Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Invisible

Photo by Lucas Allmann on Pexels.com

“Coming? Or is breakfast going to be your diner?”

Marni yelled upstairs toward Amanda’s and Tim’s bedrooms. Her son emerged immediately, his gangly length led by slipping, stockinged feet. She noted the hole in one sock toe. Darning was not a skill, though for her kids she’d do most anything. Darning socks was the least of it. He landed with a sliding thud.

She waited for Amanda, gave up and padded to the kitchen in her new navy scuffs with a trillium on each toe. Tim helped himself to eggs and sausage. She poured herself a big mug of coffee and sat across from him, chin propped in her hand. Every time she caught sight of her scuffs, she smiled to herself. Simplest pleasures made a difference.

As Tim ate, she thought over a conversation she’d had with her best friend a week ago. Lana had often suggested Marni begin to relinquish control of her family and was getting more adamant. “Or perceived control”, she’d added wryly. Now that Amanda was seventeen and Tim almost fifteen, it was time and then some. Time to get back into the workforce or into college studies or at least engage in a worthwhile hobby–ceramics, stained glass, anything but try to keep up her domestic goddess status. In fact, Lana insisted, Marni was the one and only such creature she knew–and that fact might give her a clue that it was an anachronistic state of being.

Their last lunch date was annoying to them both.

‘Unless you used it to build a gazillion dollar empire, let’s face it.” Lana smirked, knowing such a notion would never occur to her friend. “But, then, you’re undermotivated, being married to Rob the VP of Tomkins and Sons and a man with serious political leanings. You can afford to stay home, I grant you. The question is–“

Marni cut her off with a slice of the air with her fork. “You know why. I like being home and Rob likes me the way I am, and I am truly not ever unhappy as you think, so much so that I must go off in search of ‘fulfillment’, as you keep suggesting.” Lana’s words stung no matter how often she’d heard them, which was every few months.

Lana bit her tongue. Of course he did, Marni was everything he needed and more to aid and abet his career and keep their family ship afloat. “Yes, alright, I know…”

“Besides, we know you have a great career and travel often, are single and have one absent kid–so your perspective is askew. Not everyone is quite so independent and free.”

“He is not absent, he’s at university and busy practicing being an adult. I hope. I am also not what you’d call a free agent in my work position, either. And all you give me are rationalizations.” Lana sighed. It was useless to talk sense to her. “What will happen when they leave–like my Jason did? I had Plan B and C. You’ve spent years submerged in home life and you’ve well succeeded at all you’ve done. But don’t forget that dream you had recently. Your subconscious is knocking on your door, my friend.”

“It wasn’t a nightmare, it was just frustrating feelings emerging. Every mother has those!”

Lana’s highly arched eyebrows lifted. “Swinging high from a huge tree, people pushing and grabbing and pulling until you fall from that glorious moment of bliss halfway to the sky and then plunge into nothingness which wakes you up in a sweaty panic. Time’s a wastin’. Forty and counting, now.”

Marni toyed with her chef salad, then patted Lana’s elegant, bronzed hand flattened on the white expanse of tablecloth. “Relax, I’m okay. My life is good and you know it. Now tell me about your trip to Norway.”

“First commit to a spa day with me next month.”

“That’s easy, yes, if it has a eucalyptus steam room.”

Marni loved hearing about Lana’s adventures in work and life. Not that she hadn’t travelled some, attended concerts and plays, created interesting community events. But the truth was, she had long ago lost a taste for the kaleidoscopic, hectic, demanding world beyond her doorstep. She had long been aware of living in her own encapsulated time and space. It bothered her little–but lately, more often, for all the reasons Lana harped on. But what was actually worth more effort? Much of what mattered to her had gradually changed over the years–wasn’t that true of everyone? So she wasn’t as ambitious as she had once been, while most women she knew had gotten bolder, smarter, more accomplished. Well, once knew. She’d been left behind almost imperceptibly over the years and now it was an occasional meet-up, a shared charity responsibility. But sometimes they’d looked at her with a touch of envy when she talked about her life, while she found them more worn around the edges. If perhaps more confident in some ways. She’d make the same choices–would they?

