Perfect Companions: Nature and Writing

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All photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson copyright 2017. A somewhat hazy Mt. Baker and Cascade Range; the Olympic Mountains can also be seen across from the ferry dock in the assorted pictures at end of post.

It was a lot to take in: cobalt to powdery blue waters; Olympic Mountains’ jagged and graceful peaks and the Cascade Range with Mt. Baker pointing heavenward; air so crystalline that it seemed to infuse each breath with a rare bliss. Blues permeated the landscape’s textures and forms, bringing me peace.

And the reason I was even there was to avail myself of expert advice during a writers’ conference in Edmonds, Washington. Each presentation was a study in the craft of writing, a series of stories about progress, failure and success. The past two days memories of the beauty have deepened as well the lessons offered during “Write on the Sound.”

During hours spent sitting in chairs that challenged pain-free posture, I kept voluminous notes. I am a dedicated note taker  and have attended many writers conferences. I read the rapid penciled scribbling upon return. But there are moving pictures in my mind of the authors and editors. I recall their cheerful energy or lack of it, their enthusiastic or monotonous voices, their belief that writing is an art worthy of our passion–or a business that requires guts, thick skin and acumen. To such experienced and well-published authors, it likely is both. To those listening and questioning, it can appear more complicated than all they tell us.

One hard-bitten editor, Barrett (one name only), rapidly expounded on the importance of surprise, a writer’s “voice”, memorable characterization and the power of details. Nothing too new. But then I was riveted by her love of writing and her emotional reading aloud of excerpts of fine examples of prose. She offered us her own faith in writing, her own passionate hope in the craft and art of it. Though she had thirty-some years experience editing, she still could be deeply moved and wanted that moment to come.

Kristin Hannah has written 26 novels and stated she works and reworks plots and characters hard. Yet when she takes it to her editor she is told she must revise three or four times more. No one, not even someone like Ms. Hannah, can take their writing skills for granted; no one finds the artful craft of writing a breeze to accomplish. And she fell into writing, to her surprise, after becoming a lawyer and following her mother’s death. Her quick but methodical mind apparently keeps all things pertinent in check and moving forward year after year.

A nonfiction articles author for eighteen years named Kerrie Flanagan shared many interesting experiences about discovering ideas, such as choosing topics she knows nothing about but has always wanted to, then executing them in unique ways for magazines. That intrigued me. Her quiet, no-nonsense style reflected a commitment to dispensing support as well as data. Essayist and fiction author Windy Lynn Harris started her presentation with such excitement I wondered how she could sustain it. But she did, happy to share useful insights as well as her faith in our talents when woven well with hard work and good skills. She was encouraging of our submitting short stories and personal essays, stating there is a plethora of publishing opportunities.

I often take workshops on fiction and poetry. This time I primarily chose those about nonfiction. I began to write nonfiction regularly for this blog though I already had a few pieces published. Personal essays and articles have a directness and compressed style that is potent when done well. As a kid I pretended to be a roving newspaper reporter (I guess it is an old dream of mine) and the basics of journalism are applied to all types of nonfiction. I gathered more information on genres, newer submission requirements and markets (different from fiction or poetry). And I have heard it forever, this week-end heard it again: there can be no price put on the value of a disciplined practice of writing and a neutral persistence when submitting work. And first and last: revision is both the guts and heart of the writing life.

There were many opportunities to hand out my new writer business cards, shy as I am about it. After all, that is my job the past few years, and it’s helpful to be able to offer further information via an attractive card. I met people from all over the country. To share such love of language and storytelling is a regenerative experience. We each came looking for greater knowledge and camaraderie; writing is notoriously solitary so we forget how many out there have the same dilemmas and needs. It may be time for me to find yet another writers’ critique group and writing partner. I will take care in the search; thinly skilled or disorganized writing groups does more harm than none at all.

It was a very good conference so I may return next year. I am a teachable person (even if I fuss defensively at first about what I imagined I already knew) and it’s a fine opportunity to partake of such wealth of knowledge. But the bottom line is that I have to apply what I’ve learned, more assiduously explore my publishable options. I have a strong suspicion it’s time for more change regarding my goals and practice.

