Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Making a Stake in Reclamation

The raindrops pelted me with snappy wetness; wind was gusty and chilled just right. Ah, an early autumn downpour, crispy leaves scuttering about, the earth emitting its scent of greenness devolving into decay and fallowness in the weeks ahead. Not yet winter and not fully fall, this transition period will display fickleness–one week a bright balminess again, the next, an earlier darkening horizon with clouds gathering water to disperse.

My upturned face ran with raindrops, my jeans grew soggy, my breath was taxed by steep paths, then I found my pace along the terrain. And every step brought to mind singular words or phrases, as is so often the case. This time: cure, curative, restoration, claimant, clearing, rejuvenation, reclamation. Act of reclamation. Then only the quietness of woods and steady beats of my feet.

By the time I got home I asked myself: claimant of what, exactly? A cure, of what kind, for which sort of malady? Clearing… of smoke, land, people’s minds, clearing away of debris? Rejuvenation of our fire-hollowed million acres? Reclamation: that has been the urgent word for a few days. It first conjured up a picture of people standing up tall, a solid force and laboring to make right what is wrong. Our people in Oregon. The American people.

Still, my brain scanned examples of reclamation and came up with a mediocre plot of land that lies in sad shape. Someone passes by and sees it is disused, or poorly used or even overused. He/she is challenged by the task of rehabbing it, considering something better, different. An insignificant spot altered so that people may come to enjoy. That person asks for help. Flowers or vegetables are planted, a bench or two installed, an old wooden table set in the shade of a revived apple tree whose white blossoms glow in the sunlight, and the fruit ripens, is picked and well enjoyed. Soon others gather to swap ideas, share food, play dominoes or chess or cards.

I consider the art of mosaics, how often they are created by jagged pieces and slivers of glass or ceramic or rock that have been broken and then salvaged to construct a work of art, utilitarian or an object of beauty to gaze upon appreciatively. The useless pieces were reclaimed, refashioned into something of value to the maker–and maybe others. Something that might have gone to waste since deemed useless has been reclaimed.

I consider these images that unfurl like stories, and then people I know. How do we restore our lives in response to the stresses and worries of these days and nights? Or is a basic restoration the wisest goal, with so many influences intent on determining otherwise? Restore to just what, now?

I keep hearing from friends and some family that they are beyond weary of it all. The novel coronavirus’ demands and restrictions and continued loss of life; the historic wildfires of the West/Northwest; the ever increasing political turmoil; loss of jobs and homes–that they have begun to feel more impotent each day. I hear the telltale flatness of their sentences, a symptom of depression, and worry. I call them, text them. Daily there are articles about people experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from being so long ill from COVID-19 or working brutal hours helping the critically ill; from losing all to the fires out West or to hurricanes; from worry over, or participation in protests to address racism that can turn ugly and get way off track. And reported erroneously–as so much seems to be, more and more– in the media, as well.

How do we manage, then, monumental stress and uncertainty? It is no longer just one thing or another, but a number subsequent events–depending partly on where one lives– that have us tied up in knots. We know to try to stay better connected to one another even if virtually (who could have imagined this–like sci fi come to the fore–main mode of connection just 7 months ago?) and getting enough rest, exercise and eating decently despite lessening appetites; and taking time to enjoy whatever we each may find. Taking time to be together, even if six feet apart-but even that seems harder, at times. We are just tired.

Recently some friends and I had conversation about how people can reckon with painful, sometimes sudden, alterations in their lives. After the initial shock of a negative life-changing event lessens–which may take weeks, months or longer–individuals embark on various courses. They may do nothing, unable to find motivation enough other than to survive. They may engage in more group activities (even online) to help stay the profound sense of loneliness that can accompany the sadness. Or they may take up a project that fully engages, whether building something or repainting or repairing the house (hardware stores are doing well). Or some may lessen tension by enrolling in a Zumba class, running a few miles a day, doing yoga. Therapy is an option and if it is good, people can learn how to cope with stress and fear, and with PTSD triggers to then minimize overwhelming feelings of helplessness, deal better with nightmares and intrusive thoughts or images of the trauma. Or sessions can help one learn how to grieve more fully, then finally begin to live without the loved one who was lost, or the job that was taken away or the health that is undone–and finally, one hopes, go on, day by day.

Others might retreat into solitude and prayer or other meditative activity. The person seeking relief may choose to work longer and become the last one out of the office–or be very late turning off the computer if working at home, one’s partner calling out to “come to bed, please.” They also could engage in addictive behaviors that may temporarily induce a numbed disconnection from unhappiness they push away. This can occur even if they were not originally given to problematic drinking/gambling/sex/shopping/falling into love affairs– to name but a few.

It all comes down to rooting out some relief from realities that plague people. But a foundation of healthier ways needs to be built somehow if life is to be improved beyond a short tie. When there is psychic or physical damage, repair is needed. To reclaim something can mean to save from the refuse, to gather remnants left and make anew from ruined bits. It might mean the person needs to move away from haunting errors made with a change in locale or leave a toxic person. And it requires getting perspective and some control of conflicting parts to remake a life so that it works better. This, rather than you being worked over by it. Because unless a life is essentially habitable, it becomes a kind of prison or worse. And little can feel worse than to feel caught in the same bad place, helpless.

I have actual experience with all this, both as a counselor working decades at mental health and addiction treatment agencies, and in my personal life. Client after client came to see me with complex, weighty issues. They were at wits’ end and worn out and often on the brink of giving up entirely. Some had arrived after being near death for a few reasons— or had met death and then returned unhappily to the living. And the circumstances were far more varied than one might think.

One person was desperate to meet, with bad injuries still healing after a private plane trip that resulted in a crash. Yet this person continued to see the pilot, the love interest, who was untrustworthy, abusively dangerous. My client had developed an addiction to both prescription and illegal drugs in part due to the availability from the wealthy partner. The client’s well bred family had given up and from the hospital sent the person right to treatment.

Another person who was homeless with addiction and mental health diagnoses was finally getting substance free, yet still had the problem of where to live safely with a mangy but beloved dog. Housing was severely limited; there was no income until disability was applied for and gotten, which took a long while to obtain. There was no care for the dog without money. So we had to cut corners to secure pet help and temporary housing,

An adult was the only one left alive after her family was murdered by nephew in alcoholic black out. A teen grew up in a home with “routine” domestic violence; she had became a runaway and a dealer, lost in every way and angry. Another client was raped but no one believed the truth; he started to drink 7 days a week and dropped out of college-he was hoping to become a doctor.

I listened to human tragedies every day. How could I help them recover? Show how to rebuild their lives for the short and long term? Because the reality is, I could have used every therapeutic tool in the book, shown compassion and patience for months, but if the individual was not prepared to do the tough work of changing his or her state of mind or circumstances, I was not going make the difference I desired. Being ready to change was equally a key, perhaps even more than gaining new choices and life skills. This sounds harsh but consider what happens when one does not want to heal, to change: more of the same, or nothing.

It might surprise some how not ready people can be when you get down to the bottom line, despite their pain. But I understood this. The more life errors or trauma experienced, the less able a person feels to hang on for the long run, to start to recover and move forward. It takes exhausting and mind boggling efforts when already feeling on empty. So when there was any spark noticed in a client–that they realized life could still be worth living and there was hope despite the rawness and bleak view, I was holding out my hand, carefully but surely. I felt that when someone at last took it, he/she was willing to give a different way of living the barest chance. And we all know one spark can make a fire, and a small, well tended fire can do much needed good, especially when you are not truly alone.

From an early age, I was given some challenges. Those who have followed this blog know I experienced childhood sexual abuse. My mother, who suspected it, did not protect me nor tell my father or anyone of her fears. I was cautioned to stay away from the perpetrator at 9 years old. So it continued 2-3 years until my beloved oldest sister divorced the man she’d so hastily married wasn’t right for marriage (and she learned afterwards was a pedophile–and heard of my abuse when I was 35, she was 48.). It was like being caught in a corner with no way out and no one to call for help. Everything boiled down to survival and I knew so little about that then.

But that was just the start. If someone is abused and no one acknowledges it or helps, more trauma arises from that terrible error. In fact, it may be the worst of it. The secret was kept; the adept pretending that all was fine increased; feelings of worthlessness, failure and loneliness increased year by year. And behaviors tried out to lessen the relentless discouragement, confusion, and fear were increasingly unhealthy. Abandonment in dire crises is a hard one. I just had to learn how to swim in a vast stormy sea.

And then what came happens when life is lived as if stumbling through the dark with clumsy bruised feet. More victimization from various assaults; drug use both legitimate (our family doctor prescribed my first tranquilizers at age 12 due to not being able to sleep) and later illegitimate to dull the pain; the drug-fueled, PTSD-laden breakdowns at 15 and 19; and much later, alcoholism and treatment centers. Retreats from death.

