Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Ernest Makes a Splash

Ernest was a man who got things right. He knew this for certain when at work because he was told so often. He managed a grocery store that had finally found its sweet spot within the hierarchy of holistic grocers. That was his word–“holistic”–as opposed to “natural” or “locally sourced and served” or any number of other words and phrases that somehow didn’t quite meet the innermost desires of customers. In his humble opinion. But “Hale’s Holistic Marketplace” was now its name (no longer Hale’s Good Foods) and since the revamp of appearance, pricing and image, optimistic stats were booming.

How was Marv, the CEO, to have foreseen that this unassuming man, barely hitting the five foot eight mark and weighing in at maybe 150 pounds (if Marv was a casual betting man) could turn things around way under a year? There was a compact quality suggesting deeper strength and energy, but it was metered out just so. A fastidious man, he guessed. The guy had steadily climbed the rungs of  the food business, then suddenly pushed his ideas on a store manager. That was four years ago and HHM  had taken over a niche that caters to those with highbrow leanings, perhaps even instincts, but won’t admit to it. The added corner bookstore/ lending library was a hit, for example, because their consumers were a literary–academic, even– type. This meant that soon to follow were paper products and writing utensils, then intricate, bold maps (why did they love maps so much, he didn’t know) and so on, Marv had lost track but they sold.

The guy now at a helm was a genius at marketing as well as overseeing the latest store. No one disagreed. But not everyone liked him; some sneered when they saw him coming but smiled over their judgments. Ernest was a stickler for details, unerring and demanding. He had some patience and tolerance for others–he was not unkind –but it didn’t show well, as he tended toward a poker face. This was a feature developed after childhood when his mother constantly told her smart, string bean of a boy to not be such a crybaby, life was rough so toughen up. He found hiding feelings was half the battle at repelling taunts–especially after he became a fine swimmer. One could not see emotions when submerged in the water. He became a smooth muscled, aquatic creature, fast and adept and best of all, free. Cheering crowds made no difference; he had found his physical element and it complemented his intellect.

The swimming pool still did the trick. If work grievously rattled him or his wife, Lynette, got on his nerves too much, he was in the water for a good hour. That’s what he told her–“Time to refresh and keep my physique in good shape”–when she complained he was gone too much. The lap pool welcomed him every time; the forgiving water flowed about him, a shield of light-filled mystery and power, and he was made stronger with each stroke. Lynette, on the other hand, had tried it three times with him and failed to see the value, much less joy in it. The chlorine, the chilly depths, the need for goggles since she wore contacts. She stank of chlorine for days and her fine hair rebelled. Let him have it, she was meant for mostly sunbathing by their own tidy pool. Oh yes, they had a pool, now, but he could not swim real laps or execute a good dive there, so he left backyard indulgences to her and Sammy, their preteen daughter.

He thought he had done well so far in life. He made good money now and Lynette was happier than the first ten years of marriage. But it didn’t stop her from finding fault. Daily. That he wore bow ties when getting dressed up; the tiny limp he retained from an old hiking fall; his rumination over this and that, quietly to himself; his unfortunate choices of jewelry for her gifts and his lack of insight into Sammy’s moods. His smartness surely rivaled hers and sometimes they sparred for the wit of it, but it could cross a line. It could get dangerous, words like swords.

His size always vexed her–she was two inches taller. He thought she was attracted to him so she could diminish him further by saying he was a “tidy guy” or a “cute shrimp” yet give her a sense of more control, as well. When she pulled herself to her full height, he thought of a giraffe and smiled as one might at such a curious creature. But he thought her rather sexy, anyway, though who would know it lately.

“My Queen, forgive my stature but adore my income,” he would say when really aggravated by her demeaning way, and peck her hand. It was not kind, no, but he did have his limit.

“Be a proper man, stand taller as if you mean it, Ernest, you are such a slouch sometimes,” she insisted and swiped at his head with her palm as if he was truly her subject. Whereby he’d back away, out of the room, head bowed. As he turned to go, he would throw her a scowl, a fierce look, a warning (though of what, really?– just a look)–she couldn’t mistake that feeling in any case.

If anyone at work saw this they would have a field day. Even Sammy waffled between sniggering and looking away, embarrassed for them both. Ernest and Lynette had had better days when younger, living simpler with few worries. They had not mellowed; they had soured.

He would leave for the pool if it was finally enough. It often was more than enough. What else did she want of him?

What was it that made him happy besides monetary success and being right and swimming? So little else.

******

“I hear you swim,” she said as she stirred creamer into her mug of coffee.

Ernest looked up from his own steaming, bitter mug-full of caffeine.

She added more vanilla-caramel to sweeten it up and as she did so, she pinned back a sweep of glossy hair with her other hand. To keep it from falling in, it was that long and swingy.

“Well,” he said, surprised, and paused, torn between his agenda and this unknown factor.

“I do, too, used to competitively dive, for one thing.” She laughed lightly. “Okay, years ago. But I still do what I love to do.”

“Oh, I see, nice,” he said and started off.

“Where do you go? I’m new in the area.”

He slurped a little, then studied her as she stirred away, eyes on pecan cookies left from a meeting. She snatched one up and dipped it in her coffee.

“There are several good pools, depending upon where you live.”

“I’m just down the street, Premiere Apartments.” She raised her eyebrows at this as everyone knew they were at best mid-grade. One would rather avoid those long-term. “Just for awhile, we’ll see how this works out.”

“This?” he asked as they left the break room.

“Sorry, I assumed you knew…I’m Celeste, an unemployed accountant who is the new cashier?” She held out her hand, cookie already gone. “Remember? I know who you are, of course.”

