearby. Is a workhorse when it comes to interests and passions. Self directed; don’t try to deter her. She shares characteristics with her equally individualistic–we are not so much a moderate or ordinary… if there is one of those–sisters and brother. But Na is, well, Na. (Those who know, understand this statement.)

So if she sent me a picture of herself smiling at my doorstep–“just in the neighborhood, thought I’d say hi”— it could be a digital joke, a forecast of the future, or a dream come true.

But who hops in a vehicle and drives across the country not only to see her guy Adam–but then her mother? Not for any particular reason, or so it seems at first glance…and without ever telling the mom–me? In fact, tells her she cannot make it out this year, likely. But then tells her siblings (and aunt and uncle who come later) to keep it a secret. Naomi does. But her sisters and brother are in on the plan. Maybe it was the fact the most of my birthdays the last ten years have been impacted by a family member’s death (and some of Marc’s family) and funeral. It happens so often, it is quite peculiar. Or perhaps it was that she heard something in my voice during phone calls she made sometimes twice weekly and daily texts for a couple of months–the weariness, spaciness, tears held back. And, without a doubt, she needed to see her family as much as coming for me/us. She could not make it for our Krystal’s funeral. To hug her sister Aimee beloved mother of Krystal…and share the love with everyone else.

Over the course of about ten days with us, Naomi slept on an air mattress in our living room without complaint. She did so many considerate things, it’s harder to recall what she did not do for me, for us. She made delicious food. She went out and picked berries in heatwave-blazing sun to give to us all though she has very pale, sensitive skin so must slather on heavy SPF to be outside too long. She joined Aimee and me for an indulgent pedicure even though she is not about pedicures. She scheduled and visited her siblings and their kiddos in safe ways (due to Covid). She visited Annie, widow of my brother, Gary; she’s an artist, too, so they caught up about their work.

Naomi also brought me a beautiful handmade ceramic cup; she knows I value unique ceramic mugs and cups almost as much as she does. She wants us to get a dog and kept showing me pictures, offering to go with me to a rescue center (declined, not ready for one–they die). We took walks together. Talked, talked, talked. Debated. We don’t always see eye-to-eye; both of us argue a point well and learn stuff in the process. She brought home a shiny green succulent for no good reason other than it is attractive, and not killable as it’s hard to keep plants alive in our shady home…its name is Bertha or maybe Jeanne, we shall see. She washed up dishes, cleaned some, kept her things tidy. And updated with Marc each night when he got home from work, shared anecdotes and laughter. She can talk to anyone, I think, I have seen it occur anywhere. This from a kid who rarely spoke unless absolutely required. Who hid, and yet has embraced the world and living.

When we went to visit her brother, Josh. It was a good time–we rode little motorbikes, crazy fun, gabbed. She gave him two huge walnut and metal sculptures that their father, a builder and sculptor, made decades ago. (He is deceased.) “The Guardians” are perhaps over four feet tall and heavy, but she drove across country with them in the back of her SUV. And there was a third that Ned, their dad, had never finished; it is now Josh’s to finish. (He makes art, too.)

For all I know, she also gave gifts to her sisters. This is her way, little surprises in the mail or hand delivered.

The night before she left to meet up with her guy in CA. and to explore the redwood forests –he was pausing on a meandering motorcycle trip–she insisted we have an “art party”. I was tired out from having so much fun, and was preparing for imminent arrival of my brother, sister-in-law and our sister, plus a couple of cousins. But Alexandra, her youngest sister, arrived on time as ever, and so we sat down at the balcony table. Naomi got things sorted out for us, then snip, paste, add some color, snip, position and paste magazine pictures on a small piece of watercolor paper. Little artsy collages began to take shape as we gave way comfy quietness with quips here and there. We were at it for an hour, then lined them up. Not too shabby. Yes, it was time I’m glad we shared!

It wasn’t an aching goodbye the next day. I was distracted by planning the casual lunch here with more family the day after. Marc and I were also frantically trying to locate an air conditioner, something we never need in OR. but this June the historic heat wave had commenced with ferocity. (Found a clunky one at a “grow shop” of all places. If you don’t know what t that is….Oregon legalized marijuana.) Naomi noted she and Adam were going up the Oregon coast (he on motorcycle, she in car) and might stop at Cannon Beach where my brother, sister-in-law, Marc and I were soon headed. So, it was a cushy hug but not a last-of-visit hug.

This, then, was the first portion of my repeat lesson in being offered and accepting loving care. But you know how when, for example, someone compliments you and it slides off you until it catches you off guard later? That’s what happens to me. I am continuing to figure out how to acknowledge and be present with deliberate, genuine kindness. To be open to/accepting of love like that–yes, even with family.

The second part of my tutelage was about to happen.

My brother, Wayne, and his wife, Judy–came out to visit Marc and myself, our sister, Allanya, and other family members. Their trip was also cross country but it was planned to include taking photos at scheduled stops, as well as taking workshops with photographers throughout the states. This is one of their true passions, creating great photographs; they excel at it. So it was a first big trip to do that and see family in two years as the pandemic began to wane. They’d spend three days in the Portland area, then Marc and I would share a beach lodge with them for the final days of their visit.

