Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: Roses, Perhaps, in the Morning

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Photo taken in the International Rose Test Gardens by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

(Note: I am inspired this week by roses and their magic. In Portland, we celebrate our annual Rose Festival; it has begun this week. The  Pacific Northwest is entirely hospitable for rose growing and we have the honor of having the International Rose Test Gardens here. The Peace rose is my favorite of all, the name, its beauty and intoxicating fragrance. The story is entirely made up, of course. Enjoy!)

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

“Let me tell you about the back yard. Something strange is happening there.” Erika held her breath, considering how to begin. But too long a breath, it seemed. She coughed lightly with hand over the receiver.

“You need to get back out there, Mom, shape things up. It’s not like you’re bedridden now, and it used to be your favorite place. My yard is about four by four, made of that terrible, uneven pockmarked brick but you know it works for me. If only there was a fountain, that would make all the difference in reducing traffic noise at night. And give it some charm. My one chair and a fountain. Did I tell you I got really expensive ear plugs? They fit so well I feel deaf with them on. But I can still hear people or raccoons rummaging in garbage and the sirens, let me tell you.”

“It keeps changing. I mean, there is always something I didn’t notice before.”

“The seasons do that, Mom, really, you need to get out more in general, enough of this malaise following that vicious bronchial infection. It lingered so long your body has forgotten how to function on a reasonable basis, you know? Maybe your thinking…Anyway, I checked online for fountains and just need to see them in person, maybe Home Depot?”

Erika could see her daughter sucking on the end of a pen as she corrected students’ papers, one eye on a pot of simmering homemade soup. Multi-tasking, made possible by ear buds used to talk on her phone. Jen would use her feet, too, if she could, to accomplish more. Probably had. She used to clean up clothes from the floor as she sat on her tattered fuchsia armchair while leisurely reading sci fi, lifting items deftly with clenched toes and tossing it onto her bed.

“I woke up to something yellow out there today. Northeast corner. I thought it was gold sunlight flashing through leaves but it wasn’t.”

“Maybe it was Mrs. Rosselini’s canary that got loose.” She emitted her snorting laugh. That bird took off in 1999, when Jen was a kid. Everyone suspected it was Mr. Rossellini, who couldn’t bear its ridiculously cheerful singing as it only sang for his wife. For years people thought they had spotted that bird; they suspected he’d forced its freedom.

“Jen, don’t be ridiculous–that was so long ago. But it wasn’t any bird. It was a pot of lilies.”

“From last year, then? They grow from bulbs, right?”

“Calla lilies, they’re mini calla lilies. Mine are the other sort. Tiger lilies. They’re now opening up, too, it seems.”

“So are you getting out there to check on things, cut the grass, trim the bushes and so on? Or getting Joe Hanes to come by with his push mower? Thank goodness I don’t have to worry about that, here. But I am thinking of getting a community garden plot. You should see those, the things people plant and successfully raise! Urban farming, a miracle. I could eat very well from a smallish garden.”

“Yes. Well, no, I’m not out there much and yes, Joe cut the grass last week-end.” Erika gazed across a shadow-splashed street as the creaky porch swing swung to and fro. It made a nice breeze and lifted the hair off her neck. The neighbors’ yards were bountiful with flowers, empty of people. Lights were turning on, soft blurs of life moving between window frames. She closed her eyes and hummed.

Jen found the humming alarming, It was what her mother did when she was spacing out, feeling low. She had been sick so long there was worry that she’d tip into critical illness but it was thankfully only four days in hospital, then back home. Still, four months that upended her usually active life. And Jen lived four hours away, only got to visit three times.

“Mom? The yard–you were saying?”

“Oh, nothing, Jen. The calla lilies have good company in that jungley mess. I’ll let you go now, but try lettuce and a tomato plant to start.”

“Fresh tomatoes…! I do have a ton to get done tonight, and tomorrow and tomorrow…” She snorted again. So much to do, so much life to live, a surfeit of activities and goals–how could she complain? She would not, not to her mother, at least not yet. “You’ll call if you need me to come see you sooner than end of the month?”

“I’m fine.”

“Okay, good, such a relief. Love you.”

“Love back. Good night, dear.”

Erika left the front porch, walked around to the back yard’s fence with gate and unlatched it. In the corner sat a large green pot of sunny mini calla lilies. Gingerly, as if her footsteps might jar the earth and disturb the plants, she moved closer, then knelt to look them over. She pinched a stem to assure herself they weren’t fake. The blossoms glowed in the opalescent air of a mild June evening. She had no idea how they got there. She felt her yard was not quite her own this year, that her neglect had taken it out of her hands. It unnerved her enough that she sneezed three times then coughed, so left the outdoors to its own devices. Whatever those might be.

*******

“Fran? Sorry to bother you but I know you’re usually awake late…”

“Erika, that you? It’s 2 a.m. Insomnia again?” She patted her mound of unruly hair as if they were face- to-face. She could now be seen without warning–all this technology.

“I heard something outdoors.”

“Did you call Joe and ask him to bring his hatchet? Probably nasty raccoons again, he’ll make good work of them.”

“What a friend–you are too awful! I don’t want to disturb him this time of night. I went downstairs with both big flashlights. Looked out the back door. Nothing. I checked all the locks again. But it gave me a chill. I should make some chamomile tea.”

“Naw, get your book and start reading, You’ll be asleep before you know it.”

“That doesn’t work for you.”

“Nothing works for me but the serious will to sleep four fair hours or so a night.” She yawned. “The callas still shining out there?”

“Where else would they be? Sneaking off to the next yard?”

“You never know.” Fran reached for her tablet, switched it on. “We could watch a movie together. What your pick?”

Erika fell silent and leaned back on two pillows. Listened hard. Nothing to speak of but the chimes swaying in a gust, sonorous tones soothing to her tense mind. She was too tired to keep this up so hoped the raccoons visited Fran or Joe a couple nights for a change. She hummed a corny love song to calm herself.

“Erika? You humming?”

“I don’t want to watch a movie until 3, but thanks for your friendly offer. I want to sleep a deep blessed sleep. I want my back yard to stay the same until I get back to it.”

“Those calla lilies–I bet someone wanted to get rid of them so dumped the pot at your place when you were out. Say, Carol Whitaker? She usually puts her puny plants at the curb. She could start an entire nursery with her rejects.”

“A whole sad nursery of rejects, yeah. Poor Carol, she tries hard but her thumb is nowhere near green.”

They both laughed and Erika felt relief at last. She also felt Fran winding up, ready to talk gardening tall tales and she just wasn’t up for it. She didn’t even want to think about her garden yet. Couldn’t it just rest this year? Like her, take a leisurely summer break? She still felt so weary.

“It’s so good to hear you in more fighting form again, Erika. Let’s get back to our hikes this summer.”

“Well, wait–in time. Right now I want to sleep off the remains of this day. That worthless conversation with Jen.”

“Oh, Jen and her intentions. She’s got a good life.  But keep your phone bedside–you can call any time.”

“I know, my friend. Happy movie watching.”

She turned out a bedside lamp with the crafty pressed-flower shade. Lowered her eyelids. She just hadn’t recovered fully, her mind was jumpy after feeling so powerless, felled by illness last part of winter and into the spring. Turning over, she pulled the white coverlet up to her ears, then up to her forehead and dropped off into an abyss of fretful dreaming.

******

She shaded her eyes against sudden revelation of sunshine. When she’d risen, the air was moist and thickened with fogginess. Two mugs of strong coffee later, her mind and the sky were much clearer. Her tricky neck ached and she rubbed it with both hands, then stepped onto the stoop and descended steps into the back yard.

Then stumbled backwards.

There was a small palm tree in the northwest corner, its big spiky leaves greeting her, the fuzzy trunk straight and strong in a huge clay pot. Astonished but curious, she went to it. She had never observed a palm up close; how funny yet attractive it was. How out of place in this Northwest habitat. Unasked for and alien on her property. And how did this get to be in her yard? Who entered without her permission?