“Ernest, yes, and welcome.” He shook her hand briefly and she smiled at him again; he thought she had remarkably large front teeth but the smile was downright dazzling. Great for cashiering. He guessed he did recall her but he had met many over the past year.

Dazzling, he thought as he shook her hand. As he walked back to his office, he mused further. A strange thing to think in the middle of the day at work  after talking with a new diver. Uh, cashier.

******

They nodded at each other each morning. At times they passed each other in the aisles and smiled if so inclined. They shared a cup of coffee once more the first month. Some mornings she was not there due to her schedule–he might think of it by lunch time when he vaguely wondered if she’d had a break. He heard nothing but good reports, saw good results. Everyone liked her that was clear, both men and women chatted away with her, both customers or employees.

Ernest once had to pull her aside.

“Mustn’t get too chummy, mind on work, keep the pace brisk, not everything is about personal relations.”

Her pronounced cheeks colored the slightest bit as she turned back to her cash register.”Yes, sir,” she agreed amiably but she was quieter, at least when he appeared.

He felt he might have made her commitment to the store more tenuous by criticizing too soon, so beckoned to her when she was on the way back from the restroom. “You are doing very well, Celeste, keep up the great attitude.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said and hurried on, as if she was only too clear he was the Boss now..

Well, so be it. But he’d  been about to say she could have a day shift exclusively if she kept it up. he heard she was taking classes somewhere and wondered if the change would help. He didn’t mention it; let her seek a change if needed, that was best.

All was well at Hale’s Holistic Marketplace, and made better by her being there everyone said. he was about to get a decent raise; he was feeling generous and was about to recommend a couple, too.

******

Water, the water. He slipped into the deep end without a sound and  initial strokes powered him to pool’s center. Slip and slice, rocket through with quiet ease. His lungs were strong and heart steady. His eyes saw legs and feet and hands and arms of others who came for exercise, relief, fun. The color–a rich but soft turquoise, wasn’t this the true and correct color for a pool?–unbound him as well. He felt the sun’s caress although light was primarily overhead lights; he heard the wind in treetops if he pretended long enough. He was entirely himself.

Ernest had lived at a lake for a time before finally marrying Lynette, and if he closed his eyes and floated on his back he was there again. There he was truly liberated from constraint and self-consciousness for the first time, and then various swimming pools were in his life. He was a lucky man to have had them all.

He propelled himself upward and then dove again, slipping through sinuous flow, resistance enough upon his skin to make him work a bit as he sped up. And then–he never imagined or saw it coming– there erupted an explosion beyond his fingertips, wavelets of color with sounds that engulfed him. Someone had dived in, regardless of his presence–though underwater, of course–and forceful bubbles escaped a mouth, legs stirred up the turquoise to a fizzier green-blue.

Before he broke the surface there was a glimpse of a one piece coral suit but then in it was Celeste, her taut, lithe form racing toward air as if to beat him at it. He broke first.

But she didn’t see him, or if she did, she was far more intent on diving. She climbed up, over the edge in one swift movement and strode to the high dive board and walked out like a champ, steely nerves and clear head. He side stroked to the pool edge and watched, hoping to be invisible. Such an elegant form as she bounced once, shoulders and arms clean of line and potent of muscle and legs, too, how all of that moved as she sprang into steamy air. Over and over, a double flip, a clean entry into waiting water and then a quick swim to the edge. And back to the board.  

Mesmerized, he forgot about swimming. An amnesia took him from being too little of this and that and the almighty paycheck and residual emptiness and it was just water and her dives and a stillness he felt, an increasing vibration of stillness that somehow moved him as he hadn’t been moved in too long. Celeste and her diving were extraordinary, he saw this in entirety. It was like being awakened from a habit of common thoughts and the dullard of sighing days, then pulled though another dimension where water ruled and Celeste was this creature beyond all others. At least, here. Now.

He put his whole head in the water, resurfaced, shook it hard, got out and went to the roped off lanes to begin necessary laps. He stayed at it long enough that he thought she’d be gone and he’d stop envisioning her dives. Until he rested finally, breathless and wrung out by the cement edge. It was late. Few swimmers were left as it was dinner time. Celeste stared right at him from the distant end, then was gone, too. The last of the light shimmied and skidded across the water and put itself out.

******

The next day, they didn’t see each other. The following days if happenstance brought their steps toward one another they only nodded, as if nothing had happened. He surmised nothing had, yet he felt as if it had. Yet work was work; swimming was swimming. No one else thought anything was different, and when he looked in the mirror he was the same moderately nice fellow who was short but trim, and smart but not blazingly so, he knew that, and he was lucky to have what he had. But there was something…as if he saw things more clearly, and yet exactly what was it he saw?

This question drove him a little mad–as if a well known picture had been altered, but what and where was the slight mark that had changed all? There was the nagging mystery of it, a puzzle. He kept on with all he knew well and studied it less as the days rolled or lurched by. Lynette only glanced at him a couple of times, as if he said something but she didn’t quite catch and wondered what he meant to say. But he was circumspect as ever. And he never asked her what it was that rippled over her face; she didn’t bother further. he lay in bed listening to her gentle snore and thought she was good at heart but her heart wasn’t really even in this. His was still. But barely, his loyalty and hope the few leaves hanging on a low branch; a gust might do it all in.

Near misses, all.

But there was the pool.

