Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: What I Love, i.e., How I Thrive

Astoria, OR. by the Columbia River

The deep center of this body–where we live in the many parts that make us and more– sometimes recoils and grabs hold of belly, ribs, heart and solar plexus at the same moment: speechless depths of misery and longing, at once. It pierces, reaches beyond the cellular to spirit. The universe seems to open and close, an accordion of sadness, and want. Stunned. I move around that current all day, navigating my way, but if at night I make my nest, rebuild a tent of pillow, sheet, bedspread and settle in. Then start over again. Silky or raw half-dreams, ponderings here to there. Eventually a facsimile of sleep. Then three or four hours later, repeat.

Are we not all trying hard at times to even sleep, not only more but peacefully so to awake and fumble our way better into another day, perhaps even take charge of it? Are you, as I, struggling in this worldly morass much of the time lately? It is fatigue of relentless adaptation, that push for coping–but also a need of connection and peace. Or a moment of frivolity in the midst of multiple, severe realities. At least it is likely here, the land in which I reside.

How do we manage to live with all the changes and difficulty? The fury and the despair out there that comes to haunt us, too? But everyone needs better than managing it all.

I was going to write a lighter personal essay about something I love, about how some smaller thing is a good trick that keeps me even a bit better afloat. Say, thrift shop vases of fresh-cut flowers. Oregon State Park hikes. Bach cello concertos. Singing along with Eliane Elias, dancing. Yet none of this is quite the crux of my need to write today. I am writing about coping with the world’s increased demands, its violence and grief, its obfuscations, its lies–and that asks me to name what counts the most.

What is a major element that enables me to withstand testings, disappointments, worries, losses? The quickest answer is my faith in Divine Love, God within/around us. That is always foremost or I would not be here writing.

But then came this: imagination. And it’s cousin, curiosity.

One of the first times I realized imagination wasn’t only for creating a story or music and had practical uses was when I was a young girl playing baseball with neighborhood kids. I found myself trying to imagine what it looked like from different bases and the pitcher’s mound when looking back toward me, a batter. I tried to imagine what they were going to do. It was odd, perhaps, but I felt as batter and hopefully home runner that it might help. And it did the more I practiced this switching perspectives, even if it was imagined. I had more confidence and in time was better able to anticipate reactions, which aided my choices.

Imagination influences us daily, in everything we enact or think. It is pervasive even without our fully knowing it as we consider possibilities and try to find answers to a series of minuscule or mammoth problems in our personal and professional endeavors. It intervenes on our behalf as we dream, seek to understand another, set up goals, test theories, develop new inventions. I think of imagination as a partner, as well as an aspect of my personality that motivates me to seek authenticity and depth in what I learn. I can become a healthier person with such help and, naturally, create better. It expands who I am by virtue of its pervasive presence, and its interesting array of offerings–which can be accepted or rejected or used as springboards.

We use imagination not only to give life in our minds what we cannot directly experience with our senses. We imagine connections and study those ideas, synthesize them for insights and solutions. We construct a future goal and then utilize imagined steps along the way, developing a structure by which to tackle the chore. Failure of one option is a possibility that just isn’t usable; we move on, the imagination considering an alternative.

Empathy seems a result of this creative force, for if we allow ourselves to imagine how it must be to live as another person we start to understand the individual or the group. Then we can develop the ability to see the world differently with greater caring and sense of shared humanity.

We can entertain ourselves imaginatively, of course, by daydreaming,letting the mind roam wherever it will. Or casually participating in various activities for hours–movies or other arts, games, socializing with new friends. We try to interpret and engage with them in some way that answer questions and stokes the imagination further. Observations alone can be entertaining–we all speculate on who that platinum-haired person we see walking the Great Dane at 8 am, noon and 4 pm really is, or what that conversation about a judge, missing lawyer and a July deadline might lead to– we will imagine it if we like.