A huge draw was the geographic area in which it was presented. Each time there was a good break I’d rush outside to a flower-rimmed plaza on the second level floor and lean over the railing. I’d take in the rich, varied blues and textures of the Olympic Mountains and glass-smooth Puget Sound, ogle the attractive small town edging up to water’s edge. I looked forward to shooting photographs as my spouse (who worked on a business writing project at the hotel) and I roamed the area. I snapped over three hundred and have kept many of those. A couple of handfuls are offered below. Colors have not been altered. It is easy to be inspired by this Washington scenery,  here a bit wilder and more open than my home area in Oregon.

Nature and Art: grand teachers, smitten companions.

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Calling Forth the Woods’ Wisdom

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I woke up last Sunday morning and felt the woods shining deep inside me. Nature is not somewhere only outside for me; it lives within, for we are a part of it and it, us. We are called to one another, creation to creation. So I knew I had to go to the place of the trillium, a favorite wildflower. I was alone and intended to find a few spots where no one else would intrude. To smell, hear, taste, touch, see, and sense mysteries, trod upon earthen trails. It had been a winter of pummeling rain, now sunshine had arrived. I could take myself right into the thick of forests again and feel once more at home.

I am not a city person out of a deep love for its cacophony of hustle and bustle. Yes, I enjoy the myriad arts events, festivals, architecture, markets and stores, the varieties of people. The ever-present source of stories found by just watching out a window or from a balcony. I was raised in a very small city but it was similar if on a quite limited scale. Yet both here and in my old hometown, I have had escapes. A saving grace in a life I didn’t and often do not well understand or even wholly appreciate as I’d prefer.

As a youngster there were times (often in warmer weather) when even the best things–the beauty of music; aromas of roast beef, potatoes and carrots or cinnamon rolls or Dutch apple pie; allure of a new novel beneath a pile of schoolwork; anticipation of dance class the next morning; a long phone conversation with my best friend, twirling the stretchy cord around my bare feet as I lay on the carpet–were not what I wanted and needed. I’d fight with school assignments, drag my mind back to its required goal. I’d race through cello and vocal compositions. If I had a chore, it’d be a slapdash job.

Those times I felt that yearning for peace and quietude inching its way into my consciousness at a velocity not to be ignored. Soon its urgency was greater than all else. I’d leave the busy common rooms of the house, go sit on my bed, close my eyes, summon the focus of my desire.

The hush of my water-blue bedroom enveloped me. Crows cawed back and forth, robins trilled monotonous calls. A rotary lawn mower whirled around a yard. Across the hallway, my mother’s sewing machine whirred and paused and whirred. My imagination’s magnetic pull took me out of my room, down winding stairs, out the front door, down Ashman Street, two blocks north, one block west and then the birches came into view, and poised maples and oaks and sketchy elms, stalwart evergreens. The poplars’ silvery leaves were tiny cymbals creating a bright, dry song in breezes. A rush of delight, a calm swept over me. Swift gusts rustled my hair, redolent of musky earth, freshest greenery. Everything in me wanted woods close about me, filling me with enchantments.

It was those decades when a youth could mostly still go alone into the world or natural places. (I’d known danger as a child abuse victim; it was within the familiar but failed security of a house and car belonging to a known person. I was not overall afraid of people or venturing out, or if I was, I ventured nonetheless.) Perhaps a somewhat wilder landscape offered a reprieve from moments of boredom or frustration but such a place had long been identified as a pocket of comfort. Happiness. I’d abandon house, work or play and head for the woods.

Soon I saw the grey and white birches thronged like valiant sentries. Sinuous pathways greeted my careful feet. Shadowy designs were thrown over skin like a delicate wrap. Above, the crowns of trees conversed with sky, while below the variety of trees were familiar friends, hearty bodies of pungent wood, bark, leaves. I could examine everything along the way without needing to master it. The multi-faceted insects, each plant unfurling itself was scrutinized. Small mammals scurried, reptiles slithered or they watched, accepting of my presence if not indifferent. I melded with gradations of light and dark, with green and brown and yellow. Stealth directed my movements; I felt compelled to slip between trees and plants, to not disturb. I felt given permission due to my deep admiration. Everything breathed with me and I, it.