That was what she had heard last night. She felt her heart drum hard as she walked about the grassy perimeter. The latch on the gate, that was the little sound. Yet no one and nothing was out of the norm when she’d swept the brilliant beam of her flashlight over each bush, tree and plant the night before. There was without a doubt an intruder hiding from her, that was the issue beyond an undesired palm and surprise calla lilies. She’d install a sturdier lock on the gate today; she’d always left it open but no more. She’d have motion detection lights installed on the house. All these years living in an established neighborhood that was unremarkable, just friendly and quiet. Now this–this felonious trespasser!

Had he or she taken anything? She canvassed the area carefully, found nothing altered. Just a palm tree and lilies. What next? She ate a rushed breakfast and dressed and was almost out the door when Fran called.

“I thought I’d better check on you, make sure you are still with us! You sure were nervous last night.”

“Well, I was left another unwanted gift and I’ve had enough.”

“What? Something good, I hope.”

“Fran, it isn’t funny. I got up this morning hoping for the best and there it was– a damned useless palm tree!–a real California palm! Well, I think.”

Fran chortled as she lounged in a fluffy robe on her porch around the corner. She could just picture Erika–stern-faced, brushed out and dressed well as always, confronting that errant palm tree.

Erika held the phone away from her ear, looked at it with serious impatience. When Fran caught her breath, she said, “I have to see it.”

“I’m putting it out n the street. A firm message to the intruder.”

“No–they cost too much to set it out like ole Carol does! Just wait in that. I’ll take it if you have to dump it. But why not just see what’s next? I mean, this is not plant thief, Erika, it’s a plant giver! Someone who maybe even cares!”

But Erika took off for the hardware store to get a good lock for her gate and to inquire about flood light systems. She was going to catch this planter person, an invisible trespasser, and get things back to normal.

******

“A palm tree? That’s wild, Mom–though they do make hardy ones that do alright here. Why not plant it?”

“Oh my gosh, you, too. I don’t want the stupid tree. I don’t want the flowers. They aren’t mine, they don’t belong and someone is sneaking into my yard! Doesn’t that worry you a little?”

“I think it’s kind of cool. I might even defend the culprit. How exciting, a bona fide mystery!” She paused. “Mom? If you’re scared, call Joe next door tonight. He’s getting a bit decrepit but he’s a good neighbor, he’ll give you back up.”

Erika moaned–Joe could barely push the mower around– and mumbled a hasty goodbye. She found her gardening gloves and visor and bucket of gardening tools, then set to work in the yard. It was high time. She’d get weeding done and see what she had to do to salvage her once-beloved refuge. And dump those calla lilies– and drag that crazy palm tree to the curb. If she could move it after all the weeding, and if she had breath left that didn’t trigger new wheezing.

******

It was 1:07 when Erika’s eyes flew open. She knew she was not alone when the back of her sore neck tingled and hairs on her forearms stood up. She picked up the heavy duty flashlight and her cell phone. She did not switch on the light yet but peered between the muslin curtains of her window into the quasi-dark yard. A three-quarter moon cast a cool, clean glow across thick grass and huddled bushes.

The gate was closed but that meant nothing to her. Erika stilled herself, waited. Instinct dictated  she not barge out the back door but listen, feel things out, see what moved, what else was different. She wet her dry lips and tried to tune in. There it was. A rustle of a bush, ever so slight but where exactly? Were those footsteps?–were they of  man or beast?

She yanked on jeans and a hoodie, opened her bedroom door, slunk to the kitchen where the back door led to the stoop. She studied her faintly lit phone, with shaking fingers found the keypad, ready to call 911 when there came another sound, soft but unmistakable, a guttural clearing of a throat. She pressed back against the door, braced her feet. And froze.

She could hear the soft grating sound of metal against dirt and stones, like someone was digging up a part of her yard. That did it. She unbolted the door, rushed out, the torch beam bouncing its glare off every nook and cranny. And then off a face, then hands held high and in one of those hands was what appeared to be a rose bush. Pink and yellow roses. The person stood next to a small hole in the ground.

‘Stop where you are, you are illegally on my property and I’m calling the police right now!”

“Wait, wait! It’s me, Erika!”

“Who would even dare do all this? Speak your name now or I’m dialing the cops!”

“It’s just Antony, your old neighbor! Antony Rossellini!”

He was beating his chest now with smudgy hands, advancing toward her, dark eyes wide and desperate. She wanted to believe he was telling the truth. It was Antony, alright, in worn overalls that hung from his wiry frame over a dark t-shirt, with his Padres baseball cap and rubber flip flops slapping against his heels with eqch tentative step forward.

“Antony! What on earth…?” She aimed the beam downward so they could both see better as they met up in the middle of her yard. The one he was not supposed to be in whatever and not in the middle of night.

He wiped his perspiring forehead with a dirty palm and it left a streak so he took off his cap and used a forearm to wipe again, then smashed down his thick, damp salt and pepper hair. grooming in the midst of madness. Trying to present himself as less than trespasser, more as foolish but harmless neighbor.

“I don’t rightly know how to explain, Erika. I was just seized by this idea of doing something anonymously…of making things nicer. I sure didn’t meant to upset you…”

He shrank away from her with embarrassment, hung his head with hat in hand, and went mute.

Erika considered this man she had known for about twenty years now. He was older or perhaps only seemed older in his manner, and had been married to a woman who shuffled about as though she carried a hard burden, which she had, being a refugee from Cambodia. Then she died of cancer not long after Erika’s divorce, when Jen was fifteen. he lived down the street from her house; they had chatted in passing, during summer block parties. But when she had died Erika taken him fresh bread and her homemade strawberry jam. Had sat awhile with him. He’d seemed quite nice even after that but a man to himself, working long hours as a manufacturing manager. Keeping a tidy yard with its blossoms bright and abundant.

“Do you want to come in for a cup of tea?” she asked.

“They’re Peace roses, Erika! My favorite. Tea? Well. Sure.”

******

The two mugs steamed so they blew on it, sitting across from each other at the breakfast nook. She realized she had never had him in her house before. Very few neighbors, come to think of it. Now that she worked part time–not her own choice, a downsizing of sorts at the health clinic–she had become more aware of her neighbors comings and goings. But she rarely saw him out and about and heard little about him. Nothing had likely changed for years. Or she imagined.

“I wanted to do something nice for you,” he repeated. “I knew you had been ill–we all learn of each others’ crises sooner or later on this block– and I know you love yard work. I got this idea of a surprise. I didn’t want any thanks or refusal, not anything.” He toyed with his cap, his voice nearly a whisper. “You were so kind when Channay died. Not just your great bread and jam but your hug and words.”

“My words?”

“You just said: ‘I’m sorry. You were good to her; she will always love you. I’ll say a prayer for you.'” He looked at her with far-off eyes. “I believed you; it felt genuine for a change. You know some people just do things out of courtesy. So it sure helped me.”

“So little to do, really, Antony.”

She recalled sitting with him, making a small pot of coffee in his overloaded, messy kitchen, cutting bread for him and spreading a piece with jam. He had left it on the plate but sipped the coffee while she did hers. They had talked about nothing much, winter rains, their yards flooding, when Channay’s service was to be, her nearly non-existent family–long ago murdered by Pol Pot’s regime. They had just sat and listened to the storm beat upon the roof, the wind rattling branches like bones. He lit an amber candle, saying it reminded him of her. After a half hour or more she had left him to himself, and much later they chatted amiably now and then. She had wondered, though, how he had managed afterwards. If the smile given her way was mere civility as he’d said if others or if he did feel happier again. If he maybe felt friendly towards her. But time was packed with pressures and needs and years passed.

“No, it’s never too little to be considerate. And I never got over to see if I could help out when I knew you were so ill. So, one day a couple weeks ago I thought how you love your yard and garden. I decided to just add a couple new plants–for variety, I guess. But I didn’t want any thanks or issues, you know, I didn’t want you to think…anyway, it was impulsive of me, I know that. Foolish!”

Erika sighed, took a drink as did he. “Impulsive, yes. Unusual, I would say! But not really foolish. I think it’s good of you to think of cheering me up, of helping me out. In fact, I could really use someone to help me weed and plant anew… I am way behind.”