Less positive choices for a life path was made harder by being a magnet for a dangerous boyfriend and later unstable/abusive/neglectful husbands (and, occasionally, “friends”). Including a criminal who took whatever dignity I had somehow redeveloped, as well as what money I had. And for most of that relationship I was sober; I had naively thought he was different deep down… Clearly, I hadn’t righted my life yet. I did not have the corrected map or enough wherewithal to traverse the right roads. There was no sure reclamation going on until the two teen children still at home left secretly with me. This was, for me, about the worst it could get. I was devastated that the work I had put in was still not my salvation. But I would not give up.

After all of that and with more therapy, I had enough. I sometimes wondered if I was one who might not recover, never make my life whole. It was either create a different life or get off the planet. i abstained from relationships for years. When I was out of money awhile between low paying jobs, out of nowhere came the gift of work I then believed was not for me. I could pay the rent and buy food (my19 yo son helped out); that was enough.

But there was rapid skill development and a surprising passion for the work even as I resisted the encouragement to become a fully certified counselor. The work was with addicted, emotionally ill, gang-affiliated, and homeless youth. Even as I said no, I returned to college. My work got better. I healed faster with more help. Still, for six years, I was one of those who worked every hour I could–to pay the bills but also to keep well occupied–and attended classes and studied. But when home I withdrew from the world. I prayed, wrote, walked daily, danced–took care of my self, tended to my children the best I could. Parenting demanded I be involved and responsive, enabled me to yet love deeply. In time, success seemed more reachable in the ways that mattered. After that, another marriage and there came decades more working with vulnerable adults and youth.

I found more and more happiness, despite difficulty. I stopped feeling terminally unique, too. A deep relief that was.

The point is, reclamation of life can take awhile. It can demand you give more, to make good on tentative promises to yourself and others. But it does come to pass.

I found it a long journey; I remain on the lifelong path to greater understanding and well being. It is alright; I enjoy learning immensely. But I had to build up endurance. Had to keep searching for the light through shadows, sketchy twists, off-road forays. I transformed the old feeling of being a maimed person with mostly deficits into being changed but not ruined. To being able to regenerate were injuries had slowed it or stopped it before. To having a capacity for problem solving and adaptability. I kept giving the pain to God, and it works. I gave my more tender self to creative work that improved. It happened in bits and pieces but each time there were clearer insight or better choices made, there was progress. And I was grateful for any small step forward.

Reclamation of life: we can do this for ourselves. Likely you, too, have already done it many times but perhaps didn’t know how potent a thing it was. Then hindsight showed you how much it was you undertook and overcame. A fighter for good, a creative force, a change agent–yes, you.

I came back to the core of who I am–as valuable as others, a capable person. Someone worth respecting and caring for. It was first hard to believe. And strong, as I found I can endure many harsh surprises, losses. I have, with encouragement and care from many, retained a heart for life and for others. An “optimistic realist”, I will hold up hope, but give me the full facts. No excuses or white lies or fudged numbers. Give me the truth, first and last, as it is best known. I am not good in the dark even if I can manage it. Turn on a spotlight– or at least a homely candle burning orange and yellow in the maze of life.

So, back to the conversations I have had lately about how one deals with all these crises that millions are trying to cope with these days. I can only think that we can do it, because it has been done before. We do have what it takes. We all suffer; we learn how to persist. People have the remarkable characteristic of resilience and when it is coupled with concern for others as I have seen in Oregon since the wildfires devastation, this is true power being witnessed.

I know at any time conditions can change in a flash. Meantime, I am going on despite trials making my own sort of reclamations as follows:

*Remember we are each part of the infinite and eternal design of the universe. –I had to get this one out of the way, because it informs all I do and believe. It helps me keep things in a more reasonable perspective. Maintaining my spiritual life just makes the difference. (Others may not agree–I try to always respect this.)

*Assess the situation based on facts as they are known. Do not close a blind eye when both clear eyes open is what is needed.

*Develop a plan for longer range goals (even a day, week or month beyond this current moment) by brainstorming options; be open to thinking outside the box and hearing others’ ideas.

*Proceed with caution but take even a small action– with expectancy of a some good progress to be made within one’s own life and potentially within a community.

*Use common sense. Sometimes humans overthink a problem or situation to the point of dead-end idiocy. Trust the gut; we were all born with instinct and intuition. (I should have done so long ago…)

*Exercise compassion, even when–maybe especially when– angry or confounded. Pause to pray or meditate, and that one’s perceived enemy to be truly blessed, not cursed.

*Stand up. Be heard. Claim your space and change one little thing. Make right what can be made right in your sphere, and work to support others who endeavor to reform what is unjust–that is, whatever stymies human flourishing. And may we keep out planet alive with more people fully caretaking of–not wasting–its vast gifts.

*Hold on. Some things cannot be rushed or altered at the moment. Timing makes a difference. Patience can mean everything. But then go boldly.

*Find worthwhile meaning in small moments, too; praise them all. What we have after we lose something or someone is ourselves, and some faith in what we cannot yet see but hope for, and anything we can salvage to begin again.

*Remember: no matter your pain, it has been felt before. No matter your grief, it has been mourned by another. No matter your aloneness, you are still part of humanity and someone cares. Ask for help; be found. Then help others who seek aid.

*If you can laugh despite the tears, give that to yourself and others. It shakes free some heaviness, lets more light in, brings relief.

*Create something. Anything you like. Give it away if the spirit moves you.

*Go and sit under dancing trees or move through fields or mountains or walk by water or rest among cacti and watch for coyotes. Open a window to the sky and listen, smell, touch, see. This is much of the wonder of life, given to you.

We can be well enough restored–as long as we have breath and our hearts beat–even in these times. It is not so likely it will be the reality we have known before…but nothing is static. Living can still be embraced and improved upon. It has been done before. The world has suffered in some terrible way, always. We being an adaptable species have managed to go on thus far amid devastations. We fail at times, but we also are compelled to try once more. We will wake up each day to see what is going on, and we will participate in the unfolding by being present and accounted for. I have gotten to 70; so also can you carry on the best you can.

I believe we are meant to be like angels for one another while we walk this earth. We are meant to illuminate the pathway together. We are meant to see goodness in one another, make compassion the rule. May we, then, comfort and help one another as we navigate rough waters and no matter what lies ahead.

(Note: those referred to as clients are composites of people I have known over many years of counselling positions.)

The Shadows that Befall Us

Photo by Christer Stromholm

He was back. Lee got word at the pharmacy as he picked up a prescription for his sister. He was whistling a Sinatra tune, “Summer Wind”, which made hunched over, pale Harriet smile as he approached the little window. It was already hot as blazes and all he could think about was his boat, the rippling water and time off from his boring as ever junior loan officer job. He was a good whistler and everyone liked a good whistler, he thought, something cheering about it. One thing in his favor, anyway.

“So Rita has a toothache, huh? I feel for her. This will take care of it. Is it getting pulled or can Dr. Cramer fix it?”

Harriet wanted the rest of the story before she would release the bottle to him. She sucked on the end of her pen, waiting for details.

“She’ll be fine, thanks,” he said, not knowing one way or another, he was just to pick it up and deliver it.

“Well, now, you both keep up your strength because your old friend is back.” She watched him sign off, then put it in a little white bag, handed it to him. “And no doubt you’ll get a knock on the door one of these evenings.”

Lee’s mind darted here and there. A friend, maybe Tom, a childhood neighbor and fellow graduate from state college; he had called awhile back. Or Lisa, whose heart he accidentally stepped on, so she took off for the coast. He hoped it wasn’t she–he was better off living an uncomplicated life

“I’m sure whoever it is, is just passing through, and we’ll enjoy a cup of coffee. Thanks for the heads-up, Harriet, gotta go.”

Harriet let him take the bag and turn away, then said, “It’s Mick. Mick Stavros is back.”

He was whistling again but when that name hit the air the tune evaporated. Lee stood in the aisle as a couple wove around him with their fussy child. He turned back to her but Harriet was on to the  next customer. She only looked at him when his hand was on the door’s brass push plate. Shook her head as he exited.

******

“If there’s only one thing you might not have said for the rest of our lives, it’s that!”

Rita slammed the refrigerator door shut and dropped two cans of beer on the table. She didn’t know why Lee had to linger now that he had left the medicine and told her the bad news. He lived in the third dwelling of their jointly owned triplex and they seldom saw each other unless there was good reason. Her infected tooth and resultant pain qualified. Rita had left work and gone straight to Dr. Cramer, gotten the verdict, then had lain down. She was not in a mood to be trifled with much less attacked with worse news, nor did she want to down a beer with an antibiotic. But this was not the usual afternoon so she opened the beer and washed the pill down.

“When? Why? Where is he so we can make certain to avoid him at all costs? And do the cops know he’s here?”

Lee protested with palms up and against humid air. “I don’t know anything but that. Take it easy. It’s been…”

“Nine years, that’s how long and I want it to be one hundred. Forever.” She squinted her eyes at him and sat down. “I thought he was going to Houston after he got out, see what his uncle could do. That was the last Mr. Stavros said of it and he wasn’t full of misgiving about it, either.” She rolled the chilly beaded can against her forehead, which was hotter than usual due to the infection. Her hand went to her jaw;e leaned forward. “He had better leave us alone, Lee.”