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The woods were barely swaying, certainly humming. Birds were aloft with chatter and song. I whispered thanks, felt joy rise up from my center then spread, a wash of warmth. There were high-spanning, glimmering bridges of webs. Nurse logs harbored colonies of bugs, were laboratories for mosses, lichen, fungi. There were sudden flower beings peeking from undergrowth. The serpentine creek with its tinkling, gurgling dance pulled me to it. I followed along, around and through the canopy of trees. Sat at its banks, the dampness of the ground seeping into my pants. I closed my eyes to better know just where I was. I was exactly…there. And happy to be one more creature amid the others.

My love of nature may have begun with early lessons from a mother who adored geography, geology and etymology, and a father whose passions included science and mathematics as well as music and education. Family trips were as much running commentary on land formations, vegetation and creatures as anything else. My parents taught me about weather patterns, rock and soil types, the habits of bugs in different places, the important diversity of plants and how all worked together for the good of all. My father pointed out constellations from our back yard or elsewhere; I was mesmerized  by God’s heavens. But no one had to persuade me to love the natural world or embrace its wisdom. I’d early experienced those in Barstow Woods as noted above and the plant and tree nursery thriving behind our house (which had a lovely, tree-lined back yard). The many Michigan forests, lakes and rivers afforded me good amounts of time and activity each summer.

From a young age, I enjoyed a somewhat unusual experience. I attended summer sessions at various music camps, one being the Interlochen Center for the Arts in northwest lower Michigan. Founded in 1928  and situated on 1,200 acres, it was named simply National Music Camp for decades, a place where capable student musicians gathered to study and perform. It quickly gained a fine reputation and before long all performing and fine arts were studied by students arriving from around the world. It has grown immensely since then. It offers, among other programs, a premiere private high school arts education. But back in the fifties and sixties my father taught strings and orchestra during summer camps, and my siblings and I were music and other arts students.

I have not had a repeat of such extraordinary experiences, where creative expression and the natural world fit together into one perfect design. We lived in cabins with other like-minded youth in the woods, eating at a mess hall, studying in tandem. We attended music or other classes daily, rehearsed and performed on covered outdoor stages, other sunny, wind-swept spaces, and under star-pearled skies. The dance building was set on a lake shore, and as I danced and rested I could smell fragrant water and earth, see the undulating expanse of green-blue with white sailed boats bobbing or flying along. The campus buildings were mostly stone and wood structures, lodge-like, cozy even when large. Recreation included table tennis, sailing and swimming, volleyball and more. Tiny practice rooms were also of field stone and timber with small rectangular windows. Once one was opened, I practiced my cello or vocal pieces, with warm air wafting in and it carried a delicious fragrance of dried or greener pine needles. Everywhere could be heard musicians, other students laboring over the thing they loved doing, honing whatever talent had brought them. The natural symphonies and unfolding stories of earth’s bounties accompanied my thoughts and endeavors.

All my life the wedding of creative energy with the natural realm has seemed a most sacred thing. A vibrant chorus of voices or resonance of a string quartet, rich notes of a French horn or the mellow beauty of an English oboe–these experienced within the lustrous beauty of a summered landscape are potent magic. Making visual art, dancing, writing, acting–all this replete with the constant inspiration of rhythms and cycles of natural events is an unparalleled way to explore and live. Nature’s formations and complications, the vagaries and wholeness so well shake loose ideas and influence impulses. There were mystery and sweat, dreaming and victories and failures–a mammoth arc of learning as I opened to more teaching. The context of such activity can give rise to a lot of human industriousness. Tranquility.

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Oh, but the woods I have known and loved as a child, a youth, an adult. If I am patient and willing to search, I may more fully discover an immutable sense of the organic, microcosmic and macrocosmic worlds. The great synergistic cohesion works. It teaches me there is a purpose to each small piece, part of a span of connections started eons ago and still operating miraculously well if we respect it. I am shown frailty and obdurate strength. Order and ultimate symmetry. Upheaval and rejuvenation. Transformative powers reveal that saving changes do exist. It boosts my most human hope. For we are part of this process, the mighty cause and effect. If I recognize the common thread in the schemata, I will be at peace, at one with it.

