A Place in the World

Photo by Vivian Maier
Photo by Vivian Maier

If my beautiful mother and fabulous Aunt Rennie had been born into someone else’s family, things would have been far different. I might have been happier. I would, first off, have been someone else’s daughter. And niece. Maybe I would have ended up on a ranch in Wyoming, tending cattle and riding to the mountains for a two week camp-out. Or bobbing about in a rickety houseboat that was made its way down the Yangtze River. My favorite option, though, is growing up in a split log cabin that my amazing, self-sustaining parents made with their own hands in the Alaskan wilderness. I’d go canoeing every day in a handmade canoe, slink out onto the lake without a sound. I’d recognize the wildlife at first sight and welcome new challenges that required me to use my considerable courage and strength.

I was born to be a heroine in some big adventure story, I like to think.

I wouldn’t have a shaggy, irritating brother or a cousin who thinks she knows everything just because she has more money than I do.

Cousin Misty: “Money buys brains, too, at least an education that doesn’t suck.”

Cue her stuck out tongue, red from eating strawberry licorice.

Me: “How do you know this primo bit of info, Misty?”

Misty:”Because I go to Garrison Day School.”

Me, smirking: “And that’s what they teach you, that you have brains? You really need to find a better school.”

Misty flounces off to the living room where she fawns all over my mom, who has pledged to half-raise her (as her godmother).

“Aunt Caroline, Kelly is not even worthy of my attention! What are you and mom up to?”

I can hear them chattering–my mom, Aunt Rennie, Misty–as they head out to the back yard with icy lemonades in their pink manicured paws. I imagine them as pigs’ feet, and curly tails stick out from their shorts, and I feel better. Not nicer, no, but better. When those three get together it is as if I am dust they shake off. I float away. Well, they’re right. I have no interest in eye shadow, shoe shopping, gossiping about movie mags.

Mother worries. I’m now thirteen and nothing has changed other than the obvious. I look like a girl-on-the-verge, no stopping that. But I am not their kind of girl. What kind of girl am I? Well, you’ll notice I gave a few examples above. If I had had another set of parents, there might have been more hope.

Maybe it started when I was seven, no, eight years old. I had a contest in mind. Hal is three years older, so of course he makes up the rules but that time he felt generous and let me do it. There were two maple trees standing side by side. We sometmes hung a hammock between them, they were so close. I told him I could beat him to the top of the tree. If I won, he owed me an ice cream cone every day for the next week. If he won, I had to buy him a donut every day for a week. He agreed, thinking I was a fool, just a little kid with blonde pigtails who interrupted his life too much.

He had his tree and I had mine. It had always been that way. They were about the same height and grew remarkably alike but they each had their quirks. I’d started climbing it when I was six by putting the kitchen stepstool up so it could reach the lowest branch. Then I threw and tied a rope on the lowest branch so I could swing up, loop my leg around and then pull myself up to sitting position by grasping another branch. Then I headed to the peak, as I thought of it. Simple, and the most fun I could find many days. I was a tree climbing nut.

I knew just where the narrowest or deepest crooks were on mine, where even the sturdiest branches weakened, how the trunk bent a little to one side here and another side there. The branches were knotty and spectacular. Climbing was a pleasure, all the way to the top from which I could see half the neighborhood. I spent more time in that tree than almost anywhere else except in winter. Even then I visited, just so it remembered I was around. So that tree and I were bonded.

I could get up and into the branches in under fifteen seconds. It was an easy ascent. I never wore shoes unless it was really chilly so that helped and I wore loose clothing. Hal was a good twenty pounds heavier than I was, always wore tennis shoes that looked enormous and he was clumsier, I thought. He had too much hair, all those curls that could get caught. He was stronger in some ways but he wasn’t as nimble.

It seemed like a no-brainer to me that I’d win the contest. He thought otherwise.

“Watch out, you little cricket! Hey, that’s lookin’ a little shaky! Don’t get scared now!”

I scampered up the limbs while he plotted his way, planted one foot then the other, and ran his mouth. Halfway up my t-shirt snagged on a rough spot. I pulled hard to dislodge it; the fabric ripped but a broken twig still held fast. I stole a glance at Hal; he was gaining. I tried to pull free but had to hold on with one hand at least. It occurred to me then that I could take the t-shirt off. I did so with some difficulty, then doubled my efforts, my feet and toes reaching and grasping each new spot, hands grabbing as fast as I could go.

I heard a dull thump behind me accompanpanied by a muffled screech but kept going. I was going to win if it killed me. When I reached top branches they poked through the big blueness above, as always, and I parted the leaves to better see a few wispy clouds drift by. I looked over at Hal’s tree. He had failed to beat me, just as I hoped. I felt wild and strong and proud of myself.