******

Three times a week, that’s how often he swam laps, when she almost exclusively dove. Some days they came in at different times due to her shifts; some weeks they saw each other once or twice. That is, they spotted each other and almost imperceptibly nodded–and watched one another on occasion as they shared brief performances. Eyes sliding toward the far-off form. They were each expert at what they did so others offered appreciation and wide berth. Ernest was a master of stamina, nuance and fluid rhythms. Celeste was a bolt of lightning, a dancer in midair. Everyone knew their names. Yet the two did not cross paths unless there came a flurry of movement underwater and there–it was her, it was him–closer for a passing moment. No words, no touch.

It was, after all, swimming and diving, water slipping about them and empowering them, transforming a mundane day into eternity, and a blessing. They made the most of it. Their movements meant something, but they couldn’t say exactly what part of a bigger scheme, meanings both nebulous and full of heft and beauty. They awakened in the pool, then gave over to the clarifying brilliance of water. And were happy and no longer alone in their happiness. But they always came and left alone.

Ernest began to chat with people at work, to loosen up a fraction and found he was willing to forgive some wrongness of things from time to time. Then Marv out of the blue sent him a memo: “Remember the bottom line, keep high the bar with your expertise.” It shook up Ernest–had he been failing?– but momentarily. He kept to tasks at hand and learned to relax without slipping up. Others gossiped some about it. He, oddly, had started whistling and caught himself just a bar or so in usually. Celeste heard him but denied it to the others as they snickered, and she just smiled to herself, never veering from the rhythm of her job.

Celeste was working more hours, taking another class and still looking for an accounting job; she wanted more in a life. They worked together, one might run into the other in the break room, and then a briefly shared cup and chatter about ordinary things. He had the family, such busyness, and his good stressful job and there were many little things that made things interesting. They parted as people might who worked together but unequally, each being congenial and going on without a backward glance. They kept their thoughts cool and calm and no one else was allowed access to their knowledge.

The pool never came up; that was the other life they led.

When they swam they were aquatic people, a wilder, finer breed. They moved together, though parallel, within different aspects of water’s identity and embraces. It worked perfectly. And for Ernest, that was excellent enough. For Celeste, it was evidence of an alternate reality of pure love.

Friday’s Quick Pick/Poem: Tempo Change

MI trip days 2-4 (none d. 1) 072
Photo, Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Despite a dire mood I enter the world
then woody trails, carrying my slight hope.
Forward movement of shoulders to hips to feet,
arc of arms and toss of hair, face lifted.
Enveloping me is ripening air, foretastes of fall.

Ah, I awaited this as a child, the sweat to chill.
I yet long for breath deepening, musk at the edges,
that change of meter, a slide from silken to rugged,
the sharp distinction between largo to vivace 
as in a series of restive dreams.

Skin will protest, toughen from little bites
of wind boisterous with damp and cold.
But the tree canopy is already happy, leaves
soon emboldened, colors a gleeful warning.
Then the flight: twig to air to dirt like daredevils.

So soon to prepare, I will wrap feet, hands,
pull about wool and fleece, lower the sashes.
No longer made for brutal beauties of snow,
I welcome a thousand acts of symphonic rain,
shuffle of leaves breaking, ancient fade of light.
It is a bearing down and a bolstering back up.

My heart now staccato as I scale a next hill,
mind shakes free of weight, chest rises, open.
Come close, season’s genius, tang and vivacity,
wide opalescence of sky, pulsing of rainfalls.
Let loose of holy robust brittle autumn,
dance swift into lean shadows of winter,
temper and burnish me maple bronze, apple red.

Bring my soul a harvest of wild moonlight.

 

Green Stamps for the Soul

green-by-bikwilliams-catskidsandcrafts-blogspotdotcom-560x420

Lately the concept of redemption has been a recurring visitor, a cue that tells me I should look into this further. Thus far, I haven’t come up with anything in particular that has triggered this but it won’t let go. It’s not so unusual. But I’ve decided I will sort it out here. First, I have to acknowledge some of how such “guest words” come to  be.

Words knocking on a door of the language cathedral (sorry, language is that important to me) within the brain’s acreage might be generated by cultural/sub-cultural info that targets us randomly. Or maybe it’s a condensed version of phrases I seize upon within various books. It can be a convoluted paragraph that flashes into the mind’s magnifier before awakening. Only to leave me with vague recollections as feet hit the floor, depositing an orphan word, a tiny hint of an idea into my morning. Such has it been with “redemption”–it’s trailed me, more like a misty, never relinquished cape. Perhaps because I read and write a great deal, words–people’s entire names (I usually don’t know them), prayers or places–simply come forward and pressure me for attention and a decent response. Sometimes it’s a word I don’t quite recognize so have to look it up. Occasionally there is no such word in my dictionaries. Not too sure about this; I’m uni-lingual for the most part. And words come sung to me. I know. But it’s how it is.

But I try to give these assertive nouns (or other parts of speech) their due–as least as I can see my way through it. I’m less inclined to spend hours researching, more interested in discovering where a word has traversed my own life as well as how it can be applied in a broader sense. Shared. So this is what happened with the word of “redemption” and its other forms (inflections or conjugations of the root word). The following comes forward now.

I recall two meanings of the root word “redeem” from my early years. First off, S and H Green Stamps were happily redeemable. We got them (given as a promotional ploy) at supermarkets and gas stations. After being gathered, were saved, pasted into booklets, and turned in for a multitude of coveted, useless or helpful items from the company’s catalog. I don’t recall the items gotten–doll clothing and games, tea towels, a watch, implements of various kinds–as clearly as the experience of getting, saving and using Green Stamps. It seemed as if my mother only shopped at places that gave out the mint green stamps that were then licked and pasted into each blank page. She was a great coupon clipper and user; anything that could augment income seemed invaluable. I thought those stamps were magical: buy food or gas, get bonus stamps that could deposit a toy in my hands.

