Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Not Who You Thought I Was

Think you basically know who your neighborly acquaintance and co-workers are? And perhaps can get a good idea of the stranger’s state of being who stands behind you at a coffee shop and offers a cheery “hello”, a two minute chat? It’s likely you trust that you do after x many years of  various sociable interactions, and that you can pretty much “read” first impressions received–but maybe best to think again.

I’ve lately perused several reviews about Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know. His research and conclusions intrigue me; people intrigue me, in general, as a writer and as a retired counselor. I also suspect many of us know already that strangers can be almost any type of person behind the knee-jerk performances given us. We generally tend to be cautious by teen-age years–and certainly by adulthood. Now more than ever, it must be said. I will read his book at some point, to see what new insights have been discovered.

Beyond that, his ideas obliquely dovetailed with my post idea for today. It may seem the opposite of Gladwell’s subject matter and I admit it’s too-large a topic: the origins, nature, and outcomes of friendships. (I will keep it more personal and shorter than all that.) But the reality is, our friends generally begin as strangers unless we knew them shortly after birth and even then, there was that first meet-up. Our knowledge starts close to zero before climbing upward toward some imagined one hundred percent, yet we probably never draw near to the fullness of deeply knowing another. Or we might be more fortunate, who knows at the inception of connection?

We are drawn to others for certain reasons–consciously or not–and we tend to see what we want to see. Suspense novels demonstrate this over and over; crime headlines and stories do, as well. yet we blithely go about our business of developing assessments, making new friends and perhaps becoming closer in time, determining who we can count on and who is a fair weather buddy and who is–let’s be honest–is a wash-up.

I’ve not had the most prolific friends compared to many. An introvert with strong extrovert bursts for pleasure or customary needs, I take my time, try to choose carefully. I learned to withhold  who I am until I am more certain of what may come of it. I had more friends when younger, due to circumstance and personal leanings. But when I review my history, it turns out those I decided might not be such fine cohorts were better, often far better, than first determined. Because I surmised who they were rather poorly, too wary at times. Or perhaps we found opportunity for a diversity of interactions and it changed things. Or a common cause led us to team up, then held other benefits.

The truth is, my good and even best friends were quite surprising–not who I thought they were more often than not.

My first close friend as a youngster sat with me at church. We passed notes on a Sunday bulletin and watched from the balcony all the other goings-on. After church services, we often met near my house at a drugstore counter to delve into a huge shared plate of  hot, salty French fries and cherry or lime Cokes. We enjoyed the occasional sleepover but mostly we enjoyed each other’s company at church events for years. Then we went to the same school by grade seven and became closer. She came from money, I was middle class but it seemed less important then–having parents who were educated and church going seemed to be the expectations for making friends back then.

We share the same first name, and that was dealt with by my name being shortened to “Cindy” which I detested–but then we both answered to that, too. She was the oldest of five kids in her family; I was the youngest of five. She even then seemed older than I. Both achievers, we did well academically but while I was involved in the arts, she was more politically inclined, running for and winning president of the student council. Many must have thought we were an odd couple of friends but it made good sense to us.

But she was not really as I first thought. She was deeper, gentler, and also much angrier. Her family life seemed blissful in their beautiful house but in fact, it was not. There was strife in her parent’s marriage; her mother was deaf and often seemed unhappy and her father drank a bit much. Loud arguments were not uncommon–between adults and  kids. In my family, no one argued; we tried not to even raise our voices. No one talked of anything too personal. And there was no alcohol in our house; none was drunk elsewhere. She was not athletic but I was; she was a class leader and I became more a rebel in mid-1960s. We still shared a desire to achieve; a sensitive nature under which was a well of deep hurt; a passion for fashion and books; and a sturdy trust of one another. And yet, when people change, friendships alter, and can fizzle out little by little. There is not the same alignment as before. And when one moves past the unusually intense bonds of teenage-hood, the need of closeness evolves. One grows up, and there is a loosening of ties while others form in appropriate ways.

We moved away from the hometown. She ended up in television news production while I raised two children, attempted to complete my degree and kept on writing, letting go of music and theater. She was yet my childhood best friend, and we kept in touch via letter, some phone calls; these dwindled to nothing. After over twenty years of not being much in touch we bumped into each other, fatefully, in yet another Methodist church service. She had been living in my city, too. But our get-togethers were strained; she was wane and terribly thin, pushed a piece of bread around her plate. She spoke of things that meant little to me– and vice versa. She’d never had kids; I had raised several. She had never remarried; I’d married three times, four if counting a remarriage. We had our childhood in common, memories, that was all. I was baffled, and worried about her mysterious frailty never explained, a vagueness in her eyes that had once been clear and quick, though they’d always been beautiful and still were. My heart was softly bruised by loss as our friendship was void of relevant meaning. She was not anymore who I thought she was. Maybe time had altered us that much. It is as likely that she never was who I imagined, just another youth trying to find her way–a partial stranger who for a time was known a bit and filled an important need in my life. And I, in hers.