The plasticity of the mind is a grand thing. Born with a vast curiosity, we’ll use it constantly unless forbidden for some absurd or terrible reason. I suspect even then it will come to our defense, drive us toward more questions, potential answers. How fortunate we are to have that innate desire to explore and gather information seen and unseen; the capability to conceptualize, construct entire stratagems to gain greater ground. Intellectual curiosity coupled with imagination discover theories that can split open a universe within or without us.

I have felt my entire life that my imagination was a basic necessary tool to keep my self in decent working order. And to find fulfillment. Joy. It not only kept me alive in devastating circumstances–we have to be able to first imagine possible relief and the light returning to hope even a bit–it has led me into a life that has been richly interactive with many levels of experience most every single day, even in harsh times. (I had to think about that, but find it essentially true.)

Using imagination is a rescue tactic. I can step into a picture, a story, a poem of my own making, a view before me, a random conversation, a different perspective, a fledgling idea, a framework for tomorrow. Nearly all things can be tolerated for a time with constructive use of imagination. It can aid in keeping one on more even keel– thus, healthier and sane at the core despite pressures and pains. If in dire circumstances, what we can imagine, we can live for and aim to more fully realize in this three dimensional world. It also takes us beyond what seems mundane and useless.

Yes, it can also help devise an answer erroneously; make inferences regarding events that may have no grounds for truth; lead me down a primrose path that goes in circles. But I still have free will and choice and my human curiosity will seek another way out, a new conclusion, a deeper look. Besides which, imagination does not insist I keep only my own company. I can be alone with it and be entirely happy. But I can also find others’ knowledge and wisdom. I can call upon anyone that will allow me to ask for help. For another idea. A helping hand. A spiritual opportunity. An inspiring jog to my suddenly lethargic mind. Without imagination, I’d be far less likely to believe a viable option was to reach outward, as well. And it would be much harder to keep on keeping on.

What I love is the human capability to wildly or meticulously imagine anything desired, and talent for seeking the unique spark in all life. We can freely consider and embrace the intriguing or unexpected. And for me that means honing in on the good in all others, imagining the best rather than the worst. Though this has not come easily some years, it still comes to me as I pause and ask more questions. I keep eyes and spirit open as I need to live thoroughly, thoughtfully.

It is true imagination can snag, boomerang and sting; it can make me seriously reassess my intelligence and courage so that I must start again, take different chances. Yet I let my imagination consider the beauty of a panoply of possibilities to lead me forward. There is more to gain than lose, always. Otherwise, there are too many empty gaps. And that is akin to missing the boat while traveling this spectacular river of life.

I believe everyone wants to be in on such a journey. If I can think of it and pray for it, I can extend a hand or speak up, clarify imaginings as I help with a few more hopes and dreams. Perhaps they may even come to resemble a finer reality.

The Columbia River

Elemental Changes

Partway into a hike at The Pinnacles National Park.
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

There are people who vigorously embrace life and if necessary, make it happen when odds seem against them; their vibrancy spills over. Others feel life is a fight they seem meant to lose, become embattled and embittered until giving up. What makes the difference? Who not only survives but can flourish– and who may not discover their potential or even the sudden beauty of living? We already know–don’t we by now?– that it isn’t money, although it makes a difference in obtaining necessities. Health can surely tip the balance at times.  It may well be love–partner, family, friends– that colors a life which overcomes hardships and setbacks.

Or might it be something more? Consider two people I have known.

He was a soldier once and it gravely altered things. There were times when I wasn’t so sure who he was, anymore, but that worry is long passed. He kept putting one foot in front of the other and worked it out in time. He regained the trademark warmth that signals extra kindness on offer.  He’s in Costa Rica now, then will be off to Germany, then to India, then Dubai and Australia and that is not the entire schedule for 2017. This itinerary despite having serious heart events in the past year, with more recent emergency and surgical interventions just weeks ago. He verbalizes little to no anxiety about expansive travel plans regarding health challenges. Rather, he shares the usual enthusiasm, a growing excitement that is leavened by decades of travel experience. He is also a photographer (as is his travelling partner/wife) who once took pictures for his leisure (as do I), perhaps also for documentation in military and private sectors. But he is far beyond that, having won several awards and exhibiting as well as selling many photos. Every trip, small or major, he expects to be a part of fascinating events happening in animal, mineral and vegetable worlds. His curiosity pulls him forward; he expects events to go well, despite hazards of travel off the beaten path, despite tough-to-treat heart disease. Despite knowing well how cruel the world can be. And he could be out of reach of medical help or even die. But he will not give in to health risks nor ease up on his passions. He forges ahead with anticipation of the good to come. His photographs will be rich, detailed, compassionate: full of the human (and other) life he so loves. Full of his determination to thrive.

