Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Nettle Creek and Love’s Rocky Terrain

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When Merle plummeted from the ladder while trying to work moss off the cedar shakes roof, I was sure he’d be a goner. He’d been doing that for near forty years but there comes a time when a man has to tell himself no. He isn’t great at that. And despite breaking his back, he’s not so good at quitting. He got surgery and recouped, and before I knew it, was back on his feet. I caught him eyeing the ladder and I locked it up. But he sits more, takes rests on our big bed. Usually there’s a sharp knife and a few pieces of wood nearby or he’s studying our weekly newspaper, acting like he can see the fine print. But the carving he can mange fine–he was born with the talent.

I can’t say he’s keeping things up so well, he uses a cane more often than not. I’m good sized and strong. As my father always told me, “strong as a mule”. (“Sly as a fox,” Mom said, as I solved problems pretty good.) That’s why he had to name me James, he thought I was to be a boy and when I was coordinated plus was strong I often was treated as such, dressed for the woods. Mom added a second name, Marie. Weirdly. I can take or leave dresses and other fancy things but like a pretty blouse and a full skirt for special occasions.

Merle says, “You never need paint on your face, you’re fresh as roses to me.” The first time he said that I about smacked him–I never had heard such a thing in my fifteen years and couldn’t figure it out–or him. But it sounded better over time. He could be generous with his admiration then. Now he says “Roses” if he’s trying to make me smile.

“Jimmie,” Merle asks me this morning as he often does, “is this a day we go or a day we stay?” He leans in toward me, two hands on his cane, the one with the eagle head for a handle.

He asks that–some days with a flip in his voice, sometimes all serious– mostly because I foretold the miracle of May Cousins. (The other reasons is because he’s just one who thinks on dying more as he ages. Not me. ) She was drowned a short time at eight but I was sure she’d come back, live and eventually be alright. Which she did, and still is, and teaches kindergarten in the next county. But I haven’t made a habit of such things, in fact, keep my mouth shut. I don’t want to be blamed when things go sideways. Don’t care for the limelight, either.

But I’ve been right about a few other things kept to myself. I have been right about Nelda sometimes. For sure about Merle getting injured (it may have just been the odds) but wrong about him dying and that’s good. I made plenty of stink about it long before he fell. Later I reminded him of it once, when he was lying there and I worried he’d never get up. No matter, he knew he had paid the price of pride. He even apologized, to my amazement, as they carted him off in the ambulance, siren blaring its alarm through woods and village. His friends lined up at the hospital until they knew he made it.

We got through it all–many months of it, surgery we couldn’t really afford, rehabilitation trials, misery—and we still get on alright. It takes some work. But he had quit drinking at 49, so most things had already automatically improved. Now we’re just settling more deeply, two ole dogs by the hearth. His ornery back, my creaky knees.

“I guess we’re stuck here in paradise, it’s another good day. You got half the beaver carving done for Ted– and another one started, right?’

“Don’t know what the second one is yet.”

“It’ll reveal itself, always does, the wood talks at you.”

He let go of the cane with one hand, pats my arm as I make breakfast, then clomps out to the round blue table put on the screened porch in summer. I have a little song humming in me and put another sausage in the gravy running richly over hot biscuits. He’ll eat well and feel better and get right to that unknown carving.

Long before he broke his back and soon after he quit drinking, things were far different. I stopped and gazed out the window above the counter, over Nettle Creek to the house beyond.

“You coming with the coffee?” he calls out, a touch of crankiness setting in. You’d think caffeine was more potent than Jim Beam the way he acts. But I know he has pain and needs those jolts of coffee pleasure, and thank the good Lord every day and night he grasps his steaming mug and not the bottle. And so does he. Or this would be another story.

******

While he naps, I finish chores and sit on the porch. I’ve been trying to stick with a book about Hawaii, a fat novel from a yard sale. It about makes me want to see that exotic place but I’ve not been anywhere for more than a few days. Just here in the mountainous, forested areas around Nettle Falls, our town, and Nettle Creek. I’ve known most of my neighbors–such as they are, scattered here and there–forever. I know this Northwest haven like my own face; it’s in my blood, three generations of it. Our son Tate, he moved, but he’ll be back one day.

Nelda, now, she’s the same as me in that way. Never wanted to pull up roots and find another place to roost. Never wanted to travel any farther than the coast to stick her toes in the salty sea, which we did many times, Merle and me, her and Gerry before he died. We stuck together, like small town folks do. I always have a sense of what she’s up to, even now. For one thing, I can mostly see her house kitty corner from ours, the whole thing when the leaves fall and only conifers stand tall and more sparse between us.

Her house is bigger than ours with a deck across the back facing the creek. (Always thought that a poor idea; mosquitoes–we do get fewer than imagined–can get you.) I could see her raising her three kids, note right off how they changed fashion and friends and how much beer they stole and drank, hear her and Gerry’s arguments and happiness when the breeze was right. We could walk over mossy rocks in the creek to visit each other in a minute. It was like having a sister, which I’d not been given, only we were best friends, too.

Then Nelda put up a half-wall right after she made the biggest mistake of her life. She paid a pretty penny for Hermann and Sons to erect it. I watched it being made and was baffled that she left it at shoulder height; I could still see over the top pretty well as we are on a rise in the ground; I could still see much. It was as if she wanted me to see her life go on as it did. To see how few people socialized with her, her kids less around.

