Wednesday’s Words on Thursday/Nonfiction: What’s New, What’s Not?

I’ve not gotten far on contemplating this new decade. In fact, I am barely attuned to the idea of a brand new year. I try to get serious and come up with clear goals, those things good for you like kale, but my notepad remains empty beneath the brief heralding of 2020. Maybe it is my age–is passing of time more irrelevant than it was at 20, 30 40 and so on? Some say more important but it does speed by, then slow down, even pause a split second or two–all as though I’m captive in an oddly edited video. Naturally, I see the past/present/future linked and pertinent to anyone’s identity. It just doesn’t seem as confining to me as it did when younger.

I was thinking, for example, about a class in film making and photography that I took at age 19…50 years ago …and I still want to take a class on film making and 35 mm photography. It was thrilling, that dark room. It would be a different course now but the spring of creative energy and intellectual passion are not less than before. I have plenty I’d love to do–and maybe I will get it done, and maybe I won’t. It was the same back then. But nothing so critical as back then hinges on my decision, only whether or not I fulfill my own desires. That was not the case in 1970, all life met head on with a restless, at times painful urgency, an inbred hunger for perfection, my intense dreams replete with plans for two or three Great Things before the next decade roared in. God forbid that I Not Accomplish Much. I can’t say I did by some standards, but there were other matters of importance, human life being surprising as it is.

Some things came to be, then, some did not come to be. Now I plan less, live more, much oftener in good ease. More spontaneously. I have my calendar with instructive and colorful notations on it already, conspicuously hung. But I know anything is likely to change. I don’t have the power to keep the unexpected from occurring, after all. I can shape my personal time, perhaps some space and events therein, but I cannot perform omnipotent acts.

My life is now in part reflective of the photo shared above. Gathered together: newer and older, inherited and intentionally acquired, chipped but functional, and lovely if spare, open to possibilities and accompanied by light and shadow, comforts of written and spoken language and, though you cannot hear it, music. In this case (from a genre termed “light classical” on TV’s “Music Choice”), a piano sonata by Mozart. I can feast on silence but music suits me more as perpetual winter grayness is absorbed into everything…a humorless palette that needs tonal brightening to be appreciated.

Tea or coffee with almond milk sits close by sooner or later, and chocolate. (Food is sometimes an afterthought. Chocolate covered nuts and fruits are preferred to get a little of the food tucked in.) The chipped china cup and saucer–one more thing that got marred in the move we made, yet still good in the hand. If I am not on my feet doing this and that day into night, I am sitting with a cup or mug, writing tools, my thoughts and a soft light, a stack of books at the ready.

It is 2020, I know, yet how many things remain the same despite that change. Little seems so different from the long past. Much has advanced, self-destructed or worse, it is true. And my generation certainly protested, we marched, demanded a higher national conscience and much better quality of life–equal rights and reproductive rights, cheaper or free and much more informed, expansive education for all. And several goals were met. And also, there were so many lives lost to causes.

Still, those days, these times: the essence of who I am remains, with suitable variations. Like it is for a mature tree, the core of personhood has decades of growth rings, marks left by adaptive responses to the environment, to a myriad interconnections with others that organically or perhaps shockingly came to be. It isn’t only in ind; it is in my very cells and in my soul. We may become ourselves–show ourselves– quickly after birth, I think. But then we tune ourselves up again and again as we grow and conquer and falter, readjusting to circumstances and altering needs.

So what does 2020 mean to me in a personal sense? What is changed or is anticipated? (Note: I do think globally but don’t write strictly of politics here, and am not in the mood to write of it now despite knowing that all that happens around us impacts in some way. The world shares its energy; if the energy wave that flicks us seems small, it still is there. We cannot survive and thrive in exclusivity, despite sometimes wanting to do so.) If I consider my singular life for a moment, I may learn something new here.

First, I have actually lived to see the new decade arrive. A fortunate and necessary grace.

I can’t count on it as it is not a given. My car was totaled in an accident. It might have totaled me. But did not. My heartbeat might have taken utter leave as I enjoyed a brisk walk this morning since heart disease has nagged me 20 years. But it did not. I might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. But was not. I’ve also had more stress (due to many life changes plus a health issues for Marc and me) than I can recall encountering in a very long while. But have not retreated, blithering, to the corner (at least not for long) remaining heaped in a soggy ball. And likely will not this year. I have endured harder years and known less joy by far.

Second, this April the grand-baby twins will have been here for an entire year.

Alera and Morgan were not here last January, they were wriggling and snuggling while waiting to arrive. But it was possible they may not have been able to stay there long enough as our daughter was a high risk mother with high risk babies. She’d been informed she’d likely never have children due to severe growth hormone deficiency and other hormone issues since birth. But things can change with right help. And the baby girl-people are strong, well, luminous and such fun.