He found the wit and will to carry on. He found the way to burrow through the ills and hardships and hew another door and then another where before there were few sound ones or none. The work of it–that is what kept him going, and faith in a greater scheme.

The woman was in treatment with me (I, her counselor) for a DUII (driving under the influence of intoxicants) but it was more than that. It was a result of too much pain. She often needed to bring her autistic son who wailed, kicked and growled if impatient or bored, tired, hungry and just because that is what he did. She managed the tantrums resultant of sensory overload and what she could not name with soothing words and firm arms about him. She gritted her teeth, blinked back tears as she dodged more flailing. It was tiring. She worked long nights; he got just fair care from neighbors. Her rent was increased too much so she had to move–again. She was tempted to return to an abusive ex-husband but finally admitted she’d live on the street with her son if needed just to avoid it. That choice was circumvented by cousins, not her favorite family but they had space for awhile. She and her son squeezed into a cramped room, made it their tiny new kingdom. There was the question about how much longer she could bear working the bar life, making drinks for men there for the strippers. This work and all that preceded it had made her brittle, eyes glittering with anger even when she forced a smile. I worried she would not find a way to open to the healing of being cared about even in treatment. But she dreamed of being a dental hygienist or an x-ray technician. If she could make it through this day intact. Which she just would. Her son needed more help so she worked double shifts here and there to pay for his needs and costs of her DUII. But she didn’t drink or use drugs. Showed up to all appointments, listened, shared her hard truth. Worked day by day to develop ways to heal, to strengthen. She completed that program, hugged me, told me she’d strive for a long term healthy lifestyle. Happiness did not seem so illusory to her: “I’m making it happen–for me, too, not only my son.” Later she called. She was looking into funding for college.

What makes various individuals go forward rather than stall out–and finally give up?

Hope has something to do with it. If one cannot begin to envision any positive future, even if it is the next hour or day, it is terribly hard to muster a shred of strength to hold on. That extremely tender seed of hope can generate more roots to keep a life upright but is at risk of withering without nurturance.

It may not be a person who affects the difference, or not direct contact. Sometimes reading something by one you admire clicks and you become connect the dots for yourself. Books helped profoundly sustained me while growing up and beyond childhood abuse, whether it was fiction or nonfiction (drawn as I was to philosophical or spiritual writings as well as good yarns and poetry) or even choice children’s’ books (a too overlooked go-to–try Peter Speirs’ picture  books or Shel Silverstein’s tales of fun and wonderment). Or it may be a teacher or boss who becomes a mentor, an ordinary neighbor who never fails to be interested in how you are, or a dear friend who supports you by just showing up with love. Many can offer us good doses of strength or hope without fully realizing it. We need to be ready to accept it, even when doubtful.

They all cannot likely save us, though the poet Rilke offered me more bravery with one short line. We learn we alone can only truly save ourselves, that’s what he meant–even if/when God is called upon and we are certain we’re at last heard. Our necessary labors are distinctly human; we are charged with handling a great deal. There is no better way through life than staying alive, anyway, taking stock and going on and rooting out the beauty. Because it is everywhere if we look and see.

Anything that augments healthy possibilities and inspires us can provide more impetus to stay with small or large goals, whether just getting up in the morning or addressing a tenacious problem or designing bigger dreams. I find music, nature, walks, spiritual teachings and prayer, family members and friends can make a fine difference in helping me sustain a good attitude and better energy. They are hope inducers. Yet there are times when hope may seem a kind of foolishness, a teasing concept that cannot be applied to complex and critical needs. And then what is the doable choice?