I was often talked into pasting in the strips of stamps that clogged the kitchen junk drawer. I whined about it but I can tell you I enjoyed doing this. I liked the way a blank page, sectioned into small rectangular spaces corresponding to the stamps, would soon be neatly covered. To make the gummed backs stick I used a small bottle of water (we otherwise had to lick all stamps ourselves) that had a rounded yellow sponge top. By the time a booklet was filled the pages were wavy from dampness and fat with stamps. I nearly recall the scent of damp, cheap newsprint with plastered, lined up green rectangles. I placed a finished booklet on the growing pile and when done, Mom put them in a box on top of the frig. Eventually, the stamped pages led to something handy or fun. I thought of the items as gifts. But that was how it worked: your mother or father got stamps and they were complied to be redeemed, or traded, for good stuff.

The second way I understood the words redeem/redeemable/redemption was through church attendance and the Bible. The idea was to be rescued from things I did or thought that tripped me up, could tear me down and also cause others harm.  It meant being saved from going under in a vast pool of treacherous sin–all that stuff that wasn’t good for a person, stirred up more by misguided choices–through Jesus Christ’s love for humankind and his subsequent sacrifice. I saw that it meant being set free, ultimately, from tough consequences of my human tendency to make errors– like telling a fib or sassing the parents or smacking my sister back, I guessed. I might get in trouble at home but Jesus saw through to my hopefully better intentions and, if not entirely overlooked the rotten ones, then forgave them and we basically called it good for the time being.

I wasn’t always sure what I might have done wrong. But as I sat on the cushioned pew in the high-ceilinged Methodist sanctuary with a koi-filled water feature right outside to look at, I just knew God loved me. Jesus had already paid for basic human weakness that led us astray, and even future wrongdoings if I forgot how to do the right thing. Such love was clearer to me than shimmering water of the pool with blue sky bits in it, and it went way past civilized behavior like good manners or small or big mistakes of human judgment. I could count on that.

And that made me want to do better. It was a reciprocal thing: being loved by God, then passing it on while loving God back. Even then I hoped to show my appreciation, be in sync with what I thought of as Divine Spirit, a perfect harmony that sang to me, vibrated in nature. It gave me deep satisfaction and if I could have found the right words, a sense of transcendence. And it felt better to live in accordance with “First love God deeply and fully; love your neighbor as yourself” (to paraphrase the two greatest commandments Jesus noted and insisted all learn and live). My parents insisted, as well, of course. The instructions stayed with me as the eternal light that guides me. It was a serious business, redemption, but as a child I wore it lightly, as if an ordinary thing to know and accept.

It would take unspeakable tragedies, sudden losses and repeated failures; long periods of anguish over my selfishness, badly made choices and lapses of faith before I could begin to know the greater meanings and how hard it could be to hold onto the truths it embodied. It’s unfashionable to speak of guilt or remorse but they have their places in the human grab bag of feelings–and in the guide of our conscience. By trading in selfish disregard, despair and even self-loathing–costs of a life gone awry–for mercy and compassion, I found it possible to give the latter more generously to others. When you have nothing, not even hope of life, and are given one more breath as well as the means to go on, it is easy to feel humility and thankfulness. And that becomes a redemption process.

But it is still, after all these years, hard to act in accordance with an old legacy of soul-stirring rescue and renewal. It asks a lot of people to exchange their unwise whims and ravenous appetites– as well as prejudices and a tendency toward small cruelties. That we can do worse, much worse, in the name of “right and might” we know from bloodied annals of history. But do we really act as if we know we can do far better?

Since I believe we come from God, God remains within us when on earth and we return to God in an unbroken circle, I have wondered: what shatters that primary, even mystical connection? We are each birthed into the world, and we don’t usually come with beatific smiles on our faces but crying out. But we arrive equipped with intelligence, fantastic systems of locomotion and for learning, a capacity for feeling a spectrum of emotions. We arrive with impressive free will fully installed, unlike creatures who are motivated by instinct–as witnessed by even a crawling baby’s refusal to do as caregivers desire, even demand.

We think we know so much from the very start. And we do, in some unspoken way…and then smudge it up here and there because we can. And just want to. And then is there still workable knowledge? That which can make things add up to our benefit while acting in good regard for others? Is our will expansive and benevolent or spurious and undermining? It’s our choice, after all.

The word redemption comes to me again and again because it’s powerful. And we each seek it in various ways at certain times. I worry about the fate of this place, our planet Earth. We all do. We lie very still in the breath of night and maybe go to the window and try to count the inexhaustible stars and wonder how that ravishing universe can seem so rarefied yet far from our pettiness and misery, our terrible designs with their misappropriated energies and labors. We fill our lives with distractions to quell the contagious anxiety rippling around the world. How far have we come from our best beginnings? How much have we forgotten of the mysterious congruence of a universe that goes on despite our misguided, our flagging efforts here?

How lost can a species of creatures become? Are we not primal enough? Or not open enough to wisdom greater than our limited, perhaps one might think lazy, speculations?