I made a habit of keeping an eye out less after all was done. I doubt she wasn’t much looking our way, either. It felt wrong, for the first time. Why bother with someone who did what she did? Everyone felt like that if you listened to the gossip, for a good year. Then no one said much at all, but they were leery of her, some more than others. As for me–I eventually had sympathy and grief to contend with on all fronts, and all that near drove me over the edge more than just the terrible error. I refused to shun her, and told the others they’d better think twice before they carried on with it. I half-nodded at her when we passed each other, no eye contact. But that was all, so maybe it was close enough to shunning.

And yes, it was Merle’s grave error, also. Let’s face it, he had equal blame though many were quicker to release him of guilt, and who knows why? Because Nelda was a woman, though a widow woman just over eleven months? Because we were best friends and you don’t do that to friends? Maybe because Merle was newly sober just nine months? But not soon enough, as he’d already lost his good job at the post office over in Scappoose (got it back a year later; retired after his back stayed bad)–so he couldn’t be judged too harshly. That was it–finding his way with no whiskey or beer? Well, I said, yes, true, he was a blind man feeling his way though the dark alleys of his life–and he found his way right into Nelda’s tanned and glowing arms.

Was I really all that surprised?–a few of the women asked me boldly. Merle was good looking, strong-built and even though quiet he radiated a sort of warmth that drew in everyone and still does. Sure, girls admired him when we were still in school and beyond–and the boys had an eye on me. Looks are no good excuse, he was a family man, and I found it shallow of others to suggest there was a way out of his part.

We had cemented our bond at the start. And we two couples had enjoyed such good and bad times together; there was faith in our friendship, we were growing older together with ease. We had real trust. But when Ger had an aneurysm and that was that, it was a sea change. Not only missing him. We three felt like a wheel without enough spokes, and our friendships stopped rolling on quite right. Then it slowed, limped along. Sometimes we just sat by the creek, a stunned trio, then faded into a “goodnight.”

For all the unbalance, I was with Nelda, of course I was– right till the moment I found out. And it did not take a detective. I saw them. There they were on her deck, having pie and coffee when I was recovering from a bad summer cold. That was okay with me. But it was the way they were sitting side by side, their heads put together, shoulders touching, his hand moving to the small of her back. Then their lips locked. But quick-like and they peered across the creek, its rushing waters frothy and golden with early evening light. They had dearly hoped I was still in bed, sleeping, too hot and achy and snuffly to move. But I was standing at our bedroom window, paused for what reason?–to see if Merle was outdoors. Still having coffee and then checking her new umbrella clothesline’s wobble. I had been on my way to the kitchen for water, felt a need to look out. If truth be told, had a feeling. That feeling that tingles in my stomach, strikes me as something.

At first it seemed like a fever dream. I blinked, looked hard again. Merle and Nelda got up, took plates and cups inside, and shut the door against the languid heat. Or to keep it in. They didn’t come out until darkness fell and I gave up hoping for different, leaned back. Was exhausted by tears and drifting into sleep before I heard his footsteps in the dark, then porch steps. By the time he got to our room, I was plunging into an abyss of heartache. He slithered out to the couch.

Sleep pulled at me. My falling thought: Damned traitors, bet those sheets smelled bright as sunshine, mine all twisted around body and heart, hurts deep…

It took time, as all things do, with Merle. I am stubborn even if enraged. Do you throw out an entire lifetime together when one of you fails to stick to the rules? How much weight does sexual commitment–with its duty and occasional boredom–carry in the long run? Is it everything, is it the soul of a marriage–or actually a smaller part than you believed at the start? What mattered here? What do you deep in your gut want, I asked him over and over? It wasn’t the surrender to desire, that basic act. It was what we all fear and loathe: trust shaken, torn, hard things to mend. We made choices together once we got through the thorns.

The reason I stayed is that we took our time healing, made no sudden moves. He remained here despite regret, his shame. It’s love, that’s all. The kind of love that had long ago put its stamp on our hearts and carried us through near every sort of weather. And Nelda—she was heart shocked about Ger. She gave in to greater needs. Maybe he did, too, though I didn’t and won’t ever ask that. I didn’t need all the sorry facts, just solutions. besides, I about reacted to his failure by doing the same. Then stepped back right in time. No one knew–but I did.

No, it was Nelda who I lost the hardest, the worst, the biggest, and who with a desperate kiss lost me. Even though I pitied her, I could not entirely, sincerely forgive someone I had so long called Sis. Not even after praying for her all those years. Twelve of them.

******

So I watch her deck and house because she has not come out in eleven days. Well, she came out because once I heard her car leave and return. But no sitting outdoors. No hanging out laundry–she still liked to hang her sheets and towels, yes, that sun and wind. I know it is eleven days because I count as I used to in the old times and worried about her. Because Nelda gets depressed. Not just like after she and Merle had the fling and Ger had passed on which was quite bad but her daughters helped her then, and even her stuffy pastor, I heard, gave her some good advice so she got counseling. Got back to more living, got a job in the office at Dean’s Hardware.

No, this is something I don’t anticipate, though I feel concern as the days added up. I sit an hour and with each second sense her more. It builds up until it hurts my chest and rings in my brain: help.

“Merle,” I said, sticking my head inside when I hear him rustling around for a snack. “I’m going over the creek.”

He thumps his way to the door as I run down the steps.

“What did you say?”

I give a short wave backwards and keep on, my tennis shoes seeking hold on the flat and rounded rocks, trying to avoid mossy slipperiness, finally sliding into cold water running about my shins, the bank seeming far off. But when I make it I run to the back of her house, around the fence, to the gate, and find it locked. I rush to the front door, throat constricted even as I call out her name.

“Nelda! Where are you!”

The front door is unlocked, not too unusual, and so I enter for the first time in over a decade to find heaps of magazines sliding to the floor and piles of clothing on the couch and a few used paper plates with plastic forks on the coffee table. The television is on, sound muted.

