Andalin, Alive

Irises, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

I had some time ago written that I was cutting back to two posts a week rather than the usual three. My full intention was to work on more nonfiction, short fiction and poetry and to submit my writing more again. I found, however, that I could not write much beyond my usual posts for three and a half months. It has been miserable to wait it out. Then suddenly there came a name that stuck in my mind and soon I was whisked away to a seemingly bucolic yet rather mysterious setting in a time and  place I did not yet know and where an unusual baby was being born to wildly differing parents. I could almost see the life that lay ahead; I knew part of what was important about the story already but had to find out more. It is not the sort of thing I expected I’d write, for many reasons. But we will see. This is just a rough first draft–no editing, really–of a very first chapter of what seems to be a new novel…or at least a bunch of ideas for a first chapter… or a very long story. I have much to imagine, write and revise….and it is blissful to enter into this work again at last.  I may still write and submit those other pieces. Once the imagination’s floodgate is opened and hard work starts to shape up one creative endeavor, other unforeseen and good things can happen….

I hope you enjoy the first foray into my new novel idea.

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Photo, Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The infant was not what Renata had conjured in the dense, shadowy regions of her obstinate mind.  Or the blurry frontiers of imagination she preferred to the current reality. Nor was it what she desired, though compelled by decorum and convention to affect a satisfied smile as the minuscule human being was held aloft. Her long inhabited, now finally emptied womb throbbed, her back ached as if it had been pummeled, her nether regions surely ruined. How primitive the whole thing was, how unwieldy. And was it morning or night? Sometime strung between, she conceded, in a time of birth and disruptive change.

And Tillie the midwife’s hesitance telegraphed all was not going to proceed well. Renata turned her face to the wall so she could see the painting of swans adrift in a grassy-rimmed pool, gentle light skipping across the glassy surface. Her pond, her swans, not visited in too long. This bed had claimed her for weeks. She had only wanted some spare replica of herself if pressed for the truth. Or perhaps no infant at all. Certainly not one naturally given to screeching from moment of entrance, normal behavior or not. The ungodly sound reminded her of peacocks from her childhood. She had worked so hard to do this; could there not be a peaceable conclusion?

Tillie offered up the cleaned and swaddled baby with excitement even as her mind was riven by concern. A new being was reason for more hope, for a suspended few moments shaped by suggestions of future delights. She stayed in touch with many of her babies as they grew up. It filled her with pride to know she had  helped ease them into this realm of earth and air, into its defining gravity. They were manifestations of a higher energy to her, given complicated bodies with which to roam and learn and create for awhile. So short a time. Tillie never failed to find each a curious, holy astonishment.

Yet she knew this woman, this newest mother, well, how untidy and disagreeable she tended to find the world; they had been close friends, once, long ago. And being a mother was not something she had intended to occur and then there it was. It was true she accepted it as meant to be; she then formed distinct expectations. The birth was, surprisingly, not difficult despite Renata’s virulent protestations. Tillie felt a frisson of fear sweep over her: this mother was already obstinate, too wary.

And this infant was not what anyone might expect with those wide, strange eyes. Their translucence. Was this baby observing or not observing her landing spot? Oh, well, Tillie knew better; it would be awhile before the baby could make out much. Still. Something was different.

“She’s a hearty and fully unique child, one can see it already, Renata.” She smiled warmly at the pale-faced child who had quieted her voice at the sound of her own, as oft was the case.

The new mother resisted opening her arms, a wisp of breath and pounding heartbeat crowding her throat. “Her coloration before I chance a look–is it Dane’s or mine?”

The infant resembled no one so much as herself, whoever she was to be, yet gave off a magnetism the midwife found arresting as she nibbled a patch of dry skin on her chapped lips. The child had pursed lips now as she stared up at her. Tillie held her over the bed with its sighing occupant. To have any child to love was a wonder, but Renata was not a devotee of wonder, not these days. Rather, a cynic who might give way to higher leanings from time to time with prodding. May she find those within herself now.

There was no choice but to firmly nestle the bawling infant into her mother’s half-opened arms.

“See for yourself. She’s a strapping, lovely new person.”

Renata let escape a whimper as furrows creased her brow and full lips fell slack. “What on earth…Tillie, what of her eyes! Is this baby blind? Or even a…oh, please no–is she albino?” She loosened her arms so the again squalling infant rested atop the mound of emptied belly.

Tillie’s hands flew to help, pressing the baby once more to Renata’s chest. “No, really, I don’t think so! They’re just the color of… water under grey skies right now, and a nice shape, aren’t they, and all that downy hair–”

“Her hair is his, though nearly white but the eyes are–Tillie, they’re about translucent…unattractive and odd.” She shuddered, released the child then let her own dark, bloodshot eyes close. “I’m so worn out and sore. Can you please deal with things for me? Tuck the baby away in her bassinet? I’ll hold her later….of course I will. ..and you know her name already so please record any pertinent information.”

And with that she turned her head to the wall again, eyes shuttered. She already blamed him. Dane, who had been known to be a spoiled wastrel in his youth–maybe he had strayed recently, he was gone so much ad she had become more distant when he had returned home. No telling what he brought to their child’s genetic code. He’d naturally be more pleased to meet her; he’d wanted a family addition for years. Someone to guide, to dote upon, more so since his wife had grown prickly and vacant every other week. But a boy, that had been the plan, despite his desire for any child they might create. How typical, even common of him, she thought with impatience.