We are naturally inclined to be explorers. And we have good clues in maps right here. They are in our natural bodies: the pumps and one way doors, a myriad of interdependent chemicals, connectors and transmitters: the blood-rich, nerve-conducting wisdom. Our bodies mirror much outside of the flesh. We have extreme mapping in our brains, those vast reservoirs full of information and imaginative juices. We enjoy our barrier busting leaps of thought. Are we irretrievably lost? Think again, only let higher functions of mind and soul open more effective routes, bolder solutions, itineraries that can take us to answers and make things work for the many– not only the few. What is below is as above; the universe and this planet are part of an infinite, barely grasped whole. Entire unto itself, we guess– yet we are within it.

So much that we can discern about us reflects the rest in endless configurations. If you love nature, you can see that: whorls of a tree’s inner trunk and planetary paths and spreading circles a single drop of water falls into a pond. So much more. We are here to immerse ourselves in such wonders and utilize our capabilities.  To pass on love as the treasure it is. We are given all this in exchange of stewardship of a planet and the tending of our human lives so that all may flourish.

And yet here we are. These times of catastrophes, power mongering, failures to communicate. It is all so not new, but nonetheless disturbing.

How, then, can we participate in the redemption of our better natures? We must not once forget the inestimable value of human beings even as we struggle with blindness or confusion. Life can be redeemed little by little, moment by moment, one more sound act of reason upheld by care. And then another and another. There is never too much kindness; we do not run out of it, not if we keep it at the ready, put it in motion. But we are not the only vital characters coming and going as the story turns. Perhaps one challenge is to know our place and yet to find it essential and beloved.

We can count on God knowing we are floundering–we, I believe, share Spirit and Mind. We are earthly specks yet celestial beings, made for greater things though we strain to understand. Still we can take action, bring to the fore our finer and braver impulses. Let the clear heart of redemption move us to trade scattered, weakened intentions for something more sound. More sacred. Practical matters and visionary potential are not mutually exclusive. We can trade for the consequences of a quiet (create/enact the work of hope; smile often, gently) or boisterous (bring on the music, speak up for change) life but do it with the transformative intentions of love.

The time we are given and endeavors we choose, I learned, are worth infinitely more than Green Stamps stuck into piles of flimsy books. It is my responsibility to daily renew commitment to an uncertain life on earth, to make sacrifices as needed and ultimately to live with deep and abiding charity. This is perhaps the means and ends of the miracle of redemption’s power.

Whims of Fortune

Photo by Leysis Quesado Vera. Source themkphotographyblog.net
Photo by Leysis Quesado Vera. Source themkphotographyblog.net

The light is failing or it is my eyes. Treetops and meadows blur. I am staring at something I cannot quite pinpoint, far off. Maybe it is only the changing of seasons, dark months torn open by sun, a shock that threatens to blind me. I blink a few times and scenery disappears even when my eyelids stay open. But another second or two and eyes refocus; I identify all I know so well. I am tired despite being up only four hours, since six o’clock.

I sit here after I scour the third of five bathrooms as always on Monday mornings for Idina. Sometimes for her husband, Richard. The room needs airing. This house is ancient, walls have absorbed everything that has been here, which is not to say the place smells badly most of the time–I wouldn’t tolerate that–just full of markers from past and present. It has all been updated, more or less. But still, it bears history heavily. Every room is the same. Vast, crumbling more than not yet exquisite to us all. Damp, yes, marred even when I am done. It’s what you would expect after over almost two hundred-fifty years.

The weather is dry today so I will open every window I can manage unless Idina snaps her fingers at me, gesturing at the shutters. Some days she feels ill with dyspepsia and cannot bear breezes carrying varieties of earthy scents. Some days she is just irritated with life. Then all is haunted by shadows and all the old things here and her family. But usually she smiles or nods in passing, hair swaying. She knows I am excellent at housekeeping, better than she could ever be if fortune turned and she had to take up my duties. But that won’t happen. Richard keeps her secure and can still make her laugh when he isn’t travelling. I help this aging place survive.

I see the cat, Tip, sharpening his claws on a fig tree. There is a bird not far away but Tip is lazy. He watches me all day long as I scurry from one task to another, his long black tail curled about his rotund body. He yawns at me when I try to get him to move so I can sweep. He is like many men I have known, comfortable and arrogant enough to ignore his duties and often me. But Tip’s small white-edged ears turn this way and that, tuning in to my whereabouts. He follows me from room to room, often. Unless he is captivated by mice, only as he pleases.

The grazing cows in the upper pasture send out their throaty moo,moo into warming air, their very simpleness making me glad the sun is shining and that I have ten minutes to sit. I close my eyes and listen to them. Bees (or is it those mud wasps) working hard. The creek tossing and turning its silvery sounds.

We were friends once. Idina and I. My parents farmed down the road and her parents travelled. They left her and brother, Anton, with Carolina, the nanny. There was a good-sized staff that ran the house and until Idina was eight she believed (or acted as if she did) they were extended family members, there to help out. I had to tell her the truth. She looked up at me–I was and still am taller–and frowned as if I had given her a sour candy that she had believed sweet. She asked Carolina to explain it.

“Right, as usual,” she said the next day. “I don’t know how you know things, Celia.”

“It’s because I get to live with the animals and climb trees. Living in a big house keeps you from real life.” I tossed a rock. “Ma says, anyway.”

“Your ma is sort of funny and smart but don’t tell my mama.”

“Why not?”

“Because your ma milks cows. She’s a farmer’s wife.”

I didn’t like to think what she meant but she took my hand and pulled me along to a small pond where we watched salamanders appear and disappear under water. Then we had tea all our own on the side terrace. Never once did she act as if I didn’t belong there despite my ma being a farmer’s wife. Her parents tolerated it as long as they didn’t have to witness much, I thought later. I kept her occupied, whereas the older Anton, the heir, had a friend from private school he brought home during vacations.