His black and white eyebrows lifted and his eyes sparked with hope. “Easy deal. To make up for my errors.”

She lifted her mug to his. “How about to starting a proper friendship?”

He clinked his mug against hers. They shared a smile, relaxed, congenial.

“I guess I should go, though. It’s late.”

“It is. Hey, thanks for those roses…”

“I’ll come back, alright? Properly plant the bush tomorrow evening if you’d like.”

“Please come to the front door this time, and before so late.”

He gave a quiet laugh that was almost a sigh of relief, waved good bye at the door. Erika locked it behind him, then laid her hand  on it a moment.

******

Jen called on her lunch hour.

“Mom, did your intruder leave anything new?”

“Not exactly, a few tracks in the dirt and palm and lilies remain. We’ll see what happens from here on out.”

“Well, that’s it? All the fun has ended just like that? Rather sad.”

“Yes, I guess. What are you up to, dear?”

Erika called Fran after she lay awake well past 1:00, thinking of pros and cons to beginning a friendship with an older man, a widower who loved gardens but had also gate-crashed her life. Maybe in the best possible way.

“Are you waiting for more shenanigans?”

“You could say that.”

“Ah. Wait, what do you mean, Erika? Out with it.”

“It was Antony.”

“Antony Rossellini? He left the lilies and palm? Oh, my. What is that about, do you think?”

“Not sure. Guess I’ll find out. He said he had a kindly impulse…”

“Huh! Kind of weird, but downright intriguing.”

Erika checked beyond the open window after she hung up. She looked for a sign of something but there was none she could find so she lay down, rolled over, resigned to a return to normal and stared hard at her blank blue wall. There was a swell of silence in her house, waves of it, and she had begun to drown in it the past winter. Sickness makes some things more obvious. It stripped things down to the truth. She felt cleaner and edged toward freedom even now, slowly resurrecting a more goodly life. But she occupied these roomy spaces that were most often constrained by daily continuity and predictability. Time shaped by common tasks and expected comforts– and a forgetting of the extraordinary. As she watched shadows knit themselves along tiny cracks and in corners, she became drowsy, let herself give in to rest but she w wondered over what her life might become–and what was too late to search for and find.

Then from a distance she heard the metallic jostling, a small rustling of leaves or pant legs, perhaps the sound of the latch being jimmied and a man stealing across her yard. She pressed eyelids tightly closed, hugged herself: Peace roses, perhaps, come the morning.

 

 

What I Left and Some of What I’ve Found So Far

11/12: The Professional: last tense days. Note tired eyes, forced, gritted-teeth smile
Writer-Grandmother having a ball with grandkids post-working life
Writer-Grandmother: fun with grandkids, 2 years post-work, when we went strawberry picking

There are at least a few hot-button reasons to feel guilty and worried. To wonder who on earth I think I am to take such a relaxed view of time and money, as well as heady concepts like success, obligation and the impact of even one human life. Some might suspect the cavalier attitude will bring me to ruin. They could be right. Am I somehow above such sweat and commerce, that bourgeois notion that money equals security, even contentment? Let’s face it, it’s more to the point that I am no longer a youthful dynamo dying to shine like a mega floodlight–so the pressure is off, right?

Except I was given pause by the over-sixty cashier yesterday, new to the store. He was congenial, appeared to be above average aptitude, and healthy-looking. I’d imagine he was a suit and wingtip guy at one point. Or a crunchy-granola, forward-thinking  professor. And as I paid for my too-expensive groceries, I wanted to ask: “What are you doing here? Aren’t you retired yet?” If I had paused one more second, I may have crossed the line as I can be that curious.

Then I went home and wondered how I ended up retired in my own early sixties. This is a big issue with “Boomers”–more and more are working longer and longer. Yet I manage to not feel very disturbed about not being part of the club. Okay, I must be honest–nights tossing and turning when contemplating variable savings and whip lashed investments? Sure. I start to consider how to find and buy a smaller, creaky recreational vehicle that might work for long term housing. I obsess, from time to time, over a few debts not yet paid in full and up my payments three-fold. And I hold onto leather footwear and other good basics “just in case” I cannot buy more ever again. And all this despite my spouse still working full-time, at the likely pinnacle of his career. He loves his chosen field, though long hours and travelling are more draining as the years pass. When he recently had health issues that involved hospitalization, I panicked on a few levels–one being financial. Thought: Dear God, I really do need to get another job, guide me on this one! Just in case. The urgency passed, apparently. He got better. I am not rushing out the door, not even to some job that is from ten-to-two, three days a week.

I have not worked for a paycheck for about three and a half years. He hasn’t asked me to. In fact, when I bring it up–that  there must be something, I might even make a pleasant greeter at the grocery– he shushes me. He says he’s glad I’m finally at home, writing daily as I always pined to do, taking care of numerous mundane and difficult tasks. It’s not that we couldn’t well use that extra income. We have significant and fluctuating needs at times and certainly those “wants” like all couples. We just manage alright without it. And that is good enough for now.

We live right on the edge of a wealthy enclave. I see many sleek, steel-grey-to-white-coiffed persons who haven’t stopped working. I cannot imagine why they would not. They slide into their Tesla/Jaguar/BMW or vintage Volvos every day and hit the road with brain primed with espresso, on go. I walk by these lovely houses every day, the ones such hard work have garnered, and wonder why more aren’t sitting on front porches or messing around with roses and weeds. It’s true many have gardeners. But aren’t they going to leave extra time so they can cover less agenda, more wishes? Not only live adventures in the Swiss Alps or moseying about in St. Bart’s or Reykjavik. I mean, just hanging out at home alone, or with friends and relatives. But it is said the more you have, the more you spend. Perhaps, also, the more you believe is ever needed.  The competitive, heady business of acquisition cannot be done with, I suppose. But their material life is not mine. I admire their gardens and porches yet, too, our balcony holds its own charm with chairs and tables and nineteen pots of colorful flowers and pleasant views of trees, neighboring houses and active city streets beyond.

Still, a wraparound porch with landscaped yard would be a fine sit for contemplation. And I am not one to just sit. I apparently get a few things done stealthily. What on earth do I do all day now that I retired, another builder dweller asks. She never hears our TV –her constant companion– but does faintly hear classical music and maybe…jazz? I do seem to be move about, though. I ask if I am noisy but she shakes her head with a smile, says “Have a good day”, closes her door.

I tried it this week, doing nothing much the last couple of days–nothing that one would note as an accomplishment, even a small one. I have my trusty Moleskin Journal where I plan the upcoming week. Most days are packed just enough with writing, daily walks and other exercise, appointments, meeting up with family for one thing or another, household business and errands. You will notice I don’t mention getting together with my friends; they are among those who yet work forty hours a week. I feel intrusive and guilty when I call them during the week. They are bone-tired while I am bubbling over, wanting to catch up, make plans.

But for a couple of days, I more often sat and read. A lot. I am (we both are) a bibliophile–books line most walls where there isn’t furniture– and subscribe to at least a dozen magazines and journals so there is a plethora of reading material. I tend to read a few pages at a time, between laundry loads or waiting at appointments, while boiling water for iced tea. Usually before sleep. So I read long, without checking the clock, caught up on magazines so that I am now about done with June and July issues. Started a new mystery and a nonfiction book, read long enough to abandon the first and continue the second.

I also watched several episodes on Netflix of a Canadian series I love, “Heartland.” (My neighbor will be glad to hear of that–but it was late at night in bed.) I walked longer than usual, sometimes twice a day. I took more pictures during my walks. I rearranged the pots on the balcony, plucked dead blossoms. And I got up a few times after bedtime to revise things I had written, including the last post, as the errors and new ideas haunt me until I commit to them. That is a certain kind of work, I suppose, but it is overall pleasant effort put forth.

This all felt luxurious to me, perhaps a little wasteful of time. But the most fun and absolute least regretted (not one minute) was time with two of our five grandchildren. We went to city center for an outing yesterday.