Third, I am not moving this year. Change can be made to happen or not, at times, and this is not happening.

I almost argued for a change of address to save more money in the long run. But we did this move in 2019. It was taxing. Month by month it has become better for the best reasons. It has enriched my thinking and doing being out here among impressive woodlands, in a pretty place right outside Portland. Never wanted to live a suburban lifestyle, it just doesn’t hold the rhythms and textures I love. It was either city center or the country for this woman–and I’ve enjoyed both with many moves during my life, a suburban town tossed in a couple of times. But this spot has its charms, more quaint town than suburb. And we’re five minutes away from baby girls and their parents, fifteen from another daughter. I can still getto my son and sister within a half hour or less. So I am for now stuck here and starting to like it, surprise. And regarding finances: I’m deliberate with finances for the most part, and do worry about the future at 3 a.m. But some things have to be done in faith. This was one of them. There are babies right here. Much to learn and share.

Fourth, I can write more comfortably as well as edit photos better this year.

This is no small thing. I now have a new Dell Inspiron 15 5000 that I was reluctant to buy (the money thing, though on the cheaper end). But Windows 7 was not much working, anymore, and was not to be supported soon… so my limping Sony Vaio had to be sidelined. Since I am no whiz on the thing–it’s about intuition, trial and error and learning pretty fast I guess–this new machine is a godsend. It does what it is supposed to do; it displays all with orderly clarity. No more cussing at my desk every hour or more as I labor. Or push away and give up for a day. Which means my blood pressure will improve and my creative juices will rise to the occasion with far less interference. I will get more done–ah, this so relieves and heartens me! And Marc will have more peace.

Fifth, I expect to be outdoors a great deal, and not just on sidewalks or attractive balcony.

Is this different? Perhaps not. But some years it has been many city walks and parks (admittedly, still scintillating, refreshing), whereas now it is all woodsy pathways. I might find more routes in city center, though–I miss gazing at varied architecture. And I would like to hike, explore more; the beaches, forests and mountains around here are fabulous as ever. But I know this for sure: walking fixes nearly everything. Writing does the most good for me on a regular basis but walking loosens and polishes ideas as well as being more generally kind to soul and flesh. Such meanders are meant for humans to right the body, mind and spirit.

Oh, plus, I have a gym membership gratis with our housing. So: swimming, treadmill, Zumba, rowing, etc. as needed. Another good year to keep on shaping up.

Sixth, I may find myself designing houses soon. And composing music. Well, to some degree.

They are old plans of action that want to be made anew, that’s all this is. Another daughter and my son told me there are countless apps online to enable those creative forays. Who knew there were so many choices, even for free? So I have made notes and will check them out. I cannot imagine a life without creative activity, no matter my skill level. I don’t demand perfection of myself, not with these endeavors, at least. I wanted to design–and sketched quite a few, built a couple models– houses as a kid. I wrote music as a youth and even as an adult awhile. I can still do both if I want to do. So often we get in our own way. I need to get out of mine more.

And there is that art class I keep intending to take. And didn’t I mention film and photography?

You cannot ever stop learning unless you desire stagnation with resultant boredom. There is not nearly enough time to gather in wonderful bits of knowledge to peruse and use. I am as excited this year as every other year to just keep my mind a-humming with new ideas and experiences.

Seventh, my spiritual life could use more, not less. Of prayer, yes, of sacred moments. But I also just need to stay alert to the shining heart of life, to root out hidden treasures, and keep my being open to grace. The heat of passionate engagement with life’s small miracles can cool, leak away in minuscule woundings as well as grave trials. It is easy to let perplexing moments, those cruelties and hardships of my small life–not to mention those of the billions who make up humanity–transform me into a more jaded person. Or be turned into one who becomes dis-empowered. Empty and unmoved.

But I won’t have it. I wasn’t born to not pay attention. To not take action. To not embrace. To not believe in greater possibilities. We can always be more than we think, better than we imagine. We are made of cosmic stuff; we live our lives in part within realms of Spirit because we are more than flesh, blood, sinew, bone, neurological labyrinths, and our mad self will with many faulty choices. Everything in God’s creation reflects a vital complexity of the magnificent infinite story. Can we not see that for the grand good fortune it is?

I claim my part. Not vaulted, nor far-reaching in scope. But this life is mine, to use as can be of benefit as long as breath is in me. I will be celebrating 70 this spring if all goes well. I care much less than I thought, but it is quite okay with me. I mean, what’s another year? We move through time like secretly winged things, catching the updrafts where we can.