I had another best girl friend to whom I swore loyalty. She was fierce from a distance. I was practicing becoming fierce. She was sullen, too, but one who always spoke her mind and defied convention– but displayed more compassion than I’d ever seen among our peers. We became the support needed for three years. She left town after high school as did I. Over time we lost connection.

Fifteen years ago we learned of each other’s whereabouts. Our email updates were lovely but brief– then ended. As if that was all we needed to say after the past intense years. She had become a biology, chemistry and psychology teacher at a high school in the Southwest. I’d imagined she’d been a world traveler/vagabond or maybe, if she settled down, then a social worker. Clearly I was mistaken but not entirely surprised–she was bright and she’d liked knowledge, the give and take. I wonder if we had tried harder if we would’ve enjoyed an adult friendship across the miles. But I always think of her fondly, a firebrand who smoldered less or differently, settling into her life, as I did mine.

There were college friends, too, many of whom lived on the same street in ramshackle rented houses. Like a mini-colony or commune, just a brief walk from one door and through another. Who knows if we would have been so keen on friendship except for being in an accessible place, at a propitious time. We met in class or at a college event or during a crisis hotline volunteer shift shared. It might have been our common sense of irony–so popular then–or similar degree program or mutual friend that first linked us. But before long we camped, hiked and skinny-dipped in backwoods lakes, took turns hosting dinners and musical gatherings, critiqued each others’ poetry or songwriting, held each other’s hand as loves soured. The women were engaged feminists; we had weekly women’s meetings that empowered us, attended protests, helped educate one another. Most of us went our separate ways but they are with me internally, as those were happy, passionate times of community in a real sense. (I married one of the men from then– eventually–and am married to him now, a best friend, too.)

I have had the good fortune to make friends everywhere I’ve lived and I’ve moved a great deal since nineteen. For one thing, since I’m in recovery, I can find twelve step meetings almost anywhere. Many of my closest friends have also been in recovery and what friendships those have been! In every city and countryside I have lived, there were women of all ages and stations in life who’ve been smart, honest, caring, and always lively. We’d go on walks, out for coffee or a meal, talk on the phone for hours, laugh over our ridiculousness. We’d hold each other when life felt unbearable, and mine the humor where there seemed to be none left. We were willing to be there for each other, which is not always the case in the more ordinary (not in recovery) world. And often what we’ve had in common was mainly a need and desire to live fuller, healthier lives, with no substances abused.

I initially seldom guessed how friendly we might become. Even at those meetings as people try to be open and thorough about serious addiction issues, you don’t–can’t really–know the complexity of a person. We each don our worldly masks, some more than others, and addicts and alcoholics are well known for being chameleons to survive their lives. Who knows what a nice smile really hides or means to convey? We all harbor a prejudice or two even when we wish we didn’t, and all kinds of people come through the doors.

But you know about their recovery or how they are working at it, not much that might reveal a whole truth. That is only one part of their story; one’s essence is multi-layered, even more fascinating. Gradually people take more steps forward, learn to build trust so solid relationships grow. I have often felt that many of the finest people I have come to know have been those I’ve met at meetings. When you have lost or are on the verge of losing everything thought to be of value, you discover what ultimately counts most. You keep things to essentials. And that can make for profound ties for those who get it.

I recently enjoyed a visit with a woman I met 26 years ago. We were working with homeless, usually gang-affiliated, abused and addicted youth. I had fallen into the job, or so I thought until I fell in love with it. She had chosen the field. Larger and taller than I with a mane of hair, her swaggering attitude and assertive words intimidated me some. She acted as if she knew everything and commanded those kids–at times aggravated them with her boldness. I didn’t like her at all, I thought she was hard and crass and I had seen or felt enough of that in life. I figured she should get a grip on her style if she was going to be an example to the youth. She obviously felt otherwise and we went our own ways if we could, throwing looks at each other in the charting room but cooperating on the job.

But we both smoked then and took our smoke breaks behind the building’s fence where the kids–forbidden to smoke–couldn’t see us or smell the smoke. Rather than stand silently, we got into various conversations. I offered just a little of who I was. She told me right off that I was “prissy, a nit-picker, too inexperienced in all ways for this work.” I didn’t show it, but it got to me enough that I shared a bit more of my story just to get her to stop the commentary. I figured she might respect me more if she saw beyond my “Miss Junior League” clothes (her idea but she wasn’t the only one to think such things), ingrained manners and reserved presentation. It almost seemed if I swore here and there she got more congenial, but I informed her I didn’t like it. We swapped a more stories, shared our last cigs with each other, then stopped the mutual hassling–mostly. (Much later we laughed over how to annoy or tease a person can mean you like them, a peculiar method of showing it.)We worked better and better together and the kids in the facility saw that, how such different personalities could work in tandem for their welfare. After four or five years I moved on to another job as did she. At best she was a good companion in our work and we laughed a lot once I got to know her more; at worst still rough-edged and hard to know more deeply. And I think we both figured that was that and “good luck to you.”