First I took Avery (14) and Asher (10) out to lunch. The first place we had chosen was very crowded but Avery spotted a pizza place. The mini pizzas were perfect size, baked in a big wood fired oven, crispy and tasty. Then we headed to our main destination: a put-put golf venue. However, on the way Asher saw the huge glass Apple store and requested we go check out various technological enticements. He and Avery tried many as I watched over their shoulders, duly informed of their purpose and operations.

Then on to a weird, all black light illuminated, cavernous pirate cove where we played eighteen holes of mini golf. All the white bits on us glowed bluish-bright. I was rather good at the game. I had forewarned them, as I’ve had more practice than they. The fine art of whacking a tiny glowing ball took us 45 minutes.

The last of our stops was The Fossil Cartel, which displays and sells rocks of all sorts. This was a major draw; they’ve been avid rock hunters thanks to my son, Joshua. He makes jewelry out of hunted rocks and other pieces. I bought a couple–amethyst and a blue goldstone orb for Asher and Joshua, respectively. Avery spied a lamp made of glowing rose quartz that she was quick to agree was quite costly. Perhaps one day.

And then I took them to their house across town and went back to mine. I was more tired than anticipated after four hours running around with delightful young ones. So I arranged dirty dishes in the dishwasher, then wrote a measly half hour (usually 6-8+ hours at a stretch) and read more of The Writer magazine until my husband got home. We walked a half hour about the neighborhood. He made (frozen) tasty salmon patties with a heaping green salad and baked potatoes. Very nice. We put our feet up at around nine o’clock.

These events took place on a Tuesday afternoon and early evening in mid-summer. If I was still employed at the non-profit mental health agency where I worked many years, this could not have happened. Seeing our family was another To Do list point enumerated on my planner–it happened but squeezed in between all else. The clock was always ticking. Such is the working life and life beyond it. Today I don’t wear a watch. Time seems to melt as events unfold.

At noon, I would have been counseling, full-steam ahead. Substance addicted and/or mentally ill and court mandated DUII clients (drinking and driving under the influence). Released inmates needing post-prison aftercare and monitoring. Self-referred persons with situational depression due to grief and loss, unemployment or ill health blues and fears. Clients whose children had been removed from the home due to parental drinking and drugging or domestic violence. People came from all walks of life. As they entered my office, their burdensome pain and suffering relented bit by bit or all in a desperate rush. But if they were court mandated for drinking and driving and they felt it entirely unfair, they sat stonily. Or angrily. Either way, the next fifty-five minutes could be just as demanding as any session. Some clients might say brutal. I was not known for cushioning matters for people who drank more than the legal limit, then blithely driving along causing havoc and worse– or fatefully escaping it one more time.

I taught alcohol and drug education groups each evening (some mornings, as well) for an hour and a half or facilitated women-only group therapy. These could extend past the time limit if there was a lively discussion or intense sharing going on. And then there were the urinalyses. Well, when was this not done: between individual sessions, between groups, sometimes during. Some required my presence in the restroom for observed UAs–the court system and DHS often required it. Or I did if I had good reason to suspect specimens were actually offerings from others.

Documentation of all on computer (by hand, many years ago) took an unreasonable amount of time. But unless something was committed to a permanent record, it never happened. Meticulousness and promptness was how this was fulfilled. I worked a four, ten hour/day work week that became–as any human service employees will agree– more like a twelve hour day. That meant I got home around nine-thirty many nights, rarely before eight-thirty. And that meant we ate quite late–my husband cooked, as he was home earlier. But I first walked 30-45 minutes before I ate every night for heart health, rain or shine, darkness or not, alone or not.

Then my agency’s two-story building was accessed by a burglar (computers, TVs, looking for drugs from a locked cabinet) while another employee and I worked alone at night. In our offices on the second floor, we didn’t hear much of anything–rather, not what we thought could be dangerous. I did listen closely once or twice but kept on. As usual upon departure, I double checked outside doors and made sure all lights were off. I hesitated–instinct, I am sure. Then I walked out to my car in a dim parking lot. My work mate had said to go on, but I waited in my locked car. When she came down, we left.

The next morning we heard the news; the entry and burglary occurred partly while we were there. They thought it was a client who knew the ins and outs of the place. We were appalled but reassured that things would be taken in hand. Yes, incidents had occurred even in other work places. We knew we were at risk, working with the volatile, confused, paranoid, desperate. But this was different. I had been there, felt something amiss and we had been there without any security. My husband started to meet me at the end of my work day. He drove from his workplace a half hour away to my work place, waited until I got into my car, then drove off behind me. He was that worried, insisted I not come out until he got there.

I began to think twice about that job. My entire career, the places I had gone alone, the fraught people I had shared a room with, a few events with bad results. That isolated parking area and building were never well lit that late. Everyone else was gone by then. I had at times been entirely alone in the building at night; that night my co-worker happened to be there. The doors were obviously not that secure. There was no alarm system. No security personnel. After that event I complained  more about the building and its lacks. The complaints fell on deaf ears, in fact, they were thought over reactive. I documented issues and resultant communications for a later discussion with the Human Resources Director. Then, finally–disappointed, worn out by the fight to get more assistance with the night hour security issues– I handed in my resignation.

I said: “Maybe I am ready to retire. But I have done the best I could here. And I still believe the safety of all is compromised. I now relent.”

It felt like a defeat. During the last day exit meeting, the Director seemed shocked. She vowed to address all, offered me a position in another clinic. I declined. Sometimes you just know it is time to say farewell.

I’d had enough. Not of the actual work, which felt like a calling to me–the nitty-gritty work of counseling and educating those who demanded–deserved–steady guidance and encouragement. But of politics and funding issues, too-long hours and high case loads. In fact, I had started that specific track of my career right after age forty after discovering a passion and natural ability for helping seemingly hopeless addicts and alcoholics, the abandoned, forgotten ones with mental health disabilities. It scared me that I was getting tired, physically and mentally. That I was starting to worry too much about the machinations of that agency as well as safety. My clients had always abided within my first and last thought during each day and evening.

The first two years I quit working the yearning to get back in there came and went. My alcohol and drug counseling certification was placed on sabbatical status while I sent occasional resumes out. It seemed odd there were no responses: I’d never not been able to get a job quickly. Those close to me suggested it was a sign to forget it. It seemed possible; I still wanted interviews. But I had plenty to do and was not bored. I thought maybe within a year at least I’dd find something new. I still missed my clients.

But over time, motivation to keep looking assumed less importance.

I had long desired to return to writing full time, as I infrequently had during a sometimes unpredictable adulthood. I had for years been writing for a block of hours on Fridays, my one day off. I’d jotted ideas down at work if all was caught up for a few minutes.So now I began to write a little more each day, and quickly found it as before–writing fast in concentrated hours. The flood gates of imagination were thrown open with the simple addition of time and a freed mind and soul. The stories would not leave me alone. I was breathlessly, extravagantly happy and told myself to calm down, take it one day at a time, stay disciplined. It all began to work together. I published one thing again, then another. I developed this blog.

So, sure, there is one reason or another to look for work–money for bills and the years ahead, for additional health insurance. The need to help others is still present. I know I should volunteer. But I am impatient with all the “should” stuff and getting more attuned to “want to and will do.” What I have loved but was often neglected comes to the fore. Working with and for others is a priority but there are many ways to do this. I am thinking it over as I write. I am praying for clarity and sniffing out opportunities. I could encourage personal storytelling with at risk youth. I could share poetry about life’s hardship and healings at more readings. There are hot meals needed and that lets me interact with isolated folks as I once did with Meals-on-Wheels program.

I guess I may have needed a big rest from the human condition, the ways it weeps and howls, triumphs or falters. Inside me is such love for those with whom I have crossed paths over the decades. They demonstrated how to find more courage in the midst of mayhem and how to persist despite no earthly good reason.  But most of all I learned how to find ever deepening wells of compassion and mercy. Within myself and within others.