Lee glanced at her cropped reddish blonde hair. It had been long once, all the way to the middle of her back, “that amazing Marlin family hair” people always said of it, even his with its abundance. Hers was shorter than his was. The day Mick had gone to trial for his crimes, she had cut it off with her own scissors to shoulder length. Then it seemed like she cut it a little shorter each year. No one knew why exactly. His nostrils flared and he put his own thoughts away.

“He will, don’t worry. Everyone in town will know soon and be watching him. Mick never did have a clue about what makes sense in the larger world. I guess it must be in the genes, whether you have an instinct for good and smart or not. I mean, his father is not the best example though he’s changed.”

Rita snorted. “The way you break down complicated matters to the smallest, most simple components! Mick Stavros made the wrong choices because he wanted to; he’s not unintelligent, he’s a…”

Just saying his name caught her off guard, the way it rolled around the kitchen in sunshine like honey. The pain in her jaw and the news were both sleep inducements. She longed for sudden oblivion.

“You can stay but I have to take a pain pill, hit the bed and get over this thing,” she said and got up. She hesitated, then squeezed his shoulder. “Keep cool, Lee. That was so long ago, we don’t need to revisit it, right? Let’s just bide our time. He’ll get bored and leave or get run out. We just won’t answer the door or pick up calls if he tries.”

You’re warning me? Of course the past has to stay where it belongs. We’ll be okay, call me if you want to talk later. I’ll keep an eye on things.”

As he ran down the porch steps, crossed the yard to enter his unit on the end, he thought, We’ll be okay. Unless he’s here for you.

******

The sun went down at some point during her fevered dreaming but all she could see in her slumber was the day she met him. Mick was standing with back to thin May light and his face was only partly visible. His hands were tucked into his pockets; he stood tall with a casual authority, that’s how it seemed, feet planted apart. As she passed him he turned his head to look at her and then she saw his eyes in the sudden sunshine, that rich amber surrounding brown. They were curious, bold, with questions that somehow foretold the answers.

“How you doing this beautiful day? Are you the one I’m waiting for?”

She felt his unusual, magnetic presence,  and briefly entertained the idea that he had been planted there to test her purposeful mind. But she kept up a fast pace to the locked employees’ entrance of the building. She laughed under her breath. Was that an old fashioned come-on or was it just a risky, foolish thing to say to someone who could be the one to decide his fate at the treatment center? She looked over his shoulder, noted the outline of his strong, straight body; stubborn shoulders; head turning as if scanning the horizon. But he looked back at the last minute, saw her still there, and their gazes caught.

Rita twisted and turned, sat bolt upright in the darkness, heart pounding, face and neck slippery with sweat. She threw off the covers, padded to the kitchen, took out a bottled water and smoothed her face with some of it before drinking. It was eleven o’clock. Her mouth was less tender, but not enough. Rita opened the door to the back yard and sat on the stoop sipping, easing into full consciousness. And as she did the past slid forward, took a place beside her. Rita studied the landscape until convinced she was alone.

Mick Stavros was a fledgling criminal and an opiate addict of a few years when they became acquainted. He had been in jail, he was being given another chance and he was intent on changing before it was too late, that’s what he said. Rita sometimes heard him from her desk in the office next to the group room; his voice could boom though it was often quiet. His words weren’t that much different from many others’, and she knew far less than she surmised. Her work was scheduling and phone intake; she had little direct contact with patients unless she was needed to check them in. But Mick seemed to find a way to catch her eye or even occasionally call out her name with a wave as he passed from one room to another. The other women who worked at the front desk agreed he was good looking, smart and cagey as they came. They alerted Rita to watch herself, don’t get friendly. She was barely twenty-one. They were experienced in that work; they knew what they knew.

“Boundaries, first and last,” they said.

“Of course!” she responded, irritated they believed she was that naive. But it was too late.

A swift breeze swept over her as she drank the water; she cooled in the enveloping darkness. The grass smelled so sweet in the dampness of night. A bird called out now and then but all else was quiet. She turned so that she could see Lee’s unit; his bedroom light was still on and it reassured her more than she wanted to admit.

I wasn’t that naive, I just went mad, she thought. I temporarily lost mind and soul.

She shivered violently from head to toe so got up, went into the triplex, trudged up the stairs and took two more over-the-counter pain meds.

She would stay home the next day while her tooth settled down and the antibiotic kicked in. She did not want to hear it: “Can you believe it? Mick Stavros is back in town.” The treatment center could be a gossip mill. She worked in the thick of it, would have to endure scrutinizing stares and whispers even though she was now the office manager– despite it all. Despite a haunted, arduous recovery on every level. She kept many things to herself when people expressed sympathy that bordered on pity. She would not be humiliated again.

******

Lee turned off the bedside light, then lay with arms folded behind head, eyes wide open. How long it had been, not just in years but in everything else, his goals, achievements, lifestyle. Not that he had been going down a bad road back then. Two years older than Rita, he had finished community college before her, started at the bank as a teller. But he was restless then in a way that he hadn’t been since, anxious about whether or not he was doing the right thing staying in Marionville County, if he should consider joining the Merchant marines or take a road trip at the least instead of doing what his parents thought was good for him. Yet he loved numbers and even the physical handling of money, the way it all added up to the same thing all the time if he was conscientious. How his public interactions, his skill and interest were rewarded. He intended becoming more, in time. Still, there was an itch that he couldn’t get well scratched. Even boating on the lake didn’t do it some days. His girlfriend pressured him for an engagement, his parents hoped he’d remain in town and fit in but rise up, show off a little. Lee was looking for something more but what, he didn’t know.

Mick lived on the lake with his father and three brothers. The Stavros family had rented out eight prime waterfront log cabins and also canoes for two generations, going on three. Everyone knew each other around Marionville, especially on Lake Minnatchee. It was the place to go for fishing and boating and water skiing, for daydreaming and walking your dogs and jogging and making out with your heartthrob. And partying. The Stavros’ weren’t entirely avoided but no one found them easy to know. They kept to themselves. The father was known to drink too much and then behave erratically. The boys were more like him than Grandfather Stavros, who as an immigrant from Greece had worked so hard to create a good business. Mick was generally pegged for wilder living; he seemed older, apart from most like his brothers. He’d had some theft charges in high school. People said he liked at least weed, maybe more–a lot of kids did. But no one could put their finger on just who he was or what he’d get up to next.

After school years, every now and then Mick and Lee would bump into each other at the lake or a bar, share tales and a drink, joke about surviving high school, but Lee never felt comfortable enough to call him an actual friend. Mick was smart enough and had a flair abut him but he was sketchy. He was a social acquaintance who acted more like everyone’s buddy even when few responded in kind. He was the sort who entered your space then just stayed there.

It all began at the first yearly summer party when they were in their early twenties. Everyone went. His friend Tom Harvey’s family owned a large house on Lake Minnatchee’s south perimeter; they had a great speed boat and even a pontoon. No one was really excluded; it was more an annual town affair since the broad yard sloping down to the water was perfect for making merry.

Mick had come alone. He’d wandered over to Lee and the usual gang and soon asked if they wanted to drag race. Lee’s buddy Dale, a fast driver, didn’t turn him down nor did a handful of others. It was summer, it was a fine night, they wanted to pull out the stops. One by one they slipped away and met at Four Corners Road where it ran through deep forest, less patrolled than anywhere else that night. Lee was thrilled to be part of the action; he hadn’t done anything reckless like that for a few years. The driver, Dale, was better than good though he worried about Mick’s renowned skills. But it was just for fun.

Before the race, Mick pulled Lee aside.

“You know I can drive you amateurs right off the road, instant tragedy. I figured with a few beers in you, you’d all bite. But there’s another reason for it. I plan on meeting up with your sister and want her phone number. I’ll even let Dale win if you give it to me.”

Lee was confused. “Rita? Why? She’s as straight arrow as they come, not your type at all, believe me.”

“Oh but we’ve met, just not really talked. It was at her work.”

“Really, you’re a customer there? Even  a worse scenario.”

Mick closed the small distance between them, stared down at him. “I need her number. She can speak for herself but I can’t talk to her there. So just hand it over after the race–I’ll let Dale win this one, got it?”

Dale won. No matter how Lee had protested, Mick insisted and finally got the family landline unpublished number.  At least it was better than her cell. A year later things would be entirely different. That number would no longer be workable and Mick would be gone downstate. And Rita would not be the same. The trouble, burglary and assault with a deadly weapon occurred at Tom’s house much later. The very house where everyone had enjoyed a smorgasbord and had fun in the water. The very one where after the drag race, Mick had sidled up next to Rita and told her how incredibly smart and funny she was, and how he admired her new white tennis shoes.