“Must keep the family blood line going and what fun to bring up a little person, to set free upon my land, to share knowledge with!”

Renata swallowed her tears–of physical discomfort and the burden of worry. How would she do this? And who was the person hiding inside such wrinkled, compact, pallid skin? Where was her Italian heritage in this child? Those eyes filled her with anxiety and distaste.

Tillie cradled the little one in her thick strong arms. “Andalin,” she said with proper emphasis, “Andalin Chiara Luvstrom, welcome to our world. Who shall you become,  little one?”

She stood in the brightening morning light, swaying side to side, humming to her old friend’s baby, praying for that love to surround the child, to infuse her with blessings. Andalin closed her petal-tender lips and blinked at Tillie. Then she seemed to gaze in bafflement beyond the window. As if this was not the  expected destination any more than she was the mother’s own sweet dream. As if there had been a mistake. As if she had made a last minute detour. But then she closed her eyes and her soul dreamed of the future, formless and billowy, colored by pain and beauty and care, a work of art not yet realized.

Tillie mused over the child in her rocking bassinet as she got a small bottle readied. She spoke softly although she knew the woman was enveloped in post-birthing deep sleep, would slip in and out.

“Eyes like water are for those who see far. They will change others, Andalin, and so shape you.” Dane’s heavy footsteps were on the stairs, his vibrant baritone calling out Renata’s name. She kissed her fingertips, placed them upon the infant’s forehead. “May you be safe and blessed today and ever after.”

The door burst open and he filled the room as was his way, now made greater with excitement. His large head with bristling crown of hair swung back and forth until he spotted the infant. He turned to Tillie, seeing his wife resting, almost reaching to touch her as she stepped forward. “So our child is really here at last?”

“Andalin has arrived,” Tillie said and he took her and brought her to his chest, laughing so that the room vibrated with it. Andalin made not a sound at first then squealed several times, whether in delight or distress, it was not easy to decode.

“Andalin Chiara Luvstrom, our shining daughter! Look what we made, Rennie!” He brought her to his whiskered face and his  words evaporated as Andalin opened her eyes. Such extraordinary beauty! Such magic in her stillness as she sleepily looked upon him, her newness primeval, her body bared to light and sounds and smells. Those wide, clear, colorless eyes…oh, this child!

“My wife is doing well enough?”

“She is. Give her time, Dane.” She looked down. “Mr. Luvstrom.”

His first name hung between them, a golden mist that obscured time, and then he rushed to Renata’s side but she had travelled far from him, floating into a sea of subconscious where she drifted far. She was loathe to come back. Which Dane recognized well. This was another start of her absence and his infrequent if enthusiastic presence, their child caught between in a fine net of their making. How would he keep her from falling? How could he not fail her?

But today he was a new father and proud and he held her close, beaming and sputtering, true to a vigorous personality. He had planned a feast for all his friends and neighbors, not yet but soon, perhaps in a week or two. In the meantime, he longed to take Andalin outdoors, show her the fields and hillocks, the flowers and birds. Let her breathe, let her feel it all.

Tillie held out her hands. “Later, Dane, she now needs to recover from her birthing.”

“Do you need anything?”

She shook her head. As Andalin was transferred from his arms to hers, Dane longed for it to be Renata there, but he would not speak to her for two more days when she finally allowed him in again. He avoided Tillie’s gaze and she, his, as was their habitual  manner. He hadn’t looked directly at her for many years now. A lifetime. But their gaze did not have to connect. They knew each other’s thoughts. This young one would be loved well; he could count on her to not forget her place in this home as well as utilize her natural compassion and bravery. Keep the child within her wide range of power. Dane suspected they would all need help and who better than Tillie Everlin to do whatever must be done?

When he left, his presence stayed behind. Tillie felt it like a warm veil of a sunrise glow and then, as moments passed, a sheer flicker of sadness that dissipated as she busied herself with cleaning up the room.

And then Andalin spoke.

“Home,” she whispered from the white, softly lined curvature of the rocking bassinette.

Along Tillie’s forearms the tiny hairs stood straight  up. She rushed to her. “Yes? Andalin?”

But Andalin was only and naturally dozing, breath oozing in and out of half opened mouth, a slight sizzle of a sigh, a tail end of infant melody roaming the room as she snored so gently that even Tillie knew she had to be mad to think a baby, even this one, could form one word. And yet she knew just what Andalin must mean, language or not.

Renata started, propped herself up on both elbows. “Is he back yet? Did he come in?” she asked, wiping her parched lips on the back of a finely veined hand, then reaching for a bedside glass of water.

“He did, Renata, and he held her so close. He’s very happy–shall I retrieve him now?”

She held up a finger and gulped all cool water, relieved to have slept if not nearly enough. “No, not yet. I need my brush, I want to wash. But first may I look at her once more?”

Tillie was heartened as she got the child and took her to the bed and the more welcoming arms. Maybe she would now glad to have Andalin and it was all worry for nothing. The months of encouragement and advice from herself and Renata’s two closest friends might have paid off. It took time, that’s all. Most births and the following days and nights were complex on every level; new parents had doubts and fears and wouldn’t anyone with such a raw creature in their hands? Though, rarely, a bonding between mother and infant did not come to fruition. It was this that Tillie dreaded most of all, even over several health hazards, even over unexpected, sometimes brutal deaths.