But it was easy to be smug about one’s own life when you knew so little of the other person’s, or what all the options even were, she thought then. And thought again a few times.

When Lana and she had first met, Marni worked in publicity for a great regional magazine (which had become glossier and more literate). It was a good job, one that got her going each day and brought her to a restful closure, more often than not, by evening. But Lana had climbed the ladder fast, then moved on. And Marni stayed until Amanda was born and she never went back full-time. Then Tim arrived and it seemed right to be home awhile longer. Time passed. She followed the new parenting agenda. It soon felt as if she was on a train and there was no stopping it; she hunkered down, learned along the way, determined to excel at her more mundane job. But often treacherously difficult.

She thought over these things as Tim scarfed down the remains of his breakfast and slurped a latte. He watched her with dancing brown eyes and she smiled back.

She sat forward with a start as Amanda joined them–tall, lean, hair half-brushed, clothing disheveled.

“Okay there, Mom, or is that your third cup of coffee?” Amanda asked.

“Is virtual learning a reason to get sloppy?” Marni retorted, then regretted it as her daughter slumped into her chair.

“I’m dressed, not naked, right?”

Tim laughed, spewing latte, “Crap, no!”

Amanda threw a pinch of cold toast at him, then another.

“Enough, you two!” Marni did not think this exchange was hilarious. She longed for order at her tables.

Rob rushed by, grabbed his coat from the coat tree in the foyer. “Have a breakfast meeting at the club, remember?–See you all tonight!”

She rose, awaiting a quick kiss. He paused, blew an air kiss, and left whistling.

Go get ’em Tiger! she thought ungenerously and softly slapped at the countertop with a damp tea towel. She hoped the kids didn’t notice her irritation. She needed to get over the feeling of being snubbed by her own spouse.

******

With an hour to go before taking Tug, their collie, to the groomer’s, Marni later sought out Amanda in her room. After knocking and getting an assent, she entered and sat in the computer desk chair.

“What, Mom?” Her head was haloed in sunlight, a tangled cascade of hair resisting her brush-out.

“We have to talk about this summer.”

“Summer? It’s April. And I have to sign in for remote Calculus in a few.”

“Aren’t you going to apply to Blue Lake Summer Arts Camp this year? The due date is April 20 and you haven’t done a thing with your application.”

Amada rolled her eyes, pulled her hair into a messy ponytail. “Maybe, maybe not.”

“Why is that?”

“Derrick will be in town, working at the golf course as a caddie.” She rubbed her face with her palms to wake up better. “So, that’s a no, I guess…”

“You’d miss a fabulous eight weeks of creative engagement for…some new boy? He’ll be here when you get back.”

“Mom! You can’t talk to me about missed opportunities! I actually do lots of stuff, you know. What have you tried lately that has been remotely interesting? Sorry–but true. You barely know Derrick, anyway–he is definitely not just ‘some boy’.”

That was true–she didn’t know him much though they’d met; he was well mannered and conversationally adept so those were pluses but that meant little when her daughter was out there with him.

“There isn’t much more to say, but can we talk later? Class begins in a minute.”

Dismissed, Marni left.

Days like that she wondered what she was doing there? It seemed as if her children had gotten their footing well enough that her advice meant little to nil. She was what to them all? A glorified cook/chauffeur/ occasional therapist/housekeeper. And she had to get Tug to the groomer. His hair was everywhere; she’d had enough of that, too. Otherwise, he was the only one that minded her, anymore.

******

That evening she swung on the porch swing in tender, bluish twilight, wondering if Rob was really at Capitol Steakhouse for dinner with a cronie. She saw him less and les, yet it meant little more to her. Everyone knew who Rob Henninger was. She was introduced to new people with: “You know, she’s married to Rob!” and people would beam at her until they realized she had nothing much to add to that. Plus, Marni was not gregarious and did not have a paying career. But she was good for helming causes behind the scenes, so was handy to have as an acquaintance.