I maintain even when there is not nearly enough hope or inspiration, not a wealth of support or wellspring of handy resources, still the human will can accomplish wonders. Yes, a most basic human characteristic. (Better, in my opinion, coupled with the Divine.) We were given such an iron tough and resilient will for good reasons. What else comes to our service countless times? What enables us to endure when all else seems impossible, irrelevant? We don’t have to live only by basic instinct, by fleeting intuition and feelings that come and go. We can be decisive, make a choice to keep on despite the odds. To attend to the need of each moment and be open to options, no matter how far fetched they may seem. And if we also offer and welcome a little cheer, we might, too, have more hope replenished as we go. There are those pesky birds that sing for one another and us at dawn, the caring that arrives in a surprise card or well-timed compliment, a moving scene in a film or story that opens us to loftier thoughts and hearts that re-engage. But even without those luxe moments, we share a common denominator of a human status: that sometimes unattractive yet awesome might of a deep internal urge to just persevere.

Our will. To hold on. To go on.

As an addictions counselor, it was interesting to see who could and would make needed changes–that is, who would stay clean and sober and who would succumb to the siren call of substance abuse and dependence even while in treatment. Or, shortly thereafter and return to services again. My teammates and I would wonder over clients, try to tailor treatments to match the Stages of Change. Developed by Prochaska and Di Clemente, two psychotherapists who developed the model in 1977 to first address nicotine dependence. It remains a useful model, a guideline, regarding many sorts of behavioral change.

Were my clients “Precontemplative”, i.e., yet unable to even see the problem? Were they in Contemplation, aware but not interested in commitment to change? Was the client in Preparation, now planning to take some kind of helpful action? After that, perhaps in fits and starts, Action begins, when one is engaged in the work of altering problematic behaviors. By the time someone manages to land in Maintenance, new habits are taking hold. Both behaviors and attendant attitudes are visibly different. But without a person’s considered moment of decision to make a choice for something different, there can be no contemplation or planning, no action, no ultimate difference in lifestyle or mental health. It was my challenge to provide opportunities for insight and–I hoped–resultant change, to help the person come to that critical point. However, in the end, it was always the individual’s will to change or not to change that made the actual difference. When the stubborn will is engaged, so much can begin to occur. The process of healthy change is a wondrous thing, a human architectural feat of light and flesh. Believe me.

The original question posed was: why do some gird themselves and go forth to seek solutions to problems and embrace life wholly–while others quit? I posit that it is finally our will to go one way or another, our choices to make the helpful or harmful difference. Wanting things to be different doesn’t do much–we can desire change for all sorts of motley reasons (even specious ones) but in the end we often really don’t want to go there.

It is up to us to determine what we most need and then what we are willing to do–what sacrifices are acceptable to us, how much suffering can we endure if required? Because this living is full of those matters; no one gets away with blithely slipping through their time here. There will be matters of heart and spirit, mind and body that will charge right into our tidiest days and nights; losses that will empty us of grief more than once; circumstances that we never planned, that care nothing of who we are or what we have. But if we possess the will to endure, greater courage will build. If we foster that will to hang on, better possibilities can unfold in time. If we have that will to say yes to this life rather than no–even with heartaches and what is unfair and far worse–the strength to stand up and live in more hope will grow more than might have been imagined.

It may take time to pause and sort it all out before choosing. The essential decision to hold fast or just let potential opportunities slip away has to be made. That turn of mind will generate momentum that may radically change your life; it can also just keep it moving right along no matter delays or hurdles. Like my brother, a still-undaunted, big-hearted traveler who meets each challenge; and that good if toughened woman I think of with chin up, stride strong and vision more clear and bright. Many came through my counseling office and returned to the world with lives salvaged: they hurt and struggled and they persevered.

The two people highlighted here take a firm hold of circumstances and determine choices which have greater value for their aspirations, ordinary or grand. And they reach beyond themselves, strive for some greater good. As such they remain two of my everyday, unique heroes.