I rush to the large airy kitchen but she’s not there–then the bedrooms, one by one. Not there. Where?


“Nelda, it’s Jimmie! Where are you?” My voice cracks; I gulp air.

I open one bathroom door, it’s acrid, stuffy, empty. Then another one.

And there she is sitting on the toilet lid in faded knit shorts and a baggy, stained pink tank top. Her longish, once-blonde-going-white hair falls over her hands, which barely hold her head, her head which dips to her knees as I enter. On the floor is an open prescription bottle, pills spilled and rolling all over the black and white tiled floor.

“Nelda, what have you done to yourself?” I cry out and fall to my knees.

I take her head into my hands, pull her to my shoulder so that she crumples, slides down to the floor and falls hard onto me, her once-full body light like sticks in my sturdy arms. I look at her and see a once-velvety forest woman now a sad one with her insides turned out, her fineness ripped and frayed.

“I’m going to give up,” she whispers, “why are you here…go home…”

“Did you take too many? Tell me!” I reach for the bottle and see that its an antianxiety medicine. “How many?”

“Four, five or dunno, not counting…”

I hold her head up so I can look at her. Red-rimmed, half-open eyes in shadowy sockets; sunken cheeks; pale lips gone slack; unwashed hair that sticks to her face, neck. She needs a shower. A meal and coffee. A new life.

She first needs a doctor.

I pick up the bottle, then lift her and nearly fall over as my knees complain. I carry her to her bed. Then I pull out my phone, call the number on the bottle. Can the pharmacist tell me what to do? Yes, go to urgent care or if she breathing is shallow and is less responsive, her eyes closing, call 911.

“Jimmie? Jimmie…you real…” Her words are slurring. She rolls over, nearly falls off the bed. I grab her and sit by her on the edge of the mattress which, I realize, has no sheets.

“I’m here, we’re going to get help.”

I call Merle and tell him to to get to the car, drive over fast.

“Nelda, I’m right here. We’ll get you better.”

“You’re…” she says as tears stream from the corners of her eyes. Which begin to close.

“Nelda, come on, wake up!” I shake her but her eyes remain half shut, her mouth opens, her silver fillings dully gleam.

I call 911 and carry her out the front door and Merle sprays gravel as he halts in the driveway. I sink to the ground with her limp body clutched to my chest. He shoots out the car door, limping to my side, hand over his mouth.

******

Two months. That’s how long it’s been since Nelda had her stomach pumped. Then monitored, then in inpatient treatment for severe clinical depression with suicidality and generalized anxiety. That’s what they called it, as if she has a fancy predisposition to some alien thing when it was in fact a close decision to end it all. I can’t abide the psychobabble but glad they helped her. She was released after three and a half weeks, and seems much better.

Was, that’s the word we can use now. Was going to die, not now going to die. She is back in therapy, on different medication and on her feet–what a way to put it but quite true. She’s even thinking of taking a dance class at Jody’s Studio in Scappoose; she loved ballroom dancing when Ger was alive, so why not? I’ll likely cheer her on.

I don’t understand it, not all of it. Neither does she, she says, just that she can get so low and then goes to the pits and needs help but waited too long. I can’t abide thinking that I about lost her once and for all. Nelda insists this is quite true, I was there in spirit all along and that helped her hang on. Really? I shake my head. Maybe, though my sense of things was too slow to alert me quite soon enough. Wasn’t there in person until near late and how do I get over that? By living and being better, I guess.

I’m right sometimes with my feeling about people, wrong other times, and that’s just how it goes. I have no special power, that’s for sure. Just love, I guess.

It was a wimpier, half-lonely time without our friendship. Like I’d been so hungry but got used to it though I was craving more. Maybe we can both finally fill up more, a little at a time. It’s not about forgiveness, it’s time passing and time found, and life knocking off more of my edges. I’m freer inside my mind and spirit.

Still, I’ve felt the burden of my neglect since I found her in the depths. It sliced a gash inside me. My not being there all those years–knowing what I know about Nelda– is the real crime here. I want the bleeding to stop, the wound scab over–as she wants hers to close. Her old humiliation, that lingering shame. The only way beyond it is getting up. going on, and learning each other again. We’ve begun to share tales and news in person over coffee a couple days here, a couple maybe there. Merle gives a brief, hearty greeting then disappears. One of these week-ends I hope and pray–I pray for everything, that’s the way I do this– we’ll grill a fine dinner in summer’s green beauty, all together. It won’t be like old times. There is no going back. We’ve been ignorant. Suffered the hurt. Left each other, found each other. We’re getting whiter, gimpier. Maybe wiser. What a saga we have woven. But in the end there’s just what lies before us this day. And we want more peace.

We keep an eye on each other from across Nettle Creek, our creek, where I never got much of a nettle sting yet and love to hear the water running, cascading no matter what goes on. It feels about as good as it can. But I’ll aim for better, I tell myself when I feel whipped by the upkeep of our acreage and house and Merle gets cranky. Then I up and call Nelda Sis, it slips out, isn’t that seeing the bright side? I’m still just Jimmie, best friend, or as she says Jimmie Marie which gets on my nerves– except when she says it anyhow.

Weather Report: Dry and Sunny (Alcohol Not Included)

IMG_0813Well, it’s here again, New Year’s Eve, so my plan is to get this written and do other things, just like you. I’m not dressing up, though the pricey heels I splurged on for a daughter’s wedding have beckoned from my closet. I don’t intend on dropping a lot of cash for a rousing city celebration. I’m not even throwing my own party here, though at times I have, with a sumptuous repast (well, mostly potlucks) and everyone gabbing and meandering. Admittedly, I can become wistful and daydream about dancing during this holiday but rarely have since sliding past forty. (I do intend on taking more flamenco dance classes and Zumba–but first I have to finish off 2014.)