All Marni could do was write a little. But no one knew that, not even Lana, it was not meant to be known. Well, Rob did in the abstract. He was aware she got up before anyone else to spend intense time at her computer and closed it when the house became more lively. He knew she loved fiction, kept trying to write it, and that was enough for him to know. Well, he had his coin collecting, a holdover from childhood. He had his passion, golf. Everyone needed something pleasing to do.

So she kept her ideas to herself. Her fantasy stories would draw giggles from her kids, a blank face from Rob. It was her quiet space, her private time, life outside the family.

Swinging gently, she thought of the current story she was working on. How, if it ever seemed good enough, maybe she’d finally want to share it, but with whom? Still, thinking of her characters, letting them walk about in her mind as if they were cohorts from an ethereal–yet very present–zone…this always cheered her. She pushed off from the porch to swing more.

The sweeping front yard was breathtaking. Daffodils proud and still along hedges, and daphne bushes letting loose their heady perfume to dazzle all who passed, and the delicate cherry blossoms so blush-white against the darkening sky. Marni feasted her eyes and soul on the opulence of early spring: nature in its powerful unfoldings held her in its thrall. She was welcome within it all. She never felt set apart by nature. Unlike her family. She was a part of all that occurred in nature’s stirrings. And, perhaps, art. Left to her own devices, unconstrained by timetables and ever-urgent voices. Her viewpoint opened to a wider, deeper vista then, her experiences a tapestry of peculiarities and wonderments. And nothing and no one could disturb the outcome of what she made of words and imaginings, but herself.

That was the rub, she saw with a shock. She had begun to feel less welcome in her family’s world, in the finely appointed home, the stratified society in which she maneuvered. But give her an hour alone with language and she was set free.

If only she might attend an adult summer arts camp. Like the one Amanda found meaningless this year after five years attending a diverse program, studying flute, at which she excelled. It saddened her to think her daughter might be moving away from such times. Tim had been drawn to outdoor camps; now he went on camping trips with friends and their less city-centric parents. A vacation is what all parents needed, her acquaintances admitted and she had agreed–though Rob always planned a luxurious trip for them in between his own career engagements. Trips that made her fretful, itchy with boredom by a turquoise pool as he mingled and played golf.

As Marni’s swinging slowed she was startled to feel a sharp twinge of desire, an ache of need for a new environment: the arts within nature’s arena. She felt like a flowering bush straining for more light and space. A plant stymied was like a life hemmed in, doomed to not rise up strong enough, eventually to wither unless given needed nurturing and nutrients. Oh, she’d go on being wife and mother. But beyond that, who?

She had to do something to move from the shadows, make her secret self known or be left behind. Barely visible, in the wings of a stage full of family bustle and drama. Indispensable, always at the ready. Rarely acknowledged.

Now she saw the sense of what Lana had seen, and knew things had to change.

******

She sat cross-legged in bed next to Rob as he snored away. She was scanning possibilities– book stores and art stores for part-time jobs opportunities; literary conferences for volunteer work; small spaces in the country where she might rent a studio or cabin for a couple weeks. She hopped from one idea to the next, dissatisfied, headachy and blurry-eyed. Personal brainstorming was laborious.

Until, a bit after midnight, she found something. Marni leaned hard against the headboard with a small “Huh…”

Rob mumbled, “Okay, honey?”

She patted his shoulder; he went back to sleep.

“Yes, I just might be.”

******

By mid-May the rains had slowed from a rowdy polka to a short waltz now and again. Spring was offering everyone an infusion of good cheer and the balm of brilliant beauty. So, one Saturday afternoon three -quarters of the family lounged in the screen in back porch, enjoying soft breezes, sipping iced tea with lemonade, snacking on pretzels and peanuts.

Amanda said in a rush of words, “I applied for a job at the golf course.”

“No brainer,” Tim said and went back to his cell phone.

Marni looked up from a warm dry jumble of laundry. “Doing what? You don’t like golf much.”

“At the snack bar right off the green.”

“You don’t even know how to make a decent turkey sandwich!” Tim snorted.

“If you went there you’d know it was just drinks and packaged snacks, dummy!”

“Good, you won’t accidentally poison him.”

“Poison who?” Marni asked. “Oh…Derrick is to work there.”