Oddly, or perhaps serendipitously, we found ourselves often working for the same agencies in our city. And on the same teams again. Or one of us would be leaving an agency and the other would be coming into it. We began to spend time after work, going out for coffee and catching up, sharing inside info about what we knew of places we worked or wanted to next work. And gradually I began to hear about her parents, siblings, lovers and partners, past mad exploits and current sobriety challenges, her foibles coming forward as well as many strengths. I learned she loves opera as well as Bonnie Raitt (we’ve attended five concerts) and Mavis Staples. And also live theater–so I took her to a musical theater performance and had a great evening. I soon knew that she is part Native American; we’ve been to a few pow wows together. I realized she’s one of the most generous people I’ve ever met, both with time and money. That she is devoted to whatever dog she has last rescued and made her own. That she loves to go to Las Vegas for glitzy extravagant shows, yet also has a fascination with politics and volunteers for various campaigns. That she dislikes the outdoors as much as I adore it. And that she will never marry–we accept this difference despite my being the marrying kind. She does, however help raise a great niece and adores the child despite bellyaching about her hi-jinks.

We are getting older now, yes. There are even more things we can guffaw like fools over when we meet and slurp the steaming drinks with sugary scones, muffins or rich chocolate cookies. I have had the pleasure of enjoying five of her dogs; the last, an unlikely cross between a terrier and a basset hound named Dave, is a peach. She is not well; she has not been since I first met her. She has recovered from some things and developed others, serious maladies. She walks with a cane and a major limp despite being younger than I, and I know she is in pain every single moment. She doesn’t talk about it unless there is a crisis; I don’t talk about my health issues, either–we have too little time to enjoy all the good, the absurd, the miraculous, the strange, the love that circulates about despite many barriers to it. She has long worked in a women’s prison, helping them learn new things and get better, find their way back to lives more worth living. She is tired out by it but she won’t stop as I have; she wants to do this until she cannot take another step, I think. She will do it because it is what she loves–and to stop might mean not so good things are ahead for her.

I certainly had not sized her up correctly at first meeting eons ago. (As well, she did not make the correct evaluation of my personhood; she saw externals and decided who I must be.) She was this whole entity with interesting facets, far less like her projected demeanor than I even surmised. I found in time that she’d become a dear companion, someone I find marvelous and can count on. Laugh and weep and celebrate with, as needed. Someone who always can count on me.

A beloved friend. Once a stranger, as I had been to her. We both had been in error.

I could write of many people admired and gradually loved. Though I am not as social these days and can feel a bit too alone, I know that despite my share of heartaches and horrors–some trying to throw me off what can seem like the tightrope of life– I’ve been gifted with wonderful people to care about. They each have entered my life as a surprise, for all the right reasons. (More so than the people I should have avoided and also, unfortunately, judged inaccurately.) I believe we ought to pay better attention, make discernments the best we can–but then we must take our chances. Give others the leeway for reassessment and perhaps acceptance into our lives. Otherwise, we miss out on finer, richer truths of other human beings, the kaleidoscope of insights, delights, and mutual enrichment.

The Norliss Street Recluse

Henley Ann Mirabel was walking aimlessly in the gauzy bloom of heat, odds and ends crowding her head, like how absurdly high the cable bill was and Tony due to arrive from Maryland too soon (for her) and what was that extra ingredient in the peach cobbler she and her daughter consumed last night at Val’s Tasty Time Cafe. It was a morning like many others, the heat clinging like a web of plastic wrap so her clothes began to stick to her, too. It was not the best time to walk but when was it different? Ever since she had moved to Arlen, Tennessee she’d longed for a light breeze that was so void of moisture she could dry her hair on the patio over a cup of steaming coffee. Now she put ice in her mug. Her hair remained damp even when she pulled it back into a soft knot. She should know this; she had spent her first twelve years in Tennessee.

Sara didn’t care about any of that. As long as she had a nice second grade teacher–which she did, Miss Fran–and new friends (three so far), and her mom was waiting for her at the end of the day, all was alright. More or less. She missed her dad but he was around more than before and was again coming to visit. They always stayed in the terribly small but newer hotel (twenty-five rooms for a surprising boom) by the river. It had a giant outdoor pool, she informed her mom. It felt like a reprimand for leaving behind their private pool in Maryland; they’d enjoyed it only in brief summers.

They’d had a lot of things in Maryland: a bountiful flower garden just beyond the wraparound terrace, a contemporary glass and redwood home that allowed for parties of fifty, three cars, a housekeeper, a studio at the edge of the property for Henley’s writing of the next installment in her middle reader’s series. There was so much they had that it almost hid the danger spots in a marriage going off the rails. But sooner than expected it all fell apart.

Like Sara had finally yelled from the hall as her parents each slammed different bedroom doors and disappeared: “If you can’t actually be nice friends then why do you even say you’re trying to be better friends?”

That’s what did it for Henley. Even their child called them on their charade. Once the divorce was finalized, Aunt Roslyn suggested Henley and Sara come to Tennessee: time for them to spend more time with maternal family. Her parents lived in Florida; Henley refused to process her cracked up marriage on a Sarasota golf course. Her mother’s sister was her favorite aunt. Since Tony worked from home much of the time now, he could visit as often as he wished. The agreement was in place and so they tried it out.