Rita turned away but not long enough. Mick’s low smoky voice was like a drug and she felt her skin and brain wake as if from endless slumber. She took his words in and all the meaning behind them despite the warning going off like that moment was a five alarm fire. They both had begun to burn.

******

Lee finished a burger and drink at Mighty Tim’s Grill and Bar and felt satisfied. It had been a good week at work. No one had seen much of Mick since he had come into town a week earlier.

Tim wiped down the counter. “Naw, he’s visiting his father at the hospital. Old man had pneumonia and it was touch and go. So Mick got out, came back to see family. He’ll soon be gone, that’s a fact.”

“That right?”

The taunting response rose a few feet behind Lee and he didn’t have to look behind him to know who it was. He hoped he was wrong. Tim gave him a wary look and moved along down the bar, smacked his rag a little too hard on the counter.

“Lee. Long time.” Mick climbed onto the next bar stool, nodded at a couple of staring people, then at Tim. “Cola with ice over here.” He beckoned Tim back, turned to Lee. “Catch me up some, buddy.”

“See you’re doing okay, that’s nice. How’s your dad?”

“Yep, off booze, off it all. Got to be good, parole, man, but it’s fine. My father’s going to be right as rain; the tourist business needs him. You?”

Tim set down a cold bottle with a glass and left. Lee watched him as he leaned over the bar, talked to a few customers who then stared at him and Mick. He stood. He could see Lee’s natural quiet swagger even as he sat in a bar, as easy as if he always did this, he was a loyal customer and all was well with him and the world. And there was something more that made him nervous, cockiness, steely confidence, as before but so much more.

“I’m good, work at the bank and like it. But I’m about out of here. The week was too long, I need to get rested up for the sunny week-end.”

Mick poured the cola slowly into the glass, sucked off some foam, chuckled. “Yeah, the lake, huh? You got a little game since we last met. Success and all. Well, good for you.” He turned to better see Lee’s face. “I’m not going to ask. I know she’s done well, too. Tell her ‘hi’ for me. I’ll be moving on to Houston.”

“Yeah, sure, and good luck, Mick.”

He turned on his heel when Mick grabbed his jacket sleeve. Lee swallowed, unable to say the words he so meant to say but he looked down at the seated man with narrowed eyes. A foe if ever there was one; he needed Mick to see his as the same. Mick let go.

“Just wanted to say your sister deserves so much more than this town can give her, know that? She’s amazing.”

And Lee’s body went cold, felt heavy; his mind clouded. He felt a whoosh of light-headedness a split second, then turned his back on Mick Stavros and took off.

******

“I’m telling you, I think he knows where we live now.” He was on the phone as soon as he left the bar.

“What can we do about it, Lee? The police know he’s here, his parole officer surely knows he’s here. He’ll be gone and we won’t ever have to think about him again!”

Rita’s stomach quivered but she didn’t want him to know it. She wanted to be courageous, not needy. There was a time when she needed everyone but could hardly say why. When the depth of her fears and the bitterness of betrayal were like an endless tidal wave. But she got over it. Mick went to prison for something else entirely despite inciting her to lose her common sense and far worse. And she had learned to live better than before, with more strength and faith.

“He said he wouldn’t bother you. But call or come over if you have any reason to–”

“Yes, okay! Alright, Lee, thanks. I’ll check in later.”

It was still light when Rita took her lawn chair and placed it so she could see the gate to her back yard. It was a pleasant view, her border blooms bright and healthy, the dimming sky blues streaked with scant stratus clouds. The middle unit of the triplex looked empty but an older couple occupied it; they taught at the college. A light then came on in their upstairs bathroom as if to assure her they were home. She patted her cheek and found the pain had receded much more the last few hours, was barely there.

Assurances. Those didn’t align with other thoughts and feelings. Rita was watching the side yard and her place. She was watching the night arrive in barest movements, as if it was helping prepare her for full darkness. First, sunset’s performance which was just just detected beyond the roof line. She was happy with their investment, feeling alright about living there and near her brother. But she didn’t feel reassured nor free of the sudden upsurge of anxiety. She felt riveted by the night, every sound, sight and scent magnified. She was most afraid that she might finally have to see him yet also feel what was felt so long ago–their passionate needs exchanged, the thrill of his nearly shape-shifting presence, strange feelings never felt before.

Before she saw his darker prowess, his errant ways. Before she crossed a border into Mick Stavros territory. Before things went bad. She rested, waited for nothing and everything.

He arrived late but not so late she was drowsy. He managed to jump over the low fence behind her, it was only his full landing on dampened dirt and flowers then a slight swish across the lawn that alerted her, his movements swift and quiet. Thieving motions, the strength and nimbleness, the silence that came naturally to him.

“Mick,” she whispered.

He pulled her up to him and she slumped, almost falling through his arms. When she righted herself, his face and labored breathing hovered about her neck and hair and face.

“Your hair…”

Rita’s chest tightened and her voice fell away as she felt the blade of a knife in her skirt pocket, then withdrew it, lifted it, readied it at his side. Hand steady.

“I’m sorry for the bad end, Rita, how it all went down. I never meant to…I wish I had…but I have to disappear for good.”

His breath was warmly fragrant as if he had exuded exotic plant, a night flower. Just as always. He spoke carefully so as not to further startle her or cause any disturbance that might bring others. His lips grazed her cheek. She wanted to scream, take fast action, but did not. She almost believed him, longed to find him changed despite her alarm, the old anger but she would not be mystified by him.

Mick released her with care. He traced the edge of her jawline with his thumb, then melded with deep shadow and disappeared through the side gate.

It was as if he was never there.

Rita collapsed on moist grass face first and what had to be hundreds of tiny, stalwart stems of greenness were prickly against her skin. She exhaled into spiky grass, inhaled the scent of loamy earth as if remembering to breathe this ordinary air. And her heartbeat rose and fell with relief.

Her phone rang. She pulled herself together.

“I’m calling because you were supposed to check in! I worried,” Lee said.

She held the cell phone with sweaty hands. “I’m sorry. I had things to do, time flew.”

“You’re alright then? We can both get sleep tonight? And what about your tooth?”

Rita looked up at the sky, the stars like ice and flame, brilliant although so long dead, and the moon like a giant pearl glowing, lovely and calm.

“All is well, Lee, thanks for the call. I will be even better tomorrow,” Rita said as she positioned the knife’s point and blade down as was safest. She entered her home. Locked the door. Gazed through its small window into the swath of darkness.

 

A Return of Ogres I Still Will Tame

Spring Everywhere! 067

The picture here represents a considerable part of my reality–I love beautiful tables and flowers and visual and performing arts and so very much more. But beyond this frame there is more than meets the eye. This day I feel a quiet desolation and seek solace.

Despite my embrace of the captivating fullness of life, real happiness arising from even transitory moments, hauntings can occur in my life unannounced. Nights hijacked by old suspects and worn out frights, mornings stolen by that which I believed were barest of images within vast, more interesting records of memory. I am at times caught unprepared and that makes it harder. This!– despite years of education and therapeutic insights, despite solid training on how to maneuver within frightening contexts both literal and figurative. I still must chase away ghosts that, though vaporous, insist on inhabiting my space. I keep thinking I should no longer have to slay those dragons, corral and banish those memories. It is only the intangible past, not the present reality but it yet survives to varying degrees, right here, within me, despite my best intentions and hard work. Mostly I am not that person with that kind of  suffering. And then it comes around again.

It was a conversation that veered suddenly into dire places. But it might be a terrible movie scene. A certain car and truck passing by. A stranger on the street who moves and watches like a predator. People who spit out hard, bitter words. The sounds of someone shoving or hitting another. A knife flashed. A fierce warning to say nothing, to make no sound. Another song that disparages women. Seeing a child whose face appears frozen rather than round with contentment. A youth whose eyes reflect a ruinous something, an emptiness where once was excitement for life.

And then I may start to free fall deep within, and the falling ignites travail and its grief. I have moments to stop the fall or it could accelerate, even if for a few moments, an hour. Or a day or two. But I am fortunate. I know what it is and I know what to do.

Anyone who has experienced significant trauma knows what this is. It has a clinical name many abbreviate, as if this might make it seem less distressing and it has been more and more tossed about for all sorts of things: PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a great deal more its name denotes at first glance. It represents an array of internal and external responses to internal or external stimuli that carry the person back to the initial trauma and feelings associated with it. It can be experienced even as difficult–or more–than the original events. Because it is never quite entirely over. We sometimes don’t care about greater understanding of the originating cause and complicated effects. We are more invested in trying to live beyond both. And our intellects, our will, tell us we can do it when emotions are busy issuing their own commands.