No, I’m soon to wrap up in a velvety sage green blanket and hunker down in my favorite chair with a couple of magazines or a book. Get drowsy just as the neighborhood’s fireworks go off. But the reason why I’m in for the night is not to just relax, nor to avoid the cold snap we’re having.

Earlier this day my husband and I were taking a good look around a newly renovated neighborhood. Portland has very distinctive areas that have a surfeit of atmosphere. I hadn’t much thought about the meaning of the day as we strolled the blocks in brilliant sunshine. The sky was so blue it vibrated. I was taking photos every few feet as I do no matter where we are, noting the changes architecturally and shop-wise. Scores of people were partaking of the simple pleasures a rain-free day affords in the Pacific Northwest. We finally stopped at my favorite tea purveyor for a take-out cup of cinnamon spice rooibos and crossed the street.

And that is when the quaint scene presented itself, an old brick building that had been spared, then perked up with new paint and decorative signs. It had a front door that drew me, then stopped me as I snapped another few photos. Then I read the sign: “5:00, Join Us for Snacks and Champagne.” (See first photo.)

I paused, imagining what it would be like to enter that atractive, arty restaurant, pull up chair to table and dig into a bowl of snacks as I sipped champagne with spouse and friends. And do it as if this was a natural event, a gathering of convivial folks who imbibed alcohol and savored tasty food with it. Without a second thought.

That will never happen for me. Not again.

I can’t recall the last time I drank during New year’s Eve. I doubt it mattered. Oh, I drank, just not on special occasions. Then I likely was alcohol-free so no one knew the power alcohol had over me. I was twenty-seven, late to start use of the mood enhancement and pre-sleep relaxant. It was wine then, cheap and red and taking up only half an ordinary glass. It was lovely. Innocent. Until it wasn’t. By the time I was in serious trouble three years later I could drink a half pint in a short time, with or without a mixer. I was a small woman, about one hundred pounds, so it hit fast. But it continued to ensnare me for a decade, off and on.

Drinking was never a time to party for me. It was a socially acceptable assist to the procurement of a comfortable state of being.  It blunted the grief of random heartache. A glass or two of wine brought me a slumber rich in forgetfulness. Later, liquor loosened tightness in my chest, took the poisonous sting out of  real and imagined failures, helped me avoid dangerous spots in relationships. It made things that were awful more acceptable and depressing, funny. Or so I believed. It seemed ridiculous to consider that it might one day commandeer my life. I had hardly enough years to try out more than a few kinds of drinks. But it happened. Fast. Why? I may never know for certain; my family tree is not an alcoholic one. I was proof that it doesn’t require a clear genetic connection, many decades of heavy abuse, or great quantities to cause big trouble. For many, alcohol becomes a forbidden fruit.

From friends forcibly taking and delivering me to substance abuse treatment to being rushed to an emergency room, I experienced a surprising and compelling powerlessness. And it all started with one drink, that first moment when I looked at an unopened bottle and realized this attractive package held a chemical that might loosen knots in my shoulders and mind. It did, enough that I’d tried it again and again. It seemed easier to drift through rough times as long as there was a glass of magic elixer at hand. But that lasted so briefly I don’t recall if it was a good time.

What alcohol did was erode any remnant of real peace, threaten my health, damage my relationships and replace a natural inclination to celebrate life with an unpredictable attitude. My state of mind became fueled by resentment, bitterness, fear and profound regret, the sort that seeps into the heart and soul and cannot be excised. Did I really see that? No. I was a very competent wife and a well-organized mother of five. My spouse was making excellent headway in his career. When I started back to work I did well, and rose quickly. But the last drink I took was twenty-five years ago because it all sneaked up on me, won every battle I waged against it, twisted and ruined far too much. I had to surrender to the absolute reality that alcohol and I were not close to being friends (despite my imagining we were) and never would be. We were never meant for each other from the start. It was ultimately a near-fatal attraction.

I have never looked back with longing. Why return to darkness when living in the light is so tender, so forgiving? So illuminating with its beauty and power? But sometimes I see a beguiling ad or laughing couples sharing a glass of wine at a cafe. I ponder what might have been if I was not who, in fact, I am. Then go on my way. As it is, I am one of those people who has escaped death more than once, has had physical damage that took years to repair, has endured traumas and experienced internal healing. And I have been blessed with a faith in God–and His love for me–that overrides doubts and carries me into the mysteries of life, then instigates joy.  I’ve had the opportunity to serve others in need, for all suffering–in our lives and in others’–is an opportunity given so we can develop and offer compassion. And what a liberation that is.

It is New Year’s Eve, yes,  and I choose to write of alcohol because I know people out there will die tonight. They will drink too much and drive drunk with catastrophic results. They will drink too much and, shockingly, poison themselves. Someone will drink on top of other drugs and overdose, lose judgement or self-control and say and do terrible things they cannot ever take back. I know this in another way most vividly, as I am a retired substance abuse and mental health counselor. It causes me grief even now to think of those lives lost to the most desired and potent drug in all history: alcohol. There were so many over twenty-five years.

For the person, male or female, young or old, who should have multiple opportunities to flourish, to just awaken to sunlight streaming across their blankets, who should reach for arms to embrace: I want you all to greet 2015 and count yourself blessed. This is my passionate hope. If alcohol is making your choices for you, maybe this year you will put that goblet or bottle down and seek change. Walk away, turn the corner, risk another path. The life you will get to lead will be more miraculous than you ever imagined. I’ll be rooting for you every step of the way.