“Well,” Renata said. Andalin still slept, a tiny bubble issuing from her lips, then disappearing. She stroked an arm, a hand, the nose and forehead with a forefinger. “Goodness. So fragile.”

Tillie smiled to herself. So strong, she wanted to say, to be born of a woman who resisted allowing an ordinary though always remarkable passage here.

“Andalin,” Renata said but her daughter did not stir, did not open her eyes, did not gurgle slightly. Renata looked up in mild alarm. “Is she supposed to sleep so soundly not knowing me? Did she awaken when Dane held her?”

“She’s tired out, same as you.”

“Take her then, I want to clean up.”

“In time, my friend, all good things slowly unfold.”

“You always think you know what is needed but it isn’t always so,” she said sharply, smoothing her nest of piled mahogany hair. Her striking cheekbones had become fuller the last few months, lending a dramatic look to her otherwise ordinary face. Her face now came alive for the first time in a long while, thick eyebrows raised high, eyes flashing a warning, mouth in a small twist. “I would very much appreciate a wash if you can help before we call back Dane. Not more of your sage advice.”

“Of course, but first we should see if she will take the bottle,” Tillie said, although she wanted to remind her that she was not nursemaid to her, only to the child this day, and that in a few hours they would be on their own. She had other patients, duties elsewhere. Though Dane had suggested he would pay her for a week’s worth of assistance she had refused. He was to have asked his older sister from beyond Iron Mountain. Tillie wished her luck and Rebata twice more for Marga was not an open minded, patient woman the last she knew, but so it was.

Andalin did take the bottle and suckled well as Tillie got her started, then placed her with utmost care in Renata’s arms. Baby and mother settled into one another though Renata was anxious for the duration, casting frequent glances at Tillie, seeking approval. So it was with every new child and mother; nothing could erase uncertainties until they came to know one another’s ways. Yet Renata would have to overcome her fierce need for singularity in order to share her energy. Her life. It was fortunate Dane had more to spare–when he was home. His work required frequent travels as Mediator for the entire district; he was also a sought-after speaker at prime events.

They both dozed as Tillie cleaned the last of labor’s detritus and the expelled afterbirth which she placed in a terracotta jar for disposal in loamy dirt. She soon sought a welcome break in the heavy, creaky rocker by a leaded glass window, amd lazily sipped a tall glass of water.

Outside, two willow and several oak trees’ branches leaned and lifted gracefully, rustling in spring gusts, and further out by the blue sky-filled pond were elegant yet homey yellow, purple and white irises bobbing on sturdy stems. They had only just been blooming the last day or two, a good sign: yellow for passion; purple for wisdom; white for purity. The mated swans hovered at the edge, looking toward the house. Some would say she was old-fashioned, enamored of more ancient ways but she knew what she knew and it changed little if any. The child was being watched over.

Her own weary eyes unfocused as her thoughts roamed, present to past to future. To Renata, Dane, Andalin. Back to her own satisfying if sometimes lonely life in the octagonal lodging she had built with her late husband, Tar, in red earth. A right habitat to provide for and protect, a place for healing, for regathering love. She would be glad when the day was over and she could be at her leisure. Until tomorrow came to be.

Andalin awakened and with that her little bud fists and restless feet flailed until Tillie took her from Renata, now stirring, too, and ready for her bed bath. The midwife put the infant into its cocoon of blankets and studied her with her heart wide open. The child registered her presence with widening eyes like quiet, clear water which would before long change from season to season, shine on the world in cobalt or aqua or pearlescent grey and more, to a palette of colors that others couldn’t quite name and didn’t try, so mesmerized were they and sometimes, so afraid.

Yes, Andalin, I know. Home, the great longing.

Tillie got the porcelain wash basin, the thick ivory wash cloth and towels and luxurious bar of eucalyptus soap. Renata beamed up at her with gratitude. Only for her old friend would she do this last thing, taking her time to gently clean and then ply Renata with special healing lotion of virgin cocoa butter, calendula, yarrow and red clover. Chatting with her, encouraging her even more than required– before she slipped out, just as Dane returned to shower his renewed affection on his life partner and coo at this surprise of a daughter, Andalin Chiara.

It was already time for Tillie to depart–sooner than expected but he was filling up the spaces and his child and wife needed him more than herself. This time.

“May mercy and courage of the powers of Love remain steadfast here,” she murmured and touched center of chest, then forehead, and with a firm hand pulled tight the door behind her. She took two steps when Dane’s thankful words for her breached any thoughts and the rapidly heating air.

 

 

(Please do not print or share due to work © 2018 Cynthia Guenther Richardson and being an ongoing writing endeavor, separate from the usual WordPress posts. Thanks–but comments are always welcome!)

Part 1: A Most Excellent Gift and Part 2: A Writer’s Resolve

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Mt. Hood 12/ 2017, Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Part 1

It was all done in utter secret. I, who have taken some pleasure in being intuitive or at least canny and a reasonably good study of character–having long been a writer, a counselor and a very visual person–I was blind-sighted as surely as if I had no skills, at all. Or as if I did not even know my daughter or my husband. But I was caught up in a whirlwind of preparation for Christmas and shopping for others. When my eldest, Naomi, flew in with her friend, A., I wasn’t thinking of anything but being a welcoming hostess and a loving mother.

