Our Secrets, Our Stories

Spring signs 054

I have a secret and so, my cohorts or neighbors, do you. We may have known each other for decades and shared breakfast once a month. Perhaps lived across the hall from one another and picked up each other’s mail as a favor when one or the other was gone. Celebrated our children’s milestones. Participated in a support group, noting small nuances of our lives. Been related by blood or marriage–ample opportunities to get personal. But there is ever something kept to yourself, an experience, a feeling, a person, time or place set aside from the rest. It resides in a part unknown to anyone else. And the reality is that it is not singular but exists in multiples. We have so many secrets it is unlikely we could name them all if it was demanded of us. For some we have briefly acknowledged only to manage to hide forever–perhaps even from ourselves.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary notes that definitions for the noun “secret” include:

1) information kept hidden from others

2)  an uncommon way of doing something to achieve good results  (and unknown to most others)

3) something mysterious, inexplicable

The evolution from the Latin secretus: to separate, distinguish, sift, keep apart.

This covers a fair amount of territory. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot in a time where it is getting harder to maintain privacy in our world. Everyone is concerned about having personal information kept that way, yet we are obliged to share critical details in order to manage our lived in multiple ways. For many of the younger generations it is so pervasive a condition that they often don’t blink an eye when asked for minute details to establish identity. And social media provides easier access each year to whoever puts information out there. Want some attention? Post something on YouTube or Instagram. For that matter, post anything on the internet at our own risk, as the virtual ticker tape of our lives may unspool before us. It seems to me the illusory fame some seek makes one’s identity more fluid–and rather indistinguishable.

And of course I see the irony as I write a post for WordPress, a platform for many millions around the world. Writers, after all, write from what they know or want/need to know and then tend to share it, and a reader gets to know much about the person who is penning the epistle.

Or do you? Do I?

Secrets–odds and ends as well as dramatic moments–naturally accumulate as the years accordion. There seems to be room for all despite one more item being added, pressed closer and denser, our minds and memories akin to striated rock. What surprises us at times is that secrets appear to have as big a role in creating our identities as obvious known factors do. Perhaps more so, at times. Who we are may not be who we appear to be, which seems rather ominous. The reality is, few if any of us are strictly as we appear because everyone has something kept private, held at bay. For one thing, there are too many moments lived, a glut of informative tidbits, each making an impression that is discarded or given closer examination. Our brains are ceaseless workhorses twenty-four hours a day to manage it all. So from a generalized view, it’s not surprising we don’t share close to all of what we experience–much may hardly reach awareness. Until perhaps a dream reveals it to us or a sudden thought leaps awake in the middle of some mundane activity. That aha moment–which we often tuck away.

There are those events we felt/knew/wondered/observed, then receded. But the real secrets are pieces of knowledge we are apt to be acutely conscious of but decide are better left alone. It is likely to our advantage when we choose to close the door to outside probing. The private fact, if given light of day, might compromise the secret holder’s principles, or diminish his or her efficacy. Render the person too emotionally vulnerable. Spark a conflict with another that will have onerous or at least unintended results. Or maybe it is about protecting another and keeping one’s word. And so one’s observation, a feeling or a nighttime dream may remain under wraps for awhile or forever. Details can undo us, we think, and there seems to be some truth in it.

The problem is the tendency to believe that unleashing a secret might end up taking something from someone. Ourselves, usually. We’re each born a (generally) separate human and have ownership of who we are–what we think, how we feel, why we act–until we do not. Until we give ourselves freedom to come forward with the entire, unadulterated truth of whatever it is. Until we take a risk and take someone into our confidence. And in this day and age, how many are willing to do that when it is so easy to live in subterfuge, masks switched at whim, a persona for each situation? It seems easier to do without the backdrop included–the real facts that uphold our individuality. And as human beings, we are undeniably versatile. We can keep secrets as well as divulge them; it only takes words or actions to set either in motion. How much could we lose or gain by not saying what we are so loathe to expose?

There’s a time for honesty and vulnerability, as well as maintaining that golden silence. It can get quite tricky.