The pretty restaurant  entrance that inspired this post. I  hope everyone drank safely and got home tonight.
The pretty restaurant entrance that inspired this post. I hope everyone drank safely and got home tonight.

 

The Blueness of Summer

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“The problem is clear, Reg–we have the wrong colors! Everything must be painted blue. Then we’ll have more peace. At least I will!”

She threw her up hands in disgust, then pointed at the living room’s pale yellow walls, orange floral couch with lime green and lemon yellow pillows, a tarnished goldtone floor lamp, all three tables an antique white.

Reg stood with hands on hips. This was the stand-off he had hoped to avoid. If she was going to tick off the terrible errors of each and every room he’d lose it. This was not their city house which “requires a more spare palette”, she’d insisted. This was a vacation home, a spiffed-up cottage, really, and he liked it just the way it was.

“Absolutely not. It required no renovations. The colors are lively. It’s a simple place. For once we can go outside the lines, relax. And I’m not buying a bunch of new furniture.” He ran a palm over his forehead. “You liked it well enough when we bought it in spring. We’re lucky to have it.”

Reg said this with satisfaction and pride. He’d saved a long time to afford the right place on Whitetail Lake. A moderate-sized, old but not too-creaky lake house on a half-acre. It made him happier than he’d been in years.

Marin turned away from him to face the view of water, let her eyes rest on birches and pines on the opposite shore. The lake was languid today, a smattering of clouds reflected in its gently sloshing surface. It made her feel moody and restless instead of calmer.

“I’ll shop at second-hand stores, garage sales if I must. But it has to be re-done in blues.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “The girls need blue, too. They’re too agitated here.”

With a dismissive wave of his hand, he left. The girls needed to fish with him, swim, get sweaty and dirty, water ski, meet new friends. They still had time to make good messes at ages ten and twelve. At home they were under Marin’s watchful gaze and tutelage. Here they could whoop and race around. He had no intention of falling prey to his wife’s obsession with color therapy out here in the northern woods, on this welcoming lake. It had become a strange keystone of her life but it was not his.

He worried she was losing it. This color thing was now impacting how she cooked, organized things, even wanted everyone to dress. He knew it was her attempt to re-exert control over her life. It had been hard. She’d lost her job ten months ago so she had more empty time. But they’d lost a helluva lot more than that. He understood she needed to adjust; he still did, too. He was lonely for her, for the past, and it felt like a black hole some nights. But time, it was all about time. And color, apparently.

Marin watched her husband head to the boat house where he stored his fishing tackle. He’d be gone all day, likely. She just couldn’t get into fishing, baiting the hook, the harm it did to fish tossed back in, the hours of boredom as you cast a line and waited, cast and waited. He cleaned and cooked them with relish. She ate them but felt haunted by their grace in the water, scales flashing as sunshine glanced off their sleek bodies. It almost made her cry.

Water. It was an ever-changing tableau of shadows, of light. A blue life. It was the reason she had agreed: to be by the lake, hear it all hours. Musical blueness. And she needed everything indoors to reflect calm and an inviting coolness, as well.

“Kel! Give that back! You have the old one!”

“Let go! You’ll tear it! Mom!”

Natalie and Kelly exploded into the room, the older, Nat, trying to pull her new beach towel from her sister’s hands. Nat knocked over stacks of books Marin had been sorting. She shot her mother a look but kept moving and holding onto the towel. They were like two harnessed, runaway horses.

“Stop galloping about! Walk!” Marin commanded, but they were already beyond hearing range.

She stood in the middle of the room and counted the items she wanted to dispose of. The tables were barely tolerable but at least not yellow or orange. It gave her a headache, all this vividness in the cramped living room, the old fireplace smelling of decades of fires. At home there were wide expanses, many windows, clean lines, grey, taupe, pale rose, ivory. It was really for Reg, this Whitetail Lake adventure with fishing and hunting, the nature he missed from childhood. Sorely needed at a crucial juncture in his career. And the girls loved it so far, even their small bedrooms that accommodated only twin beds. They said it was like going to camp. Reg insisted it was homey. What did that mean? Wasn’t their city house homey in a classic way, hadn’t she made it so?

What did she get? What did she even have left, anymore?

It was not a good time to examine or answer such questions. She grabbed her bag and keys, jotted a note and left it on the green lacquered breakfast table. She was going paint shopping.

*******

The whole next week they had to eat, sleep and live around their mother and her paint buckets. Their dad was fishing mostly. Sometimes he took them skiing or on boat rides of the deer’s tail-shaped lake. The three of them swam into the dusk, calling their mom to join them. She was too busy painting. In another week their dad would be going back to work. Worrisome.

“How’s it a deer’s tail? It’s so big you can’t even tell,” Kelly asked.

Nat snickered. “You can see from a plane what it’s like.”

“I’d do that.”

“You’d do anything, that’s the problem.”

Kel bit off a cherry licorice stick inch by inch but paused. “The problem is mom and that painting. We’d have more fun if she stopped.”

“I know. She’s…paint crazed! It’s blue madness!”

They laughed though it wasn’t very funny.

“I think,” Nat said, “she’s still trying to feel better. Dad says we have to be patient. It’s only painting walls, at least.”

Kel looked at her as she licked her fingers clean, then wiped them dry on her shirt. “She doesn’t drink at all. Danny’s been dead a year. She should be better by now.”

Nat put her arms around her sister’s shoulders. “Yeah, Danny’s gone…we’re here. So we can’t give up on her.”

“He hurt all the time. He couldn’t play, anymore. Danny had to go, didn’t he….? He’s better now, right?”