We played together into our early youth, usually when her parents were gone. Caroline was like a big sister and let us roam, one eye on us and one on either her books or the gardener. Idina had her studies in the library and I went to village school half-days because my father liked that I could read so well and do maths. But it ended when mother bore her sixth squalling, soft-skinned infant and they needed help with him. I was fourteen and lucky I had managed classes that long.

At seventeen, I was asked if I would be interested in assisting the estate’s two older housekeepers. It was easy, so I stayed. I didn’t like farming very much and was not about to marry anyone I knew. This despite my father’s obligatory lectures on advantages of a reasonably friendly wedded life–he knew someone who had a nephew or a grandson or there was a visitor at the neighbor’s, why not be introduced? But he did like the added money I gave them. My mother said nothing, knowing as I did that, either way, I would not be free. At least at the estate I could have my own neat, tiny room overlooking the wild wooded acreage. I saw the sun spread its vivid palette along the tree line in morning. My few tattered books were stacked close by, my trusty companions. Peace at the end of the day rather than the chaos of half-raising my mother’s children. I promised to visit the farm every month or two and have managed that overall. I do love them.

Idina left a few months after I began my work. She married and spent the better part of a year in Italy with her husband, Richard, a businessman and vineyard owner. Soon, it was just like her parents, as if she couldn’t find a true spot to roost. We chatted less easily and frequently; that was natural. Our childhood days were far behind us.

I am the same, strong-bodied, curious-minded but she has become someone else. An even richer man’s wife than her own mother (who then was more often staying in Paris with her husband while he invested in a resurrected perfume business. Perfume!). Idina has lived twenty miles away at Richard’s manse sometimes, and then at the family home for reasons about which I speculated. Richard is still not as attentive as I know she needs. I watch her face when with him and it ripples with longing and disappointment. After her father passed away last year, her mother stayed in Paris. The house was to be sold. Idina refused to go along with that, arguing with an officious, portly Anton and their mother, now white-haired and distracted. After that she returned here for months at a time.

Of course I knew why but I never give away anything. They were never that well suited, Richard with his minions holding forth at their place all hours of day and night from what I’ve gathered from others; Idina with her rebelliously empty womb and passion for art, music and need for order. She seems more frail each passing year. It makes me uneasy but I can’t help her now. And would not be asked.

I know my work beckons, but Tip is playing with a grasshopper, I think, and the light has turned caramel, the air balmy. It seems as if I would rather neglect things. Idina won’t fuss, as long as I get tasks completed by the time I turn in.

Perhaps it’s because my birthday is coming up. The thirtieth. It had long ago seemed a fairy tale age, a time when one would have settled in once and for all. Children gathered as they did around my mother, soon to be replaced by grandchildren. But beyond that, a purpose that offered tangible and other rewards of some kind. A more incandescent quality to living, does that sound ridiculous? It might have unfolded like that but the possibilities shrink. I embraced the position of housekeeper at eighteen and in three months knew the work so well I could do it without thinking. So I thought of what I had read before breakfast or what I wanted to jot down later, poetry coming in quick groupings of imagery. Wondered over the insects and birds that claimed plants and trees as I hung the wash. The nature of God as I surveyed the workings of our celestial realm yet had few names for all I did not understand and needed to know intimately.

Now I feel empty-headed too often. As if no one resides there, only a shadow of who I was. It terrifies me.

The latest thoughts have been of finding a way out. But how? To what? I haven’t met one suitor in well over four years. The ones that came and went were dull-witted, irresponsible, even unattractive. The one man on staff who is single and closest to my age is turning silver-haired. He is prone to jokes that grow longer and worse with each telling. He would be overjoyed by my company if I had any small part to give. I cannot bear the idea.

I am not content, anymore. If I ever was. How do I know what I want when I have never been given the chance to seek more than what I have? Yet I dream that I am educated, perhaps a teacher and also writing and if there is love it comes with interchange that uplifts mind as well as heart. How many other women feel the pull like a sea tide must feel? I worry it will drag me away and leave me with no good fortune at all.

Tip rolls over in the grass and gazes up at me, sinuous tail dancing, then is up on all fours and gone. I hear someone calling for another, a cook’s helper perhaps, for luncheon. The breeze skims my arms. I close the shutter in time to bar an interested wasp from entry, then  move on.

The hallway is still. At the end and to the right are Idina’s rooms. I hesitate, then straighten my shoulders and set out to see if she is up yet, will tell her I am ready to clean her washroom. As I round the corner, she opens the bedroom door, hand to chest as if deep in thought, then looks up and stops in her tracks.

“I was just thinking of you.”

She held out her hand and I went to her.

“Did you need something?”

Her face is pale and her slender hand is at her throat. “Come in my room.”

The drapes are drawn as usual and her bed is a mess, twisted sheets revealing her night of sleeplessness, pillows on the floor.

“Sit down, Celia. I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”

She’s always had a thin face with sallow skin that made her deep brown eyes seem larger, irises warmed with a cast of gold. But now her skin is more antique ivory, her lips pale as well and quivering. I look down at my folded hands. She is not well.

“We never talk anymore.” She leans toward me a little.

I give her a small smile.

“Well, I don’t like it. We were best friends for so long, then we were not even allowed to see each other, anymore. Foolish of our parents. The older generation always thinks it knows the best thing. When it’s all just what they are comfortable with, what is correct in their eyes.”

I don’t disagree as that would be rude but she was much less interested in being a friend, too. My mother thought it sad I had lost Idina’s friendship and vice versa. But this is a first in some years, her being personal. I sit still.