Christmas morning was defined by overlapping shifts of adult children and grandchildren coming to our home. We nibbled food, opened gifts, chattered away. There was an hour or two when all four of our kids (a fifth not present) plus two of the grandchildren (three absent) were gathered in the living room. I watched them open bright packages, enjoying the ebb and flow of unfolding events. Tired but content.

I was finally urged to open my gifts. I reached for one but Naomi insisted I start first with a smaller item from her. I noted it was the size of a padded envelope that had arrived days earlier as had all her mailed gifts to us, but I had no sense of it being anything unusual. So I was startled when inside were two gold elastic mitten clips, the type one attaches to a child’s coat sleeve  and then to a mitten or glove.

I burst out laughing as I examined the flashy things. Naomi likes good gags and this was just the clever, goofy thing for me. Turning to my spouse I wagged my finger.

“I see what you and Naomi are up to!–you told her I have lost a couple good gloves over the years! They’re a tad gaudy but I might even use them!”

Naomi was chortling over the good surprise. “Found them online–pretty fancy grown up clips, huh? They’ll look good with your jackets!”

“You sure better use those,” Marc said, “as you just lost your favorite glove again not long ago!”

Everyone agreed as I proceeded to the next gift.

When the tissue paper was opened to its hidden treasure, I took a sharp intake of breath. And was struck dumb. The room filled with questions as I stared, mouth open. I gingerly touched the items now in my lap as if they were precious things, then pressed the two velvety gloves to my chest and my face, the softness sweet against my cheeks. I looked at Naomi as she leaned toward me. sitting on the edge of her chair, her intent blue eyes sparkling.

“What…? How…?” I asked.

When I put them on a surge of joy mixed with disbelief rose up. “But it isn’t even possible, Naomi! My very own gloves! Where did you find my gloves? They don’t even make them, anymore–I went back to the shop at Canon Beach and we looked and looked online!”

“I researched until I did finally find them on Ebay! The very last pair anywhere, I think!”

Tears came in place of words as I jumped to my feet,  my eyes on hers, the eyes everyone says we share. We folded each other in our arms, hugged long and well and just cried. This daughter who holds her emotions deep within her, who doesn’t frivolously share them…she knew. She knew me better than I thought,  she knew how much such a simple kindness would mean.

I finally let go. “Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to find these for me. Just perfect.”

Sound a bit excessive? I do admit I’ve had an unusual attachment to these gloves for years. Sometimes we just feel what we feel about our stuff.  And many readers have already heard of their loss and retrieval. The first post on losing one glove then serendipitously finding it was posted in 2014, here: Case of the Velvety Glove .  The second was about losing one a last and final time and can be read here: The Magnitude of Small Things .

It may make more sense if you know I have Raynaud’s disease, causing reduced blood flow to extremities so that my hands, particularly, deeply ache and feel frozen a long while (then burn as they warm) if I even briefly hold something chilly–an ice cream carton, for example. This occurs in as warm a temperature as 55-60 degrees. (I blame this on repeatedly cold hands, even frostbite when figure skating as a kid and youth– without mittens… And later, years of smoking, sadly.) Having a pair of good yet not cumbersome gloves or mittens makes a vital difference since I am an outdoors enthusiast.

The pair I purchased on a beach trip as winter fell upon us a few years ago were just right for most circumstances where I live. I fell in love with for the combination of warmth plus beauty, their luxe practicality; they’re made of stretch velveteen with a layer of fuzzy insulation. I can wear them casually or  to dress up a bit. Nothing beats usefulness joined with attractiveness. Thus, I was quite unhappy when I lost the second glove the last time. I’ve tried other gloves and not been satisfied. My hands have gotten too cold this fall and winter. So my daughter finding the one pair I loved and used often meant a great deal to me.

Really, though, my anecdote is about love. I suddenly and fully felt her thoughtful, persevering love for me. The fact that she also made it fun is just like her. Here are some pictures to show them to you as well as those darned elastic gold clips–I use them, as you can see. Leaning over a bridge on a recent hike, of course, they dangle quite safely as they cannot jump out of pockets! (Please click on the photos for captions and bigger pictures.)

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Naomi and me (fuzzy pic by hubby, ha)

 

Part 2

New–really, revisited– writing goals were to be the topic of my first 2018 post when the glove incident took top billing. I have been cogitating about plans since attending a good writing conference in Washington last October. And there are still some fledgling ideas from then, more ping-ponging about my brain and so much the better.

The old year has passed, another has begun and I find it is high time to get back to work on writing projects I’ve been putting off. There are always so-called good reasons–devotion to this blog three times per week, health and family needs, and at times a monstrous lack of confidence that can strike right in the middle of fevered or serene writing. The kind that creeps in like black mold, felt as a perverse cynicism fought off anyway I can–fervent prayer, research on topics that attract for an essay or story, long walks that shake the oppression right off–or even superficial distractions like my magazines.