Not so many years ago I squatted in the middle of a stream in another forested place and looked about me and listened. The birds and water sang. Rocks glistened. Plant life rippled and rested. The sky was blue as sapphire and trees were arced above me, leaning toward the rippling stream. Golden afternoon shafts of light struck lively water and it sparked with brilliant energy. It came to me in a sweep of awe, the clarity of the primordial and the divine so strong amid wounded fragmentations of our world. Overwhelmed by an ecstasy and bone-aching grief all at once, tears flowed. I looked up and trees were weeping, too, and the sky was all radiance from which love flowed everywhere. And I held my self open to that eternal Presence of God.

It was not the first time, nor the last. But in nature this power is very accessible, it seems to me. So, the woods do call me but I, too, call the woods. Solace, balance and wisdom I often need and find, and such refilling of the well of my soul I always am given. Step gently but boldly into the beauty. Let your soul call and be called, too.

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Firelight Magic: Silver Salmon, Azure Heart

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The sky above the ocean took its time to fully darken. Striations of color and cloud floated against an indigo backdrop. The air was still balmy from a few days of unseasonal heat. Between my toes pale sand welled up in soft, miniature hillocks. The moon was rising and it was full, partially veiled for a few moments, seemingly with a swatch of chiffon. The vaulted, infinite canvas opened up as I walked. Waves rushed forward then pulled away, lit by moonlight. My bare feet were washed and cooled. Soon darkness would cover us all with its vast and mysterious cape. I felt protected, embraced.

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We had come down from the beach rental with two bundles of crackling dry wood, just as many others had. My husband built a good fire and soon it roared to life, its heat almost too strong for the May evening. We watched the stars show themselves and bear witness to our earth activities. The moonlight soon cast shadows on the beach and I longed for a camera that would capture such magic. To our left and right there were small groups of people tending their fires, as many as twelve that I could count. Except for the sea, there was no distinct sound. In the distance, lights from beach houses winked. The fires burned bright. If people were speaking at all they were likely murmuring, as were we. No one seemed moved to carry on with the carelessness of revelers. Their presence within the warmth and dark felt natural, needed, as though we were all of one family, separated by short distances but little else. No other experiences needed to be shared at that moment. I considered how we had made our camps for the night, past travels good but tiring, our bellies now full. What was left was rest, companionship, availing ourselves of nature’s offerings. I felt our humanity a part of the universal whole and shivered. What else could we possibly want?

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I languished awhile, then an idea came.

“A story. Tell me a story. I will share one, too.”

“Of course you would think of that. Just make one up?” He poked at the fire with his stick, happy.

“Yes, like we used to when too wide awake in bed or when tucking the children in so long ago. Remember how much fun that was? Just give me any story that comes.”

“Hmm. Okay, but first let’s look toward the moon for inspiration. The moon shadows are amazing tonight.”

We stood up, turned around and the moon threw her light on us as if a queen tossing silver streamers. And this time, she wore raiment made of colorful halos.

 

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After we admired the lunar coronae (not halos as we later discovered), caused by a diffraction of light by small water droplets, and I tried to capture them with my camera, we sat back down and settled at the fire.

“I guess I have a story now,” he said, and began.

                       The Boy and the Silver Salmon

There was a boy whose people often fished by moonlight, so he found his quiet spot by the cool stream and cast his line. He had no luck for awhile and felt discouraged. He couldn’t go back without food. He tried again and again and finally he felt a hard tug on his line. It was a very heavy fish, and when he pulled it out of the stream he was amazed to find an enormous silver salmon on the hook. It shone like something precious and dazzled him when he finally brought it up to the shore.

Ecstatic, he held tightly onto the fish as it flopped around, its eyes wild, and started to run back to the village. They all would be so proud of him. They’d have a feast and invite their friends and neighbors. He might get extra food or a better reward. For all time they would tell stories about how he landed the biggest, most fantastic salmon ever.

He panted in exhaustion as he reached the end of the forest path. Then he stopped. What if they would be angry that he caught such a rare salmon? There might not be any others like it. Maybe he had done the wrong thing to keep the salmon, after all. He looked at the gasping fish and thought it better to take it back. But it was really too late for that. Instead he tossed it up into the sky and asked the Creator to keep it in a special place. And the Creator took the fish and put it around the moon.