The next time I see that cashier I will chat a bit, thank him for his assistance. I am certain he gave his decision to keep working longer–or to return–plenty of thought. He is doing a good job. I hope life is going well for him. I could worry each day that I am not bringing home a paycheck to add to the pot.  Most of the time I do not. I have this time to live, right now. I am a heart patient who has so far prevailed but I don’t know what tomorrow brings. None of us do–more and more we are finding the world is built on sand and it so often brings the chaos of trouble with unjust endings.

There is a lifetime of endeavors for all humans. Besides the need to survive, it is in our make-up to seek the next thing worthy of our efforts to assess, tackle, solve, wonder over. For me, work continues, just not as a counselor right now even while I remain on sabbatical status. I was, am and will be a writer, though. A person seeking creative expression each day, for there is a surplus of opportunity. I am thankful each day I have more time. We must divine what is right for ourselves, invest in the richest life possible, the one we truly value. There is a lot of stuff we don’t own that we might. But this is true fortune to me–family and friends, my faith and optimism put into action, caring for my wellness, more engagement in living fully. This is on my best daily agenda, nothing more. I anticipate what unfolds with trust and curiosity.

Playing put-put golf
Playing put-put golf
7/16 Freedom to hike and walk more, another passion
7/16 Freedom to hike and walk more, another passion

Water Likes Her, Not Me

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

My Marnie had her own entrenched ideas even as a toddler, so when she took to the water like it was her calling, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I gave her a thunderous “No!” but I couldn’t stop it any more than I could stop birds vanishing into a vaporous sunset. She was paired up with it from birth, like my mother, somehow. It had nothing to do with my priorities. My terrors.

I never have trusted the water. It’s too much everywhere, cannot stop closing itself over you when you stick so much as a little toe in it. It is obvious it has the power to consume you. It flows as if from an endless supply. Curls around the perimeter of the sodden earth with impatience. It’s wily, that’s what, beckoning and tantalizing you until it is too late. How can something so enchanting from a distance–the light riffing over it like fingertips playing a silvery blue instrument–feel so inconstant, even onerous, up close?

I know, you’re thinking it took someone from me or there was another tragic event and that is why I’m inclined to temper her interest. Not so. Everyone in my family swam as I grew up; we had a deep river behind our home. Not more than two and a quarter miles down the road was a lake. And beyond that, the sea, although it took four hours to arrive.

So that you have knowledge of my genes: my mother, tall and sinewy, demonstrated beyond normal athletic prowess whether she was at work or play, in stationary landscape or unstable watery scenario. My father did alright himself, though two inches shorter than she and less agile. They were brainy yet brawny. We were not afraid of really anything, the four of us kids, and were taught from babyhood to take to water as well as all else in nature, within reason.

“Far better to know its ways now,” Mother said as she dipped my youngest baby sister’s legs into the river. The infant squealed and smiled.

“Far better to be prepared, I agree–to save yourself rather than to depend on help,” Father intoned, as suited his pessimistic perspective.

“They find it friendly. Water, the river and lake and ocean. They’ll know how to move with water, get strong, enjoy themselves without anxiety.”

“There is always something else to fear unless you are well-armed with information–lest we kid ourselves,” Father muttered but she didn’t hear him. She had already taken my sister into the current, holding her firmly, watching her surprised face.

He glanced at me as if recalling how I was their exception to the family rule. I would not go willingly into the river. Nor a bath tub. In and out of the shower, in and out of any water whatsoever and that was more than enough.

Mother had been a swimmer long before Father was around. Won awards, competed. He, on the other hand, cared about and respected water as life-giver. He fished, he dug up clams, he nourished our garden with it. He harvested rain water. They shared activities like boating and water skiing and ice fishing. We did, too, or rather, I was also often dragged along with my cheerful siblings. And I was repelled by it and sometimes (guiltily) them.

When I was born Mother said I recoiled as soon as I left her protection and plummeted into open water, so unlike the womb’s. She would know since she had home births, slid us right into new water, the LeBoyer method. (They were quasi-hippies then. My father was a scientist at a research facility, my mother a biology teacher. They lived as much off the land as much as they could muster.) I suspect she was disappointed in me from the start but strove not to divulge it. It made poor sense to either of them that they produced someone who was only wedded to pencil, paper and books, who found excessive physical exertion anathema as often as not. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do things, run and  play basketball behind our house, ride a bike as well as others. I did and enjoyed myself. I liked the ground beneath me. But I liked to be still, too. Water was another story. It was so wet and sneaky. Voluminous. Shape shifting.

If Mother hoped I would have a change of mind about water, she didn’t indicate it. I could dog paddle out of a will to live, I could float if not able to paddle. They were fair parents, or considered themselves such, and encouraged me in my reading, writing, and developing observational powers. I was, Father noted, more akin to himself than to her. I sort of liked ice fishing with him. Our silence. The solidity of the lake. I liked examining insects and seeds, even animal scat. They told accessible stories.

But my brother and two sisters, they were demons about it, my water deficit. I had my share of being pushed into the river, being led to the lake in a blindfolded game, being told the tide was going out when it was coming in and being stricken with catatonia when the waves grabbed my ankles. I was dunked more than I could bear but I could hold my breath a long while, to my utter surprise. I could find safety by getting my feet on mucky land beneath me or, eventually, at the final edges of water. (Did this liquid possess even a blurred edge? It seeped into earth, washed over something.)

“Stop goading her,” Mother would say with a wave of her hand, as if it was nothing serious–though she’d rescue me if needed.

“Stop endangering her welfare, children! She is not a water child but a fixed earth child. You cannot change a creature’s natural habitat.” Father bellowed often, then returned to his projects.

That “fixed earth” bit: I wondered over that, how he’d borrowed from astrology–I am a Taurus–when he was a scientist, but the truth of it was evident. But they both got brimming with philosophical talk so perhaps that’s how they explained my personality, an anomaly: of the stars.

Anyway, it was suspended around age fourteen, my sullen resistance, as well as the teasing.

I was taken sailing with my first summer boyfriend, Jon, after we met at Loon Lake. His parents had a Sunfish and not wanting to tell him I was afraid to go out on it, I sat down and clung to its sides, staring at his bronzed beauty. I imagined my parents would be astonished by the tale I’d tell when I got back. This gave me courage. We bumped along endless wavelets and those more threatening. I just didn’t want to capsize out there, feel the water yank at legs and arms, ruffle my swimsuit, take me even a few seconds to its dreamy depths. I had a life vest on but it seemed like a flimsy foil for the lake’s unpredictable moves. I prayed for safety and let Jon do the work. The wind let up enough that we slowly began to sail easily. Gratitude lifted my spirit as we slid along. It was a sweet, bright-blue July day following a thunderstorm, as if all the irritations within water and air had been driven out.

And then we glided, lifted off the known world.

Jon cjecked with me often. I bravely followed his instructions as he maneuvered the small boat. I forgot to ward off anxiety. I just thought, If I fall in, I’ll bounce along with head up, it’s okay. If I must drown, Jon will be there the last moment. He was good-natured and at ease, the first boy to pay me attention. I discovered out there that if I acted as if I could do something, I could manage it, not without some trembling and misgiving, but it did get done.

It felt like being on a small ship adrift in an azure sky, I thought, soft wind in our hair, sun so near it felt like second skin. The rising and falling of the Sunfish was more like a lift and a roll, a boat dancing, a boy and a girl having a time together. Water splashed onto us and felt silky-cool. The shore and its cottages looked like a miniature movie set. I liked that we were far without being too very far. It was, by the end, as if we were under a summer spell. I did not want to get off and could have bobbed along for the rest of the day, at least.

But Jon left in two short weeks. We never even kissed, just fumbled. I felt stunned by his departure, and spent time puzzling over how a person I barely knew could so affect me. I had a few dreams about him and the lake; they were both unnerving and magnificent.

I didn’t tell my parents about the Sunfish ride until he left.

“You braved the elements, got out there and sliced through the water, just like that?” Father asked. “How did you even know he was expert enough to take you out?”

“I am sure he strongly persuaded you, but all ends well, so good for you. You’re learning how to take more chances!” Mother added, then her brow wrinkled as if she thought better of her words, but too late for her second young daughter. “So, you might be a water baby yet?”