“Yes!” I hollered.

“Kelly! Hal fell!”

I tried to see far below but the summer branches were thick with hearty leaf growth. I wondered if Hal just had slipped his way down and was now milking every scrape. Or had he lost his grip and fallen to his near-death? It wasn’t something I had thought about happening before. I always felt secure. But a sudden fear undermined me, made me wobbly a second. I didn’t want to let go, to leave that treetop at all. This was my spot, my home away from all that down there. I didn’t need to leave. Let the grown ups deal with things below.

“Kelly, come down now!”

I started back. In a few feet I could see Hal splayed on the bright carpet of grass, his leg in a funny position. He was whimering and his face was yellow-white. It didn’t look good.

It turned out to be broken. And I got the blame, more or less. If only I hadn’t challenged him, if only I hadn’t had to make a stupid bet, if only I’d stopped to think of what the consequences might be–a dual race up maple trees, for crying out loud! But even worse…

“Kelly, take this sweater and cover up. You look like a ragamuffin– and there’s a bloody gash on your shoulder! I swear, you don’t have to compete with your brother! Just be a regular girl! For once!”

I didn’t get my ice cream, of course. Not ever. I didn’t bring it up and neither did Hal. In fact, he didn’t talk to me for a week. I had to steal cinnamon rolls three times from the kitchen for his midnight snack before he would even acknowledge my presence.

It was a turning point for me, the moment I understood who I was. And it brought me sadness. My mother wasn’t pleased. Everything I loved seemed to be the wrong thing: getting dirty, competing, seeking a little danger, being physically challenged. Being outdoors and doing everything possible out there rather than inside four walls which could suffocate me in an hour flat.

I can’t say my father was hard on me. He wasn’t. He took me along with Hal on many camping trips. He taught me how to fish and make a campfire without matches. We learned about tracking and bird songs and bugs. He understood, or so I thought, for many years. And then I started to grow up and he suggested I follow my mother’s counsel, whom he adored.

“She knows things I don’t, Kels, things that will help you in life, too. We can still go camping but you might want to, you know, hang out with the other gals more, your cousin and aunt, too.”

And he gave me a funny little smile that melted my heart but also broke it some. He patted my back lightly and went back to his work in the garage. I felt dismissed for the first time ever. Things changed right then in more ways than I thought possible.

It would have been easier if mom and Aunt Rennie were ordinary women. If everywhere we went they didn’t get second glances, whistles and comments that alternately irritated and pleased them. It was embarrassing to me. Misty thought it was fun and practiced a silly flirtatiousness, as if our mothers had to do any of that. I thought she was about the stupidest cousin I could ever have had. But she made up one third of their trio. I was the odd one out, even though my mom gestured at me to hurry up, come along. I felt more like a wayward puppy she had to keep track of than her daughter.

But all was not lost. Meanwhile, I had been practicing my tennis and winning some and playing softball and scoring. Competing on the girls’ middle school swim team, aka the Sharkettes. This was thanks to my dad’s visionary support of his daughter, but soon mom came around, too. I had some talents, afterall, just not the ones she had hoped to pass to me, an early inheritance. I was glad Hal was playing basketball again, doing much better, and I cheered him on when I could.

One afternoon near the end of seventh grade while I was waiting for the city bus after school I saw Misty walking down the block. She had her book bag hugged close to her chest and her head hung low. Since she was alone I went over to her.

Her face was all red and streaked with dirt. Her uniform was messed up, too.

“Misty, what’s up?”

She raised her swollen eyes and at the sight of me started to bawl hard. I couldn’t make out her words at first but then I heard something about “they hate me, they got me!”

I stopped her with hands on her upper arms. “Wait, someone beat you up after school?”

She nodded and leaned into me, shaking with fear and anger. I held onto her, pulled her against my own pounding heart. I didn’t know what to do, but my first impulse was to go hunt down the kids who had been mean to her and give them something to remember. I had a few good and brave friends, and we’d find out who the kids were and take care of things. Those thoughts gradually faded as we walked, though, and Misty stopped crying.

“I’m sorry they did that, it’s rotten. I can’t imagine who could be so mean. What will you do? What started it?”

“I don’t know! Some say I think I’m so smart and some say I’m too pretty but some think I’m ugly. I honestly can’t tell you, Kels, what I am. Except miserable. I hate that school! I despise being almost fourteen!”