The dictionary’s second definition seems reaonable while interesting. It refers to keeping hidden a special method or idea that has had a good outcome. Anyone can relate to that. If there is an arcane ingredient of a recipe or a revolutionary manufacturing technique a company uses, one is not about to spill the beans. There may be a provisional solution to a thorny problem and when it becomes verifiably tried and true, the minds behind that solution may choose to keep it closer for all posterity. Maybe it comes down to greed. But it could also be wise management of resources, depending on the personalities and circumstance. I would tend to go for the greater good, if it came to that–but even that could end up meaning sharing information or keeping it under lock and key.

I opt for both a privacy determined by self counsel as well as a more trusting openness. I want transparency in my living because it is authentic. Complete in a way that layers of diverting signals can never attain no matter how smart or intriguing. It is, however, a surprise to family that when I write I am willing to say so much about who I am. I have been perceived as a primarily pensive, calm, reserved person much of the time, especially in my career. True, all a significant part of who I am, having been raised to be circumspect. It was good manners if nothing else, and often a deciding factor in success and failure or happiness or misery. We take into our beings what we gleaned from earliest years. But there was also a fire within, a strong need to speak out, and so openness flowed more naturally as I grew up. I had discovered, too, that some secrets could do irreparable damage and why allow that if there was another way? Armed with questions for the world, I asked them of myself first and the one I loved the most was: What is the truth? I have never been one to accept a glib answer as the final say. It can make me a bit insufferable. I am not a good small talker, all that easy breezy stuff.

I might have made a better reporter, detective or spy. Let me at the innards of the object of my interest. Spy craft is another thing altogether but if there were no secrets, there would be no spies–real or created– and what would we do without those ramifications to engage and entertain or offend us? Secrets have played a significant part in the world’s history, I gather.

But there are vast amounts to uncover when evaluating the entirety of a person, a place, an experience. The truth, it turns out, tends to be complicated. The beauty of this is in the unmaking and remaking of it as well as the sheer existence of it. Each is a kaleidoscope to turn around, a puzzle to decipher. And memory alters it, as well.

If my impulse is more toward rooting out the gist of a matter, the unvarnished core, it may seem that secrets are not my preferred domain. But poetry can arise from secrets glimpsed within one moment. This is true of fiction, too, a story gathering shape from threads and the snags as its design is gradually woven. A writer develops tools from an array of generous offerings from mind and heart as well as strict information. And so it is the third definition of the word “secret” that draws me most of the three: the mystery of all things.

It matters to me, the numinous nature of mystery. Even more than it did decades ago, because of greater permeability of societal boundaries and the wider reach computers have brought. So much is far more than I want to see or hear. I have to block those distractions to give serious attention to what is going on inside and out.

I find there remains the same evidence of mystery I had as a child. Pulsing star maps of sky and undulating oceans emblazoned with sunrise. The give of grass beneath tender feet in summer. Songs of cicadas and loons; the calls of coyotes and a bear cub. The transitory radiance of fireflies on summer’s eve. The opening of one hand by another. Tears that ease a formidable grief. Victory that arrives in a moment after years of relentless work and the bitterness of failures. Love, how it can bless those downcast or those rising up.

Mystery in all honesty rules me. The secrets of God’s ineffable presence have illuminated my journey, the seeking and finding, bewilderment and awe. I stand here now only because of a power I can barely begin to identify with such small, poor language. I know I am impacted beyond all reason when I feel God-moving-here, and yet it is the lofty reason of science that reveals to me God’s business in the physics of our universe. I cannot get enough of this gorgeous, messy living, not even on tough days, not even when I feel my own secrets are the worse for wear yet make me foolish.

Why do we even need secrets? Why do we not? Such contradictions seem commonplace and that, too, is not wholly understood. There is so little we can well account for when we come to the end of the road. Why not take in and hold those set aside moments, our own secret knowledge close enough that it shakes us up so we break open to more jubilant life? There are times we have to rend our egoistic cloaks of darkness and let go the shame or fear, let it stir in the air. Shake out spasms of anger, of regret. Pronounce our liberation when our dream looms close–grab it before it passes. Say aloud the hesitant words as if everything depends on it: I love you, let me help, I honor your life, God’s peace to you.

If there is an experience that persists like a steady lamp along the way, a certain person who was a gift or a season in life that meant more than can be told, cherish it. It will nurture you. If there is something that dissipates your energy and shadows your soul, perhaps now is a time to speak or you may remain captive by its presence. What we decide to keep is ours and ours alone if we choose. Let it be a secret for the best of purposes. Otherwise, let it go and let the greater mysteries reign.