Well, I have to write when I need to understand more. Now that I have some insight, my friends, this is how I see 2020. This particular day. Maybe not tomorrow. But not so differently than before I undertook the exercise. I suspect I am fairly ready for what may come, but then again I may not be. I have been taught a bunch of things this past year and more to come. I carry a bit of goodly knowledge from many years of surviving, growing. Perhaps we don’t quite know what we are made of until we have need to know it.

I do persist in tending an intrinsic hope, despite tatters and moans. Hope for what is good for me and for you. May you each care well for your life and loved ones… and whomever and whatever else you can manage.

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem/Photo: Order and Otherwise

Japanese Garden, Portland, OR

This is one sort of preference:

vessels useful and voluptuous,

lithesome fishes lined up for breezes,

trees well refined that mind themselves,

stone with a softer side but that does not give in.

A variety of order beguiles with certainty.

I am intrigued by definitions of texture

and design, of utility and indulgence.

But within chaos rises a web of connectivity

that brings to the fore the powers of Presence.

Out of strife surges creativity,

intimacy with confusion allows clarity,

and it is a value of peace and discord

that we humans can jostle to and fro,

discern amazement within, without

and secure our (mutable) selves here

and beyond the living maze of mirrors.

Mirror Art Installation in San Diego (artist unknown)

Secrets Horses Keep

Photo by Mary Ellen mark
Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

She was in the middle of the park, for goodness’ sake, sitting there with that odd little horse, cuddled up close like a pet she had taken out for a good walk. She was otherwise alone, it was clear there was no one accompanying her. Is that what parents still ordinarily do these days or not?–accompany their charges? I had a nanny; Magdala never let me out of her sight and if I tried to make a getaway she managed to nab me before I could shout “freedom at last!” But it was the way it was. This child was perhaps twelve or so, but she also ought to have had someone there, hadn’t she? When I saw her sitting as with purpose after fifteen minutes, I also stayed put. My bench was kitty corner from hers and I had nothing better to do. My days are endless pages unscrolling at their leisure as if meant to be tarried over, full of illuminated wonders as in the Book of Kells. But they do not, anymore. Not since Paul David’s decision.

And so she sat on, as well. She didn’t seem abandoned, exactly. After about fifteen minutes she looked about, as if searching the entire block but not with urgency, not with any alarm. I can’t say if she looked right at me then; I had my book and after noting her sweeping gaze, looked down until I thought it acceptable to look toward her again. She was holding the brown, plush-coated horse up to her, its nose bumping her own, and she kissed its head twice. I did wonder how many times she did that. It appeared to be beloved in that way children adore an inert yet companionable creature, transferring their secrets and powerful fondness to it. Yes, it almost seemed that they were visiting the park together. So I was not that concerned but interested in a sidelong way. My book was worth reading, a collection of poems and essays by someone no one knows of, anymore. It gets taken out once every year for a glad once-over, then is set back among neighbors with their shredded spines and fading covers. The library could use a thorough clean-up, even renovation, I admit, but it isn’t truly worth expense or bother. I’m not going to live forever. Not many borrow from it anymore, either.

This girl, this young lady, I would prefer to say but cannot quite manage, seemed to own that bench. She sat sideways for a bit, legs stretched out and head leaned against the back, horse on her lap. Eyes closed until I imagined she was asleep and I thought, how peaceful a picture that makes when in a flash she sat straight up and looked out over the pond, eyeing it carefully. I casually glanced that way, as well, and saw two couples and a third unattached young man making their separate ways around the park, towards us. The girl–might I call her Miss Emma? I always liked that name but had no use of it since I did not have the pleasure or grief of my own children–sat up in attention. I wondered which of the five she might be waiting for as they moved closer. But they all passed us by, busy talking, the single male intent on deciphering his cell phone content.

No, she leaned toward an invisible thing, peered at–what? I leaned forward, too, then caught myself, sat back with book up once more. I observed her watchfulness from over the top, how could I not? It was an odd puzzle, what she was doing on a park bench on a late fall day, no coat or satchel, no adult, no little friends.

A clump of bushes about twenty feet away shook and out sprang an urchin. It was a he of uncertain provenance. Not that the young man was utterly frayed or unconscionably dirty, but his hair was roughed up and his pants too short and his tennis shoes were wrecked beyond wearability. Alright, not that being disheveled or even dirty is a crime, of course, or even avoidable at times. But still I felt uncertain of his intentions. He moved quickly and with confidence toward her, as if he, too, claimed a seat at that bench, as if it was theirs to occupy and no others.