“I want us to be friends again, Celia. Can we find a way to do that in this house, these times?”

I start, sit up straight and stare at her so hard she lowers her long eyelashes.

“Maybe I’ve made a mistake.”

“You’ve made a mistake? No, not at all. It’s just. Well, it’s been twelve years since I came to work for your family. You. I’m not sure what you’re needing from me.”

Idina gets up from the chair, walks to the window, parts the sumptuous blue curtains, a swirl of dust entering a stripe of sunlight that appears. I feel a twinge of embarrassment, my cleaning not being up to standard. She doesn’t notice. She opens the curtains and her face is flooded with that rich light I love this time of year.

“I’m pregnant. And I’m afraid.”

“Oh!” I feel a surge of giddiness and then unease.

She stays at the window, but turns back to me. “I don’t know how I can do this. I’m quite alone. Richard doesn’t seem that desirous of children or of me, anymore. He doesn’t know yet. He’s travelling again.”

“Ah. I see.” Energy traverses spine and neck, turning into a shiver.

“Do you? Because I’m not sure I even can! It’s a mess, really. He’s gone all the time, he may have other….interests…I can’t bear to think how I will manage.”

Idina sits down again and reaches for my hands. I cover hers in both of mine and feel her deflate, her body crumple against the chair.

“Is he…?”

What do I want to ask?  Do you still love this man? Are you having other health issues? Are you going to be alright? Of course not, she is a wreck as well she should be. After all the years and here we are again, our childhoods so gone we can barely see them. Yet she needs me.

I try again. “What is it you want?”

Idina’s head lowers to her hands. “I just need a true friend.”

Now, you might think that after all these years I would have heard these words and felt once more welcomed, been relieved, look forward to her company. Instead, I release her hands and pull myself up tall. I am filled with sadness and anger.

“Now? You now want me close, Idina? When trouble strikes you feel I should come running as when we were ten? These are adult complications that intimate friends share… I don’t know you, really, not at all. I have been a housemaid passing, soundless, while you have come and gone, lived your rightful and separate life. I agreed to this, the money has made a difference; I have had some good times here. But it has worked because we set a boundary long ago. We have kept to our separate stations. It is too late to be such close friends as you desire, way too late.”

She begins to cry, hiding her face in her hands. How small she looks in her periwinkle dress, her finely woven grey shawl. I have to root my feet to the floor to not reach out to her. I am not the carefree child who has boundless love. I am a pinched and aching and restless woman, given to flights of fantasy, given to dreams that may never come true for me. She has had choices, not so many, but more. She has had love, not the best perhaps but years of companionship. She now has a baby coming. To nurture and cope with day and night. I know all about that after years of being my mother’s hands and feet.

All I want is out.

“I’m sorry, truly I am. I can’t be a nursemaid, caring for your surprise child. I can’t hold you up through thick and thin now. And I don’t want to clean toilets and dust libraries whose books I cannot even take the time to read even if they were available to me. I have to take my own life into my hands. I must do just that when you find my replacement. You were a good friend, once. We were there for each other, once. But now we live lives so far apart that they do not intersect in a way that has meaning for me. I’m not a friend for hire, Idina. You do need care and help. But that help is not me.”

I touch her shoulder–I want to put my arms around her and cry with her even as I want to go–but she bats my hand away. Uncertain and fearful of what I have done, I hesitate. Then Tip scratches at the door. I let him in. He trots in with a small brown mouse in mouth and carefully lays it at my feet. I am glad to see his efforts have paid off and more so that he has brought his victory to share with us. With me, in fact. I turn to Idina but she is still weeping as if she will never stop. But she will.

Tip is at attention, looking satisfied and neat as a pin. He purrs as I smooth that fine old head.

“Good job, old fellow. Quite the catch. But I have my own work to do. You’ll have to show your mistress.”

Tip picks up his mouse and walks out the door with me, then runs down the winding stairs. I pull it shut and hurry to the next room, chin up, chest opening as I catch the heady scent of spring from somewhere beautiful.

 

How to Soften Without Weakening

 

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CJ always walked fast in her brown Frye boots that had a hard inch high heel, the better to strike the hard byways and roads, floors of public places, rooms of homes. They announced that she was strong of mind and body, she was not wasting time, and don’t even think of accosting her. People would turn their heads, face in a frown, so loudly did her heels hit a surface.

Those boots travelled with CJ for years, carried her into woods and mountains, cities and villages, from one side of the country to the other. They covered her snug, faded jeans to the knee. She wore sporty tops, a wornout jean jacket. Her hair morphed from year to year, blond for a bit, years of cropped burnished red, then reverted to the real auburn, then finally interspersed with strands of white. Large blue, dark-rimmed eyes bore right into you when they looked into yours at all; mostly they scanned the environment, took in the milieu. Located a spot within a group that she would claim. Not reticent, CJ spoke right up, interested, attentive but she kept a psychic distance, engaging in talk smartly but without full personal committment. She had strong opinions; everyone knew them soon.

Never would she be tricked by people again, nor by life or love. But, of course, she was, often. And at the end of each day she went home, pulled off the boots that had become scuffed and pliable with wear. Washed her face, settled down with journal or books, paper and typewriter or sought guitar or piano. And then tender, responsive, yielding feelings and thoughts flowed like water from an opened spring. A little softness breathed and expanded. What moved her came to the fore, and what hurt bled so that she was both sorry and relieved to still feel it all.