“I guess. Yeah.” She gave her a squeeze and stood up. “Want to swim out to the floating dock and lay out for a tan?”

******

Marin walked through the kitchen with its bright breakfast nook, the living room, three bedrooms, two bathrooms. Even Reg liked their bedroom, how it soothed. She had emptied them of extraneous things, found used natural wood furniture. But what delighted her were the aquamarine, cornflower blue, teal blue in variations of all three that covered walls and woodwork. No, illuminated. It was as if she was floating underwater, inside a small universe of blue, a skylit haven. It reminded her of bodies of water all over the world, places she had travelled when she had curated art for the museum. She was light-headed with pleasure. The panorama of tones loosened up straggling tension. Her heart unclenched.

At the doorway to the screened-in porch she had hesitated, paint brush and can in hand. The walls were knotty pine that felt warm with a sheen deepened from many years, hands, weather that passed through. It held a couch covered with a worn navy, red and cream plaid, two easy chairs that matched and a low table for books and random objects. Reg had left a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson essays there, the book she had bought him for his thirty-ninth birthday, when things had gotten tougher. Inside it she had inscribed: “To your soul from your love.”

Marin left the porch unpainted. Instead, she dug out the one picture she had brought of Danny. She painted a frame she had found at the local antiques store, a deep sapphire blue. It matched his eyes though a stranger wouldn’t know that. The five of them were sitting on the edge of a pool in Baja California, the last vacation he would be able to bear. But his smile was so powerful you could see God in it.

She hung the picture between two large screened windows. Under that she put a small white ship’s anchor and sat down on the couch. Danny would have loved the cottage. She felt the closing of her throat, the sting of tears and waited for them to etch hot trails down her face. But they didn’t fall. Her throat gradually opened again. A brisk breeze crisscrossed the porch and lifted the hair from her damp neck. She watched the girls playing badminton in the front. Reg was sitting on a chaise lounge near them, sipping a lemonade she’d made fresh earlier. She got up and left the cottage, pulled to the lapping water, trees and birds. The summer’s sweet light and her family.

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Seeing Those Unseen

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The walk through heavy double doors to the office in the rundown building is powered by my will to land a job. Voices careen through shadowy and inaccessible rooms, doors bang shut–or is that something being thrown against a wall? I sit in front of a supervisor of a residential alcohol and drug treatment center. In this place long-term services are provided to adolescents. I am wondering why I ever agreed to an interview. As moments tick by, I am riveted by the description of the job and answer questions with genuine enthusiasm even as there are people scuffling and two persons trading expletives. Yet I want to be here. I can feel their hunger, the electric life.

That was a vivid scene in my mind upon awakening recently. The halls and voices of my past still haunt me. They changed my life.

Lately I have been filled with unease and distracted by a related issue, the sort that seeps into each day and night as if bubbling up from a subterranean source. There are only a few weeks before I must re-certify my CADC (Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor) which enables me to stay in this field. I’m also qualified to provide some mental health counseling.

I quit my last position because retirement was becoming more attractive. I experienced difficult ethics dilemmas regarding issues that can plague such organizations, especially non-profits, and felt they were not being well-addressed. And returning home at eight-thirty or nine p.m. after eleven hour days was tougher. But I also quit because I had spent too many years jotting down storylines in between clients, starting poems on sticky notes, then hiding them away. I was overdue to write full-time.

A daughter recently asked me: “Are you happy with your life as it is?” It seemed easy to answer: yes, I am glad to live this life! But I do miss working with the invisible ones at the fringes of society, challenged, changed or disabled by mental health and addictions problems.

Most people in this field burn out between three and five years. There are many who continue, but not too many for twenty years or more. For some reason, my committment and caring deepened and a restless compassion still fills me. I am not special; those who help others are everwhere, often unknown. So I am just one of those unwilling to give up on what (or whom) I love most. I’m not sure it is even a choice.

So let me take you way back to 1994, back to that interview scene I awakened with, for it was very real…

 ******************

It has been months since I suffered the consequences of downsizing. I am desperate. Despite sending out countless resumes and ending a couple of interviews on a high note, my efforts have come to naught. I did not coplete my Bachelor degree but before I left Detroit I’d been a home care department manager for a human services program providing for three counties. My 350 primarily homebound clients included younger people who had suffered a variety traumatic brain injuries, as well as those with other disabilities. I hired and trained 150 employees. Yet here in Oregon I am scrambling. Everyone seems more qualified than am I, at the top of the heap.

So when money runs out and I study the requirements for a “Residential Care Facilitator”, it seems folly to respond. I have never worked with disturbed or addicted youth; I am not a therapist. They want someone who is sober, can monitor and assist at-risk youth and develop better programing. I am living a recovery lifestyle, have raised five children and manage to convey indirectly that I am not easily intimidated. I have experience developing programs and providing practical support to high risk populations.

Just not teenagers who have been homeless or incarcerated. Traumatized. Mandated to residential alcohol and drug treatment. They are bound to be enraged and depressed. What am I to them? I am part of the barrier in their thinking.

The interview goes well. The supervisor likes my varied experience and passion to be of service to others. I get the idea he is interested in hiring someone more mature, older than twenty-something. At forty-two, my competence has been tested and deemed solid. But this time I am a neophyte. He explains the majority of youth here for three to six months are gang-affiliated or gang-affected, prone to violence against themselves and others. Girls and boys, ages twelve to eighteen, are in separate dorms but share activities. All have become addicted to multiple drugs including alcohol. They bear scars of physical and emotional abuse. They have mental health diagnoses, serious abandonment issues. A challenging group to watch over much less teach, inspire, and point in a healthier direction.