He punched Emma’s shoulder upon sitting down; she grabbed her horse and whacked him on the head. It took imagination to consider them friends. It seemed they knew each other, though, as their heads came together then apart. I began to read off and on, deciding the girl had been waiting to see this one, a  boy perhaps two or so years her elder. But there was a manner about him that suggested he was more far worldly than she. He had perhaps been out and about on his own more, or had the wiles and underhanded ways for a common pickpocket. Or worse. It began to creep into my mind in a Dickensian way that this was not a laudable association.

I was correct, at least to some degree.

She nudged him as they laughed and he then pulled out from his too-large Army surplus jacket  pocket a misshapen half-empty package of cigarettes. He put two of them between his lips and lit them with a lighter with a sort of élan, as if this were a debonair moment to share with his young love. I winced and put my book down. He then removed one and placed it oh so carefully between her own and she, rather than toss it in laughter or disgust, left it. Inhaled enough that I expected a cough; she frowned. It could not have been something she relished. Or perhaps I was wrong, as the second inhalation then the third seemed easier, perhaps faintly enjoyable to the intrigued and intriguing Miss Emma. Or at least the idea of it.

I could note the promise of greater femininity on the verge of coming forward. An onset of redefinition, a hidden refinement of face, hand and limb that one day would be grown into and then it would be owned. I do have nieces and they surprised me, too. I know this is not how Miss Emma realistically would be described these days, that an insistent boyishness and even an obscured gender seem in vogue for many youth. That is fine but I imagined it that way, nonetheless. I saw her with the artist’s eyes I possess. A kind of forecasting. A wistfulness that became attached to her visage, perhaps.

But I did possess an acute vision, I must state that at least. I have had success with it. Before all that came and went regarding Paul David, and now is in tandem.

That boy had other things to do, I could see it in his abrupt ways, restlessness after they smoked their smokes. He stood, bent toward her for some exchange and walked away, then looked back and tossed her another cigarette. Ran off. She didn’t appear to be disturbed, although she watched him a bit longingly, perhaps wanting to join him as he made the next stops–where? To what ends did he roam? Perhaps–I half-hoped–they had been school mates, though what sort of school I didn’t hazard to guess. We were in a place, a neighborhood, that generally saw children less wayward in appearance and behavior. They were more worn about the edges yet also seemed in possession of themselves. I never displayed that at such an age. Which may have been a blessing if it meant I had to smoke and seek out other unknowns.

I knew what Paul David would have done at once: marched up to that boy, given him a dressing down that he would then take issue with. But Paul David would not be deterred;  he would run him off with his overbearing manner and height–he is only a bit taller than I am but it is the way he stands, as if he never bends his back or lowers his shoulders. He yet is an attorney and aspiring politician of sorts so used to swaying juries and other groupings.

Certainly commanding the home front. We often did not have a meeting of minds, I must be honest, as I am not one, either, to consider my own ideas and thoughts of any lesser report. It was what he first loved about me thirty years ago. What he said drove him to the estate gates and on to Mrs. Derrien, a widow generally well liked if a too-sweet mouse. I must forgive but I suspect her more copious socioeconomic virtues also held magnetic pull.

I said good-bye to my painting studio. It lost its allure. The studio I have rarely entered now that I have more time and lack of invasions from my husband. Ex-husband. Perhaps I also painted to annoy him or remind him of his own lacks. In any case, it has been too long and I felt the need sharply, though it came and went.

That is what I was thinking as I sat and tried to not so obviously watch Miss Emma: that it was time to take up canvas and oils again. I hadn’t had a show in over two years. I needed to get the feel of it again, and find the happiness that had so long eluded me.

And then she rose. Miss Emma’s horse rose with her and they made their way toward me. I felt a tremulous blush coming on so hid my face in my book.

“You’re watching me. You sure are, so don’t deny it.”

I couldn’t fathom such a rude way to approach an older woman so looked up, then at my book. “So you say.”

“I not only say, I declare it, there. And think you must’ve had quite a show. It’s sort of odd to have a stranger keep tabs on a person. But you seem harmless.”

I rearranged my loops of scarf to do something with increasing nervousness. A bold and unmannerly child can nearly do me in.

“I beg your pardon, dear. I was reading by myself awhile when you arrived, then became distracted by your activities and his.”

She glanced at the book page “Poems.” Looked at me again. “Well, okay.” Her horse, snug in her arms, bobbed a bit at me.

“You enjoy them, too?” I managed to smile a little.

“We like to read fantasy, right, Roan?” The horse emphatically nodded then he lay down beside her on my bench. “Do you come here a lot? I saw you three times before.”

This was more than surprising since I had not noticed her before. To be seen and not know it, unnerving.

“You did?”

“Last summer, this fall. Maybe more, can’t remember now. I see a lot of people when I pop over.”

“Why are you here often?”