Henley was not as malleable as her child, nor as accepting. She agreed to Tennessee because she had further nursing of woundedness. She was barely getting by more days than not. She wasn’t writing. The damage reversal took greater energy than expected. At least she wasn’t crawling back in bed after dropping Sara off, covering her head for two more hours. She now was able to keep eyelids pressed upward until she slumped into Great Grinds, ordered a mediocre cold brew coffee and requisite snack, then continued on her walk. This was a huge step. Within an hour she felt mostly conscious with less strain at frayed seams of her raw psyche.

In fact, walking was her one tangible pleasure, except when it thunderstormed or, rarely, acted wintry enough to spit slushy ice. She already had a route but was trying to change it up, relearn the lay of a once-familiar landscape. Their pleasant rental home wasn’t too close to her aunt and uncle, closer to countryside.

As she banished peckish thoughts, she turned onto a newer boulevard. She didn’t recall this street but the last time she’d spent more than a couple days in Arlen was in her late teens. Fifteen years ago.

The proud brick homes along Norliss Street sported good yards, wide porches and a several two car garages. It all looked fresh. She marveled over the newness until she walked halfway down to cross over. The structure before her was a two-story, a dulled white that had gone to the dogs, a peeling beige-to-grey. Henley saw it had been a farmhouse before development took over surrounding acreage, but didn’t stir a memory. Overgrown shrubbery obscured porch and windows. Its steps were crooked yet off the porch were hanging a limp, worn American flag by a second flag lively with daffodils and a fat robin. She felt sorry about its disrepair. She began to move on as she spotted in the unkempt yard a leaning post sporting a mailbox-type rectangle. Curious about it she stepped onto the grass and saw it was a poetry post with Plexiglas front. She could see behind the faded paper. It appeared indeed to hold a weathered poem.

She opened the lid, pulled it out, ran her eyes over it quickly then once more. It was about nature, “billowing treetops, elixir of water courting creatures…ebb and flow of light a sheer veil astir.. then a slow darkness like a tired magician fallen asleep.” Finding it interesting she read it again, then looked for the author’s name. E.R. was typed in the bottom right corner.

There was a creaking sound from the house. Henley looked deep into the shady porch but couldn’t make out a body or any other thing. She took a picture of the poem with her phone and started off, then changed her mind, returned. She rummaged for her tiny notebook and pen, took it out and held it against the poetry post and wrote, Lovely, keep at it-HM. Ripped off the page and stuck it in.

She hurried back home, for what she wasn’t sure. Slowly, she went to the small back room, a place meant for writing Number 6 of the Amanda Hartley series. It was painfully tidy, blaring with sunlight, claustrophobic. She longed to throw open a window but it would only taint things with moisture, make the stacked failed pages curl at the edges, waste air conditioning. She turned on her heel and left.

When Sara came home, tossed her book bag on the table and pulled out crackers to munch she asked her right away, “When are you writing another story?”

“Tomorrow.”

“But that’s what you said yesterday. And before.”

“Ask me tomorrow, maybe it will be different.”

Sara paused, a sesame studded cracker halfway into her small mouth. “You seem…tired, Mom. I like it better when you do the Amanda stories. When is Daddy coming for sure?”

Henley winced at the Daddy, his only name; when did Sara call her “Mama” or “Mommy”? Maybe when she got sick or scared. Daddy was the good times parent, it seemed.

“In three nights. Let me get you string cheese and juice to go with those, honey.”

“I finally told the kids at school you’re a writer and they didn’t believe me but Miss Fran said yes, you are, and told them about the books. She knows who you are! ” She giggled, perched on a stool at the kitchen counter, stuffed three crackers into her mouth, then reached for the glass of grape juice to make the crackers suitably mushy.

Henley took out her cell phone, looked at the picture of the poem, enlarged the words. It was almost–reaching toward–lyrical. It was in essence pretty good. She felt her spirits lift a little and smiled at Sara.

******

Before Tony came she went out and sat on the porch swing. His loping gait carried his well-conditioned body quickly up the steps. At the screen door he raised a hand to knock, looked around, spotted Henley. She raised her palm in neutral greeting; he gave her the barest smile, Chiclet teeth glinting, eyes wary behind courtesy.

“All is well?” he asked.

“Just dandy.”

“The south still suits you then.”

“In some ways. You?”

“All good. Busier than ever.”

“The house shown more yet?”

“Picking up.”

“Daddy!” Sara cried. Their wonderful child thrust open the door, jumped into his arms.

******

There were two days to do nothing and it was the “nothing” that got to her before she even got out of bed. It would have been easy to lie there, let her dreams pull her farther under. Take her into a land of strangeness, folly, impossible beauty. She thought of her daughter laughing with him, of the fun which she was no longer shared with them. The thought soured her more so she got up, showered, pulled on her black knit capris and a grey T shirt–did she wear anything else, anymore?– and walked to Great Grinds. Rex the barista nodded at her; his pleasing eyes were bleary, too, and with mutual congeniality didn’t force a long chat.