L. McBride’s Poetical Life

?????????? The housekeeper was coming at ten and Leslie was running behind. She hated being tardy ever since she had been five minutes late for kindergarten. Her mother made her march up to the class door by herself as she waited at the entrance, foot tapping, keys jangling in her hand.  The whole room had quieted down as Leslie entered and apologized to the teacher, then squeezed into the circle. Her tears never made it down her cheeks.

She blooted her thin lips with a tissue. The color wasn’t too bright; softer than her fitted berry and white-striped shirt. It did look crisp with white slacks but it was a bit as if she had dressed up as a gourmet candy cane with the bottom stripes licked off. Her sudden allusion to food was irritating, especially as it was sugar. She had sweated for weeks to get off five pounds and shortly she was going to eat from a table loaded with calories. She fingered the top shirt button.

There was no time to change so she stood. The garden club had planned a brunch before a speaker. Then Leslie had to meet with her son’s interior decorator and discuss her suggestions. It was a full day, ending with dinner out with Gavin. If he didn’t cancel again. Being married to Gavin lately–well, never mind that now. She had to leave or forego the club altogether. Leslie bent forward to smile at herself in the mirror, her new brunette pixie cut given a nod.

The doorbell chimed. She swooped down the stairway and grabbed her purse at the side table. As she opened the door, Jana entered. Leslie was taken by the young woman’s hazel eyes–they always looked bright in contrast to her grey company uniform. The logo was stitched on the pocket, a plain monogram, the whole effect utilitarian as the work to be done. But Jana elevated it somehow.

“I’m running late–you know the routine. Please polish the piano. Peonies are in the sink; put those on the dining room table. Lock up behind you. Don’t worry about security; Gavin will take care of it remotely at two o’clock. See you next week.”

She raised her hand, then stepped out.

The door closed with a substantial thud, like all the big house doors Jana cleaned. The back doors, when used, had the same sound. She stood in the foyer and looked from right to left, her eyes scrutinizing dining room and formal living room, hallway before her, curved staircase. Nothing was dirty, nothing out-of-place. She was hired for four hours–it was over five thousand square feet–to brighten up things, and it always felt like a waste of time and money.

She started in the kitchen with the flowers, locating first the correct vase. Leslie—“say it as though the ‘s’ was a ‘z’, please, or Mrs. McBride, your choice”–was clear about certain vases for each room. Jana admired the pink and white peonies’ luxurious blossoms before shaking off water droplets and arranging them. Jana wished she was their gardener, if they had one. The back lawn was studded with a rainbow of color, the bushes perfectly round as if in a painting of an enchanted place.

The cleaning took even less time than usual, not quite three hours. The piano was most time-consuming. She didn’t like the smell of the polish she had to use. And it was gargantuan. It had to gleam. But it had a soothing, rich tone when Jana touched her finger on middle C, tapped a few notes up and back again. Did Leslie play or Gavin? It seemed likely neither did, or not often. The keys were an affront, unworn and too white and black. The McBrides appeared to live as little as possible in their house. She shook off the impulse to play “chopsticks.”

The bedrooms usually looked immaculate, but this time a tie had been absent-mindedly left on the valet stand. The king bed was remade with fresh ivory sheets even though it seemed lightly slept in. She didn’t like to think of them in bed, even sleeping. He was big and gruff, eyebrows dense and drawn together. Leslie had a frame that seemed made of paper or lace. And she gave off a fragrant coolness even when hurried, even when it was one hundred degrees.

Jana saw a pair of floral, linen-covered (or she thought–did people even have linen shoes? Didn’t they wear poorly, need special care?) heels, one fallen over, and set it upright, then vacuumed around them. Plump taupe silk pillows were off-center on the white loveseat. 

In the study, there was a slight rim of dust on the glass bowl collection set upon an illuminated shelf. Jana took care with the pieces, admiring how they shone after she was done. The umbrella plant needed a dusting, too, and watering. There was Leslie’s big desk, lined up on the left side with two pens and a stack of papers, an in and out wooden basket on the right. The orderliness was strange to Jana, whose own built-in desk groaned under its piles. Leslie had left a volume in the middle of the expanse. Its cover was decorated with vivid tropical birds and  plants. Thinking it was a book about nature with photographs, Jana put her finger between pages and let it fall open. Just for a quick look.