This thing we feel is a razor-sharp grief that resurfaces, a shock that feels like a grab around the neck. A nebulous fear that fools and undermines. A threat of hopelessness that seeks to badger one into believing there is no point to faith, courage and persistence; that peace and joy are wretched fables. It is the vivid remembrance that harm came and there was no rescuing and that this remains a possibility. It is a mirror you look into, seeing only devastation behind blurred eyes. It can take a person and transform him or her into someone unrecognizable. The tragedy of trauma injures badly and even cripples– and although healing seems complete, aging wounds can reopen to threaten the wellness that has been recreated. This is life with PTSD, even when it is familiar territory: experiencing old and new dangers, standing your ground despite renewed distress and becoming more resilient. You further determine to become and/or to remain whole.

I have often written of emotional and spiritual programs one can engage in to live beyond the harm done, to overcome trauma’s effects. And also how often in my counseling work I have seen people not only recover but come alive again (for it is a kind of rebirth to get better) in powerful ways, and move forward. I’ve spoken of my childhood abuse and adult abuse/assaults including domestic violence to help establish the honest reality of what I have lived. I haven’t written of specific events because sometimes graphic exposure does not make the story more powerful or worthwhile–nor the storyteller feel any better nor reader more truly informed. Violence against children and women: this tells of the crimes.

But trauma did not negate the happiness of my growing up, the fond memories of family cohesion and caring and many wonderful experiences I’ve freely written about. I’ve shared the fact of abuse to also demonstrate how it has become an impetus to change that led to growth. A serious challenge I took up spiritually beginning in early adolescence. It has been part of what fuels my creativity as well as strengthening empathy and compassion for others. I have deeply wanted to assure others that there is the potential for joy beyond the burden of past abuse–because I have found it, myself. This is the truth as I have known it, as well. But it doesn’t mean that my life is easy and that all that pain has vanished. It is more that I have learned to manage PTSD  symptoms and know my limits as well as my potential to be a braver and healthier woman.

Survivors of abuse need to know where our responsibility begins and ends. I was not responsible for what happened to me. I was not responsible for parents and others nearby being unable or unwilling to help me. I was not responsible for the fact that there was too little clinical knowledge forty, fifty and sixty years ago to appropriately treat children and young adults who had been violated. I was not responsible for a culture that accepts and fosters, even glorifies violence against females. I was not responsible as a teen for becoming gradually dependent on potent barbiturates, tranquilizers and amphetamine the family doctor prescribed rather than ask what was wrong. I was not responsible for feeling abandoned and thus not loved, and making poor choices that sprang from a grave sense of worthlessness. I was not responsible for the horror and pain, years and years of it. And I was not even responsible for longing to die, for nothing else made any sense. But I stayed alive. Held on to what mattered. Perhaps because I yet believed despite the seeming evidence that God had not forgotten me, that God had always offered a steadfast love.

But at some point I saw–we see–there is much work to be done and it is time to stop the blood- letting and crying out. To stop just enduring–and to get on with it. As an adult I am responsible for taking back my life. For seeking help when I have needed it, of informing myself of options available and then taking reparative action. I can be, must be, far more than a survivor. I am a human being who is living a life that I value. Making mistakes, failing to accomplish all I desire but striving to do even better, to become more enriched, kindhearted, even celebratory than yesterday. There is no other choice for me, anymore. I have lived much longer than I had expected; I have come close enough to death a few times. I know that the present offers me opportunities to be fully present and to be of good use, no matter that suffering might pair up with exultations. And in between the peaks and valleys there is just the business of life to attend to; it is my intention to attend to it as all deserve to have done.

But there are still weeping days. And the weight of hulking nights. There are memories that still twist my heart. Losses that can track me down like mad dogs. I have to take hold, take greater care. Take the time to heal that spot more again. To be patient with myself. Create kinder moments and reach out to friends and family. Remind the anguished child (who became a woman, a caretaker of other wounded ones, an adoring mother and a sort of writer-warrior) that she is never truly alone nor unloved. I must look into the ogres’ faces from time to time and find it in me to forgive as often as it takes. And maybe one day they will not materialize at all. Or I will have left the haunted premises, truly free. But if they do, I will manage.

I have questions that have no discernible answers, yes. It is disconcerting since I have a great need to understand, to embrace the truth. There are prayers I pray that may travel beyond forever or land on far planets or crowd among the prayers of millions more. But it is our human nature, too, to send a floating globe of light into dark-draped skies and with it a fledgling hope, a heartfelt longing, a silent but resounding word to God. And so today I have let the aching just be here for a bit. Acknowledged what it is. Now I remove it from my center. Hold it in my hands, raise them high; breathe in, breathe out. Let it go once more. Step out the door, move on.

 

The Cat that Changed the Rest

 Hollywood California, 1961 Photographer- Ralph Crane Time Inc owned merlin- 1201638
Hollywood, California, 1961;
Photographer- Ralph Crane

He found cats unbearable to be near, so when Alice informed Tate she now not only owned one but was bringing it by “for a visit”, the very idea almost did him in. Tate locked the front door, went out back with an icy lemonade and a mystery book he’d been putting off starting. The air registered a degree of hotness that any smart person would avoid. Grabbing his stained, misshapen fishing hat, he patted it down and called it good.

He had no intention of answering the door and would hide out a long while if needed. It was unlikely she would come around back in her high heels after work. The ground was a bit spongy after last night’s drizzle. Curls of steam arose from the rich earth as sun’s heat settled into it.

Alice had been around for awhile. They had met at one of those useless parties at the start of the university’s year. They’d shared the end of a couch. She’d talked enough to save him from the onset of sleep. It turned out she was a new office person in his department–Geology was his domain. He had become lazy about meeting women. Proximity often had something to do with his relationships. That, and a shared interest in second-hand stores and antiques. Fishing helped but he’d not found a woman who fished willingly in over two years, a grave disappointment. Passion for desserts helped; he liked women who loved dessert as much as he did. Tate baked sometimes. She was into making homemade ice cream. It seemed a decent match. They went to movies, discussed cooking, ate many a good meal and listened to music. They had scoured the city for an Arts and Crafts sideboard recently. Tate said it was too pricey, though Alice was for it. She was good company, in general, and he did appreciate that.

Tate also liked the way her hair cascaded over her collarbone and that slow smile starting in her eyes. He wasn’t so sure what she liked about him. Perhaps his lake cottage; they had gone up for the holidays and she’d asked if they could return this summer. He was waiting to see. Or it was his easy-going attitude that encouraged students and faculty to interact with him, like it or not sometimes. He was more a man to himself than not. Alice had popped up and was already influencing his well-run, quiet life, like dill weed and lemon influenced the walleye he brought home.

But Tate didn’t have room, time or inclination for pets in his life. And not cats, certainly.

“Why ever not?” Alice asked a couple of months after they met. “Pets keep things interesting. They create friendly feelings yet are neutral, sometimes sympathetic listeners and give you reason to get out and roam.”

“That’s what actual friends are for. Pets can’t converse to any significant degree. They expect things–treats and regular meals, scratches around the ears, play time outside. They make a mess that they don’t even have to clean up! I may as well have a human child–which I do not yet have, as you noticed right off, and may never… and, anyway, four-legged animals deserve a life outdoors, not holed up with us.”

Alice gave him a look of mild disgust. “So, you never even had a dog to call your own?”

“No. Wait, yes. In my fraternity we had a mascot, called Barker for obvious reasons, and we all took turns dealing with him. I did like him. He was a shaggy rescue dog and did well by us. I enjoyed tossing him things. When we graduated, Barker was adopted by a dog-crazy guy–so it ended well for all.”

“What about cats?”

Tate shrank back, stared at her, eyes full of horror.

“You aren’t a cat person? Are you allergic?”

“No, not allergic. Who is really and truly ‘a cat person’? I don’t know many, maybe one or two. Cats are not intrinsically wired to appreciate humans. Tolerate is even a rather strong word in my opinion. They don’t even like each other that much after infancy. They do like hunting rodents and birds. Barn cats would be a good example of a useful type of cat.”

“Well, I adore cats.” Alice threw her hands up in defeat and headed to the kitchen. “For someone so easy to get along with, you sure are a surprise. Who on earth doesn’t like pets? That’s a first for me!” The refrigerator door opened, then shut hard. “Where are last week’s cookies? Oh, there they are.”

Tate got up, hands pressed deep into pants pockets. Stood rocking a little on the balls of his bare feet in front of the bay window. He liked creatures just fine. He stared at a distant tree line near a pond. Early Saturday mornings he sometimes walked there to meditate on herons and ducks and such. He’d not yet gone with Alice; it was his private routine. He thought of his brother, Alan, how they’d go to the lake after their parents passed and fished without talking, yet understood enough. How they’d weathered the hardest things and managed to remain as brothers should be, available–from a distance–trustworthy. Comfortable with an intimacy nothing could sever. He should call him again soon. Try to get the whole family out. There’d be no pets, as Alan had none, either.

“Cats,” he muttered under his breath, then forced a congenial smile as Alice brought out a plate of chocolate chip cookies. He could smell coffee percolating and was suddenly grateful.

“Let’s listen to that Chet Atkins album,” she suggested. She set her head at an angle and narrowed her eyes as if trying get a better read on him, then her features lit up with good humor. “Maybe light a fire later?”