And that is why we can now see the moon’s radiant corona.

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I clapped heartily. “That was wonderful!”

“Now you.”

I felt my attention pulled to the darkened ocean, its white-crested waves rolling in and out. Majestic and powerful, it taught, fed and lulled us while carrying out crucial work for all creatures. I felt humbled by its mystery.

“Okay, I have my story.”

                       The Woman and the Sea Heart

The Woman walked by the sea waters night and day. She had worries about her like maddening birds. Her silent words were captured by the sky and held there, waiting to be heard by the Loving Being. The Woman had charted the stars and followed the sun’s travels for decades yet she still sought wisdom. She knew her days left were not as many as she had imagined. Her strong back had begun to round like a worn rock. But she had not quite finished what she had to do.

She had a daughter, Linga, who had long left the old hearth. She had gone off to seek her fortune, which she did find. There was word that she had spanned the earth and done things that brought her favor and accolades. It had been many years since Linga had been near the home of her childhood, for she was engulfed by works of the world.

The Woman knew her daughter had gifts to give, had ways that were needed, and had let her go without a complaint. She knew that mothers gave life to let it go and find its own way. She wanted to once more find Linga’s shadow on her doorstep. She wanted her to remember to nourish her soul, not just mind and body. It was getting late. The Woman felt time was like breath, here and gone. She needed her daughter close to her before the sea was no longer seen by her human eyes.

As she walked she was captivated by sparkling crests of waves, how blue and bright they were, and how gaily they danced. She sang her deepest prayers until the glittering lit up the horizon, then transformed into azure orbs that rose up with her song’s longing. The Woman watched them float and when the night sky covered her, then hid the orbs, she went home to bed.

In the morning she was pulled to her senses by a magnetic light coming from her table. She eased her way toward luminescence, full of a small hope. Then she discerned the pulsing azure heart. She held it with tenderness, pressed against her own blood and sinew heartbeat.  

There was a loud rap at her door. The Woman flung it open. There stood Linga, her nearly lost daughter, for whom the great sea heart beat. They fell into each other’s arms. The azure heart found Linga, and kept her always close. And the Woman was at peace until her very end on earth.

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“Ahhh…” my husband said. “Very good, I really liked that.”

The moon, stars and ocean, the fires scattered like jewels across midnight sand–we were all snared by the enchantment of a spring night. And it was better than I can tell you here. Go out into the soft night. Build a good campfire. Let the stories come.

 

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Naming the Beauties and Beasts

Sitting on the rickety bench made of well-seasoned wood, I chewed on the pencil eraser. It tasted rubbery but also like words, the little and big ones I had gotten rid of while list-making. I studied my list now: Anisa, Melody, Rena, Roan, Genevieve, Carter, Tupper, Link. There were more. I updated my notebook of names sometimes daily. They were people I had not yet fully met but wondered over, with their singular lives and vast stores of knowledge, their foolishness and kindnesses. Their violent hearts. Little lies. Arms full of flowers for anyone who was lucky enough to cross their paths. Hands of love like birds nesting.

They lived and breathed just as surely as I felt the dampness of leftover morning dew on my bare feet. Robins sang out a morning newscast. The pine trees leaned in to me with their dark greenness; I felt the spongy carpet of old pines needles with my toes. If I was lucky, no one would find me for awhile.

What next?

I wrote in a bigger notebook with smooth, grown up college-lined pages: “Rena and Roan knew their way up the path. They had been out to the mountain many times. Roan whinnied a little as his mistress settled on his back and then he picked up speed. Behind them, Tupper sat on the porch, worrying his pipe, the smoke disappearing into the cloudy sky. Somewhere out there Link was fixing fence and not thinking about anything else. Rena would change that.”

“Cindy! Time for breakfast and then chores!”

I scratched an old mosquito bite on my leg. Why did they sometimes call me that awful name? It was Cynthia. Names were pretty important. I knew that even at only ten years old and kept my Book of Names handy.

I propped my head on my hands and turned a little so that I could see a bright sliver of Stark’s Nursery through the branches. A dirt road cut through the swath of tiny new trees and bushes. It beckoned me. I could wander through the nursery for hours, thinking of girls who ran with Bengal tigers, or a ship of spies sailing to Shanghai. I acted out many parts in the stories in the nursery, away from prying eyes.