How to describe a brother I knew minimally for 40 years or more? He is seven years older than I am, and one of four older siblings often busy and gone, then off to universities by the time I was nearing teen years. In this brother’s case, college led to the military for about 30 years. Then came marriages and children; we lived in cities far from one another. I didn’t know him at all. I recalled he laughed easily when young and teased me a bit, but far less so for years after Viet Nam. I was very affected by his new quietness and faraway eyes. I wanted to know him, but did not get a chance. He moved elsewhere.

I moved to the Northwest at 42; three other siblings lived In WA. and OR. I felt somewhat close to all three, more so very shortly as I was welcomed. (It was Allanya who persuaded me to leave MI. with two teenaged children and settle here.) Wayne and Judy lived another life back east. It was only when they flew out that we met up. I visited at their home three times: when my young brood and husband visited long ago, then for his 70th and my 60th. And at some point things changed, perhaps when Dad, then some years later, Mom both passed away. It was us five siblings, orphaned. He and Judy visited the Northwest more. They’d travelled the world often but when retired from the military, it became most of every year. So what a pleasure to see them here and there. I felt we got more familiar with each other, stayed in touch more regularly. With the pandemic, there were more check ins.

But I was not prepared for their response when Krystal died. They knew her minimally, for she passed at 28 but did not grow up here, had lived overseas for some time before returning to Portland. They reached out often. It meant so much to hear their voices, their sympathy and concern gently offered.

When Wayne–long before that– had emailed their plans about visiting this June, it concerned me a little. Would we be safe, even with vaccinations? Wouldn’t it be hard to relax inside our home with other people? It was a strange thought–mingling, talking in person! But when June crept up, I was looking forward to it. Arrive they did, first visiting Allanya who lives with her partner in an assisted living facility. She, to our confoundment, has dementia.

It was the day Naomi left and they arrived that I noticed something different. How the distance between us felt smaller. What a joy to welcome them even with the cloud of sadness around my shoulders and brain. Later, at lunch with our sister, conversation ebbed and flowed, food was tasty, the surroundings pleasant in an air conditioned restaurant as temperatures rose ever higher outdoors. Allanya, thoughts shared occasionally, seemed happy, too. They insisted on paying the bill. I thought Okay, next time but no; this continued.

Lesson here: be gracious. Pride is not all that helpful. Accept despite a cringing discomfort. Marc and I have tried always to pitch in, have taken good care of ourselves and family. But sometimes the life’s loads shift. We’ve helped others and this time we may need to appreciate being recipients. So I told myself. ( Marc is recently employed again, things shall improve–amen.)

Following lunch, we visited a classic car dealership with Allanya. She loves to see and touch the old polished, fancy cars–I took a picture of her posing cheerily beside a vintage turquoise Thunderbird. We all have admiration so took more photos. Then we ferried her back home, and fell silent. What can be said of gradually losing parts of a sister in plain sight…it is misery. We love her so dearly.

The following day, our lunch gathering took place. Our house was filled with expressive exchanges–we are a loquacious bunch–with burgers, chicken kabobs, hot dogs grilled and more. I oscillated between tending to needs, listening, smiling and feeling blank, staring out the window at flowers on the balcony as they slowly wilted in the 112 degree heat. Time passed, the place emptied. When might such a meeting of family happen again, all parties present? It went so fast. This thing called time!-it flashes by and before we know it…

Then to the beach–Wayne, Judy, Marc and me. Allanya had wanted to go until she decided not to go…disappointing but, too, she’d get dizzy on mountain roads and it might be too much being away from her partner and their dogs. Not only short term memory is lessening; she is much less apt to get out and go even with me. How fun it may have been, siblings hanging out at a pretty spot close to the sea. She once owned a weekend home on a bay of the ocean…we stayed there so many times. Followed furtive deer. Studied starry skies.

The next 24 hours were not easy, just as it had not been the previous week. I have been alone so long. Most of us have been. Yes, Marc and I have gone on outings, but mostly he tends to do his thing, I do mine, like any longstanding couple. Now he is employed again and the rooms are empty of other voices. And I can weep, write poetry, read, be deeply silent, leave any time. All by myself. People can be taxing. And they can be wonderful. But life and death, they move with us, like my hands at labor or rest, like my soul and mind.

The lodging was attractive: high ceilings with beams, many windows to encourage drifting sunlight, rooms a-plenty– it was giant cabin. I was still glad to be there despite tension in my shoulders, a nagging headache, a slight loss of internal balance. Did it show too much, I wondered? I had tried to be present for a week with family, even when the undertow of sorrow and exhaustion pulled hard.

So what was the 3.5 day schedule, the agenda? There was none, other than to eat when we got hungry, sleep when tired. Marc and I roamed the beach as early eve arrived half-golden, then blue, then on fire with sunset. The sea’s visual infinity, its music and the sand underfoot buoyed me. I opened my lungs, breathed in the air and wind arriving all the way from who knows where. It helped, but not entirely. Still uncertain of myself, my role somehow–who was I without our other siblings, who are we in the current iterations of life’s flux– we finally slept, fitfully, at a distance. The next day, a short visit from Alexandra, her husband and the twins for lunch–they drove out from Portland to see her aunt and uncle once more. Marc and I walked the beach for miles; knots loosened from my shoulders, head cleared more. And then he left for home for the work week.