Cats, he thought again as got the album out, put it on, and turned up the stereo. Maybe Alice and I will get closer, maybe not.

“Yes, a fire. November is upon us.”

The cat topic never came up again. Until today. She’d gotten a cat and wanted to show it to him.

He could hear the gravel crunching under the SUV’s tires and panicked, then told himself to just remain at ease, she would go away when he didn’t answer the door. He’d said something to her about picking up dinner supplies so might not be home. His Jeep was in the garage. She wouldn’t bother to look in dusty garage windows. Still, he put the book down and slipped into shadows alongside the house where the juniper bushes were. Flattened inside shadow. He felt his chest tighten, heart jump.

“Pepper, you’d better stay put. Stop wiggling and behave. How will you ever audition? Wait a minute!”

Pepper, really? Tate was starting to perspire heavily but he pressed himself against the house, tried to slow respiration. He deeply wished he had a dog for the first time since that ole frat brother, Barker. It’d be one sorry cat, a cat held hostage on a tree branch. Why ever did Alice have to bring it over here?

And there it was, at his feet, sniffing about, then mewing. The whiskers of a cat on a man’s exposed shins is about the last straw when feeling contrary about the entire situation. It took considerable will power to not let his foot strike out. A midnight-black cat sat confidently, demurely, and appraised Tate. Unimpressed, it then began to clean a paw with delicate care.  It was enough to take his heart rate up a notch. He noticed a tiny rhinestone collar at its neck as he stepped around it and took off for the gate in a parody of power walking.

“Alice, aren’t you missing something? Why are you back here?”

“I am–but what are you doing outside? It’s too hot for man or beast and now Pepper has run off…”

“The beast part is debatable. Your very own, a large black cat is–” he pointed–“over there. In the cool of the shadows doing fine. Please don’t bring it any closer to me.”

Alice crept up on Pepper and deftly attached the leash to its collar. “There we go, all set now. I just wanted to introduce you to her, Tate. To show you my prize, to prove there’s not one thing unpleasant about this cat. I’d like you to be on good terms because she’s sticking around.”

Alice cautiously advanced, Pepper following behind her but with eyes on tree branches wherein perched robins. A cat is never a tame thing, Tate thought, and fought an impulse to grab the leash from his girlfriend’s hand, fling the cat out of the fenced yard in a graceful arc of farewell. But he did know this was irrational. Very wrong. Also impossible. She had a tight grasp on its leash and that cat had a clear intention of standing guard by the tree.

Tate took a step back. “Oh, no, that isn’t in the plan, sorry. I’m happy for you and so on but she will not be visiting further. I one hundred percent don’t like cats, Alice. I love many things, many sorts of people and do rather enjoy most animals–especially wild ones. But I just don’t appreciate cats. That is not going to change.”

He opened the gate and exited and she followed. Pepper came along; the birds had flown far off. The cat ran closer to him, stretched her neck out as if to rub her fuzzy head against Tate’s legs. He stepped aside and rushed on, Alice trotting after him.

“Alright, then, I give up for now! I’ll put her in the car, but it’s warm so I can’t stay. Hot cars are so dangerous for pets. It’s the A/C on or it’s a no go, lately.”

She picked up Pepper and placed her in a cushiony pet lounge on the back seat. The bed-lounge had built-in feed and water bowls attached. She rolled down car windows and closed the doors again. Then Alice joined Tate on the front porch steps.

“It’s like this, Tate, I have a cat who is trained for show business and I sure hope she makes me money.”

“What?Show business?’ He half-laugh came out in a  sputtering spray. “You can train a cat?”

“Well, not in the same way as dogs, of course, not exactly. Anyway, the training part is done. She’s my aunt’s project. She was diagnosed with skin cancer so can’t handle dealing with another need right now. Since I know Pepper and her talents, I stepped in. I learned with Aunt Lavonne.”

“You never mentioned this.”

“No, it seemed safer not to before. But now she’s in my life.”

“I thought I was, too.” He rubbed his bony shin. There was a phantom sensation there, a replay of those stiff whiskers sliding across his skin. It made his head feel like a vibrating high wire. “I’m starting to wonder.”

Alice grasped his forearm. “But Tate, you should see how she can act! Pepper looks so fine on film. She’s been in six commercials in three years and many magazine ads and has won some contests. She still has good years left, Aunt Lavonne says, and she’s made good money, too.” She released his arm; he’d tried to free himself of her emphatic grip. “Besides, I can’t let down my aunt. I’m the only one she trusts with Pepper. And there’s a movie audition next week. I have to get her in it. It’d make Aunt Lavonne so happy.”

She sighed. It was so delicate and tremulous that Tate put his arms about her. He felt something release his bunched up core, leaving it supine again. Pepper meowed loudly and poked her pink nose out the window but he chose to ignore her.

“I get the idea. I’m sorry about your aunt–a tough situation. You’re kind to help. I’m not going to ask you what the, uh, cat role is, though.”

“Yeah, well.” She fiddled with a straggling lock of hair. “I have to get Pepper into air conditioning. Also need to look at the script again–it’s a mystery story–and see what I have to make her do.” She smoothed Tate’s lined cheek., Kissed it. “I don’t get you about cats, it seems a phobia, even. But it’s okay for now. I’m doing what I need to do and I’ll call you after the audition.”

He went to the car, hugged her briefly, and as she got in he gave the cat a good sizing up. Pepper huddled down into the lounging bed again. She was as attractive as a cat might be, he supposed, glossy, well fed yet lithe in that dancerly cat way. Eyes so green the creature belonged to another place, not in a little bed in a car. He couldn’t imagine an acting cat, a real credit line in a movie, getting paid. Not a movie he’d go see without a major bribe.

Alice gave him a doleful look, eyes half-closed a moment, then tossed him a last kiss. He was surprised she still felt affection after his display of hostility, even when she’d explained such an important matter as illness and family. He felt a stab of shame. He ought to have better sympathized. He guessed Pepper would manage a better job of it, in her view.

But she’d stumbled upon his secret. Maybe he should have told her. Maybe it was time he let her know more of who he was. He shivered in the high noon sun.

******

Tate cast his line and looked out over the placid lake. Sunrise spread about tree limbs like a tangerine scarf opened wide. The boat rocked gently as he adjusted his position. He didn’t expect to catch much of anything. It was a good time of day but the summer saw less walleye activity. Trolling was one of his favorite things, the boat moving at a little over one mile per hour across the water, the line calm until it wasn’t. There were other ways to do this, other seasons–better waters, even–but when he awakened in the last of the dark he was relieved to be here, fish or no fish. He had to be in his boat.

He had called his brother but they had said the same old things, how the weather was getting weirder, how work was something that should be less bloodletting and more fun, how he should should catch a flight and share more time. Maybe August? Alan was 1800 miles away, his two kids were about to be teens, his wife was working more, not less. The brothers were rarely together, anymore, though they were never apart as kids.

He and Alan…and Rae. The triumphant trio that ruled the waterfront on Foxtail Lake. Or so it was for years, until more places sprang up and with them came kids to play with or avoid. They were wild and dirty and reckless with the happiness that comes from living close to the marrow and soul of nature. Their parents never argued there; the food tasted better; the water called them morning ’til night with its depth and shine.

Until the summer it all got torn apart.

Tate shook his head, blinked twice to better see the quiet sky lighting up a pale translucent blue. He loved this place more than anything. He owned it with his brother but it was more his than Alan’s due to the distance apart, the years he’d spent without his brother. Alan deserved to be here, too, and lately they had talked of growing old together at the cottage, then snickering at the thought. Just as they had grown up together, why not? But there would come that moment when they could talk no more of any of it. As a flashing red light dictated they had to stop, turn around, go elsewhere.

Tate was oldest, then Alan came three years after, then Rae the next year. Somehow they fit together like a handmade wood puzzle, seamless. Rae was the one most in trouble, not the boys, so that they felt compelled to try to outdo her at times. She emptied the tall change jar for dozens of packets of sweets, brought home worms to sneak into salad and sometimes scared the fish when their dad took them out, rocking the boat just to see wavelets gather and spread. She tried things that were dangerous, like try to swing by her hands from a tree branch over the lake. She would land in shallow water there so their dad grabbed her as she fell. Grounded her from the outdoors a whole day. Alan and Tate reeled her in a little, kept an eye out, as Rae was always laughing, her ideas were nutty and they were older and bigger.

And she was just theirs. The third voice in their trio.

Tate cast his line again, watching the lure sink. The birds were more talkative and he heard, then spotted other boats. He looked over his shoulder at the cottage light burning at the door, safe among the pines. He heard rumbling of a truck in the distance and turned back to the water, replaced that brash noise with a soliloquy of waves, more bright birdsong. If Alan was there they’d grill out later, enjoy a couple of beers at the fire pit later. Talk or not, remembrance a thing without language.