“I’ll take you out in the canoe tomorrow.”

“No thanks, sorry, I’m done.”

I retreated to my chair and book. I could not be enticed again. It was Jon and his sailboat that held the magic key and they were gone. That time out was a separate experience. It was out of sync with my life, a bright sprinkling of mystery, a wash of perculiar emotions. An inkling of young love. I avoided the water again though my parents and siblings were befuddled by it. I grew up and nothing else happened to disabuse me of my idea that water was fundamental, crucial to living things but otherwise a choice to like or not. I still did not.

I once told my daughter, Marnie, the sailboat story and she was unimpressed by my sophmore courage. She knew of her grandmother’s water prowess–she still swam and dove and went on boating adventures at seventy. I could never live up to that. My mother had also told Marnie she had it living in her blood, the champion swimming gene, she could tell by her long torso and wide shoulders, how easily she took to it. She was impressing gym teachers by then. My pleading for a very conservative involvement, rather than full immersion of daily hours, meant nothing.

“What are you worried about, Mom?”

“That you’ll grow fins.”

“Already have.”

“That you’ll grow fins and run off to be with the mermaids and mer-gents and never return.”

“Well, I hadn’t thought of that. Sort of crazy, Mom.”

“I always worried, you see, well, uh, that I might corrode or melt if I was in the water for more than a few minutes. That it might change me. I didn’t want to be so changed.”

She looked at me as if she was looking at a stranger, then laughed hard. “Yeah, it makes people happier to swim and play in water! You’re a funny ole mom…”

I wasn’t thinking when I spoke honestly. Or whenever I was in the water, for that matter. It was a visceral thing, something that came over me and propelled me back to all shores. I felt bodies of water were mainly for looking at and listening to–fine for senses and mind–and respecting for their places in the natural schemata. Having moments with it scattered about. Not deluding yourself into thinking you could manipulate it, harness its force, outwit it. I knew better.

“I don’t want to work against it, Mom, I want to be one with it,” Marnie said before her recent race.

It was then that it all made more sense. I always had felt that way about the earth, then my vegetable and flower gardens, and finally my work as a landscape designer: an adoration of form and function, beauty and mysteries. It was like living a prayer, following earth’s wisdom. I needed to meld with nature’s abundance, with gravity of land. Oh, the miraculous dirt.

I studied her from where I sat at the swim meet. She had mighty strokes that would beat all the others in the pool. She was freed by the water, given an infusion of personal power, transported to another plane. When she won, I closed my eyes and was on the Sunfish, riding water’s permeable, floatable surface, water and air molecules working together for the good accord of all. And we nearly flew. How I missed that sensation, that light on the undulating surface, a sense of strength I had never felt before coupled with a willingness to surrender.

I didn’t say to her, I might take to the water sometime, we might swim together one day. But I knew it then, just as I knew Marnie had been fortunate enough to be born to it. Water loves her well. She, it. I want to understand this world from a new perspective, as well as follow her adventures. Water and I, we may well be uneasy together but that doesn’t mean we haven’t found a new point of common ground. I will just have to push off, learn as I go.

If We Make It to the Other Side

Victoria Trip 7-12 079

There were various shapes of black, grey and brown lining rows and rows of seats. Clothing made for rain, the uniform, perhaps, for travelling in this manner. They were packed shoulder to shoulder, purses and backpacks hugged to chests or corralled by feet. Along the outdoor railing heartier–or new–passengers leaned as far as they dared, gawked at the waves and daydreamed. It was a long trip, nearly an hour, from mainland to island. The savvy ones, those who commuted daily for work or were frequent visitors to either shore, perused easy-to-read books or magazines, played on their phones, took out scones and apples. Many lifted tall cups of coffee as if in a symbolic gesture that united them all.

It was easy to be lulled by the engine noise, a steady drumming in the background. Those who well knew this route dozed without self-consciousness, chins falling forward or back, snores gaining volume until someone jostled the sleeper by accident or otherwise. But more were pleasantly dazed while kept awake by the movement forward, the sometimes boisterous waves. Being so close to each other might have been a boon; they had this in common, this journey from one place to another, each with private plans and needs, separate while thrown together on the four-thirty ferry. A gathering of humanity on pause.

She had climbed the steps from a claustrophobic belly of the boat–no, ferry, not boat! she chided herself– that was stuffed with autos and felt spit out onto the main deck. Tried to orient herself. It was as if she had chosen the wrong door and was forced to join aliens that milled about. It didn’t make sense, of course–she hadn’t lost her mind entirely–but she was as ill at ease as a rabbit among foxes. They knew what they were doing there and dispersed, a certain goal in mind. She was like prey who didn’t know where to hide, afraid to move one way or the other, certain her demise was at hand. They had been there before (or if it was their first time, as well, were not alone or riddled with fear), had crossed the waters that flowed, really, from the entire Northwest portion of the Pacific Ocean–“think of it as a gigantic lake”, a friend had suggested. No, not a lake of any sort. All the water that lay between here and there was unending ocean. This floating beast–the current, if secondary, leviathan in her waylaid life–was headed to the San Juan Islands and she was captive until she once more stepped onto dirt and cement.

She closed her eyes and tried to quell the shakiness that made each exhalation almost staccato. The seat she perched on felt too small for her bags and emotions. No one noticed except perhaps the old man who was watching her beneath bushy white eyebrows as he blew across the top of his thermos’ handy cup. She thought he was smiling–foolish girl, he likely thought, worried about a ferry crossing. His yellow teeth flashed beneath a ragged moustache, then he took a sip and looked away.

A vocal baby wriggled and reached in a mother’s arms right next to her. The curly-headed, honey-skinned infant–who ought to have brought a smile to anyone’s face– reeked of old milk and banana and other things. It was too much. She thought she’d lose her lunch so stood up, inch by inch, finding the slight but strange motion beneath her feet an enemy, then as something she must adapt to, could do if she was painstaking, careful. Inner ear and stomach each hesitated, gulped, then complied, kindly. She kept her feet planted apart a moment longer. She glanced at the old man. He winked at her.

When she noted a lanky teen-ager exit the enclosed shelter she followed, pushed through the door to see if she could possibly manage her insecurity better by facing it. That was what she often did, confronted the overwhelming thing she felt she could not otherwise combat. Or accept. Sometimes it worked. It was so windy and cold her eyes and nose ran immediately. The ferocious unseen god of winds was snatching her from safety and pushing her forward towards snaking ropes soon to be under foot. What had she been thinking to come out there? Much worse. She stumbled but kept an upright position, then managed to half-slide then speed walk to the railing. Her breath was taken from her, as if someone had punched her hard enough to get her attention, then left her alone to deny discomfort.

She was unshakably, divinely spellbound by her absurd fear. She loved to fly, had gone kayaking a few times, was a skier of mountain slopes. But there was more happening. Something else. Her long hair whipped about her and she fought to stick it back into her drawn up collar. And she settled her eyes to the place she didn’t want to acknowledge even though it was obvious she could not ignore it: that magisterial body of water, blue and black, a glowing pewter beneath whitecaps that flung their spittle up and out to crazed, chilled wind. There was no land. Well, far, far off, there in the distance a speck, a bump on the horizon. More likely a ship, a freighter or another ferry, yes, something that should not be able to bounce along the ocean’s permeable surface yet did, she now conceded. So supremely confident, whatever it was. Seaworthy, readied. Unlike herself.

Yet, the water shone. Above were clouds heavily weighted that now parted enough to spare a shard of sunlight; the water found it and wore it like a living thing. This ocean beyond her reach was dancing, moving back and forth. Trading caresses and slaps in an ancient ritual set to motion by above-and-below-surface topographical and temperature variations with currents and winds directing. What did she not know about this peculiar place? Everything, that was a fact, even though she had strolled many beaches. But the sea spoke to her now as if she had long known and adored it, then abandoned it only to plead for a forgiving reunion. Its voice roiled and laughed, echoed things. Soothed. She moved albeit impereptibly with the water and recognized there, in the sea, something in herself both resonant and dissonant.