I got a clue and conceded the obvious: the whole point was to do nothing. The trip to Cannon Beach was to gather loosely, unwind, take it easy, enjoy whatever desired. Have a respite. To hang out with Wayne and Judy, sometimes do things on our own, other times shared. Wayne offered information about photography and camera functions, nicely gave me items I could use with my Cannon. Judy and I caught up at length; it was lovely getting to know her better. To feel the time, miles and experiences that separated us move aside so more connecting points might be made. They are intellectually stimulating, responsive, accomplished and cosmopolitan–and caring people. More independent and driven than am I, they know their way about the wide, mad world. Yet we are only people trodding the paths; we each have our own.

I slept better, dreaming my way through nebulous panorama of night. Awakened later than planned. It didn’t matter. We whiled away the morning, slipped into afternoon. Naomi and Adam arrived and joined at the table. Joshua (who, days after Krystal’s funeral, came upon a gruesome dead body on a remote hike; remains distressed, in addition to our own loss) and his wife and stepsons joined us awhile. We enjoyed beach time then dug into a decent meal; more talk, then off they all went. We had a carousel of family get togethers over a few days. Naomi and I resolved to see one another before another year passes…and so, farewell, firstborn daughter.

That night I slept as I hadn’t in weeks. Just as I had eaten and savored food as I had not in far too long. Up early the next day, we packed and left and that was the end of that side trip. Wayne and Judy went on to other states, seeing friends and photographing more landscapes and architecture or whatever pulls them in for a closer look. Saying goodbye to two more family members was warm, sweetly sad.

“Sister,” my brother said as he hugged me.

“My brother,” I managed.

The two weeks were a sort of magic. No, more–they were restorative, a start of healing. I had prayed for help and yet everything given me was a surprise, a reveal of mysterious powers of love. I have been paused and re-set–I have come back to my more balanced self a little more. Since I was able to try to accept these gifts, I regained a clearer, broader viewpoint. It took some defense shedding; there have been fewer, though, since mid April. I imagine God has more work to do with my participation, in any case. I am an eager student once more.

For every death of a loved one, there is a doorway that takes us back to all others we mourn and it begins to feel like nakedness in the world, and as if we must protect ourselves more. We are helplessly laid bare in sorrow. We are like children, or like souls whose bodies are useless. So it took more willingness to receive and also give back–attention, trust, time, compassion, empathy.

You might think it would be natural; I do know much about helping others gain human skills and strengthening attributes. But I have limits as we all do. I was struggling before my daughter and brother arrived–with the powerful weight of life amid the subterranean anchor of death, with exhaustion from too much happening too fast. With the strangeness of juxtaposition: beauty and wonder with shock and horror. The day Krystal died was the twin granddaughters’ second birthday. It was a bright and joyous day…and we got the call and raced to her apartment building. Saw the medical examiner at the door. Aimee and Alexandra and I saw our loved one, suddenly gone unbelievably still. It stays with us every day and night. My daughter Aimee struggles with her grief as anyone would who has lost a child, wants to hide away–though she and her partner came to our family luncheon, unexpectedly. I can only stand by, powerless except for my love and that pains me though I understand it.

In my birth family circle Wayne and Allanya and I are who we have now. That ole fast talking, laughing, insightful Allanya we knew best and longest recedes a little with each visit. We have lost our parents, a brother and sister, a nephew, a brother-in-law–there is no pretending things are otherwise. But I have the blessings of my children, the grandchildren still alive including Krystal’s brother, Tyler. Things happen when you least expect it. Yet one greets each day as it comes. We culture our hope like a pearl, the abrasion of living polishing, turning it over. And we aim for goodness in ourselves and others. Open our hearts as much as possible so we can take a chance on love. Even happiness.

I know when I am stuck in that cave made of “I can manage, I am praying, I am greeting each day with a hello” typical of my solitariness, my family can bring compassion, perhaps food, some tears, some laughs. Yes, I can do it alone, find solace in my own company more often than not. I’m a writer, for one thing. But I was taught: chin up, stand tall, always do well. But I don’t have to do it that way. There are others who do care and how much of an unanticipated rescue is that? It can be everything. More so during these times. I will rejuvenate–then be better here for them. For all that I can do.

Friday’s Poem on Saturday: Poetica, Again

Sometimes there is no poem within reach.

You look for bounty and see dust;

despite splashes of color and light

there surfaces a rock hard notion

that the billions of places where people rise up

and lie down meet each bone and spirit

with denial and pain, prayers as ash on the tongue.

Leftover dreams are torn into dark ribbons,

and time is not a deep enough well to bury regret.

One cannot wear dark ribbons a whole life;

one cannot have bones that cry out

and a spirit that goes mute forever.

Wells overflow, time is curtailed–then what?

It is so much to ask.

So it is that a vagabond poem pauses

in its evolutions and locates

a heap of sorrows and it roots around,

finds a fissure, the loose seam,

an unlocked trap door

and makes itself at home.

It opens curtains and windows

so the sky can parade its splendor

and birds dive in and slip out trilling.

It shuffles debris and braids

a quilt of discarded pieces

as if they were shining silk or clean wool

and then carries its bulk to a resting spot. Lays it out.

The poem knows ways to make a hollow habitable

for the soul rubbed down to almost nothing,

and apply balm to a voice abraded by life’s grime.

Such souls lean on the back doorstep until

a small radiance of invisible words

flares, and poetica in motu welcomes in

the worn one so doom is chased off,

the quilt of stitched dreams tucked about it just so.