“I’d like making some of my own money but yeah, he will be.” Amanda blushed enough that Marni knew she had lost track of the burgeoning romance.

“I’m all for that,” Rob said, as he walked in following an emergency town council meeting about zoning problems. I can help you with references, call Stan–“

“No thanks, Dad.”

The family chattered on as Marnie folded clothing. Shortly she carried the heavy wicker basket upstairs to the five bedrooms, then stopped and left it on the hallway floor. Let them put away their own things. She entered a spare bedroom and rummaged in a desk drawer, found what she wanted and descended the stairs.

Waves of rippling laughter slowed her before she came to a stop at the open French doors. They had all seemed more relaxed the past weeks, or maybe it was her. The good weather had been part of it. But, too, they each had pleasing things going on–Tim gearing up to help with Little League; Amanda with her boyfriend, a new job ahead; and Ron playing more golf and working in the yard a bit with her. They both loved their yard and flower garden. But Marni had something of her own, too.

“I have something to share with you,” she announced.

They swiveled to her, eyes narrowing in bright sunlight, and fell silent. A flicker of anxiety crossed her daughter’s face, and Tim slightly frowned. Rob rubbed his cleft chin, a fidgety thing. She unfolded the long envelope and pulled out a letter, then cleared her throat.

“Dear Marni Henninger, it is our pleasure to inform you that you have been selected to join Wild Salmon Arts Colony for a summer residency. We have further waived half the tuition based on the merit of your fine writing sample. The residency session is to begin August 1st through August 31st.” She glanced up nervously. “There’s more but that’s the gist of it.”

Rob stood and took the letter from her. “Very interesting…an arts’ retreat, a summer school or what?”

“The residency people make their art. Writers, dancers, composers, artists. A dozen at most. The spend a month working on their creations, then sharing them with each other.” She couldn’t temper the excitement she felt and smiled widely at them all–but she wanted to shriek with joy.

Rob sat down. “That’s something, honey… who would have thought?”

The spike in adrenaline fell off and Marni’s heart began to sink. Didn’t they get it, at all? She could see Amanda and Tim were more perplexed than he was. But of course they would be.

Amanda spoke up, gingerly. “Oh, like my summer arts camp? That’s great, Mom…but what were you thinking of doing? Or is it more like a school?”

Tim gripped his knees as he used to as a nervous child. “You aren’t, uh, really craftsy–are you? What will you even do for a month? Make flower arrangements or something?”

She felt as if a giant bubble of weird giddiness was filling her head, or was it dizzying disbelief. Her own family! They didn’t even know who she was, did they?

“She does write in the mornings,” Rob interjected. “I just didn’t know it was so important to you, Marni.” His wide eyes searched her face.

She sat down again, set the letter on a side table, smoothed her khakis. “I write fantasy stories.” She looked at her hands, then her children. “I’ve started… a fantasy novel. When you all are sleeping.” Then she threw up her hands. “My gosh, it isn’t so strange as all that, is it? I’m going to an arts residency to write and enjoy a whole new experience with other people who love to create. That’s it! Get used to it!”

She jumped up and her daughter and son did, too, with a rush of flailing arms about her and words of congratulations floating around–while Rob stood back, wondering what this meant to him, to their marriage, to her. He felt proud, but also suddenly anxious.

“Fantasy stories! That’s too cool, you kept this from us!” Tim said.

“Mom, you’re a mystery, this is great!” Amanda said.”What next?”

She’d thought of calling Lana, but they had a lunch date tomorrow, so she’d wait, put it all on the table. It might shock or amuse her, but certainly please her. Lana was her greatest support even if she didn’t know it fully. Or maybe she did–she had a keen nose for truth and never backed down from it. Her caring was steady. She foresaw changes, saw Marni clearly before Marni had come to really see herself.

At the end of the day, when the kids took off with friends, Rob wrapped her in his arms a few moments, then retreated to the family room with a glass of wine and his sports channel. The house felt huge, he realized, with the kids gone so much these days.