However, I am more akin to a sturdy work horse whose blinders help accomplish the job: I stick to my tasks, look neither left nor right, keep moving and writing and thus experience the fulfillment wrought of labor’s comfort…though mixed with bumptious moments. And occasionally an outright exhaustion of hope. Then I rest, begin again.

I keep on since there isn’t much I can do but write. Sure, there are a variety of interests,  proclivities, abilities. But writing is the thing that most shapes and energizes my learning and living and being. Aren’t those microscopic letters hitching a ride on cells in my blood stream?…It started at least by fourth grade when a poem was published then read for a state educators’ conference. I found it surprising that what I loved to do might matter to anyone else. (It wasn’t music, the fine art choice of my family. ) Writing was story/ It was also a natural way to access thought and feeling–it was not a mere daydream, and not some mighty goal I had to achieve.

But there came a time I sporadically submitted stories, poems and essays. Finally, it was more regularly most years. I’ve received many expected and far more unexpected rejections; I’ve also been pleased when submissions have been printed in anthologies and journals or published online. I tried my hand at very minor journalism. It was a series on domestic violence for a college newspaper that impacted many (there was a lot of data; it was then also reflective of my own life). Short stories and essays have become surprisingly appreciated, while poetry has appeared more often under three–okay, four–last names depending on changing marital status. A young adult short story was published and I’ve written several others, another genre that interests me.

I worked on a first novel, completed it over a span of ten-plus years only to have a fine and renowned editor tell me it was “overly ambitious but you are a real writer”. I felt depressed, then a little happy and quite right, that criticism. I published an excerpt from it, however and it was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and have used chapters as springboards for stories I’ve posted here. For now I’ve put it away but it tends to return to me in other forms. (A mute widow who is a dancer–and keeps secrets about her drowned husband–meets a photojournalist, bereft after a mentor and friend disappeared in the Amazon.)

There are also two well developed but unfinished collections of interconnected stories and characters. My longer fiction has not been submitted since the first novel  gave rise to interest from two agents– who later bowed out.

You never know. Sending out writing is like launching a handmade paper boat with a small lit candle in it and watching to see if it capsizes or returns with candle snuffed out or gone overboard. Of if the little oat ends up reduced to ash. You make another and send it out as it is an adventure of sorts, in any case.

This is a shortened litany of efforts and projects and small successes laced with many rejections. I took a long break again; it has occurred many times over 60+ years, but not yet for forever. The last time I submitted was two years ago. The most recent pieces are in Spark: Anthology II–that was 2014. That is, I think. It’s been too long to recall clearly what went where without checking my files; there was another poem plus a photo published somewhere in the last 2-3 years. I hope that online journal is still going strong…must check. Might be another place to submit once more!

Meanwhile, I’ve tiled over strengthening what works and learning more of what does not, slowly putting the demanding, sensitive ego aside and giving stricter attentions to word and line. I try to cut back on verbiage, even improve typos but it takes more work.

This is what a writer does, of course, and is not noteworthy except when you’re doing it yourself and sweating it out.

The point is, I’ve been writing quite awhile. And barring a period from age thirteen to perhaps twenty-one, my goal has not been to be a noted author as much as to be a worthy writer, one who stays true to herself and offers nourishment of many sorts. Just as I’ve been nourished by diverse writers whose works I’ve read over decades. I can only hope born of sincere desire that what I write has value beyond my personal passion for language and story. Nothing can stop the writing, but can I publish more? Can it be read and enjoyed more often? Do I care most about writing for its own sake? Can I also manage to care about and work on becoming more widely read?

Time ticks away. My mirror confirms this if the mind knows only this moment being lived. I have much more to access via imaginings or night dreaming or life’s small sparks, the inspirations discovered courtesy of places and people. There are ideas that barge right in, or create a steady beat of melodic words that stir in my innermost ear. A hunger seizes me as mysterious intentions of language erupt and flow. And then I am brimming once more.

I have to make room for these pressing wants and needs, just as I have made room in my life agenda for the joy of this blog three times a week. And so, to the point!

I’ve decided to post fiction or nonfiction on alternating Wednesdays and a poem or photography on each Friday. The mid-week post will be entitled “Wednesday’s Word” (fiction one week, nonfiction the next) and the Friday post will stay “Friday’s Passing Fancy” for poetry but the following week will be “Friday’s Quick Pick” for photography. I also plan to refresh graphics of the blog soon. It’s good to engage in positive transformation!

It is motivating to determine that just one more day can aid in researching markets, preparing pieces to submit, and exploring greater opportunities in literary communities/publishing worlds. Opening rejection letters and perhaps now and then an acceptance. Risk is good, I remind myself.

Not the first time I’ve reworked the format of Tales for Life, this likely won’t be the last. It is part of the fun of blogging, how much freedom we have here and control of the work we share. But I appreciate being spurred on with comments and “likes”.

I hope you will enjoy what’s yet to come here at Tales for Life. I’ll continue to peruse and absorb as many of your unique offerings as I can. Thank you for being part of the huge creative community at WordPress. May your 2018 be sublime of soul, heart, mind, and your health robust–or good enough to carry your forward as is, gratefully, my own.

Below: two of my photos from the first posts, Oregon shots shared in 2011.