The thought shook her. This was a theme she had longed to eradicate when she bought her ticket but here it was, a wearisome dog following her footsteps. This taking away and coming back to, this abandonment and loss and the endless attempts at retrieval of something good. Yes, something better. Something that more than just masqueraded as love. She spoke to the wind that word she had tried to not utter even in private. Love love love, she said, and they each floated away.

Not that anyone could have convinced her it would end like that. With her bitterness and sorrow. His lack of conscience. His offering her the world–his, yes, not much of hers–and then taking it from her when he tired of the offerings and her refusals then finally, against her better judgment, gave her ecstatic acceptance. Why was it that some people had to make the adventurous pursuit of another so meaningful–and the denouement so trite and unseemly? Ugly, even.

But he badly paid for it, didn’t he?

The water engulfed her thoughts, took from her his face, his hands, those words, that desire and hope, anger, longing and pain. Thrown against the ferry as that sea-changing wind pressed about her, she recalibrated a center of gravity and held on. The pale sunlight fringed clouds with softness, made them yielding until sky let loose a remnant of blue. She felt warmer though the her dark hair tangled and her jacket riffled. Tears slid from her eyes as gusts sheared her face. It was a near-violent thing, this crossing. It was a magnificent body of water, inviolate somehow, immense in its moods. Gracious to its cohabitating creatures. Tolerant of boats, only to a point. Generous with those who respected its bounty. But deadly, too. She felt its magnitude, drawn even to its fickleness. Like life, its unpredictability was either to be accepted or rejected and what good could come of rejection? It rolled on. It created, welcomed and nurtured. Finally destroyed. Every time a person set sail or even stepped onto a ferry such as this he or she took a chance and the thrill of it–of not yet jaded–was whether or not something wonderful might result from the risk.

Had he thought of any of this on that perfect and dangerous day? He had driven too fast in his well-tuned machine. He was so proud of it, had sunk such time and money into its well-being. He always did go too fast, attacked everything with the force of someone who thought they would lose out if they did otherwise. But that day, after he told her it was never fully in sync for him, both of them, he had to go–did he drive faster than even he knew was acceptable? Did he think to himself it might be an extreme risk that could make or break the heart of that moment? The sort he felt compelled to ever seek and find? But it finally undid him. He had left so fast it was like he hadn’t even been there that morning. A kiss on her cheek and the words, all of which were too heated.

Then, it was finished in entirety. She heard hours later. They came to her with halting steps and phrases and all she recalled was the warmth and then the cooling of his breath on her face as he left her. And could not get warm for days.

She lost her bearings, grasped the rail. The sunlight was erased first by a fine mist that dropped over all. Then came a blinding fog. It fell upon the ferry and those who persisted in standing there, damp and cold. Mesmerized like her. The wind slacked. There seemed nothing but greyness aorund the barest pearlescence where light persisted as light does. A soft darkness swallowed all. A beautiful darkness. She would have climbed up the flag pole if she had strength and madness enough left in her. She wanted to feel the veil of fog wrap her up and then unfurl again. She would have liked to be the one to see through to the other side, to site the first small ledge of land. If they yet made it to the island. Courage rose up and with it, a fledgling sense of safety. It was a clue: readiness for more to happen. She breathed in ocean breath, felt bathed in calmness that defied winds or cold or incessant waves. Onward the ferry moved, fast enough, casting off its shield of greyness.

When the light cleared a pathway over the water it was an explosion of jewels. She held hand to eyes and looked hard: there it was. The island. The place where she was going. The spot she had feared to land. To have to start again. The real worry had been who she would become, just what she could bear to discover. She understood so little, just odd snippets of things. Her own self seemed a haphazard   thing at times. Everyone else seemed bigger. Fiercer. Maybe it was an illusion that she had to interpret. In time, she told  herself, in time there would be a whole picture and her place in it.

The ferry slowed and idled, maneuvered this way and that until it came to rest. She searched for the dock in the shortening distance. Waiting for her was her aunt, that large, ofttimes overbearing woman who had lost a son to war and a husband to the trickster sea, the same one she yet floated upon. But still this woman carried on as if every day was something to design anew with pleasure and passion. She was the definition of indefatigable. And kindness.

“Come, learn the ways of sea and island, find good work to be done, eat and rest and sweat with the rest of us“, she had said over the phone as if it was the only answer. Despite her niece’s stubborness and that self-pity like a black flag hoisted high for months and months.

Her fear of these waters and this ferry had been the last barricade. And it had been so small, hadn’t it, just a simple thing for a woman who worried she could never make peace with her own self, just as that old man had divined. She wondered if he might get off here.

She let go of the railing. Her hands were reddened and tender. She flexed fingers, turning her face to welcoming sunshine. Her hair was smoothed back. Feet were moved forward. She faced the crowd assembling to disembark, then went back inside to find her way among them.

 

Victoria Trip 7-12 777

The Ethics of Transparency

rights-legal-150

 

Maybe it was just an “off” day at my neighborhood grocery store. The polar vortex has been wreaking havoc–the sleet was attacking cars and houses on my way there–but I had a baffling experience. Actually, three separate ones.

First I stopped at the in-store pharmacy to pick up a prescription. Turned out there were two. I barely glanced at them, then paid. As I was walking away from the window I looked more closely at the bottles. One was, in fact, a prescription that I had just picked up a week before and hadn’t even used since the back pain was allayed. I handed it back to the pharmacy tech who looked at me blankly.

“I just bought this but I just picked up the original prescription last week. I know there are monthly automatically refills but it has been seven days–I don’t need a refill.”

“Oh. We can’t take that back–you left the pharmacy with it.”

“I stepped away but came right back. I’m actually a bit concerned that the pharmacy would refill this when it is a muscle relaxant and I just was given thirty pills last week.”

“You don’t want it on automatic refill, then?”

“Well, I don’t want it refilled in seven days, no. Maybe in thirty days, but not likely then, either. But certainly not in seven. Right?”

The quiet-eyed young woman looked at me, speechless. She could see I wasn’t going to budge.

“I’ll talk to the pharmacist.”

She returned in a minute and spoke conspiratorially. “Oh, you’re lucky! I’ll refund you money but this really shouldn’t happen.”

“I agree. I mean, I should not have a thirty-day refill in just a week. especially not a prescription like this one.”

As we were completing the transaction, the pharmacist came up to the window.

He frowned a bit. “It’s not really legal to take back a prescription once you walk away with it. It can’t happen again.”

I opened my mouth, then closed it. I decided it best not to engage in further discussion about refilling a medication weeks before it was due. Or question why, then, he was refunding my cash. It was ten bucks–that wasn’t really the issue here. I took the refund and moved on.

Next up was the deli counter. I eyed the mesquite wood smoked turkey, the cheaper one, with all the nitrates and antibiotics. My favorite deli person was there after being gone awhile.

“Oh, hi! How are you? Great. Could I have one-third pound of the mesquite turkey breast?”

“In-house?’

I nodded.

“The other brands are so good, you know. Would you like a sample of this one?” She pointed at the most expensive kind.

“Well…”

She had already turned away. Before I knew it she had placed a slice of the $12.99/pound brand on the counter to test out. I did. The woman has always been friendly and helpful and I was glad to see her cheery face. It was top-notch meat as I knew it would be.

“Okay, but just a third pound, as usual.”

I was talking to someone else when she handed me the bag of sliced meat. It felt a bit heavy as I turned my cart around. Sure enough, it was one pound not a third.

I was about to say something but she was busy helping another. I felt slightly disappointed. Maybe she didn’t remember me or my usual orders of one-third pound only, despite my seeing her there for years. BShe may not have heard me. But I took the bait, the sample, after all. I might have been more savvy, too.

It was one thing to hand back a bottle of pills I shouldn’t even have. It was another to hand back sliced deli meat and ask for two-thirds of it to be removed. Besides, she had always served me kindly. Maybe it would look good for her that more meat was sold today, who knows?

As I was checking out with all my items, the cashier was intent on his work and I was wondering over the deli lady and pharmacist. It was time to swipe my debit card.