Marni sat on the front porch swing, watching and listening. She wanted to discern the inner workings of the dark sky. It was all so great an unknown. Her skin got goosebumps, and she hugged herself close. Maybe it was best to mainly appreciate what she saw and heard and felt. Until she could write out her thoughts and sensations.

It all felt good and right. She had made a marriage and two children; none of it was an easy thing to do. But it got so familiar it all had blended into her, the good with the not-so-good, an everyday-ness. She was quite overdue to map new courses, to create more curious, astonishing worlds. To offer up what she’d long and secretly imagined.

“So. I’m not going to be invisible, anymore,” she whispered to Venus, set like a jewel in the crown of the heavens. As if Venus didn’t know such earthly and other things already.

The Power of Being Visible

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

I have been re-evaluating my subscription to one of those social networking sites where old high school chums (or adversaries) can summarize their life stories. Pictures of past and present selves are offered up to the class of whatever year it was. It can be interesting to garner a little info about those who wielded such influence over our lives back in teendom. But it leaves me wanting even more, and the more never quite comes. I end up feeling cheated. Or maybe duped, it is hard to know. The internet can and does fool us, too.

Or if a greater exchange starts to unfold it can be a small shock, as when I corresponded with a guy I had dated only to find that though he had thrived in his career to a degree I hadn’t imagined, he seemed to have nurtured other characteristics I didn’t understand. I’d somehow expected the same person with a twist of maturity that I’d love to have coffee with. I last sent an email saying I regretted how hard it is to reconnect with those we felt we’d known well. Or thought we did. It seems defeatist to believe we can come to know one another via quick updates after decades have roared by and taken us along with them.

Come to think of it, did we even know each other as well as we imagined?

Who are we–really–that people can determine and present impressions other than the expected? That we experience our own sea changes, then sometimes are puzzled by the person we’ve become, pondering how such shifts occurred?

For some, life has polished off the snagging edges so the inner and outer being glows. Or it has reshaped selfhood so that the mirror no longer reveals what one hopes will be reflected. The outside may have been preserved or improved or broken; what is left inside is unsettled, damaged or nebulous as mist. The search for a satisfactory and fully operant identity doesn’t seem to have an expiration date–other than actual death. We go on and put our best foot forward if we can.

After I posted the nonfiction essay about aiding my sister following her hip replacement, she wrote an intense email about how she had never felt so “seen.” She was moved that I do see her, know her, understand who she is. This response caught me off guard. I assumed she knew I saw her and vice versa. Especially since we felt less than acknowledged growing up in a family shaped by well-practiced lessons, seasoned with criticisms that promoted competition and achievement, not only with those outside the family but within it. As long as there were medals and awards, we were well and duly noted, adding another feather to our parents’ caps–and ours’. As long as applause resounded as we performed onstage musically or in theatre, in dance recitals, on debate teams or a baseball field (as well as kept our places on the honor roll) we might get a congratulatory pat on the back. But we were just doing as expected so it didn’t seem like much victory. Off days or poor showings were like dangerous pits to avoid–that was the way to draw a negative response. Or to feel more invisible at home.

We didn’t think much of it, of course. My parents were, in fact, caring, concerned parents who wanted to provide the best for their children in every way. This was the way things were, and our friends’ families were much the same. It did serve to spur us onward to grander heights. And farther falls. But it is a far cry from being a family member perceived and accepted as an individual with separate ideas, longings, inclinations and goals. Just being supported in becoming one’s own person.

Being recognized for our true selves, being known and appreciated for who we are–this was not a priority in my parents’ generation. But  it can make a big difference to  children and also adults. Everyone eventually knows the humiliation at worst and discomfort at best of being excluded or overlooked, made irrelevant or anachronistic.  Just not being noted as in a room full of others feels wrong, even sad. The difference between being visible and invisible is being seen, and being seen is one of the most valuable gifts anyone can be given. Moreover, it is a basic human right to be simply acknowledged. There are so many in our world who are not.