It had been just this sort of day. Clear as crystal but later in summer and an amber afternoon. Rae had been swimming with them–she could reach the far floating raft without tiring at age nine as she was wiry strong–but then went next door to her best friend’s, Jenny Molson’s. The boys weren’t ready to come in. They ignored their dad’s call to help him clean up some dead and downed wood and knew they’d have to make up for it the next day. Their mother had left for the market. Alan was determined to make more and fancier dives than Tate and so they kept at it as if they were training for the Olympics. Eventually they dragged themselves to shore, dried off inside the screened porch. Tate located Rae by her boisterous command.

“You dummy, come here!”

Jenny piped in. “Oh come on Rae, Red isn’t going to listen to you and, anyway, let’s get that broken tire swing by the shed so Dad will fix it for us.”

“I have to get Red into this carryall, then I’ll put him into the house!”

“It’s okay! Red likes being outdoors, that’s why we bring him.”

“He could get lost. I lost a gerbil once when I let it out.”

Tate grabbed a towel. He dried his hair and walked to the back of the house, which faced the road.

“Rae, what are you up to now? Leave that Red alone; he’s fine.”

Alan ran up behind him. “My gosh, is she really going to try to put him into that bag? That kid is goofy.” He guffawed at the sight of Rae with a grimy Army issue bag held wide open.

“Yeah, nothing like a mad cat in a bag!” Tate thought it hilarious right along with him.

“Come here, Red, come away from the road, here kitty, I’ve got something good for you, a big old smelly fish! We’ll swing in the tire swing, great fun!”

“Awww, geez,” Alan said, shaking his head.

“Rae come here, leave ole Red alone!” Tate called.

But Rae wanted to grab hold of that orange tabby cat. She had really taken to it. She stalked him as he sat by the side of the road. The boys watched to see who would win out and bet on Rae.

They could hear a vehicle coming down the road and thought it must be their mother. Rae glanced that way, too, then crept up to Red on tiptoe, the wide-mouthed bag held close. And Red jumped straight up when he saw it, eluded her as he dashed across the road like he was five years younger.

“No, you don’t!” she yelled and dashed after as the cat disappeared in weedy underbrush.

Tate saw the truck close in. A rusty, rattling truck that braked fast and hard full force. The driver’s face went slack, a kid not much older than they, racing down a country road on a perfect summer day, music blaring. But he saw her late.

Too late. Too late. She flew up a little, thin arms raised in surprise like a tossed rag doll’s, head thrown back with that sun bleached hair flying off her narrow, tanned back. Then she fell out of sight.

“Rae!” the brothers screamed in one terrible voice and ran.

The driver jumped from his truck. They pushed him aside, bent over her crumpled body. Blood came from somewhere they couldn’t identify and it spread into dirt and weeds as if it was only spilled juice, some bottle she’d held in her hand and dropped. It couldn’t be Rae’s. It couldn’t be her head cracked, her legs twisted. It had to be a nightmare. But she lay with her face to the side and her flesh was all so harmed. Emptied, even. Tate took the sunflower beach towel and lay it over her legs and touched her bleeding forehead, cried out without human sound and Alan got up and screamed for their father to come. But he was already there, he was falling into the road and as he scooped her up in his shaking arms, Rae was already leaving them.

******

The lake speaks to him like a wise one. It tells him to give himself up to the beauty, stay entirely alive. But the shore is lined with ghosts, not just Rae’s and their parents but Jenny Molson’s–she died at twenty-nine, haunted by that first death, while serving in the Army–and another playmate who had a heart attack at forty. This place holds things in the guts of the earth that he cannot name much less share. He thinks of the hearts of lake stones, how strong they must be to live on at the bottom, to endure the seasons and the errors of humans. He thinks of the ancient reeds that wave as his boat passes, how they know to lure fish and keep much more hidden. He thinks of the loons who infuse the waters and woods with a magic that cannot be stolen. All this is powerful balm every time he  comes, despite the stubborn ache.

Tate watches the cottage to make sure it is still there, that place they loved, played, were a family. The seam that held it all together came undone when Rae left them. The boys felt the emptiness like a sentence the rest of their growing up, and they had trouble carrying it even as they could not refuse its weight. But he thought Rae still ran along that shore, slipped in and out of the summer gilded water, flew with the passage of the sun. He can see her there sometimes, when afternoon light glints and beguiles, when other children are laughing as if nothing will ever be as good as that moment. And often this will be true in some way they cannot yet discern.

It may be time to tell Alice, if she is that much to him that her black cat could make him hurt again, want to flee in fear. But it was something he never could get over: that damned cat got away to safety, while their Rae died with her arms open–for nothing at all.

Her spirit lingered in their cottage, on the lake, among the trees and they told him to be still, wait. For her happy amazement to shake loose, be free. To unmoor himself (and Alan) from the long gone.

Maybe that was it, he thought, as he looked at his vibrating cell phone. Maybe joyous wonder was what she had to give–even to the last, even trying to catch a cat for a ride in a swing–and that’s what he had to remember. And let her be now. Release all cats of his insane blame. Forgive himself for not saving her. Somehow.

“Hello? Alice?…”

“Tate, Pepper got a part! Not the lead cat part but a fair part, at least.”

He laughed so softly she could barely hear him.

“I know, it’s minor in the real world of events, I get that, but–”

“No, no, good for you. Pepper…”

“It was something else, at least a hundred cats, can you imagine? It sort of creeped me out, too, but then we went in and–”

“Alice? Can you come up to the cottage? Right now. For the week-end?”

“Oh, I, well, I have Pepper, I’d love that but…”

“No, I mean with your movie star cat. We can get better acquainted, maybe, and she might like the country.”

The line was silent. Tate thought she’d hung up.

“Alright, we will! I’ll pack some things, get Pepper car-ready and we’ll be up in an hour. I’ll bring the cake I made yesterday. German Chocolate. Anything else?”

“Perfect. No, I’m good now.”

Tate hung up, reeled in nothing and headed back to the dock. June’s warm illumination slid across rippling water, over his face and body until he was giddy with it.

“Later, Rae,” he whispered and set a course for shore.

 

Peril and Safety

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News headlines are intense enough to infiltrate my dreams, which then can snag me as I push up from sleep like a drowning woman. I breathe the sweetness of early spring air, blink in the daylight and can’t believe such luck, the fate that grants me another moment of life and relative peace. Today I am not running or fighting for my life as someone, somewhere, is every second. I soon rise from rest–even if spotty, most likely I will find it later or the next night–and initiate comfortable routines. Illness may slow me down; my perspective may need altering. But I have choices that countless others on this earth do not have. It gives me considerable pause.

Does it come down to safety? What does that mean in the twenty-first century? The constant reminders of worldwide fighting, a myriad of brutalities, make it clear it is tentative at best. And, of course, we are inundated with advice about how to protect our homes, health, families. We are admonished to safeguard our computers and passwords, our possessions and personal information. Major money is spent on security systems that are to provide a decent deterrent to intruders casing property of all sorts, and, hopefully, an effective barrier. We realize these work a certain percentage of the time only. But we develop an educated hope, indulge in denial–or risk living in fear.

The so-called “age of anxiety” we have been hearing about for several decades was in existence long before being given a catchy name to commercialize, but the past century’s rapid industrial-technological expansion has ratcheted up pressures and problems, as well. For one thing, there are more people so there is bound to be more encroachment on personal freedoms, daily comfort zones and actual territory. Do we even expect to live without a modicum of nervous uncertainty, anymore? Anxiety has become a byword, a pass key that admits us to the club, makes us a part of industrialized cultures. We all get to feel besieged by a greater world anxiety, too–just turn on the computer, t.v. and radio. Glance at the newstand. The mood is unsettled at the least, tinged with nihilism and prone to cast the future as doomed. More often than not, even entertainment feels more like being dragged through a briar patch than a respite of any good sort.

But have we come to expect to feel anxious and to believe it is terrible? Or is all this angst one easy explanation for self-doubts that assail human thought and endeavor? Afterall, the age of psychology has writ large the prescriptions we need–more talk therapy, more medications. We are told we’re naturally in knots and we must fix it fast. Or is there another way to tame the toxic circle of ruminations? Learn to live with the variable weather of life?

I apologize; I digress as is my bad habit. I can’t ignore that the world has been chronically ill at ease, beset by moaning and wracked by power struggles. Marked by mourning. I’m not sure our ancestors made it the number one public enemy. Life was certainly no simpler in the past despite less fancy inventions. Survival was key, a battle against a host of huge odds. In many ways and places, it still is.

I cannot speak to others’ histories or much of current events. But I can share some of my family history. I doubt that my German-Irish-Scotch-English forebears felt much more secure than I, for one reason or another. I know my mother’s family had plenty of troubles. She told tough stories of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, her hard-working father losing his farm in Missouri so that he was forced to become a tenant farmer, his dignity shredded. The poverty that resulted was fierce for his wife and eleven children, one–my mother’s favorite brother–who died for lack of affordable, timely medical care. Her tales informed me that our educated, middle class lives in mid-twentieth century were by far a finer circumstance. They also showed me that folks could be overtaken by events, wrestled to ground. A small child, I didn’t know that might include me.