“I just live right there.” She pointed up and across the boulevard.”I like the p ark and it’s the one place my father allows me to come alone. Sometimes.”

“Ah. Madrone Place. Lovely historical building. I know it well. My best friend lived there for years, then moved to the country.”

A shadow passed over her face. “We live at the top.” She put a hand at an angle to her brow as sunshine flared again. “You can see almost the entire city from there.” She picked up her horse and held it close. “You live nearby, too–Miss…?”

I held out my hand. “I’m Ms. Leonora Addington. And you are?”

The girl hesitated, then took my hand briefly. “Cassie Gershen. My father is George Gershwin.”

I was taken aback. “Whatever do you mean?”

She snorted, giggled a high giggle and then of course I saw the joke. “George Gershen, I see, many must hear it as Gershwin, how funny!”

“Well, he’s a composer, too, but he goes by GT Gershen and the T is for Thomas. So just ‘GT’, usually, George Thomas would be too much, he says.”

It came to mind that Paul David insisted on using his middle name. How it now irked me. The breeze swept about us and her bangs fluttered in the gust. Her eyes fairly sparkled as she smiled. Then she slumped back.

“He wouldn’t be happy if he knew I smoked so now you know his name, just forget it, please. He might even know. He’s at the piano all afternoon if he can be and also likes to look out the window. He spies on me, like you did, only from farther away. I try to stay out of sight; then he complains. I thought you might be a friend of his for a while. I mean, you live near here and seem like the sort he likes– you read a lot, for one thing.”

I tuned to better see her whole affect. It was sincere, perhaps, such disarming eyes and pleasing face composed, yet relaxed. “I do think it unhealthy and risky behavior that you have even tried smoking–at barely twelve? I was well into my twenties when I tried it. Awful taste and choked me.”

“He says just the same, see what I mean? But I’m thirteen–and older than you think.” She squeezed the horse’s puffy middle quite hard, then released it.

“You know where I live, did you say that?”

“I followed you once. Your house is quite large, made of stone and there is a gate at the drive that required a key or something before you went in. I liked it but I liked our nice place much more. Well, I might like our apartment alright.”

I suddenly questioned if this child was at all who she said she was, if her story was anywhere near the truth, and if she came to the park to learn how to steal with her street sidekicks. Her charm was considerable. But she carried about a stuffed horse, for goodness’ sake, and she kept an eye on me and knew my address, she talked too much to strangers. And there was that suspicious looking older boy. Cassie Gershen, as she’d announced herself, seemed perhaps less than a reliable historian. Muddled in one way while teeming with intelligent observations in another.

“Well, now we both know where the other lives. Information that may or may not be useful.” I picked up my book, considered leaving.

“I’d better go.” She hopped off the bench and looked up at her apartment building. “He’ll worry.” She craned her neck to the left, to see around a stand of evergreens. Sighed. “There he is. See? On the balcony?” She pointed. Waved wildly.

I stood, too, and sought the spot. There was indeed a long balcony protected with wrought iron and there was a man now scanning the boulevard, perhaps the park. He could be her father, in vest and light shirt, with darker hair, glasses. He must have seen her then, as he waved back and slipped indoors, satisfied. I wondered what he actually knew of her comings and goings. Not my business, of course, yet I was nearly moved to speak with him that moment.

“You don’t have some sort of dog?” she asked. We started to the street, weaving in between cyclists and joggers.

“A dog? No, I never have had one. I had two calico cats and before those, a beautiful canary. Now I have nothing but several flourishing plants and my own company, and occasional visitors, of course. You?”

“I do have a dog but he’s way too old to play much. My mom left us; we’ve lived in this place a few months.”

“I see. I’m sorry, Cassie.” We walked in an uneven rhythm; she about kept up with me. “Did she also enjoy horses?”

“Oh, yes, of course and…”

Her voice had grown softer; I leaned down to hear her better.

“We all did. I mean we do but…we did own three.”

“Must have been wonderful, dear.”

After we exited the park, she turned right. I turned left.

“Hey, um, thanks for being around. Nearby. I don’t really like Black Jack that much.”

“That shifty young man?”

She studied the little horse’s face, smoothed his coat.” He just hangs out. Hides places. I think he’s homeless, he doesn’t say. I’m not really a smoker. I mean, maybe some day but I just–I said ‘yes’ once… so now…he’s okay but I don’t know. Maybe not.”

I started to lift my hand to her–to what? smooth her flyaway hair? pat her shoulder?–then, confused by my disregard of polite remove, quickly dropped it. Stood taller with book before my chest.

“Good, you can quit before you get habituated to it. Right now, perhaps. Then your father might never know and you won’t have to pretend you like it. Next time, just tell that slippery Black Jack you aren’t available for more antics. Go home if necessary. Call your father. Or come to where I am, if I’m about. You must stay safe, my dear.”