They also need someone to coordinate field trips, create outside educational activities, plan enjoyable physical recreation. The clients must be driven to parks and A.A. meetings. They require monitoring at all times. I might assist the teacher in the alternative school teacher at times. All for little pay.

“So, what do you think?” he asks, eyes lit up.

What I think is that my smile is straining my facial muscles. My heart rate increases every time a kid screams at someone or I glimpse a sullen face outside our door. I regret not learning excellent office skills so I can work at a dentist office; it might be so much easier. I’d taken a donut shop counter job. But completing college would have been the best idea. Instead, I married my first husband and he finished his Masters while I had (well-loved) babies. I have to turn my life around, escape another failed relationship and avoid looming poverty. A more fulfilled life is a goal; while joy isn’t critical, I at times dream about it.

“If that’s an informal offer, my answer is ‘yes’,” I say, shaking his hand.

My extended family wonders if I am scared to work with these troubled kids. (Yes! But no one else will know that.) How will I pull it off? (By paying attention. Following instructions. Getting to know the clients.) My partner, not who I hoped, thinks any paycheck in my name would be good. He is right, always. He can make this painfully clear. Little does he know of my hidden agenda: moving out with my teen-aged son and daughter when I save money.

I shrug. “It’s not like I’ll be working in a reform school or jail. I’ve had difficult clients before.”

“Sure. Elderly and disabled,” my youngest child reminds me.

The first day I enter the girls’ unit there are a number of sneers and questions. Heads pop out of rooms and eyes try to stare me down. I know how to not blink and act brave. I try memorizing the unit’s rules and my duties but at the end of the day I feel as though I have left a “hot spot” where a fragile truce has been called. I make it out intact due to my helpful co-workers, all under thirty yet oddly jaded. When I get home I don’t want to talk. I want to sleep a dreamless sleep and wake up a professional.

For a long week I watch and am watched. Not primarily by my boss, but the clients. They assess me better than I do them, as their instincts are well-honed and street smarts prepare them for anything. I know I look like someone just out of a Junior League meeting with coordinated slacks and blouse, hair and lipstick just so. It’s the casual version of my old work attire. But it isn’t just that other employees wear jeans and t-shirts to blend in, like camouflage in the wilderness. These kids are savvy and know I am green, not just new. They’re looking for my soft spot, the weakness that will allow them to get extra attention or more dessert, a later “lights out” or a good word put in with their therapists. Someone they can make a partner in crime.

I figure all this out when my supervisor informs me on the fifth day that the reason A., a thirteen year old client, is so friendly and flattering is that she needs good reports in order to not be “discharged incomplete” which means locked down somewhere else. She has hit a dorm mate once and threatened staff. Duly noted.

I return home at almost midnight, sit on the back stoop and cry without sound. How can I do the work if caught between a passionate impulse to be of service to those in need and noxious fear of the unknown and possible assault? I resolve to give it two months. Thoughts of failure makes me feel I am teetering on a scary precipice. I pull myself back and grit my teeth. I must succeed.

What the clients do not know is that I am not all I seem at first glance, just as they are not. I have gotten through treacherous times. Have my own survival skills. A will that holds fast and a deep-rooted desire to be useful in the world. I am driven and have have discipline, both of which were instilled during a somewhat privileged life that was soon scored with pain and loss.

It takes a couple of weeks, but I begin to see that beneath scars, bravado and bad words are the longing to belong, a dim hope of kindness, and vulnerability they fight to protect. They have been abandoned, beaten, sexually abused, thrown out on the street, supplied drugs by their families, locked in closets and reform schools. Many have been in multiple foster homes and found not one bearable. Many of the teens have been diagnosed with mental health disorders and are medicated, with uneven results.

I find my place as the kids make room for me. I work every shift and overtime, including graveyard, for the money but also the experience. I am good at staying calm so group counselors include me to encourage safe, effective dynamics. The alternative school teacher needs help so I start a writing group. They learn there is more to language than they imagined and discover words for nebulous, confounding feelings. I watch them change. A good way to connect with them is to provide experiences that are different than most are used to. I coordinate a recreation program that includes visits to the ballet and the art museum as well as barbeques and badminton in parks. Another is to pay attention when they need someone to bear witness to dark secrets and fragile dreams, most of which have been too long unspoken.

Or is just holding steady, as when one beleaguered young woman, stands in silence as she fires an imaginary .22 at every car in the parking lot. And then at me. I freeze. Then hold out my hands to her. She drops her phantom weapon, grabs on. Later, much later, we laugh. I immortalize her in a poem and pray she stays alive. As I do every one.

Without fail the person who learns the most is me. Resilience comes from the human need to keep living. Strength for the weakened arises from being comforted amid suffering and learning how to reach back. Hope sparks when even one small event clarifies possibilities for a better life. Sheer survival can transform into flourishing. It is astounding to behold. The result is freedom to create a better life. In the end, love does what it can.

*******************

Was it really so hard to take that job when I didn’t think I could do it or even wanted it? Only in the beginning. I worked at that facility for almost five years. In between working hours I returned to college, became a certified alcohol and drug counselor, gained education in mental health counseling, and have served diverse populations. I discovered one of my callings–God offered me a chance I hadn’t expected–and it carried me along the next twenty years.

Can I leave it behind for good? I’m still uncertain. There are so many needs, some of which are mine. But I can share their stories, perhaps hold up lost ones and warriors with these words:

You are seen. Known. Remembered and honored by this woman.