As with any rescue, this poem has work to do.

Because a poem is a miracle maker,

even when simple minded,

even if barely noted and put on a shelf,

forgotten in another dawn.

It will stay on, anyway, and

if no longer needed and tossed out,

it will again find a lost one or old traveler,

the terrified or bravado-driven,

the besotted or unloved.

The dust, it seems, is more than dust,

and poetry rises from what is left over,

often mistaken for little of note.

Bravehearts, One and All

Photo: Man on balcony of Biltmore Estate by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of bravery. It intrigues and impresses me. I haven’t looked up the definition since elementary school, but I’m confident of its core meaning. It is generally equated with being willing to face and cope with unseen or unwanted challenges, to persist in holding steady or going forward despite strictures, opposition or hardship. It is about nurturing hope despite a current reality that serves to quash hope. Bravery involves finding reserves of strength though feeling weak, harnessing courage in presence of fear, and taking meaningful risks when one might be cautioned otherwise. It is standing up, stepping out, going forth because one must. Or one determines it more desirable. To do otherwise would be harder to live with even if there is reasonable chance of failure. Bravery calls for a deep moral fortitude, for a tensile mind and will.

Often it seems we don’t even know we possess these until we need to use them. They come to us at our command or perhaps with assistance. Surprised, we revel in new prowess it can afford us.

Then again, I may be kidding myself. How much do I know about the need of truly mighty bravery? It’s true I’ve had diverse experiences through which to assess such qualities in people, either first or second hand. But neither do they include the full spectrum of circumstances by which people develop then utilize an almost mythic bravery. I am not a trauma nurse or doctor, disaster aid worker, war veterans’ services provider–those who surely see this firsthand. But I am a retired alcohol/drug and mental health counselor. And I have been witness to a lot of true stories that caused my heart and spirit to lurch and weep and experience great joy for lives lost and found again.

But I don’t have to go to work to see lives being lived despite many perils. There are examples of this even on streets I traverse, places I go.

For months homeless men have made their shelter in a cement entryway of a nearby church. The doors remain locked but this area is free to use. In bone chill of rainy winter they huddled deep into worn sleeping bags or tattered blankets. Sometimes a radio could be heard. Sometimes they’d be talking with one another–perhaps two or three as if there was a limit–or sharing a hot or cold drink. As the seasons morphed into warmer days and nights, they’ve been there less. But mostly they are there, belongings piled up on carts or in plastic bags. They–or others–rummage in our garbage for salvageable food or cans and bottles to turn in. And when it’s a decent day for one reason or another or weather is more amenable, off they go. I rarely have seen them arrive or leave; they just are there and not there. They, like thousands more, live a nomadic life in our city. They are tough or get toughened in every way to just go on living.

They are brave urban street survivors. They endure so much of what we will not ever have to, if we enjoy better fortune. By that I mean we have adequate income to cover our needs, adequate care and medicines to help treat illnesses of all sorts, none of a variety of addictions (gambling is perhaps the worst) that plunge us far over the edge with little help of rescue. I’ve had many clients who lived in city’s forests, along streets in tents or boxes or in relentless heat and cold of the open air under the freeway overpass. Their feet get weary and wounded from walking–from poorly fitting shoes, no socks, no shoes. They live with hunger despite a free warm meal once a day and handouts. They get lonely except for a stray dog they feed scraps and then give a name to only to know it might be taken or die or run off, or a buddy or two they trust this week. They suffer from maladies that they just ignore or cannot get treated. Fight to keep what little they have from those who rob them, and suffer attacks from stronger and angrier people.

The ones who came to me for help desired a safe place for their own, even a very small room. Or a  corner under an awning or camping in bushes with no one bothering them since being in open air offers freedoms, too. Sitting in my comfy office I knew they came partly for respite a while, for dryness or warmth or air conditioning. And to talk and just be heard. To get help with an opiate, methamphetamine or benzodiazepine addiction; or bipolar  or psychotic episodes or recurrent depression with crippling anxiety. To find a way out of the particular rabbit  hole they found themselves in despite once dreaming and working for a far different life. No one expects to be homeless, after all.

Not often did they admit to being brave but they knew they coped with things a great many others cannot. And endurable and enduring street life is predicated on one’s wits, physical and psychic strength–being able to engage in fully operant survival mode. Some might say “dumb luck” also played a part in staying alive. Still, I’d remind them that basic bravery was a prime asset among internal  and external resources that worked on their behalf. That dipping into even a piddling spring of hope one day to the next enabled someone to not throw in the towel. Because often all appears lost to the mentally ill and physically debilitated, the addicted and traumatized. There is powerful value in this tool for survival, this bravery. To keep on until a better answer is found. And this often did bring them to my door, seeking change. Renewal.

Their sort of bravery works for them. It is not a choice often, but more a requirement. It is far different to have to deal with harsh realities and try to make a change than to choose to face fear in order to do something new that is engaging and meant for one’s own satisfaction.

Bravery is a potent quality for us all to use, however. There are people who stand up for basic human rights despite any backlash from naysayers. Those who sacrifice personal security or even their lives to help or defend others. People determined to generate improvements in quality of life despite opposition branding them variously as budget busters or out of touch with real communities or having too radical an approach to make viable change happen.