Henley took a bite of walnut and apple scone for more strength. She took her new route, having decided Norliss Street was a good amendment and walked faster to the derelict house. The poetry post still held a paper or two. She hesitated then moved closer to see if there was another poem. Instead, there was a hand written note that began “Dear Lady.” She pulled it out to read, feeling the rise of more interest.

Dear Lady,

Thanks much for liking poem. Maybe more to come. I leave them til they fade, fall apart. No one reads poetry anymore, usually.

You new here?

E.R.

Henley felt someone or even a critter might be watching her but she couldn’t discern anything. Tangled forsythia bushes grew close to the sides of the house. An aging fence with a once-pretty gate enclosed the back yard. She rolled tight shoulders and took a good breath in, let it out slowly. Looked looked down the sidewalk and across the street, then back at the old place.

A poet lived there. She wanted to know how anyone in Arlen wrote like that, then dared share their work. She considered going right up to the door, introducing herself. Still the poem was wrinkled, apparently wet often, smudged. No one had taken it out to keep; not one new poem had likely replaced it in awhile.

There was no one coming out to greet her despite her standing in their yard for ten minutes but then a squeaky noise was emitted from above. A window perhaps pushed open. There were cafe-style curtains of pale yellow floral with a window shade partway drawn, leaving a few inches to look out. There was sudden movement, a blueness that passed before the window and vanished. Henley waited but saw and heard nothing more.

It came to her that maybe she shouldn’t be there writing notes to someone she couldn’t even see much less name. But she took out her notebook and pen.

Dear E.R.,

Sort of new. I have some family here.

Where is the next poem?

I write, too.

HM

She placed it back into the poetry post box, looked about a last time.

As she walked she thought about words, how they meant more, held a more decent weight and value if someone heard or read them. Otherwise, they were echoes of the self’s discharges of energy and various rumblings, and they’d feel so insubstantial they’d float away into some universal recycling center of all language. It probably accumulated so much it tipped the letters into blackness where they floated to nowhere, or became fodder for something better. She laughed at herself: this was what happened to her brain when she thought about writing but didn’t commit one word to the tangible world. They teased her, wound her up, made a mess of her innermost recesses, called out to her like sad lost things. Even sent her to private poetry posts boxes to write strangers, for lack of better purpose.

******

The next morning, early, the phone rang. By the time she got to her cell, a message was left.

“Henley Ann? We’re off to church, of course…. but we’re having a cook out in the afternoon so bring a salad and come on around 2. Is Tony here this week-end? We’d love to see Sara, of course, but please RSVP so I know how many.”

Henley shook her head. She found her aunt’s accent startling, still. Sara was SAY-R; her name was HAINLE-ANN. She erased the message, said, “Yes, Ma’am.”

After she got herself a big iced coffee-it was hotter than blazes out already–plus almond scone, Henley went straight to the poetry house. It was relatively early but a few dozen cars loosely lined the streets. When she approached the area, uncertainty rose up. On one hand, she maybe ought to have two coffees and scones. On the other, she felt she was way too desperate for company or why else would she be there again, even contemplate ringing the door bell? The neighbors probably wondered about her being there and, as if on cue, there was a violent splash of water from a hose. She turned. Sure enough, a heavy man across the street corner was staring right at her as water flowed over his monstrous black truck, down his wide driveway. She lifted her coffee at him; he nodded, went back to his own business. Then he looked over his shoulder as she kept on.

The house looked as if it had gone to sleep long ago and never awakened. How could it be so empty of life? Was reading more poems the best idea? She could keep on going but sipped her chilled coffee, gazing at the poetry post. There seemed to be something else there. She glanced at the porch and upstairs window and then got it out.

In morning this foreign body passes like smoke,

as if dry leaves captured in whorls of wind.

But when day drains its unease into night

the feathery thing that is darkness

alights on sloping shoulders,

covers secrets as we give up hope

and all that which was, until

sunrise dazzles and dances.

                                        E.R.

Henley blinked, eyes prickling. Who was this E.M.? Was this an author she just hadn’t heard of yet? Was it an old, maybe stolen poem? Aunt Rosalyn might know more about this person.

In the house there could have been someone sitting by a table or resting in bed, some old man confined to a wheelchair and seen by a nurse aide daily who grudgingly posted the poems. Or a woman who long ago deserted social norms, spurned the company of others; she put her poems into the world while others slept.

Mixed voices by the truck made her turn towards them. The man’s wife had come out with giant sponge and bucket; they were talking. Then the woman gestured her way with a laugh. Henley felt the mild sting of their gossip, so took another picture of the poem, wrote a note, placed it back in and hurried on.

E.R.,

You’re a very good poet. I’m Rosalyn Horn’s niece. Want to meet sometime on the porch?

HM

******

“Oh Lawd, that’s Everly Rainard. He burned near half to death in the Wilton Hardware fire, 2011. Maybe about forty-five. He doesn’t talk to anybody, gets his groceries delivered, has help in once every couple weeks.” She sucked her lower lip in, shook her head. “Terrible thing but yes, he likely still writes. He taught at the high school for quite awhile. Ruined his life, that tragedy. Parents left him the house when they passed. He’ll not see people, best leave it alone, Henley. No, he’s not exactly crazy but he’s still not too good. It’s hard. He was very good looking and now…”

That’s what Aunt Rosalyn said at the cook-out but it was enough. As she nibbled at food, fielded questions and made conversation, Henley thought about how she’d go to the door tomorrow, ring the bell. She would do it because he could write, no matter what happened.