She narrowed her eyes at me but not angrily or worriedly. Pondering things as she shifted from one foot to the other and held Roan in position atop her shoulder. I waited. Her features softened in relief. She gave me a real smile and then I could see her as a young woman, strong, vibrant and true. Fearless again.

“See you around, Ms. Addington.”

“Good day to you, too, Miss Cassie.”

When I got to the next corner and waited to cross, I looked up and over, where the Gershen balcony was. She was there alone, and reached out over the fancy ironwork as she caught sight of me. I waved both hands at her and she gave a fast flap back at me. I hurried off to my house, feeling lighter. To my studio, which longed for me I was certain, and I, it.

 

Whatever the Weather

American Robin 12-6-10 G

The robins wouldn’t stop their racket. I rolled over and pulled the coverlet over my head, pulled my pillow closer over my ears, and longed for winter’s snow-insulated quietude. The breeze snaking its way through the partly opened window was heavy with the scent of earth awakening, richly warmed. Spring had come again and I was not ready at all for its insistent, brilliant beauty. The exquisite unfolding of the new season felt painful. I dreaded its arrival, as I knew once more I would be doing battle with my emotions. Perhaps my life.

That scene arose from fifty years ago as I moseyed around my neighborhood. I was taking photographs, a happy outdoor activity, when the rain started. It had swept in from the east  but it wasn’t a concern. My waterproof parka accompanies me six months of the year in Oregon. I am a rain aficionado, one who counts its varieties of music as some of the best. And if my jeans get wet, they will dry. So I kept snapping away, noting three sets of boys playing basketball in their respective streets despite the downpour. They weren’t the least bit fazed, either.

More blossoms had begun showing off in January; there are some flowers year ’round but not so many fancy ones. The temperatures rose in the past month, and now have held steady in the fifties or higher. As I framed camellias, daffodils, tulips and their jewel-toned neighbors for pictures it struck me that I hadn’t hidden from spring in a few decades. The birds sing just as loudly here and now and I fling open windows wider to see what they’re up to. In March or April the sun, like a forgotten love returning home, brings excellent tidings. I line up my sandals. dig up t-shirts and turn off the heat for good.

DSCN2733

It has been decades since weather or season has really disappointed, daunted or weighed me down. I found my place and it fits me like custom-made attire. I know some folks move to the Northwest in sparkling blue summer and are dismayed when the rains arrive, but it wasn’t so for me. I first explored this corner of the country when I was eighteen, living with an older sister in a cabin on a lake just outside Seattle for a year. The moment I stepped off the plane it was as if my soul had found its earthly dwelling place so deeply did it speak to me. I was liberated. The topography and geology of mountains, ocean, lakes and rivers; the vast temperate rain forests; the active and inactive volcanoes that mightily redesigned landscape; the fecund valleys, high desert and seashore; greenness like a magic balm with its scintillating atmosphere…Well, it is easy for me to rhapsodize. The Northwest is where I returned twenty years later (and had longed for it all that time). I have stayed over twenty more, will die here if I have a say in it.

Mother's Day 2010 005

For some of us, there is a land that moves us, and a time that is right to find it. As a youth I imagined the clouds on mid-Michigan’s horizon were actually mountains and I instantly felt better. Any time my family and I traveled into higher elevations with trees and sky galore my pulse quickened. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the four seasons of the Midwest. Our lives were dictated by nature’s ways in autumn, winter, spring and summer. And I was attuned to them in some primeval way.

But spring. It was not welcome despite everyone else rejoicing when the last of dirty and ice snow melted in the gutters, when the lemon-yellow forsythia bloomed and robins again pecked the earth for fat worms. For me, it brought an up-welling of anxiety, lethargy, moodiness; being visited by loneliness and the specter of depression. Something inside me wanted to escape, to cry out, abandon sweetness and beauty, to seclude myself where no one could find me. But I went to school, I rode my bike, laughed and talked to friends, participated in after-school activities, studied the arts and academics–all the things a teenager might enjoy.

But I also looked over my shoulder fall day, even when I knew there was nothing to be concerned about. When I rode my biked over to a friend’s house, I rode hard to arrive faster. When I went to the little corner store where we all bought candy and soft drinks, I examined each car as it drove closer, then passed by. A walk in the woods alone meant taking a risk; fascination with nature was overshadowed by amorphous fears. And when back home I often retreated to my room and clung to all that kept me afloat–writing and reading, music, art, prayers memorized and created, fervent dreams of a safer, happier future.