Then there are the rest of us, perhaps at first glance ordinary people, no celebrated dragon slayers. We live our lives quietly, industriously, but often with fervency, a sense of expectancy. We are visited by lesser and greater life problems. Our strong bodies get busted. The love of our life finds then marries someone else. A best friend behaves like an enemy, or worse yet drifts away without a backward glance. Our talents fail to bring us the supposed glory we envisioned. Our good education somehow prepared us for a mundane job. We fail our children in small ways that will haunt us or in a big way that is never beyond shamed and pained attention. Our lives can be dolorous, frayed by restlessness, thinned by loneliness. Tried in seven variations yet discovered wanting again.

But we prevail, anyway. We chose to continue tromping on our way. We’d rather try again–if nothing more than because we wonder what else is out there. Trying emphasizes seeking or finding opportunities; it implies better possibilities. Ones that are preferable to the present circumstance.

All that bobbing about on the river of life, or being impeded by rock, branch or uncharted, unnatural dam. All the re-routing we must make. It takes stamina, too. We do not get to live by instinct alone but also must engage brain and soul power.

When once I was struggling with my own upended life, a person of authority told me something that stayed with me ever after–but as an example of what was an untruth. She said, “Trying isn’t close to enough and is not the point here. Only victory over your trauma symptoms will be enough, but that’s unlikely.”

I was a teenager in a psychiatric ward where I was sent to “get over” a damaged childhood. I had had about enough of adults’ ignorant ways. I looked at the psychiatrist to see if she was joking. She was not.

I retorted, “Victory is right in this terrible trying I do every day and night. Don’t you tell me trying doesn’t count. I’ll succeed because I’ll try hard enough and long enough to figure things out. Get better, get out of here and go on.”

With her words to fight against and my stubborn pushing forward, I began to think of myself as someone who might rise above. Who could change things even if they needed to be done alone. I loathed that place with its high, narrow windows and guttural sounds all night long and the mind-numbing pills I rarely swallowed. I began to alter my internal life story from one of fear to a tentative then quiet boldness. I did not feel brave but profoundly longed to be. So I started to act as if I was. Increments of courage propelled me. I learned to endure a dim and haunted place where many seemed to be fading or forgotten. To feel their ruinous grief within echoing walls while sorting out my own. To scrub bathrooms with a toothbrush when I broke a rule. To float beyond it all while trying to block out someone screaming in the night. I would not succumb. I found even an approximation of bravery cast enough encouraging light to offer refuge until the real thing kicked in.

Of course more challenges lay ahead. But I saw a light and parsed out some of what might work to better reassemble the pieces.

That was an experience long ago lived. But today’s post has another, far happier genesis.

I was on the East coast last week and got to spend time with my oldest daughter, a sculptor who teaches at a university. Naomi (Falk, not Richardson if you look for her on Instagram) was buying rather esoteric and expensive items for an upcoming sailing trip to Greenland starting in July. (Rubber boots, dry pack, super dark sunglasses that cost plenty, special socks and other clothing, etc.) She made an iPad purchase and was been talking with the salesman about how she needed certain video editing capacities and waterproof features for a trip. He inquired about it further so she shared more. He “high-fived” her and peppered her with excited questions. A Hawaiian, he’d been following the return of a traditional Polynesian voyaging canoe after three years at sea with navigation via only stars, wind and waves.

That conversation was a first and fascinating to hear. After two days with her I’d seen a different reaction. This man got it entirely. Usually when people asked and she shared the basics, they responded with mouth hanging open. Incredulous. Or they blinked at her blankly, repeated her statement but as a question, to make sure they heard right. She said something like this:

“I’m going on a trip in a fifty-one foot sailing vessel with a small crew and a few others for an artists’ residency. But it’s also about examining environmental issues, climate changes and how they’re impacting glaciers and Greenlanders. Yep, sailing up the East coast toward Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and then to Greenland’s western coast. ”

And she’d note: “I know only basics of sailing, but may not need to use my limited knowledge. I’d like to, though. I hope to scuba dive at some point.”

Or she would say: “Why am I doing it? Well, it’s not something I’d be expected to do. It interests me, the whole experience. I took a boat around and to the Faroe Islands last year, had an artists’ residency in Iceland before that– I can do Europe, for example, any old time. In fact, have gone and will go again.”

She was generally grinning while speaking, yet her essential equanimity always struck me. But that is Naomi. She gathers much information, cogitates, makes a decision and goes forward, even if there are more questions to be answered. She trusts her process and gut. She takes calculated risks, ones that many would not consider much less do. I consider her brave in more ways than one. Born at two and a half pounds, two and a half months early in the mid-70s when such preemies were not often expected to live much less fully thrive, she seemed pretty brave from the start.

“My brave and foolish daughter, dear Naomi,” I teased as we headed back to the hotel laden with her purchases, and we laughed even as I gulped a little.

And then I thought more about those words.  It’s not that she feels no trepidation. It’s that she does/creates/investigates unusual things, anyway. Isn’t that what it takes in life to keep the wheels turning? I mean all the wheels–the wheel of invention, the wheels of learning and time and creativity, of us becoming adaptable, goals being met and life being lived? We need common sense; I’m a huge proponent of the homely quality that withstands many stressors. But we need to take risks, too, that teach us what we are made of and what we may need to know. Lessons and insights that can connect us to more than our claustrophobia-prone, exclusive ways of being. And it takes bravery to take the first step away from all familiar toward something imagined but not wholly known. It requires visionary breadth to position ourselves in a scenario far different than what we know in this moment.