Later Sara called to ask if she could stay one more  night with Tony; he’d take her to school. He came by to get her clothes and she waved from his rented Lincoln.

“You really okay, Henley? We can talk if you need to. Sara says you’re not even writing, that’s not like you.”

“What? No, I don’t need to talk. I’m fine. Have fun with Sara.” But she wanted to say, How do you know what’s like me? How do you know what I need? I need beautiful words and kindness and the right to feel sad, even lost for awhile. I need you to just be gone.

******

The next morning Henley carefully carried the cardboard container with two coffees and two raspberry muffins perched on top. He might or might not be willing to share the offerings.

The steps were rickety; she climbed them gingerly, hands out, holding the coffee and treats steady as she kept her eyes on the scratched and stained front door. When she got there, she put the cargo on the porch floor and spotted the door bell. A simple button long disused, might not even ring anymore. She pressed it long and firmly with an index finger.It buzzed inside summoned Everly Rainard. There was the sounds of traffic behind her, raucous robins, a few bees about the porch. No footsteps, no voice. She pressed it once more, feeling the edge of fear pull at her.

The door opened. Slowly, so slowly that if the hinges hadn’t moaned she might not have even seen it move. But an inch, then another inch, then a bit more until she saw just the end of a sofa, the wooden floor. But there was just the barest outline of someone through green gingham curtains on the window.

“It’s HM. I have coffee, muffins…”

The door remained still.

She swallowed; her heart thundered at her throat. ” I really liked your poetry and since I write, too, I thought….I know about the fire, that’s not a reason for us to not talk. Is it?”

It opened more, enough so that if she wanted to she could’ve slipped in sideways but she waited until the space got wider, invited her in.

Henley moved through. Faced him. He wore a baseball cap over wispy hair. What remained of the skin on his neck and face was taut, rough and ruined, lizard skin she imagined it was cruelly whispered. His nose was off-kilter, lips were a once distorted shape that had healed into a reasonable state. Golden brown eyes stared at her shyly from under barest darkened lids, no eyelashes or eyebrows. His face seemed sparked with a furtive anxiety. And curiosity. He took the coffee and muffins from her, stepped away instinctively as she saw his hands, wrists, arms wrapped with more blotchy leathery skin. She felt a flush of pain in her own body that took her breath. Then a jittery relief to be let in, to get this far.

“Well, okay. Come in, Miss…” His deep voice was a soft scrape of the air.

“Henley, Henley Mirabel.”

Everly rested the drinks and food on a beat up coffee table and indicated she might sit down. He sat in a ragged armchair, lowered his head and held out a handful of more poems.

“Please, tell me about your writing first,” he said, raising his eyes and she felt him try to reach past fire’s wreckage, its damnation and its terror, to the refuge they both shared. Henley took his poems and held them gently like flowers in her lap.

 

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: Death of a Spiritual Warrior

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(In Memoriam, for Vincent)

Old Ghost Man is gone,
he’s changed his name again,
left wisdom’s better parts
to seekers, strays and nomads,
those who embrace the good path
and those who care little
how life is dreaming come awake.

He drummed it up, offered a glance
of ironic cheer, a madcap holiness
brewed from trouble, trickster spirits,
eagle feathers, cries of wildness
human or not from streets that kill
when there ought to be redemption.

Take my salvation, it’s for real free
he said,
always enough to go around.
Yes, even you white woman,

you make stones turn again,
you know what I mean, aye?

The stones named:
men, women burned down to ashes,
shattered with grief, souls stitched
with bitter roots, scoured by drugs.
But welcomed with dance and story,
given respect, they just wore down hate.
Then they rooted out places my hardness
had cracked, my tenderness hid. We traded
thundering silences, lightning’s song,
tears for small joys.

Old Ghost Man, he nodded my way,
raised his hand in greeting when some
turned backs, were stubborn doubters.
See, just walk strong and soft,
he whispered, or chanted my name
without fear, cynn-theea-a-a, 
like a swirl of painterly desert winds,
a slow ride on river’s serpent back.

Ghost Man is gone, gone, gone
he’s changed his name again
is heard in echoes, love circling ’round
he’s slipped out, moved to a better house.
Old friend, I see you now beyond
that rain shadow mountain,
untethered,
laughing and winking,
aloft.

Lessons from an Instrument Repair Workshop

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The space did not trumpet “welcome”: small, cramped, dimly lit by a standard flex-armed light that swung from the wall and smelling of special glues and polishes. A basement cubbyhole down the back stairs, past the laundry area and a cobwebby fruit cellar that housed home canned treats, beyond the furnace and stacks of storage boxes.

The designated spot where an unobtrusive magic happened was called the workshop. Just one door away from a modest recreation room (where I enjoyed birthday gatherings and impromptu dance fests), it was a favorite haunt of mine.