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Harlequin River Dreams

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

More than anything–despite the security of his high paid job, despite many rewards he had labored long and hard to gain–Ward secretly wanted to be a poet. Or, if he was honest with himself, still wanted to be, as it was not a new inclination, nor a whimsy that came and went. The dream had remained like a watchful dog sitting in a corner of the attic. That’s how he thought of it, of that life: the slanted walls, a view of the river Harlequin, the old desk made by his grandfather snug against the slant of the southwest wall. It wasn’t all fully his. If it was, he’d be there now, or at the least whenever he could take off a few days now and then. But it was the family place, owned by his two brothers, Randy and Owen, and himself. But when you got down to it, they were the ones the place belonged to as they were the overseers and regular week-end inhabitants. He got there once a year at best, so far from his life was every bit of that. In miles and in culture for twenty-five years.

Ward was the oldest so he might have been the one to get all one hundred fifty acres and the cabin. Their grandfather had passed on the horse farm, all that verdant rolling land, to their father where he still lorded over the successful stables and breeding business.

Grandpa Greer had informed them of some of the will’s contents the night before he slipped away.

“You now.” His thin, deeply veined hand rose a half-inch off the ancient quilt. A finger beckoned toward Ward. “You’ll share the cabin with your brothers. But you’ll get your own Harlequin acreage. Where we liked to fish…you’ll know what to do with it, son.”

The wrinkled, age-spotted old man had tried a smile, chin quivering, eyes lit up for an instant before shuttering. Ward took his weightless hand though it made him anxious, the terrible frailty of aging and impending death.

He later wondered what Grandpa Greer meant but for a long while it felt enough to enjoy reminiscing about the place. The fishing they’d all done. How they might stand at the Harlequin’s banks on a clear blue and yellow day, raising and spreading their arms to open sky like wings. Freedom, Grandpa often told Ward, is what you find when you stop all the ruses and the running. You’ll get there.

He’d frankly acknowledged that Ward was the one who had to strive harder, keep the family name flying high.

You have to jump on that treadmill of life, spit blood and sweat until you make a big splash, Ward. You got born first with more sense and brain power so you have to do more. It’s the way of things. But you can’t take one thing for granted in this life and you have to give back. Those are two rules. We’ll talk about the others later, alright? Get to it, boy.”

So he’d become a corporate attorney as planned from days of middle school. Like his father, only his father was a divorce attorney who had married three times. Now on his fourth. At least the latest stepmother knew about horses and made his father laugh. Unlike his father, Ward became high-profile and also had had only one wife. Now an ex-wife. His father called up when he heard of the proceedings.

“Well, I’m sorry, but Merrill was not much good at the game. Now you’re let loose, I guess. Need any legal advice?”

Ward considered his response. He knew Merrill never took to the lifestyle or that endless entertaining. She had chafed until she pulled away from him. He hadn’t been watchful enough; he’d found her reprimands too sharp. But he didn’t see a divorce as the grand open gate that guaranteed  freedom. He still reeled from it after a year. “I’ll have more time and space. Yes, for more work, I’m sure. No, I don’t need your counsel, thanks.”

“Time to loosen up, son. We should get together at the cabin soon, relax as so damned well deserved.”

And then he’d laughed with anticipatory pleasure, like it was a great victory for Ward, as if the men in the family would get together and engage in a manly celebration dance around an open fire, spears in hands, puncturing the skies with guttural roars. He could imagine his father, Randy and Owen having at it while he slunk back into the darkness, headed toward the river. It hadn’t happened, not then. Randy, his youngest brother, was busy with his fledgling dentistry practice, Owen with his cheese/wine/chocolate stores. They managed to go there every couple of months, but Ward was in Seattle. A long way from southeastern Pennsylvania.

And now he found himself at a city park’s pond more often than not on a week-end, book in hand. It was a four block walk from his place. It did him good to be a bit reckless with time even as the tug of work was always nattering at his shoulders.

He brushed something with wings off his shoulder and watched the ducks paddling on the water in easy unity. He could count on those ducks being there and doing that. It was the first warmish day in over two months; the air was a caress on skin rather than a slap. He put his book aside, pulled from his jacket pocket a small black notebook along, a mechanical pencil snug in its small loop. His hand, pencil held aloft, hovered above white blankness, then fell upon it with trembling.

If power of dreaming wins,
I’ll take to that intimate river
and let the water roil, carry me  
gasping to distant rims of earth,
submerge me in heart-deep currents
until I rise, float, grow sharp fins of light.

He read them, erased a few words, realigned things, uncrossed his legs. Leaned forward to write more. Put a big space between last line and the next. But it felt a new poem and a much harder thing.

Can you ever love me this way, as much falls away?
Can you even find me in iridescent undercurrents,
amid sly, dangerous waters that return me
a different man to banks of a forgotten ravine?

A dog barked, then two more got into it and Ward set down the notebook with pencil. His eyes stung in richly exposing sunlight. What did he really mean by giving voice to such strange feelings? He didn’t know but kept at it, the last few months measured by work hours but, increasingly, also poetry time. He told no one, shared nothing. All Ward knew was he wanted to do this, had to write these things and he didn’t know if they made sense, if they were worth the time, if he should feel embarrassed anxiety more than the happiness. He just set each word down like a marker along a precipice he traversed alone. He was trying to make his way without falling prey to disparate elements, to superfluous demands, to the enveloping disappointment and hurt. And so he accepted any help his beleaguered mind and soul could bring him.