This went on for a couple of decades–variations of attire, sometimes fancier footwear–until someone asked her why she acted so hard. The question was like a slap in the face but she said, “I’m not hard. I’m kind of tough, I guess, but I’m strong and that matters to me. The world is harsh, don’t you think? I guess my way works for me because I’m still going onward and upward.”

“Does it?” came the response. “Because people are afraid of you at worst, intimidated at times by your energy and bearing, and even those of us drawn to you don’t know if we’ll be welcomed or challenged…”

CJ laughed. “Well, I guess the braver ones will come forward and we’ll work it out. Or not. I can’t be responsible for what others think, only for what I choose to do. And I’m okay with things.”

“You know what? You seem…arrogant. That’s part of the problem. But maybe you’re just afraid. ”

CJ turned away and stalked off. No one understood. Interacting freely and openly was so often an exercise in futility. She was better off alone except for a very few and even then…

It took awhile to find her way back to the gentle side of genuine strength. Being soft resulted in being vulnerable from what she could tell. She was in her early forties before she redesigned her behavior substantially enough to present herself more fully and honestly to others. Because there was some truth in the observer’s comment: she was pretty tough and perhaps a little arrogant, but she was also scared of various things, good-hearted and full of passion for life. Committing to absolute sobriety made an immense impact but that was only the beginning of a journey to wholeness. Well being would require more than awareness or a good plan; it required a willingness to change and redoubled efforts. Peace was the goal. The one experience she had failed to encounter since childhood.

How does someone radically change? Would that it was a natural metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, a transition that felt so reassuring, with a punch at the end: the beautiful pay-off. But adding wings to those who treat life as though it has to be wrestled, tamed and codified is an arduous task.

When people are tossed about by the vagaries of living, experience multiple losses, become used to fighting hard to stay alive, they learns that being readied for the worst can be useful. It’s like arming the alarm and sitting in wait for trouble. It creates a cynicism of the worst sort, as even vivid blue sky moments can be missed due to tracking skittish or heavy clouds. There can be so much put into survival emotionally or physically that exhaustion renders the person worn-out. Ragged. A hard shell can be the only remaining defense. This view lends itself to expectations of losing out–why go all in and embrace possibilities and happy times when you believe they will soon dissolve? Life is fickle, prone to sudden shifts. Some are convinced being stoic and putting shoulder to the wind is better than being swayed this way and that and then perhaps toppled. People who push hard through life have had enough of being down. They need to stand tall; beware anyone who takes them to their knees.

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The problem with such stolid refusal to bend or back down is what the old adage states: without flexibility, a person can break. Or just become so obdurate, so unwilling to relinquish control and to take a chance on vulnerability that there is a loss like none other: the inability to feel richness of emotion. Love and fulfillment. Deep intimacy, tranquility. Hope. That hallelujah that comes from joy.

Everyone needs to toughen up a bit. That begins as toddlers, then ever after when we fall. The kindest parent will let the child get right back up with encouragement and a gentle touch, bear the howling and sniffling then wipe tears away. If not, each fall and failure would be one too many, hard to accept as part of the process of gaining more skills. Resilience is instilled this way. Directed toward the next choices or steps, there is the belief that the coming experience will be worthy of effort, with the possibility of a better outcome.

But there are those who tumble without a kind word to shore them up. There are those, too, who have so much breakage during many kinds of falls that something inside gets crippled, stunted in the process of healing. What helps overcome pain is becoming inured to it, ignoring it, bearing it in private with no witness to offer a supportive hand. And when people who are born very tender-hearted come face to face with the frailties, ugliness or woundedness of living, it can scour their minds and souls, tear away critically protective insulation. The alternative for too many is to become harder or perish.

How can healthy living be restored? A search for balance needs to be initiated, so that endurance and stamina, courage and strength can become more potent with no loss of heart. Instead, the heart will open and become wiser as we navigate dangerous shoals effectively. It requires risk and surrender: letting feelings come and go as though through a sieve, feeling and acknowledging but not overdosing on them, not being overcome. It requires thinking imaginatively when all seems pointless or burdensome, dsicerning thenext right steps. And considering the promises and pleasure of what lies around the next corner. Not least is practicing to be a person of enduring substance, who has dignity but not arrogance. A core of strength devoid of unforgiving hardness.

A seemingly superfical alteration is trying a different costume and demeanor. When I was still counseling addicted and emotionally challenged persons full-time and saw people enter my office with shoulders rigid, lips taut, their public masks bold but full of warning, I suggested trying on a new one. Loosen the stride, smile at others first, open up personal space a little, walk with confidence, not as angry self-defense. Speak more quietly; others listen more to someone who doesn’t demand being heard. Buy new clothes or rearrange an outfit so it’s no longer armor, but only an accoutrement. An addendum to the real person who can better shine through. It’s powerful how even small adjustments can affect those who meet you. Then, forget yourself altogether. There’s a whole world out there that could use your attention. The truth is, every person needs to be seen so go ahead, look them in the eye if they don’t shy away.

Whatever lies ahead is generally as good as you make it. No one else can do it. Use your strength like a gift, not a weapon.

The last time I saw CJ was today. I looked in the mirror. I simply stopped walking as though I was on a terrible mission decades ago and discovered how it feels to not win or lose, but be at home in my own skin.  To be better powered by faith in God and acceptance of life’s whims and trials. To know that love for others never has an end; what is given away is replenished. Being fully and deeply human ended up becoming an even more extraodinary experience than expected. I feel strength of heart, of soul increasing each year.

Of course I still have boots. My favorites are soft black leather, tall and lower heeled. But barefoot or shoed, I am walking with ease, moving in peace.

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