“Oops, my rewards card! Have to give that to you for the points. You forgot to ask me for it. That doesn’t usually happen. But here it is.”

I was smiling at him and had spoken in a light-hearted way, but he frowned at me.”I did ask if you had put all your stuff in the card reader.” He punched some buttons. “Swipe again.”

“Oh, I did, but I don’t swipe my rewards card, right? You get my number with your magic scanner.”

He took my rewards card. Rewards points add up. He handed me the receipt with a nod and a less than spontaneous smile. I thanked him and left.

On the way home I recalled an error of over two hundred dollars at the store after my husband had picked up wedding flowers for me. I realized the cashier had hurriedly scanned each label only once rather than for each arrangement. The next day I returned to the florist and paid up. She was embarrassed and so relieved she nearly teared up. It made a difference in her till and my conscience.

This is not, however, about customer service not being what it used to be. In fact, my neighborhood store has been my spot for twenty years. I appreciate it enough to call it by an affectionate nickname rather than its formal name. The customer service is generally outstanding–I wrote a commendation about a sales person recently. And even though there is a new, fancy and overpriced “natural foods” store nearby, I am not tempted to run there.

I admit it did not escape me that in two of the instances the responsibility wasn’t shouldered by the employees. (I hope the deli person would have gladly decreased the weight of turkey if asked.)

It had to be the weather system, a pressure change; sleet and snow falling from the heavens is a rarity and we temporarily lose our equlibirium in this town.

No, this is about my tendency to speak up. Complain. Note errors and request corrections. I have a reputation among family and friends as one who will not easily let things be if they appear wrong. If I am served a dish at a restaurant that is not well-prepared, it goes back. If I buy something that doesn’t hold up through the first washing, it is returned immediately. When a sales person is rude or outright lying rather than bothering to locate something–and I find it on my own–I address it. I figure if people expect a good service rendered for a price paid and if that service doesn’t happen, then the situation needs to be remedied.

As you might imagine, things can get stirred up. I’m not aggressive but …politely adamant. Forthcoming. Occasionally my spouse or others might hide their faces. I still stand my ground. Despite the outcome, I have rarely regretted trying to address a deleterious situation.

I contracted with a provider of chairs for my daughter’s wedding. Everything seemed perfect until the day of the wedding. A huge truck (which had arrived late and was bound for a bigger delivery later) had trouble maneuvering the narrow service road. It delayed the wedding nearly twenty minutes.

I had a reasonable discussion with the company about extra money paid to ensure delivery and pick up times specific, or “sharp time.” I wanted that money refunded, as there was nothing “sharp” about the delivery (or pick up). When the owner’s wife emerged from her private office, I began to feel a little doubt. Her presence was made clear: formidable. She was taller, older, better dressed than I was and knew how to talk business with precision. But I was committed. The exchange grew animated. It was their series of errors, not mine. After fifteen minutes, she agreed it was not good that the wedding was delayed due to her driver. She almost began to concede that there should have been a smaller truck or logistics ought to have been better planned, then caught herself and retreated to her office. But I did not have to pay extra for “sharp time.”

All the above refers to services or products provided. But is it always worth it to press matters when a more serious situation is perceived as wrong or unwise? I certainly found out the hard way at work over the years. If my boss was open to hearing concerns or issues, then yes, it was worth it. If not, I risked creating conflict and a more difficult job scenario, then working harder at times to stay in good graces. But people knew I would keep ethics as my top priority with my clients and co-workers–like it or not.

It was drummed into me to be responsible for my actions. I grew up thinking others were given the same dictates. Additionally, I experienced abuse that was kept so secret there were many years of suffering before I made it known. “Courage despite the odds” became a new motto. I vowed to make accountability a trait I would hold dear. I held others accountable as well. And I knew I’d have to fight that sly leaning toward self-righteousness–so many people let things slide by and it didn’t seem that terrible except to me–so I tried to take my own daily moral inventory.

I have taken ethics seriously in my personal life and in work. The principles governing choices matter. They are a standard of ideals and behaviors that signal a determination to take action correctly, even morally. If someone verbally commits to something, that is as good as a signature on the line to me. If we all know what the rules are, then the procedure or game or endeavor will unfold according to those rules if at all possible. If there are underhanded activities and someone I know falls victim, I will stand up and say so. And as a wife, sister, mother and grandmother, if there is unfair treatment of my family when all has been completely reviewed, you will find me ready to fight for justice. If someone is to blame, I’ll stand by them but the responsibility will be theirs.

As a counselor I gladly made a vow to practice my trade within a legally binding agreement to provide ethical services. During my last position I labored as long as I could before I decided to leave the place of employment after many years. There were too many blurred lines, too many practices that avoided or even violated ethics we were to uphold. Many were just swept under the rug. I was vocal but barely heard; superiors attempted to placate me. They knew they could count on me to do good work. But when unethical issues impacted both employees and our clients, that was it. Many things happened that I documented and eventually handed the HR Director the day I left the company.

The last straw happened as I was doing paperwork after my late therapy group on the second floor. There was another counselor there. She waved me on my way but I waited for her to get done. I felt we shouldn’t be left alone in the large, empty building. I had repeatedly asked for more security measures: at least two or three persons present (I was fairly often alone) in the building at night, an alarm system, better lighting for the isolated parking lot and walkways, locks for the door to the team room since distressed clients could and did walk right in, an emergency code word to use over speaker phone in case we were threatened or attacked by clients (which had happened). To no avail. My co-workers admitted they were concerned, too, but they wanted to keep their jobs more. I loved my work as a mental health and addictions clinician but safety was paramount in a field where anything can happen. And does happen, as headlines shout at us every day.

We didn’t even know it was happening, although I thought I’d heard something beneath us. Had even gone down to finally turn out a lobby light as we left. But someone (it was later speculated a client or delivery person) had sneaked in with other people, then hidden in a room after hours. And stole thousands of dollars worth of items, tried to steal medications. Right below our floor as I worked uneasily. We were lucky. Our clients could become violent in a flash.

What had begun as an ethics question–how to ensure safety for all our clients, and how to keep the environment safe both for effective treatment and for providers–became an answer, loud and clear to me. Time to retire. When I talked with the HR Director, she was appalled at what I had experienced for months. Why hadn’t I directly contacted her? Well, it had occurred to me. But I kept expecting my supervisor to finally do something. I kept trying to go through proscribed channels.

I learned something that day. Sometimes one ought to consider being more bold than I had been as it may garner a better result. I was offered my job back. But it was too late. I was done, and in the end, I felt felt at peace with my choice.

The bigger question in my personal life now that I am not working for pay is: how much can an issue ultimately matter? How do I pick my battles? I am in the habit of being in an advocacy position for others. But I also look out for myself. I count on myself first, others second. It seems the sensible thing. The world can be frenzied, fraught with complex demands, pressured by a drive to get more accomplished in less time. We become beset by distractions and must determine what deserves attention at any given moment.

I want a quality life. Time is a disappearing act, invisible and scarce save for what the clock insists. I want good things like everyone does, experiences I can count as worthwhile and enjoyable. Details can have a mighty impact on the overall picture. I don’t require perfection, but I do seek excellence. Then the pieces tend to align well. I belive we are still more likely to get what we need if we ask, even lobby for it. And more often what we genuinely want.

It’s risky speaking up and stating the truth as we see it. It requires taking chances that may not end up as hoped. The vulnerability can seem too great when we get serious about personal matters like love and trust. How best to be honest and when is it enough–or too much? I want to live my life responsibly, for others and for myself. It has been a paramount goal. If wrong, I’ll admit to error first, try to correct matters. I can also accept a “good job done”. If we each stand up and are counted, we can be heard–but not if we wish we had spoken yet remain silent. We are so fortunate to have a gift of freedom to speak what we mean. God willing, I will not sqaunder it.

Authenticity is part of seeking the truth. It is a powerful thing. We respond to this quality in many instances, whether being riveted by great performers to making true friends to respecting good bosses. Why not be the sort of human beings who are as we appear, people who live what we believe?

May we strive to be transparent. To seek justice in even simple ways. To discover and share small and large truths as they need to be known.