A few months ago he’d stayed awake until the frail light of day seeped into night’s hollows. Not so unusual, anymore. But it wasn’t work nagging at him. His now ex-wife and forever daughter–Merrill and Kelsey–haunted him most empty minutes. Yet not that night. He’d heard rumbling traffic beyond the partly cracked window; heard a homeless woman muttering to herself while she searched through trash; heard peevish cats yowl below his new city condo. He had once looked out and caught a glimpse of a coyote in an alert pause and this had frozen him in a thrill of discovery for one long second.

But that night Ward just lay with eyes half-closed, then began to hear words. They rose up like musical notes, lithe and bright, as if a windfall of rain had blown across the parched expanse of his brain and left lush vegetation. Things began inhabiting the wild trees and secretive undergrowth and they crept out and spoke to him as if he was the one they were waiting for, so he listened. The more interested he was, the faster they arrived, those creeping and leaping words, and he rummaged for an old law magazine in his night stand and wrote them down along the curled edges of pages, feverish.

When the alarm went off, after a fast shower, he studied them as he sipped coffee and was horrified. It barely made any sense and he attributed it all to crazy effects of sleeplessness, the roaming magnet of his mind picking up useless syllables and depositing them into a half-consciousness. But this didn’t stop him from being open to more of the same. In time things straightened themselves out a bit. The phrases were better held together by greater connectivity of poetic thought.

In the daytime, smooth tailor-made suits carried his body and his will carried his active mind; he allowed himself to be overtaken by rigors of his profession as required. He excelled as usual, pushed through it all. And then at end of day he looked for more words to harvest that didn’t buy or sell, divest or ruin or reconfigure lives and lesser assets, although this was what he did and it was nothing more or less than that. Still, he waited for poetry as if for a shy lover, his very being leaning into the ether that might hold a phrase that could make a bridge over the grit and sweat and tarnish of the world and into a soon familiar other land, that place of wonders.

“Ward, are you doing alright?” his assistant Sandy asked once a week at least. “You seem tired out. Distracted.”

“Divorce has a way of draining the energy from you but yes, I’m okay, thanks.”

“How about a few drinks after the meeting? You need to get out there again, get to it, man, come on!” Terrance from across the hall demanded this for weeks.

Ward noticed people were trying to engage him more personally, as if he was a bit feeble and in the throes of mourning and in need of dauntless encouragement. They wanted to share sly asides about liberation from the heavy yoke of marriage. It got on his nerves. He refilled his coffee cup as everyone else was otherwise engaged and just smiled wanly at the few co-workers who actually meant something to him.

“What’s going on?” His brother, Owen, asked when he called out of the blue. “You haven’t said a thing since…since you two broke up. How’s Kelsey doing?”

“Well, you know, she’s really busy with soccer and friends and school. Okay, I think.”

“You had better take some time off, huh? Come out to the cabin. Really relax. We can have a family reunion of sorts, what do you say? How about soon?”

Ward looked out at the dregs of slush from a freak early March snowfall. Puget Sound looked icy-grey, mostly empty of activity. “Maybe. We’ll see.”

He kept writing on Saturday or Sunday mornings, sometimes off and on all week-end and except for house chores and a movie here and there with friends plus a couple of drinks, did little else. Ward bought ordinary notebooks on sale and kept pencils handy, ink pens freshly filled and at the ready. And when he walked around his neighborhood or elsewhere he let his barriers down so in flowed that new friendliness of language, its fast or slow meandering a balm, its unadorned frankness a relief. How had he forgotten what he had wanted all those years ago? To be a poet. To let magic flow with its wealth of stimuli, and generous evocations come forward so his world changed on the turn of a simple word, and then a tide of truth and fiction that no one else might decipher opened in him such locked places he was overcome at times by tears. Yes, tears. His ex-wife, his daughter, would not believe such things.

He felt humbled.

The nights, too, continued to shine darkly and sweetly with poetry that sang to him, angels and sirens. They were generous, faithful, without judgment. Full of transformative possibilities.

******

“I can’t believe you came,” his brother, Randy, said as he parked the car by the cabin. “It seems ages since the brothers have gotten together. And maybe Dad will get away. It’s been three years now, right?”

“It has.” Ward hoisted his bag out of the back seat. He turned in a slow semi-circle to take in the green, familiar scene. Spring time in Pennsylvania.

Randy unlocked  the cabin and they entered. Ward pulled open curtains on two sets of windows as Randy took a small bag to his own room. The spacious, open, pine dominated space was musty but neat, the kitchen at back was cramped and out of style. He smiled, ran upstairs to the attic space. To the left were two bedrooms. Straight ahead was the attic room he had tried to reconfigure in his memory for so long. He pushed ajar the door. Pale light thick with agitated dust motes met his entry. There were no curtains on the square windows, only dirty wood blinds half-raised. He wrenched them open to let in a waft of cool air. The built-in desk and bookshelves were homely, mostly devoid of magazines and sturdy volumes.