Whether life is terribly hard and wounding or safe yet empty of curious impulses, we cannot forge any new path without resurrecting our waiting bravery. And to do that may mean being a little foolish at times. Conjuring and planning what may not seem to make complete sense but which triggers a compelling sync with who we’re meant to be. Energy of anticipation. Magnetism of secret dreams unveiled. A sense of embarking on a finer adventure. Being true to our best selves.

We all are capable of being brave. In fact, I believe we are born to it. Perhaps we just forget in the morass of daily duties what bravery is, how it feels. It feels vibrant. (Even dauntless, not so foolish a thing to feel as we stumble–it’s like having a burly staff for balance.) We would do well to call it forth for ourselves and others, then do more good and be who we long to be. Call it forth even more under the press of worldly burdens and losses. There are days when opening the door requires a mantle of bravery for an emboldened step beyond the threshold. Find the heart to claim it and take a chance.

Naomi posing good-naturedly at McColl Center for Art+Innovation, Charlotte, NC

The Wishing Well of Chardonnay

Image from “Jealousy”

She shouldn’t be here. If she was the kind of woman who used common sense with a creative twist to solve her problems she’d be blocks away, on the train, headed to the house with its verdant shutters and two cats snoozing on the windowsills. Bernard would be lurking about even though next door, waiting for her to run up the three steps to her front door so he could rant or gossip or cry on her shoulder. He found her manner and words reassuring, she imagined. Mariana felt his loneliness shifting between aggravation and a bleak reminder of her pull to wounded creatures. But never said so, except to Tater and Gawain. Pitiful, she was already a cat lady at thirty, yammering her secrets to each fluffy, noncommittal countenance. They had to listen–or pretended to.

But it was Friday night and here she sat, staring not at the goblet of wine but at the round paper coaster beneath it. It reminded her of her own boxed and forgotten coasters, then of doilies, those lacy white decorations that adorned her grandmother’s mahogany buffet and chests of drawers and side tables. She closed her eyes and saw the shadowed rooms, how the dust lept up as she passed through an errant stream of light. How her nose took her to the kitchen where everything reflected the truths of “Cook of the World” and “Bread is Love of Life.” Those words of praise and gentleness were embroidered in bright floss, framed at the far wall by the swinging door. She had made them at eleven years old for Christmas gifts. She, Mariana, was daughter of her grandmother’s wayward daughter named Delilah. Delilah made it big then forgot to visit but was the one who paid for her mother’s needs until her clutch on life released its grip, thus providing relief for that ardent but “too ultra daughter”. That’s what Grandmother Cort called her when angry:  “My too ultra (rich, risky, artsy, out of control, irreverent, fill in the blank) daughter. My missing daughter.”

And after all was said and done, Mariana got the house, the one she hadn’t yet returned to this evening. Oh, there was more but it didn’t matter, it was not and could not be her grandmother.

She got over the worst grief since time passed on and with it, the random tsunamis of suffering and technicolor insertion of memories that had seemed the glue of her identity. Mariana missed Grandmother Cort in the way that one misses steady, friendly heat during chill weather or the swing and fall of living voices. They had grown apart while she was in college, then Grandmother Cort had called on her two years ago and she had returned. Her own mother she missed very little (she was across state, five hours was rather close). The feeling was mutual.

But most of all she longed to be sitting in her living room with a whole bottle of wine. Or two or three. Here she was anonymous. No one cared if she drank or if she looked smart or who she was related to. In this corner bar just off 11th Street and Hay she was nobody of interest, certainly not known as Delilah Cort’s kid, the artless offspring of an ecologically focused, famous performance artist. Diving through flaming hoops beneath a gigantic red and purple moon that emitted plaintive calls of dolphins. Human hair jacket worn to a fundraising party to save foxes and wolves. A six-foot tall and long sculpture of shells and stones, seaweed and driftwood that floated down the Columbia River, then was sunk and returned, dissembled, to the ocean.

It was all very titillating and thought-provoking and like an echo it had always boomeranged off Marianne’s life. In self-defense, she became a middle school English teacher. The students were more interested in the latest teen pop artists, their touchy complexions and sports. And, too, their inner problems and possibilities. They wrote what they felt and it didn’t feel so intrusive or demanding as her mother’s ideas. Her mother’s headlining life.

“Another?” The  bartender with the cleft chin and soul patch held the attractive bottle of chardonnay at an angle, teasing her with more.

“Why not?”

He smiled and poured. He knew her by now, though not by name yet. She had been coming off and on the last couple months.

“Want to order any food yet?”

Marianne shook her head. The idea wasn’t appealing even though her stomach rumbled beneath voices and clinks of ice in glasses, the traffic’s crescendo and decrescendo. It was only six. She would eat later. Now she was thinking and sipping wine, only relaxing and releasing…something.

A small, compact man hopped up on the bar chair next to hers and plunked down money. The bartender, returning his nod abruptly, poured a whiskey neat and moved on. The man tasted it, licked his lips in appreciation, drank it down, then waited until the bartender poured another. This time he looked into the glass as if divining something of surprising interest.