I took a long walk today, enjoying a frigid undercurrent to the breeze, the scents of fallen pine needles and leaves releasing a rich perfume as I trod over them. A hunched, slight man leaned against a low stone fence with his overloaded grocery cart. A navy hoodie was pulled over his brow so that his eyes peered into the world like two dark shining cinders. He was smoking at his leisure. I had been taking pictures but put my camera in  my pocket. I anticipated a brief flickering of eyes over each other upon approaching. It is my habit to greet people unless I feel uneasy. I usually find strangers’ eyes meeting mine a second, one human noting the other, a briefer version of the act of “seeing” and being “seen.”

But at the very moment I looked at this man’s chiseled face and started to smile, he looked down and the window of opportunity seemed to close. He studied the sidewalk as I passed. In a heartbeat something in me wanted to stop and greet him, ask how his day had been so far. I wanted to say, “It’s a big, beautiful day and I hope it is for you, too.” I did not as it felt it would be seen as intrusive. Or was that an excuse? I did look at him still, then turned my head after I passed. He was looking my way, so I nodded at him. We had exchanged recognition of some sort. And it seemed things re-balanced.

He may not like to look right at people or at least not strangers, or he may be used to getting rude remarks, or being overlooked. He may have felt utterly irrelevant to me when he was not. I did see him, that man huddled in the cold, bright day, smoking and thinking. And he, me. Of course, I don’t know what he observed other than that; please may it not have been miserable. But we move through a shared world, if only for brief moments. Our paths might not cross again yet I am reasonably sure someone one else knows his name, what food and music he likes and who his family is, where he is from and what he dreams of when he closes his eyes. Someone, I pray, sees him deeply.

As a counselor, I interacted with clients or patients who brought to me their tangled, painful, exhausting lives. They spoke of anxiety that made them feel they were going crazy as their hearts pounded and their breath failed them. Depression that ruined every hope they had had. Shared histories I could not fully record because they were so devastating. They claimed the need of a next fix of alcohol and drugs, sex, gambling, rage. Or sat in silence and looked past me, out the window, counting the minutes until they didn’t have to find language to reveal the truth of what they knew. Or didn’t know, anymore. But as I witnessed these lives unfold, there was one thing that helped: gentle, full attention. Seeing a person for who he or she was that moment in time and being patient.

With words or with respectful stillness, I wanted each person to know this: “You are visible to me. I honor who you are, anguished and angry as you may be. I see you are here before me. I will stay with you as the courage is found to tell me what needs to be told. I choose to be present and hold you in compassion.”

As my mind freed itself of crowded thoughts and my spirit and heart opened, the client’s fear and outrage and hurt gradually receded. The authentic person, much more often than not, would begin to emerge and to further change. Become imbued with hope and even experience some happiness.

Being visible is one thing. Being visible without feeling threatened or judged promotes an atmosphere of safety. It is what we all want, a chance to just be our messy, layered, changeable, imperfect, yearning selves–without impunity. To be wholly seen is to come out of the shadows and be able and willing seek as well as offer more to others. Being valued for who we more truly are is potent. We feel meaningful and counted.

I haven’t dropped my subscription to the social networking site because sometimes surprising things happen. I have had a lot of “guests” stop by my profile. One woman shared her lifelong depression with me and asked for assistance; I was able to be there for her until she sought help. Another shared a hard time she had undergone and how she has moved forward. But generally, we are not taking the chances of being that open. I get it; it’s social networking, not a twelve step meeting or a prayer group. I will just have to wonder who they have become and wish them well.

There have been kind comments. I was touched that many recall a young woman with a ready smile, someone confident and easy to talk to, ambitious, with talents and some flair. This is noted only because that girl they thought they knew was someone who suffered. The teen-aged me was wrapped in heartache and distrust, waylaid by substance abuse, a girl trying to decipher the meaning of life when it was turned inside out and upside down much of the time. Maybe we all felt that way to some degree. The vast majority of us made it out of high school alive.

But I know even then I felt what I am certain of now: we each are given a brief time and a place on this tilting earth. It may or may not feel deserved, whatever it is. But we are here and we matter as do all creatures. We are part of the whole schemata, share the home of our universe, and our absence is as noteworthy as our presence. We can do our best to honor our sameness, respect our differences. Right now, please pause in the midst of your fast-acting, quick-talking lives.

Look at one another. See, and be seen.