We walked to the coffee shop and went to the restroom. I helped her wash dirt off her face and arms, clean fiery welts and scrapes. I thought how we were only a few months apart, and how different we were. She was some exotic being, with eyes that tilted up at the ends just like her mom, with long, dark, wavy hair. But there were some things about us that were similar, too: straight noses, the strong shape of our faces and naturally arched eyebrows. Our chins jutting out when we were fed up.

For the first time I thought we were like irregularly linked opposites, matching creations from two sides of a rough mold.

Misty kept asking me to not tell her mother or mine but I wasn’t sure that could be avoided. I was pretty sure all hell would break loose and matters would be taken in hand.

We each got an iced drink and a scone, my treat. We nibbled and sipped and then sat quiet awhile.

“I miss you,” she said suddenly. “Really, Kels.”

My head jerked up. We hadn’t ever been very close in the first place.

“I remember watching you run wild and my mom wanting me to stay put. I wanted to join you so much. You had such freedom–or just took it! Our mothers always said you were the tomboy and I was the princess–remember?–but I wanted to be more like you.”

“That’s just weird, Misty. You never acted that interested. You had to get and wear a crown when I wanted to play pirate girls.”

She shrugged. “Well, that doesn’t mean I didn’t admire you.” She swished her melting ice around in the glass. “I might have avoided being in trouble today if I was more like you…”

I laughed. “Oh, listen, I’m not some tough girl. I just like sports and nature, good stuff like that. I don’t want people to label me, either!”

“I know. But you’re…just… well, you’re better than me. Better at being who you want, for sure.”

I smacked her hand softly. “Stop. You’re you, I’m me. Neither of us is all that. Well, maybe we are and don’t know it yet. I mean, I feel pretty good some days, not so good other days. But we’ll both figure it out eventually. See, I just want to keep doing what matters to me and nothing is going to stop me. And no one should get in your way, either, Misty.”

She gave me a long intense look, a nice one not a bad one. “Come on, Kels, let’s catch the bus home.”

We caught the bus and then she stayed over awhile, hanging out in my room. We both worried about the parents. Later, they were aghast to see her like that and called Aunt Rennie and my uncle. We had a big family meeting; the grown ups plotted their actions. Hal played big man and told our cousin she could call on him any time, then left.

Misty finally stopped the talk with a few surprising words: “I want to go to Kels’ school. Can I do that? I don’t need such an expensive education with those kids! I want to be with my cousin. And find new friends.”

I can’t tell you that we became the best of all best friends but we made our way through the next couple of years with a little more security. It was great walking down the hall and seeing her laughing, nice to catch her eye and exchange a wave when we were rushing to an assembly. She rooted for me at swim meets many times; she introduced me to some of her boyfriend’s sports fan friends. I taught her how to hit a tennis ball until she could actually play a game. We had a few family secrets.

We had an unspoken pact to be there for each other. As needed. We knew what mattered, in the end. Family. Caring about each other. Finding out who we were. Not giving up.

But the truth is, we’ll never be close in the way a couple of my girlfriends and I are. We aren’t enough alike. Now sixteen, Misty is just as fussy about her looks and ways, a real fancy girl. I’m still easy going and a sports nut at heart. And that’s how it will always be. We’re good just the way we are. So, mom and Aunt Rennie, thanks for having us both. I guess I landed where I was meant to be. At least, for now.



Gathering ’round the Tree of Life

I awakened this morning feeling something nameless but haunting. Familiarly rich with uncertainty. There seemed to be sunshine leaking from behind the clouds and I awaited a surge of happiness. It was the first day of my three day week-end. It was also Good Friday,  soon to be Easter, and that meant a time of gentle meditation on the death and then resurrection of Jesus. I thought of Easters past and for some reason, the memory of white patent leather shoes and floral, full-skirted dresses saddened me further.

But it wasn’t the particular day, it was me. I mused over the inhospitable territory of my thoughts and feelings as I completed my morning chores. I read over Psalm 100 about joyousness and God and thought as I scrubbed, laundered, tidied. I worried that this would be one of the rare days when I had nothing to write. Stories crept about in my mind, seeking higher ground as I toiled but still, relief was fleeting. The gloom partly diminished but my internal light was thin so I got my camera and headed out, hoping to be inspired.

The truth is, springtime, with all its extraordinary wonders, has not always been the best time for me. Growing up in the Midwest, it signified dreaded stormy weather and sent my family scurrying to the basement when tornado warnings sounded. In the Pacific Northwest, the long winter rains carry us on an upsweep of windy drizzle, tantalize with a pause or two,  then resume with a ponderous, damp trudging into April and May. The bright hyacinths and tulips sometimes seem to mock through gauzy curtains of rain.