I was of the conviction that my mother was a hearty woman of body, mind and soul. But one way I knew she had known fear was how she hesitated if someone rapped suddenly at the back door of our house. A stairway led from the kitchen to that door. We could open the door at the top of the steps and see a silhouette through the rectangular flowered curtain. She would hold her breath. In general, there should be no back door knocking. Friends, family, music students of my father’s or customers who brought instruments to him to repair generally used the big front door. But not always; his repair shop was in the basement. I also knew the washer might need fixing or the furnace was on the blink but she could become alert as a creature in the wild.

“Wait there,” she ordered in a firm voice.

She pushed apart the curtain just enough so she could see who was standing there. If she lifted her hand in a wave at me, I knew it was okay. If she came back up and locked the door in the kitchen–an unusual occurrence–I knew to stay put. We often waited at the kitchen table until the person gave up. She tried to think who it could have been. I wanted to run upstairs and peer down at the driveway to see who it was that left.

“People would steal from the farm until we finally lost it,” she explained. “They’d sneak on our property in the night and take a chicken or even a squealing pig. I’d listen to the dogs barking, chasing them as I tried to go back to sleep by my sisters. I worried: one less chicken, one less pig.”

She looked out my bedroom window, grey eyes unfocused.

“Once I was working in the hayloft when a dirty man rushed in, his eyes wild, face so thin, clothes hanging from him. I knew he was very hungry. We all were, sooner or later. He glanced up in a frenzy as he dashed about looking for something. I froze. That moment felt like a million years. I tried to call my brothers but my voice stuck in my throat. He looked at the ladder to the loft, then ran out. I collapsed in a heap but I never told anyone.”

I snuggled under my blankets, hanging on every word. The Farm Stories, as I called them, were some of my favorites at bedtime, a whole other world taking shape, with many moments of wonder and laughter, too. But this was serious and sad.

She sat close to me, her hand on my arm.

“Your grandmother did feed people if they came to our back door. If she could spare anything at all. It might be half an apple or a thin piece of bread. Maybe they’d get lucky and get a piece of pie. Sometimes they seemed crazed, acted angry but sometimes they were so glad to have anything. Some seemed ashamed to ask. But she shooed us away from the door, and said not to tell our father. She kept a shotgun close by. I came to fear the sound of strangers knocking at our door, not knowing what they would want or demand. Those were desperate days, and they got worse.”

I’d ask a few questions and she’d tuck me in, kiss my cheek. “Thank heaven I met your father, and we both got to go to college, poor as we were. And here we are. We have so much. Now say your prayers.”

But some fears were never fully allayed. My father (whose father had been more secure as a public school superintendent) always worried about money and how he would take care of five children, working seven days a week in music education and administration, giving private lessons, keeping a piano tuning and instrument repair business.

I also suspected that worse times alluded to by my mother indicated she and others suffered more than I’d ever understand. And then came World War II and that was another hell that bypassed ones like me, born after it ended. All this left scars on those who survived.

So, safety means different things to different people, perhaps. What feels reasonably safe to a child, for instance, in India may be very unlike that which a child in New Zealand or the Alaskan wilderness feels. Yet we all seek protection of (or fight for) basic human rights and fulfillment of biological needs. We all hope for love and acceptance. Without the essential criteria of human well-being met, we begin to weaken, find ourselves living in a Netherland of worries.

I felt deeply safe for the first several years of my life. I recall what that was: freedom. It was the pleasure of making friends and enjoying many activities without a second thought. It was counting on the day to unfold tidily, though little children don’t foolishly imagine the future as adults do. There was a steadiness in my world, my parents and siblings being at the center. Hopscotch on the sidewalk of a busy street. Swing from the maple tree. Jump rope in the front yard. I’d hop on my bike and ride all over, go around our big town block with nary a concern. I just had to tell my mother where I was going (well, first I asked) and she told me when to be back. No cell phones kept us connected. If I made any small detour at a friend’s, I called her from the landline.

That freedom was curtailed by the time I was eight years old when I was sexually abused by someone we knew well. It continued for some years. I was under the perpetrator’s constant threat of ruin of my family or harm to me including death. It involved being kidnapped for short periods on occasion by car, so that eventually when I noticed the vehicle pull up terror jumped into my heart and lodged in my stomach. In other circumstances, I became hyper-aware, senses working overtime so I could outwit him. I most often failed. At night I had nightmares that this person would break into the house. No one could protect me. He was found out–he was an elementary school teacher–and fired by the time I was eleven. And my life had been altered irrevocably.

So early on I learned what loss of safety was. I wouldn’t have known how to define being no longer secure. It meant, for me, that some crucial life-giving light went out of every day and the night felt like a burden. I lived moment to moment in survival mode that remained a hidden thing while going on with my life as expected, doing well in school and engaging in youthful activities. Strangely, the following few decades brought other dangerous events. It would have been easy to feel as if an invisible target was on my back. For a time I did, and found myself at odds with all I wanted to reach for–God’s plan for me was kinder than this, wasn’t it? I got lost in the journey toward wholeness in more ways than imagined. Post traumatic stress disorder landed me in psychiatric wards as a teen (no one knew what happened–I could not speak of it–and in the sixties this issue wasn’t given press, was a taboo topic); to the spiral of substance abuse; emergency rooms and near-death. Unwise relationships. And to my knees, beseeching God, for God was the tensile thread that kept me alive. In time, I got back to my innermost core, the healthy, sturdy self I was developing before I was held hostage by fear.

Perhaps nonsensically to others, I also had to surrender my definitions of safety and fear. Not everything or person was unsafe, was it? Of course not. I did not want to live looking over my shoulder. I also didn’t want to be inured to danger’s signals and take undue risks so paid close attention to intuition, that other sense. I had to learn to live free again. And I wanted to be wiser. To be a woman of substance who did not give up. It might have been my bent for the dramatic that made me want to be–to act–far braver than I felt; it helped. At seventeen, I designed and created a silver ring with a shield and cross and wore it as a visible reminder of spiritual strength via the grace of God. (Ironically, it was lost at a party right after senior year. It felt like a warning to me and, in fact, there were a few years’ rockier times ahead.)

And what was truly worth being scared or anxious about? Just what was the safety I most desired? How was I going to define what was acceptable in my life script as a woman, as a human being? And could I accept that life is unpredictable even in the best of times?

Answers thus far:

*very little is worth being anxious about as it hinders, doesn’t help, and sometimes I need to accept things as they are or make a change;
*the safety I seek and find most crucial is built upon a spiritual foundation;
*what is acceptable to me is what will do no harm to others or self and does good in the name of Love;
*unpredictability is a standard feature of being alive and it is invigorating as well as confounding.

If I long ago discovered life was riddled with illusions and painful experiences, I also believed God would not abandon me, no matter what. That I would find enough strength to endure. There was a way back to beauty and joy if I looked hard for it. I am not alone in this; the statistics on abuses of all types are sky-high for children and for women. And men, as well. It takes emotional drudgery to regain motivation to go on as well as unwavering mental commitment to reorder life following such events. Much patience and support. It is a bleaker road to travel without care from others and resources to help heal. I am grateful for all that has lit the way. And I have been able to offer a hand to others in serious distress, something I promised God as a teen.

But the genuine security desired and sought required that persistent faith in God–despite my anger and pain. It was the world that was often harsh and tricky, not Divine Love. Life’s unpredictability had to be navigated daily; its challenges had to be understood and well met. God did not fail me but withstood and carried the suffering of Earth and its people long before I was present. I have been one more person out of billions come and gone. God so loves us far beyond our limited understanding. Believe it, despite the realities of world news and our daily lives being tested, too often within harm’s reach. Why do I believe? I was rescued from the poison of bitterness, from a murky abyss of despair time and time again. I have known others to suffer far worse, then get up and start anew. I am filled with thanksgiving for this life, this blip in the celestial timepiece of eternity.

I like to read the Psalms, those fervent prayers that King David offered to God. He did not have it easy in spite of his adoration of life and God. He was a conflicted person in many ways, one who felt anger and lust, tenacious regret and humiliation, despair and self-righteousness and all the other failings humans seem heir to despite our best efforts. His songs/poems or psalms give me comfort. I appreciate how David struggled and how his faith lifted and inspired him. The magnitude of his devotion to God and the strength of his committment to become a better person (and ruler) sheds illumination on my own small life. His words remind me to keep my priorities straight, no matter what. Spiritual protection is real and it makes an enduring difference.

Teach me the way I should go,
for to You I lift up my soul
.
–from Psalm 143

Where are we looking for safety? This world has always been and will be dangerous, tomorrow unknown. But we can still step into each day empowered with hope and courage nourished by our spiritual nature. We can take good direction from unshakeable Love. We can help one another. Let your life be bountiful even–especially–in the face of uncertainty. May your soul’s refuge be a stronghold.

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