Photograph by Joseph Szabo
Photograph by Joseph Szabo

 

 

Staying Alive: an Interview

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“So, alright, you have me sitting in a long-past-its-prime chair in a monochrome room and I am supposed to be cooperating so that you can do the work that is in my best interest I am told, but really is all this necessary again? I didn’t agree to come here to talk to you. I don’t even know who you are. I had no choice. I came because it was the last-ditch chance, his way or exit center stage! ‘Get out’ he said! I mean, I nearly…”

Mim’s inhales deeply, then fills the air with a few staccato breaths. She is hurting everywhere, toes to brain.

Lane leans forward. “It seems you didn’t really want to go, not like that. And you came of your own will today.”

“Yes, well, it isn’t that simple. It was a matter of giving in or getting out. I mean, leaving the family. Like, settling for a life on the street, likely, can you imagine? I can’t. He says he wouldn’t throw me out–how would it look to his firm, our neighbors?– but, hey, it has happened to better women than me. I mean, I’ve seen them out there and they are so sad, terrifying. But, then, look at me!”

The clock on the wall is simple, inconspicuous, but the ticking is like a stuttering shout. Mim, her new client, shifts side to side then pulls her shoulders back, finger to mouth so she can chew off a hangnail.

Lane sits still. In the corner of her eye she can see through the window, rain slashing across the parking lot two stories below. Her office is warm but the fortyish woman across from her shivers, folds her arms tight over her white shirt. Lane notes her shoes. They are expensive grey and black flats, slim and scuffed.

“I mean, it’s not like this is the first time. This is number three. Pretty soon I’ll be able to write reviews of all the treatment centers in northwest Michigan. I wrote a column you know. Used to. There can’t be that many more rehabs for me to check out. All the same in the end.” She exhales a guttural sigh that sounds like disgust. “So, yes, I have arrived once more, this year in New Times Center on Lake Michigan. I have to say it looks good out there.” Her good leg bounces. “It would possibly look gorgeous through the magic filter of gin.”

“You’ve had a lot of experience at this. You’re sober five days. It will look better in a week, two weeks. You know this already.”

Mim looks at Lane hard a few seconds but the woman doesn’t blink. Here eyes are moist, very blue, quiet. She is so still Mim wonders how she does it, listening to all the rantings.  Does she go home and have a tall glass of wine while she eats on her deck? Does she have to build a fortress around her before she goes to work? Or is she someone who gets it, this special sort of hell?

“I wonder what I must look like from the other side of the room, from your chair. It looks no better than mine but it must be a heck of a lot more comfortable. I know this isn’t a sabbatical trip I’m on, not a resort where I can kick back and have a good old time. But it isn’t the road to paradise, either. I don’t have to love it, find it new or fascinating. Because it is not.” She wets her lips, pushes her short hair off her forehead. “It is NOT.”

“It’s another try at sobriety,” Lane says, “a chance taken.” She pauses. “On something more. For you.”

200236712-001The clock, rain, the steamy warmth of the room: they have a dreamy effect and  contour Lane’s mind. Mim’s words, edged with gold–“It is NOT”–line up across her mental screen, perilous, brash. All those negatives over the years have become like so many glass words Lane collects, then breaks apart and rearranges with each new client. They create something else or do not succeed.

She picks up her mug of tea. The client doesn’t respond, only watches rain streaking the window, eyes narrowing as though trying to focus on one thought, a moment, the certain feeling that might tell a whole story, the truth, in one sentence. Lane knows it is hard. She sees it takes all Mim can summon to sit there and be seen like this when her nerves feel like they have shark teeth and her heart is a chattering fool. Lane knows it is not yet anything like the promise of well-being the tri-fold brochure intimates. The woman is to smart to see how she runs in circles. Yet. There can be change. There is a stirring in Lane’s chest like a small door opening, then: a steady pulse of compassion.

“I do want life to be different. I want my son and daughter to race up to me on visiting day, feel absolutely sure I am going to be strong. Kind. That is what I want to be: so much kinder than this.”

Mim brought the tender finger to her lips again, but she took it into her other shaky hand. She laced all fingers together so they formed a basket she peered into as they rested in the hollow of her lap. “But I don’t know what I’ll find if I stay sober. I don’t have any idea what I will discover inside, what sort of real woman is there…”

Ticktickticktick. Time slinks away as rain’s counterpoint beats an ancient drum on earth and brick walls. Mim’s fingers unthreading, shoulders sagging forward. Her face is like an underside of the moon, not fortuitously revealed but marked by a terrain confused by misinformation and the inroads of experience. Alcoholic eyes, burning wells. An etching of persimmon scars marches up her jaw line to her temple, slides across her covered, crooked nose. Her left eye is still circled by the palest velvety purple. Her lips move but nothing is let go. Hands fly to mouth, to eyes, to face.

Lane sits forward. “Life will find you, has found you even now. All you need do is be present with it. You have time here, a safety net. I’ll be here while you puzzle out the clues.”

Outside, Lane catches sight of a bony, bespectacled young man looking in the narrow window of the office door. He cranes his neck to see Mim. Crutches in the corner. Cast on her leg. She sees him staring and turns away. He feels sorry for her, her face damaged like that but he is much more angry. He might have been her, he might have ended up like her, but no. Did. Not. Happen. With a forceful push of the wheels, he propels his wheelchair down the hallway.

Mim stares at the empty rectangle of glass. “Lane, look, I can’t promise anyone anything. I don’t even know if I will stay.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“You came today.”

“Yes. I did.”

Lane nods and almost smiles. Mim feels done. She stands up with difficulty. Lane watches her hop to the crutches, steady herself. When her client stands a bit taller she crosses her office and opens the door. The hum of life flows down the corridor, a stream of possibilities. Mim looks over her shoulder, eyes like two dark stones turning and shining in light, and steps forward. She wants to smell the wet earth without alcohol numbing her senses. She wants to smell the rain.

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