Spring has often been the time when difficulties have spiked, also. Among them were raging tonsillitis that left me helpless and lonely in the hospital as a child;  abuse becoming a complicated misery made monstrous by a teen-aged haze of drugs. There was an incandescent love that failed, making springtime the premiere time for love seem like a terrible joke. I much later experienced a second stent implant in my artery when the first one failed and after, a very slow return of fitness. And there was loss of both my parents. I recall writing a poem at around fifteen in response to the so-called glories of spring. There is one line I still recall: “Beauty bites the broken heart.” Such angst and despair were sharpened by the abundance of spring. And so each April can bring a reminder of trials as well as a plethora of creativity.

Meanwhile, the rain held off all day. I started to snap pictures randomly and kept noticing trees, their small tender leaves unfurling, their fragrant pink and white blossoms shaking in the breeze. Bulbous, mossy roots captured my attention. Lithe limbs reached toward  heavens crowded with clouds. As I took photographs, sudden blueness leapt up and danced across the sky. All shone under the fine heat of sunshine that lingered on my shoulders, face, hands.

It was being lifted, my ratty cloak of self-sorrowing. Each step brought a line of poetry, a wafting of song, a simple prayer or two–certainty that this day, this time was good and could be better: “May my hands be useful, my words be balm; may my heart be open, my soul be free. May my mind be clear, my body be true.  May I welcome life and shape it in love.”

I strode down the center of a street and ogled the arching branches above. The trees watched over me as I rambled. They always have, since the first time I bravely climbed the big maple in the back yard as a child. Everything looked better from up there. I could see the bigger picture, all the way past crisscrossing streets, across the busy tree nursery to neighbor houses, into the dazzling, ever-changing skies above. Humanity lived on while I observed and took notes. The rough maple branches held me steady and gave me a seat upon which to wait and rest as I watched, imagined, pondered, problem solved. It let me cling to its smooth and scarred skin when crying and supported me as I sought solitude. I  could speak and not be heard by anyone except the whispering maple, and so I told it my best secrets. That tree took me away from the clanging, messy, unpredictable world below. It made me stronger and more courageous as I navigated its crooks and found favorite footholds, its brittle and sturdy branches. At the uppermost limbs, I hung on with one hand and held my left, flattened hand above my eyes and squinted into the radiant light. I felt like a hearty sailor in the crow’s nest, a bold adventurer. I was a girl who knew her way or would find it. Nothing could stop me.

But, of course we know the reality: things do stop us, at least temporarily. There is a vast and complicated web of stories in this world. We often weave them without thinking and at times walk into each others without a second glance. Even at our best, we make logistical errors, utilize surprisingly poor materials. We promise completions that cannot be finished for one reason or another. And regrets can work their way in and erode the most stalwart of souls.

But still, we can always gather around the tree of life. The idea might have sprung in part from the old maple but it graces many works of art, religious texts, poems and prayers worldwide. I know it is a compass and anchor. A shelter. Touchstone. It is the font of wisdom from which I gain knowledge and find succor.  To many, myself included, it is the divine mystery but I also see it as a community of those who are united by shared strength, hope, and experience. Call it the place of gathered lessons that every person carries on their journeys, then can teach. Perhaps it is the great collective unconscious. For me, the tree of life is like finding God alive and available right here on earth, rooted in ordinary fecund soil, rising to the celestial beyond, granting us all manner of needs while sharing the elegance and drama of creation. Within and around this tree, the truth unfolds. And it  thrives within me as long as I care for it–steady light, breath of air, affirming touch, love and respect for its power.

Last week-end I went on a short trip to Seattle with my youngest daughter, Alexandra; we met her sister, Naomi, an artist who had flown in for a ceramics conference. We enjoyed ourselves, walking and talking, eating and seeing fabulous art, laughing. We went to Pike Place Market one afternoon, perusing the variety of delights. Among the flowers, fish and hand-crafted items, I found silver earrings that had as their a design massive tree. They reminded me of the pewter necklace given to me by my husband a few years ago: another immense tree. I promptly purchased the earrings. It felt right, being with my daughters and enjoying our time together. When I returned home I thought of another tree of life that adorned a table runner, and took a picture of them together which I share with you.

But the question as my day closes–now that I am feeling realigned and more at ease– is how I can ever forget to sit at that tree, at the Master’s feet, in the magnetic compassion of God? How can I forget that there will always be shelter and direction given if it is sought?  It is what keeps me nourished. What enables me to give back. So I write this to remember once more that in this life I have the choice to create good will,  seek clarity of mind and soul. Make things a little better for me, for you.

Come, gather ’round the Tree of Life. Sit with me and rest, then climb higher up the branches. Tell me your story as we survey the lay of the land.