There weren’t pictures but writing. Pages and pages of handwritten words. Some were filled with only a small paragraph or two, others were crowded with small black cursive. Jana flipped back to the first page: A Poetical Life by L. McBride. Was that the same as poetic, like poetry, and what did it exactly mean? Was it a regular journal or writer’s diary? Maybe there was a relative who hand-wrote her a story book? Her son’s name was Liam. She rifled the pages. No, not a man’s handwriting. She glanced at the clock. She had fifty-five minutes before the security sytem would engage. She had time to look.

But should she? Jana had never invaded another person’s personal belongings. She hadn’t had the urge to sneak exotic chocolates from a candy dish or snoop in multiple drawers like some of her co-workers. Housekeeping was not an intrigue. It, in fact, bored her to converse with her clients. She thought little of their money and less of their occasionally pretentious manner. Leslie was less chatty than many but not rude. Pleasant, but all business which suited Jana. If she had to come up with one word for the woman it would be: detached.

Jana was attending college part-time and this work was a means to an end. After one more year, she would graduate and claim a life worth all the effort. She didn’t need to mess with anything.

But here was something unexpected. An puzzle. Leslie McBride, more private (and also disinterested in her) than any other homeowner she’d met would not leave a diary unattended, out in the open. Maybe she had been writing in it before letting her in. Or she had gotten it out to take with her but forgotten in her rush. Or Gavin had it for some reason, then left it there. It was not Jana’s business and not her way to look further.

The crystal clock on a bookshelf ticked off seconds with a finesse and firmness, as if to remind Jana she was in foreign territory and her visa was soon to expire. A polite warning, as Leslie might tender. But there the book sat, easy, visable. The jungle-like beauty of the covers and the impeccable penmanship lured her, so she turned to another page.

25 March 14

It is Tuesday, that day that is not the beginning or the middle of the week but informs me it is a long way until Saturday–when we will leave for the lake. But the color of the water finds me in sleep; I feel it lapping against my skin and dive deep into blue-greeness. One feels the chill a relief after the sunshine above. I can’t hear the boats or families from there. I can hear bubbles and sounds of fish turning and sand and pebbles moving at the step of my bare feet. I nearly find my soul. It is leaving one life for another and everything that matters can be found in the weave of trees and the transparency of water. At least that is what I am counting on again. It is what Tuesday tells me: hold on and prepare to be freed. And bewitched. And to find a sort of love where once you lost it. Or at least sound sleep.

Jana’s hand went to her chest. She turned several pages farther.

17 April 14

He stumbles. He cannot see through darkness
but senses his way to the window.
It was opened by my hand so wind
can carry in the night, birds can fly to
my side of the bed to make a nest there. 
So the moonlight will vex him.
I have left this way before, leaping
from branches to flowers,
finding a current that
carries me to starlight.
I let him weep for the moon.

Jana shut the book and put it down, backed away. Her heart beat with a hard rhythm. What had she seen? It was a dangerous story, a peeling back of layers, a vision of someone she did not know at all. It was the life of a woman, yes, but it couldn’t be Leslie McBride, methodically correct person, icy society matron.  The sadness of it, the beauty of it! Jana’s pressed her lips together, looked at the clock, then turned to the journal again.

1 June 14

The lake house is going to be sold, Gavin says without looking at me. He wants something in Mexico, a small villa where we can entertain all his business cohorts. I am not going there with him if he does this. I will destroy something of his; that will make him think twice. Or at least threaten to…! Who can leave a lake like that on the brink of summer? My own guileless lake? How can he take from me this source of renewal, my joy? 

2 June 14

Remember the time when life
split our tidy seams, ebullience spilled

from my hands into yours 
and loneliness was an echo lost
and love was the new sound it created
without even thinking?

I am asking you.
Find a way.

Jana sat down on the desk chair. She closed the journal and placed her hands atop it. She felt heat inside her, as if she had absorbed Leslie’s words so that the hope and hurt were all stewing there. What had she done? She wanted to cry out in defense of Leslie. But this was not her friend, not even her dear neighbor. Just a woman she cleaned house for. Now, Jana knew her. And she would never be able to look at her. It would worry Jana and make her feel things she shouldn’t when she had work to do.

She stood up, toured the home a last time. Found it satisfactory. All except for her trespass. So she left. Her eyes were stung by sunlight, heart bruised a little like a flower she’d dropped and then stepped on. Jana already cared. But she would not be back.