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There was a reason for all this. In warmer weather I felt  the most vulnerable. For too long as a child I had been doggedly shadowed, picked up from the street, stolen from safety and comfort by a man who was my abuser until he finally was sent far away, never to return. But it didn’t matter that the past was gone. I lived a kind of double life as victims often do, a busy, engaged teen in public, withdrawn in private. Post traumatic stress disorder lingers and can turn poisonous without healing help. Thus, from spring until autumn I was on guard, unable to rest well, a long arm’s length away from sharing what I imagined could be a carefree life with others. The family doctor prescribed sedatives to relieve insomnia and nightmares, to soothe my daily life. And so, addiction’s subterranean lifestyle began. It did ultimately end–when I was ready and found the keys I needed. And as health and wholeness returned, spring came back to me in all its glory, like a creature who had blinders removed. It was surprising, a bonus.

This is not a sad story nor a tale of regret. I share a life that has turned and turned, has witnessed tiny and huge miracles, a life that has spun incandescence from the taut nerves of a rocky childhood and youth. I want others who may suffer from burdens to be assured there is relief, there is even the gift of laughter waiting. There is hope today in my living and being because there never was not hope. God still walks with me because God never detoured. I eagerly open my eyes to be shown Divinity in the most ordinary moments and within the lost and suffering. I am mesmerized by the solutions and creations of countless hands and hearts. And I step out each day without the old hyper-vigilance. I feel strong and sturdy within and without.

If you find spring temperamental or even a menace with its new beginnings, its softness and romance, its grace and charms like darkness upon your shoulders, hold on. We can make our internal weather fair or stormy. And times do change. Search for a way out of your cavern. Call out for a hand. Do not let the beauty of this world give way to the pressure of its pain. Find a place to start anew, to call your little spot of paradise. Make your country among the bravely living. Discover the constancy of wonderment as you lay down your fear. Let God’s love be your ballast and you will be steady throughout all seasons of your living.

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The Perils of Perfectionism

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At the gym, the substitute Zumba teacher called out new steps with a determined cheerfulness. From the back of the room I peered through three lines of shuffling, swaying bodies to catch sight of the moves. I was not thrilled with this teacher; she tended to stray just enough from the music’s rhythm to make it hard to watch her, harder to follow. My neurological and emotional instincts were to move right with the beat, not miss it by even a smidgen. I knew the others also had complaints yet they remained attentive to directives. They looked good from where I was moving along a bit haphazardly. I felt frustration mount until I veered off the proscribed steps, modifying a couple, throwing in a spin. Think I will slide my feet instead of bouncing, swing hips side to side instead of back and forth–more natural to me and becoming. Then I came to a standstill as I tried to figure out where everyone else was.

Irritation with the class had given way to a need to correct the choreography, to hit my beat, not the teacher’s. I was right, after all. I loved to dance and embraced Zumba’s vigorous fun. (A goal of mine is to be in good enough condition by summer to take a yearned-for flamenco class at a dance studio.) But now the old sass I’ve had to often quell all my life took over until the urge to break out and dance my own rhythmically attuned dance was pushing me toward….well, I closed my eyes a moment. Imagined the room transformed by low lights and live music, people dancing with lovely abandon. I was jolted from that brief reverie when I jostled a man next to me. He was keeping close to the metered measure but also all instructions. And no stumbling. He knew the value of sticking with the group, staying in line. I took a water break, stifling the desire to walk out as a few already had.

I’ve begun to count on Zumba to help keep my heart in good working order. It’s a prescription, part of a broader regimen my cardiologist and I agreed upon nearly twelve years ago: if I maintain my health with daily cardio and practice diligent self-care, I get a chance to live a few more years. Maybe many more. So what was my complaint? Why couldn’t I just do what was expected this time? Why did I think I could diverge from the norm when the benefit in this case came from following along? I felt I was different. I needed things to be exacting, correct as well as fun and that led to ignoring the exercise mandates Zumba provided.

The truth was, I was not doing so well; was the beat off or was I? Maybe I thought I deserved more for the money and time. But I forgot my real intentions. Did I think I was on Broadway? Who had made me soloist, leader or critic? 

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I learned early that it was important to do things the best I possibly could. The American way, at least where I lived. Mediocrity was never good enough, was, in fact, equal to failure. “Excellence Above All” was a favored motto as a youth. My school notebooks were covered with those words, as though noting it multiple times would make me impervious to the possibility of imperfection in all I undertook. It succeeded in that I worked hard and was confident much of the time. Feedback regarding various endeavors assured me I had some intelligence and talent. But I was on more deeply intimate terms with my flaws and weaknesses. As a young cellist and vocalist I despaired some days of ever completing a certain measure of music just as my teacher or my musician father required. Demanded. I worried I would not get the awards I strove to achieve. Everything I attempted had to fulfill a goal set highest. It meant everything to excel. It meant I was good enough. Acceptable. Pleasing to others. If I didn’t think I could manage to achieve something I didn’t try or gave up quickly. 