Something fell thorugh the branches, then stopped its descent. I suddenly thought of outlaws and shining knives that were hidden in leather sheaths on belts and shivered. That was not the story I was working on although it often came back to me. I hadn’t found a place for it in my notebook yet. No, it was Rena today. So, why was she going to that mountain? To take something to Link? Yes, a letter from far away, the one he had dreaded and wanted all at once…

The bushes parted and the hidden doorway cracked open.  My sister stuck her head in.

“Mom says come in now. What are you up to?”

“Writing a story.”

“Oh. Well, write later. We have to practice our music lesson and you have to straighten up the living room and then dust and I have my stuff to do. Their bridge party tonight, remember? The Halls and Grays are coming and I forget who else. I’ll be gone by then!”

Gloria squinched her eyes and wrinkled her nose, then stepped back, the bushes closing over her. I could see her shoes, mostly white tennis shoes. I reached down and grabbed a shoelace and as she walked off she tripped, then laughed as she righted herself. I waited for her to charge back into the hideaway; instead, she ran across the back yard. The screen door bounced once, twice, and then was quiet.

I sighed. Streaks of sunlight were sneaking in and warming me up. The pine needles gave off a toasted pine scent that made me drowsy. I closed my eyes and soon was half-dreaming, wandering into a woods somewhere far off, maybe the Black Forest in Germany. Where beautiful dragons lurked who could be friend or enemy in a flash, and powerful men kept watch over all trees and food. Where women and girls often fended for themselves. Only the smartest and fastest survived and when they did, they were made Victorious and Wise Queens of Hyacinth Castle.  The one they had rebuilt after the terrible winter storm…or maybe it was the smaller one they had taken from the weeping dragon…was she still around? Yes, Fraxonia.

A fly buzzed my nose. I shook it off and peered between the branches at the nursery. I thought about walking in the forests up north, near Interlochen Music Camp where we were all headed in a few weeks. That was it: the one real place I often longed to be. Interlochen. Where there was nothing but music and art and dance and plays and writing stories. Starlight on water. Sailboats breezey in the sun. Nothing else mattered there. Just letting wonder happen. Making something small become bigger and better, with work. What stories would come to me there?

The notebooks fell off my lap and I opened my eyes. The Book of Names had opened to the center page. And on it was one word: Charlisa. I whispered her name and picked up my pencil, drew the edge of a lake and placed Charlisa there. She held her hand to her eyes and surveyed the towering trees.

“This time,” Charlisa thought, “this time there will be an end to the dark mystery that imprisons our land and we will all walk free again.”

I sat up and studied the drawing. Not the best but no matter, Charlisa was about to…. what? Make a tree house? Find her friend the messenger? I could hear my mother walking across the yard. I reluctantly closed my notebooks and stuck my pencil behind my ear. Then I went through the hidden doorway and into the other world where my mother had paused at the cherry tree.

“I know, I know,” I said grumpily.

But she smiled the way she did when she was teasing, her grey-blue eyes bright in the spring morning, and asked,  “What did you write about today?”

I put my arm around her waist. “I was naming more characters. But then Rena and Roan came up again–out there on the ranch. But the best thing was Charlisa. The one I couldn’t figure out at all. It turns out she has found her lost country. Now she has to get to work and make things happen.”

“Good, more to come. But right now, food, and then other work,” my mother said and we entered the house where blueberries and french toast waited.

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A postscript: After my mother died in May 2001, I became disheartened when I was  diagnosed with heart disease and was unemployed; I have written of these events in other posts. One night I was watering flowers on the balcony, wondering what to do next– not with my life, exactly, but just how to best live it, especially as I was not sure (and still am not; is anyone?) how long there was left. Sadness seemed to follow me day and night. But that early evening I felt her presence strong and clear as though she stood by me, and she said one thing only: “You must write.”  I suppose she thought I needed a reminder that I have always had to “name the beauties and beasts” and let them speak in Story. So that is what I still try to do, even on those days when all appears to be a shadowy mystery, or when there seems nothing left to say, as it has seemed the past few days. There is always a story waiting to come forward, so I sit down and write once more.