Dad seemed to reside there part-time. That is, after he played in (as well as being assistant conductor) the symphony, taught music theory and history, after he conducted high school orchestra and a summer city band, tuned pianos, administrated the public schools’ music department and judged music competitions all over the Midwest. And gave private violin and viola lessons in our living room. But other than the work that occurred there, too, it seemed a place to find solitude, step away from demands of a busy career and our active crew of five kids.

And how I loved to steal away with him, unobtrusive as a cat, first approaching the open doorway, then stepping into the room. Finally standing still and alert, waiting for him to acknowledge me, sometimes with only a nod.

One end of our rec room increasingly was overtaken with an abundance of instruments. Musicians and parents of aspiring musicians brought to him their unhappy cellos, basses, violins and violas. But he also worked on woodwind and brass instruments. He adjusted clarinet, bassoon or oboe reeds to improve sound with sand paper, trimmer and nail file. It was exacting work. He replaced pads for the fingering keys and fixed finicky mechanical action. He seemed to know a great deal about all groups of instruments except perhaps percussion (to my disappointment as I adored rhythm). Dad had played many instruments over the decades so his firsthand experience was invaluable.

What exactly he did to instruments was a mystery to me as a child. That is, I paid attention to his methods, tools and fixatives. And rows of jars and drawers stocked with parts like ivory or mother of pearl, metal-wound strings and small cushiony pads, the long horsehair strands hung from hangers for bows. But even if individual actions made sense to my mind and eye, the auditory results did not. How did that squawking saxophone once again become a gleaming, efficient instrument trhough which a serenade escaped as soon as mouthpiece was placed between his lips? How did the cracked violin body recover enough to offer swells of melody that wound through the basement and up the stairwell?

Every piece he touched was handled with care. His hands were large, long-fingered, graceful. I saw them as powerful yet gentle; they never did anything that disrespected or damaged objects or people. Oh, he made mistakes and each time took it personally, causing him distress. But he started again and made it right, the re-hairing of a viola bow, making slick a sticky trombone slide, a new bridge of a cello placed just so between the f-holes (from which all the glorious notes emerged). The bridges looked almost like fanciful people to me; it awed me that they held up all the strings, helped produce so many vibrating sounds. I played cello so cheered on each cello victory.

It was an enchantment to be close, to watch him. When smaller, I stood on a wooden box a foot or so from him, beyond his elbows and hands. Any diversion might cause something to fall, to be affixed to a wrong spot. He would explain key issues as if I would grasp his instruction; he was always teaching. Mostly we were quiet together, the radio emitting soothing strains of classical music. He asked, at times for my help, which pleased me. A pair of needle-nosed pliers, a tiny screwdriver, a dark brown glass bottle labelled in his tidy printing that, when uncapped, unleashed such pungent scent. He seldom looked up but I watched his face, where stillness mixed with frowns and barest smiles. When he was happy with a result, he would show me the part or whole instrument, pronounce it good.

In spring and summer the humidity was cloying, the room dense with warmth. In winter, the damp and cold seeped through the basement walls. He feared for the instruments so there was a dehumidifier kept running most of the year. A space heater hummed by our feet in cold times; a rotating fan atop a file cabinet in summer cleared the air.

There were papers folded on shelves and stuffed in folders. He had forms for orders, forms for payment by the phone in the rec room. When older I would sometimes file them alphabetically. I answered the phone and took messages, or asked him a question for a customer or student. It was satisfying to be good use to him. It was clear he was swamped, both in the workshop and otherwise. When he got home each day he’d collapse in the easy chair by the baby grand piano and fall asleep immediately. His face went slack and the wavy, nearly white hair fell forward onto his forehead as his chin dipped to his chest. He was getting older too fast–this I felt despite being a late baby with parents who were always older than my friends’. I worried about him, even as a child, despite his success.

“What’s so attractive about the workshop?” my mother teased. “It’s smelly and uncomfortable, isn’t it?”

I am sure she thought of it that way but I found it cozy. Secure. Happy.  She intimated she thought he spent too much time working on those instruments. If he wasn’t gone, he was often there.

I ran down the stairs in the evening for a few minutes if he was home, sometimes on week-ends. After watching and hearing him talk instrument repair, I might feel restless but not want to leave. Dad would offer me a block of wood, various jars of nails and a lighter hammer. I’d find glue, some other cast-off like a piece of old leather, a rusty hinge, a tiny chip of mother of pearl from the bow “frogs” he fixed.

“Don’t hit things too hard. Tap, tap. That way we both can work.”

I lined up nails and positioned them just so, making them into teeth that needed pulling or repairing with oil or paste or splinters of cane from old woodwind reeds. Other times I would make designs on the grainy surfaces with tiny and larger nails. Bits of string or discarded horse hair from bows, the pearly shell piece could make textured patterns as they were wound or affixed about the nailheads. He’d indicate his progress, I would share mine. There was always something to make or some small way to assist him, but at some point, I would step off the box.

“Leaving so soon?” he asked without turning.

“Yeah, I’m going outside.”

He would turn and smile at me, his large blue eyes radiant in the shadows.