“So. I see you in here a few times. I say to myself, ‘Why is she here when she doesn’t drink enough to count for much but she doesn’t eat a meal and talks to nobody? And she gets tipsy sort of fast. And all alone.’ That’s what I think. And I have obtained no answers yet.”

Marianne looked at his squat glass, then at the hands holding it. They were average sized, broad-palmed, and stained by something woody brown. She sipped her wine and sighed. They tried to get her to talk and then she had to leave. Sooner rather than later, she just wanted nothing of it.

The man turned to her. “I know you, you know.” He chuckled, either at his sentence or what he meant.

She studied him now, wondering if he was another teacher and she just hadn’t noticed yet–it was the start of her second year at this school–or, worse yet, a student’s father she had met at a conference.

“Yeah, every now and then, in comes this lady who has a pleasing air of mystery and she has a couple of drinks and then slips out the door with nary a smile or glance at others.”

Ah, a man who would be a poet, perhaps. Was he talking about her or generally all women who did this? She unfortunately blushed and caught a glimpse of them in the bar’s rectangular mirror. He was decent to look at, neat haircut with even features. Unremarkable in a crowd except for height, the lack of it. She sat many inches higher. Maybe his eyes counted, as they were lively and large under thick eyebrows.

“Well, I like a little wine after work. Once a week or so. I’m not a big drinker, that’s all.” She turned the goblet stem with manicured, tapered fingers.

“Oh, she does speak.” He holds out his hand. “Then I’m Daniel Unger, virtuoso furniture refinisher and dedicated patron of Hay Street Bar and Grill.”

It wasn’t as if she had never met a guy at a bar, hadn’t had some flings and even an earnest boyfriend, once. But she wasn’t up to it. Somehow turning thirty months ago had felt like a gong banged inside her head. She was still reeling from it, her mother swooping in and taking her to L.A. for the week-end, acting as if it was a rite of passage requiring a doting and madly extravagant mother, something she had never been but that Mariana foolishly was still open to. It had failed to much amuse Delilah or her “uptight” daughter. Mariana had gotten very drunk and high and then sick and shouted that she felt like she was trapped inside a Fellini film, no, much worse as it had her mother in it and Mariana couldn’t find a way out. Delilah provided that via the return ticket, of course. Luckily.

But she did awaken at home on that next Monday morning thinking it was time to reassess. What needed to fit in the big blank picture window called her life? Meanwhile, the fusty smell of smoke–cigarette and cannabis–had stunk up everything in her suitcase. She washed on a twelve minute hot cycle, then hung her clothes in sharp fall sunshine and wind. She had lost her favorite tattered volume of Theodore Roethke’s poems which she loved to read at night. Her burgundy high heels had gotten scratched. One (new from Delilah) topaz earring landed in a gutter as she scurried to catch a cab–she felt it fall off, too late to stop. What else did she have to give up?

The unsurprising fact was, her brilliant, wild mother would always come and go. What more was there, now that she had her grandmother’s beloved if creaky house; a fair career launched; and a few, okay, two good, sociable friends? What could she make of this lopsided life?

All of that only made her want to drink again. To long for big, sumptuous gulps of wine.

“Ah, right,” she extended her hand limply, “Mariana here, nice to meet you but I’m leaving now.” She grabbed her purse hanging on the chair and began to rise.

“Oh, don’t depart now–please.” He sounded so hearty. Undaunted. He tossed back the whiskey. His eyeballs glistened. “I’m not looking for more than conversation, Mariana.”

“I’m not looking, at all, I’m afraid. I just like my wine and then I am done.”

She rose and stood towering above him. She was tall next to most people. Next to him, she was a leaning tower of a giantess. His gaze rose to meet hers, as if he might try for a better look at an interesting flag flying in the wind.

“Okay, say I just thought you might be smarter than the average person, and I wondered it someone like you knew anything about William Blake or operatic arias or the meteorological status of the coming winter months–anything, in fact, that might interest a more fully thinking person. Because most of these folks–” he swept his arm around the room–“they just aren’t liable to converse. Like that.”

Mariana sat down and slumped over her goblet. She beckoned the bartender for another go at the chardonnay and knew she had detoured into quicksand. Or maybe that happened when she entered the Hay Street Bar and Grill, she wasn’t yet clear.

“You have a way with words, Daniel Unger, very savvy.”

“I am hoping you do, too, Mariana….” He tilted his head and waited her to offer up a last name.”

“Cort. Teacher, owner of cats, power walker. Unwed.”

“Ms. Cort. Hmm. Cort. The name rings a bell. Teacher of what? Metallurgy? Calculus? The history of theatre?”

She grabbed her drink and let its voluptuous taste settle, then soothe her throat. If she kept this up, she would get home very late and this Daniel would know all about her or she wouldn’t get home, at all.

“I teach eighth graders English and I love it but I’m still a neophyte. I do appreciate Blake but not like Rukeyser and Levertov, even Mary Oliver. A ton of others. I am interested in weather patterns as they specifically affect my small corner but sometimes am piqued by trends globally— as we all at least should be.” She put her chin in her right hand and leaned on the bar. Gave him her full teeth smile. “I enjoy opera once every few years. I do love ‘Carmen’ and ‘Madame Butterfly’.”

Daniel had turned to face her. His mouth fell open, wordless. His back straightened. “Alright then. A live one!” He shook his head and pulled a mock look of dismay. “I’m sorry, that sounds terrible! I meant my hunch was right. I think I’ve finally found someone I can engage with!”