Like sewing, for example, a talent at which my mother excelled. Her seamstress work was actually art; I wore her often custom-designed clothing proudly. But my seeming lack of feel for the mechanics of creating with fabric only brought anxiety. My mother sat beside me correcting errors, her voice soft but insistent that I try, try again. I couldn’t get beyond tangled thread, a crooked seam or hem to resurrect the vision of a beautifully completed dress. I just saw failures. So I gave up, except for a few things years later made of necessity–simplest shorts for my children, basic curtains. I sometimes had ideas for a sewing project to create–but only if like my mother. Years ago my children bought me a sewing machine for Christmas. When I unwrapped it I burst into tears–because they knew I yet dreamed of being good at it and were cheering me on. But also because the very sight of that machine daunted me. It had defeated me. Could I even bother to try again when it brought mediocrity at best, poor results at worst?

Sewing is one thing. But a desire for perfection as a human being is another. I had that urge, as well. I suspected if I tried hard enough spiritual prowess would be attainable and once that occurred, I would be all set. Foolish mistakes would not happen. Tragedy would be averted. I would be the sort of girl who the sort of guy I wholly desired would instantly be mine, utterly beloved. I would set to my tasks and find them far easier. Since I had a powerful faith in Jesus’ uncommon wisdom, it seemed reasonable. It was clear that such Divine Love deserved full attention to the expectations: kindness, patience, courage, tolerance, compassion, forgiveness, fortitude and so on. But lo and behold, I was not able to succeed for long before my attitude would slip a little here and there. My personality and will seemed governed by moods, impulses and defects–those aggravations that would not help bring me anywhere close to a state semi-holiness. How did the great sainted souls of eons manage it? Trying and praying very hard weren’t nearly enough to get a good foothold on spiritual bliss. I had to content myself with random mystical moments and a sustaining belief.

So I despaired while growing up, youth being a time of great hope and misery. Despite medals and awards and honor roll and opportunities to do what I loved–the arts, athletics, academics–I felt the terror of failure like a gaping chasm between me and my dreams of fulfillment. I worried about missing the other side when I lept. If I could not be who I believed I should and wanted to be, then why even bother? There were things I ceased doing because of this. Like music. It was more than perfectionism that waylaid me but the joy of it was lost somewhere on a stage. Even, or maybe because, the applause came–but also could evaporate. When I lost my edge for many reasons, grief followed. I thought the price paid might kill me but it was that need to be perfect that threatened my well being. Despite giving it up, music has breathed its magic into every day in countless ways–even in a Zumba class. Even as I whistle, hum or sing along to a CD.

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It took some years to realize I was not very unique. I would have both triumphs and wipe-outs, just like everyone else. I have what I was born with to help or hinder me, but I’ve also had chances to garner insight, knowledge, self-acceptance and mercy. Mercy is key here. For others, yes. But when we live without consistent kindness towards ourselves we court disaster. Holding ourselves responsible for our actions is crucial. Perseveration regarding our mistakes, not even necessary. That creates an irascible, angry and fatigued person. Or a self-righteous one. Another side effect is that nothing anyone else does is good enough, either. And if we get to the point where we are tough as nails and no one should get in our way of achieving, we’ve become blind to the freedom of self-forgiveness. God already embraces and carries us when we are fighting for a better life but running in circles. Only for love. We can help by waking up and slowing down. By being gratefully equalized by life. Being perfect has nothing to do with it.

Perfectionism determines that there is no worthiness save for those who achieve one hundred percent, every single time. How does this help me, and you, to experience the diversity and richness of being on earth, to appreciate the manifold wonders of ordinary life? What is exquisite is whatever, whoever dwells and moves in love. What is acceptable is becoming one’s true self. What is perfection is that we are necessary components of the cosmos, a connecting thread of the universal symmetry. That we overlap one another in spirit on earth and beyond. All we have to do is be willing to give all we can, be ready to do what we can barely imagine. Not perfectly but with commitment.

I stayed for the full Zumba class. I fell into place, then changed up steps a couple times, discreetly. I joined in the fun. And the fact is humility has to teach me things the days my health is not feeling like a win. I practice acceptance, but still give things a shot. It’s also my nature to experiment with rules. Taking a small risk is more fun than doing things the same way every time, perfectly. What matters most is jumping–or walking–into life’s bold yet tender core, right where I belong. This way I honor myself; it helps me honor you. There is no failure in this, only freedom. This, I can do.

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