“Don’t climb the tree too fast, you don’t want to damage those hands!” he called after me.

I’d laugh but knew what he meant. He hoped for me a lifetime of cello playing along with other creative pursuits.

My father was not like many others in the mid-twentieth century. He pushed and rooted for me and my siblings. Strict regarding our behavior, given to frequent criticism to encourage excellence and then keep us humble, he also never discouraged me from pursuing what I cared about. Rarely if ever did he tell me I should be in the kitchen or doing housework rather than addressing my education or creative and athletic passions. He desired that his children appreciate culture, learning, the natural world. It seemed there was nothing that didn’t evoke fascination for him; he was powered by a devout love of family, knowledge and God.

But his time for just being with his children seemed limited. I had figured out how to infiltrate his world, whether he sat hunched at the dining room table, fingertips to forehead as he studied a musical score or tuning up his beloved, cranky foreign cars or rattling, rumbling motorbike with greasy, often-nicked hands. Whatever he was doing, I would check it out, too, and he never forbade my presence unless I was shirking my own work.

There were other repairs that happened in the workshop. He loved games and made a few, like the large ring toss with painted plywood bulls-eye, hooks with various points noted and old Mason jar rubber rings. He repaired most of what malfunctioned in our house (though my mother was quite handy as well), from toasters and radios to toys and shoes. His hands had to be busy much of the time.

As I grew up I didn’t fill my father’s ears with my worries or crises. Perhaps I should have, but I knew he had lots on his daily agenda and that the demands of caring for the family were plenty. I saw creative work as a musician and conductor required much concentration and practice. My mother supported his dreams and accomplishments as she ran the household and taught elementary children at times. He lived in that unique world shaped by classical music from morning until night. A man of study and meditation yet someone who thrived on action as well–let’s face it, he was not always easy to reach. I confess I felt the public had him more than did we, as his warm aura drew people to him everywhere.

That presence was a enlivening glow that I could enter into, as well. Dad and I shared music; we all did. I loved to sing old-fashioned big band standards as he accompanied me on the piano, play cello and violin duets. I would help him sort music for the summer city band concerts and set up the stage. I’d work on the yard with him. But I liked best to hang out with him as he tinkered and worked. To read on the couch as he was reading; to sit at the dining room table as we listened to music, my naming the composer as he named piece and its movements. I enjoyed thrilling motorbike rides with him and stretched out on the driveway near him as he changed the oil in the car. He loved word games and many crossword puzzles and Scrabble games were played. Croquet and other yard games–well, he made it tough to beat him, but it was good fun. And, too, there were the stars. He knew about the celestial world, and pointed out constellations in the ebony dark of our fragrant back yard. My list could go on. My parents didn’t just talk about doing things, we did them (sometimes like it or not, but that was rare).

That workshop, though. That is a central room in the architecture of my childhood and youth. There I had him to myself alittle while, outside the frantic pace of life, the fray and din of people coming and going and the music that claimed us all.

I took my minor and major worries there and they slipped away in a short time. Unbeknownst to him, perhaps, I even took my broken heart and laid it at the side of the workbench as he assessed and repaired each cracked and ornery instrument. My aching or sadness or confusion felt as temporal matters. The precision he gave to his goal, the urgent need to do the right thing, restorative acts–these imbued the space. And me. I experienced, too, the delight as one thing was repaired, another gave way to more probing and problem solving. It was full of experiences where the equations of his industriousness seemed alchemical and sensible all at once. And I was blessed to be privy to this meaningful way of doing things.

I believed he could fix anything, even me, but didn’t quite know what to tell him so simply stood within the cast of his spirit. The human light that is magnified by unshakeable faith in God was his. He would not let me down, because he loved me. Even though there were important parts about my life that he understood too late, he still held powerful sway over my daily living. He contributed to my survival of disastrous events and to my success as a human, even as a counselor. Just by welcoming me, showing me how to get things done, being steadfast and kind.

Things can be fixed and made better: this is what I saw to be true in my father’s workshop. They can be thought irreparably damaged. Yet with time, anything can happen. The right resources and optimistic plans and steady action: with a careful hand these can make right what has been skewed, marred and turned upside down. It takes faith and some well planned risks to make strong what has been undermined. There are always unseen factors. Clues uncovered along the way to reveal the whole story.

He improvised, create his own parts when nothing else worked. He believed there was a way to improve anything. It just took more thoughtfulness, more persistence. Muteness of an instrument did not mean its end. And even when it at long last sang once more, its voice could be coaxed into a richer, truer, finer thing. It is easy to see how I was taught that no matter what sort of problem occurred, we have both free will and creative minds, an ability to adapt to or improve what turns up in life.

My father’s workshop was home to many things, to instruments and broken goods and children who basked in his quiet love. he worked there long after his official retirement age, well into his late seventies. It is all part of my own living and doing, this story about trust. Years later I remembered all this, that I could take my life into my hands, make it whole again, encourage it to sing its own good song. Devotion to what matters most develops a powerhouse of hopeful energy.

Look within and discover that restorative impulse, unearth the legends that carry you forward. Then I hope you will allow others into your circle to reap the rewards.