His thin-lipped, open smile was infectious but somehow off-putting. Mariana didn’t want to be the lucky number on his bingo card, even a remarkable card. She didn’t want to have to entertain anyone, swap light intellectual fact-findings. The thought of her cats, yes, her tawny and white cats, was now magnetic. Her kitchen, still embraced by the spirit of her dead grandmother, was calling to her to make scrambled eggs with hash browns. She had papers to grade despite feeling a little drunk.

More than a little. Feeling the prickling of shame at the reality: that she was unable to get past this Friday without stopping in and ordering the drink and putting it to her lips and swishing it around her mouth and savoring every stinging-sweet bit of it. And ordering more. Knowing that she would soon be taking her own bottles home and forgoing the goblets altogether each night. Once again.

With some effort, aided  by Daniel’s warm, confident hand on her forearm, she stood up. His brow creased into furrows and she knew he was more than a few years older than she, well-built (short, true, but irrelevant) and muscled or not.

“You know, I have work to do tonight…I’m really not much of a drinker, not a jolly one, and…and I do need to get home to my little family.”

“Family….Cort. Cort. Say, wait a second, are you by any chance related to that Delilah Cort, the great performance artist? Amazing woman!”

She wished she could toss a drink in his face but it was gone and so she nearly gave him her mother’s phone number. But that would be unkind, wouldn’t it. She shook her head, the room swaying a bit, things slowing down. “No, don’t think we’re related.”

“Well, huh, I sure do wonder about you. Alright then, nice just meeting you and safe journey home. See you next time?”

His expression looked like he was used to disappointment and she thought they might have had a few laughs, even some stimulating moments. She wanted to tell him all would be well but it wasn’t.

“Sure,” she agreed, “ditto. Goodbye Daniel Unger, good furniture making.”

“Refinishing!” he called after her.”On Hay and Bueller!”

Outside, the October air blasted her with a tangy, frosty breeze. Maybe it was the wine, but she stood there and thought of orchards and frost on apple tree leaves, the land her mother had cultivated but rarely even saw due to her constant touring. The thought of the perfect, silver-faced moon sending its light down to shine all over those forgotten, sweet red apples made her throat swell with tears. She got out her phone and dialed.

It took him six rings to answer.

“It’s me. Can you come get me? Yeah, right, that bar I like and you call a den of thieves. Honestly, tell me, why that? It’s a nice little grill, too! No no, no food yet. Seven thirty already…really? Well, I dunno, maybe three. I think?” She lowered herself on the curb between a BMW and truck. “Yes, Bernard, yes, I know, call before not after!” She covered her mouth so she wouldn’t cry out. “I’ll be here, in front. Honk your horn loud, okay?”

She leaned back on her hands and looked way up. The sky was like a crystalline, midnight blue platter of delights. She imagined the adventures of Orion and Cassiopeia unfolding on the infinite arena of heaven. Angelic presences dancing as if perpetually joyous. Did they do that or was it all a story her grandmother told her to keep her safe? She imagined she saw her now, looking down her significant nose over the top of glasses, and her eyes were just sad. It has really come to this? she said to Mariana and Mariana closed her eyes to be better unseen by her and the heavens. I want to write poetry, she told her, I do. As she’d always told her, but to what end? It was another chardonnay she wanted now.

Mariana knew, of course, this wasn’t the place she was meant to be, sitting between a bar and the street, evading a real life that needed her participation, both feet in. But it was hard! Being the kid of a famous person who gave her love to art. Being the granddaughter of a generous-hearted grandmother who tried so long yet somehow lost her own child in that very trying. Being a teacher of youth who wrote of unspeakably awful and bracingly beautiful things. Being alone, alone with this and more. Even having two cats who could walk away from her if someone else fed them better and let them curl up on her or his lap. Wouldn’t they, now?

Being an alcoholic who had four years sober until she fell under Delilah Cort’s spell and gave in, then gave away her recovery for a few quick hugs, a rush of regrets from the woman who never knew what power mothering held.

And the off-chance she would be seen and loved for who she, Mariana, actually was. Maybe she didn’t know yet, after all. Maybe it wasn’t all that late to find out, either. How could she know these things? Now the sidewalk felt frozen to hands and legs. She could lie down, sleep here all night.


His hand on her back felt like a hand she knew. She squinted at him. He was big and dumpy; his broad face was puffy as a soft roll and he smelled like earth and greenness because that is where he lived, in his garden. He limped terribly because his back was bad. He was so much older now. But he was always there. Would she never be grown up and right-minded enough to manage her life well? Yes, he had said. Yes. If he could do it half-crippled by arthritis, cranky, unmarried again and too fat, but still sober after thirty-five years, longer than she had been alive–well, then, she could do it, too.

“Mariana. Come on, girl. I’m double parked. I’ve got some stew on. I’ll bring bowls over; you can add bread and butter. Strong hot tea. I’ll make a fire. We’ll sit with Tater and Gawain like your grandmother and I did. You’ll start over. Tomorrow! Get up now.”

She heaved herself up and looked toward the open door, light from the car’s interior illuminating the short distance, Bernard close enough to catch her but not so close he would push her forward. She took a sloppy step and then another, the moon and stars humming in her head, his labored breath forming a bright fog that hovered about them.