Ward sat down at the desk. Below, through a thicket of budding bushes and trees, he could see the Harlequin River and hear its voice in its rush of lightness and unruliness. It calmed him now as he heard Randy talk on his phone to Owen or their father. A wave of unease intruded as his brother’s voice rose in an attack of laughter, a blade through the air. Randy, the hunter, the warrior. The youngest who fought for everything. Owen had a different sensibility, finer-tuned, quieter. Owen had convinced him to come. But Owen–no one–knew that Ward already had a plan, that he had looked already at plane fares, that he knew what he wanted to happen.

And here they all soon would meet. Gathering into a circle around that primordial fire, sharing beers, swapping stories and entering strongholds of memories.

******

It had gone well. Everyone was relaxed after two days, felt more reconnected to the land they loved and were more pleased with each other and themselves than expected. They had taken the rowboat and then canoes onto Weller’s Pond and they’d fished for catfish and bass with some small success. Their father had arrived for the last day–he had had an emergency with a prized horse and missed most of the fun–and now they were walking along the Harlequin, talking from time to time.

“It’s so good to have my boys together again!” He was chewing on a drooping piece of wild grass and it bobbed up and down beneath his spare white mustache as he spoke. “We’re coming up to it now, Ward, remember?”

He naturally remembered. This was the swath he had inherited and it was the same one he’d many times enjoyed with Grandpa Greer and others. There were groupings of old silver maple, sycamore and river birches he’d long admired. The river ran slower up here north of the cabin; it was wider and deeper, curved a bit. Behind them was a graceful open meadow, then a good-sized hill which offered higher ground, safe from water breaching the riverbanks as it was likely to do now and again.

“Any reflections to offer?” Owen asked. “I know you and Grandpa Greer loved this area. Me, too. After you took off for college five years ahead of me, I found myself traipsing about with him and Dad more.”

“I’m happy, relieved to be back, for sure.”

He walked to river’s edge and squatted, looked more closely at rocks and sodden earth, swirling patterns of greenish brown water. He stood again and strecthed and was suddenly aware of his six foot two inches which originated from their deceased mother’s side of family. His brothers looked healthy, ruddy cheeked with thickly auburn haired but they were weedy, he thought with a chuckle, slighter of  build. Ward felt like he towered over them and wondered if it had always been so. Even his father looked smaller than he recalled a few short years ago. They looked at him in expectation, as if he was about to say something about the past that would draw them together even more, bridge their various ages, gaps in connection, and old pesky slights. But he didn’t want to just pull out stories as they had at a bonfire the night before.  So he said nothing for a bit.

The brothers and their father murmured among themselves, recollecting good times, glancing over their shoulders at Ward as they jostled each other, and wondered if he was just depressed about the divorce or if there was something else. He had always been a little apart somehow, less free with thoughts yet forceful when ready to talk.

And he studied again the ebb and flow of the river, felt how it was ever made new with rain water and snow melt, how it brought along creatures small and larger, how it eroded and rebuilt common domains of dirt. Ward breathed deeply of it, the potent fertility of plant, air, water, mineral, animal.

“I’m coming back,” he said as he turned to face them. “I’m giving notice when I get back and moving here. I’m going to build a house on the hill”-he pointed at the mound of earth beyond-“and I’m going to do something different with my life.”

The brother stepped closer to one another, as if seeking refuge from such odd  words. Their father stepped forward, hands opening wide.

“You mean here, you’re building here? We have a great family cabin already. You can use it any time, you know that. And what do you mean by ‘giving notice’?”

“I’m quitting the firm. I have other ideas to implement. Building my own house is one of them.”

Owen stirred, eyes lively. “Okay, then what’s next?”

“I’m going to write.”

Randy gave a low nervous twitter.

“Alright, tell us more,” Owen said cautiously.

“Write? You are a lawyer, not a writer…” Their father stood with feet apart, arms crossed before his chest. “I’m sure you’re good with language–but write what? A memoir or something? Oh, wait, a legal thriller, maybe? That makes sense, I guess. And it’s your land, this piece, anyway… But what about Kelsey?”

Ward took his place in a reformed circle. “She’s off to college in the fall, remember? I’ll see her, you can count on that.” He put one arm around Owen’s shoulders, the other about Randy’s. “I feel like a change is necessary. Look, I’m fifty-four. I can leave the field and be okay. I can return if needed, if it doesn’t work out. But I already have contacted a builder and an architect. I have ideas for the design. It won’t mess with our…my… land. Don’t worry. And I want to be closer to family. And I really love to write.”

They exchanged exclamations and ideas as they started back to the cabin. For the most part, the mood was buoyant. Ward believed it could really happen, at last.

Owen pulled him aside as Randy and their father kept on.

“Okay, Ward, what’s up? I agree a woman right now is not the answer. And I love the idea of you being near us, I look forward to hanging out more. But what’s really going on?”

Ward gazed at his middle brother long and hard. “I. Am. Going. To write. In fact, already am.”

“Yeah…but what?”

“Poetry.”

Owen seemed to weave a little as he squinted in the sunshine and then Ward’s hand shot out to grasp his shoulder.

“Poetry, ” his brother repeated, stood up taller and gave a moment of consideration to the possibility his brother had not lost his mind, after all. “Like you talked of doing as a kid, if I recall.”

“Yes.” His hand slipped off Owen’s shoulder as they began to walk again.

Owen took a chest expanding breath and let it out in a soft whistle. “Wow. Alright then. Write your poems. I’ll stand by that. And they will, too, I think.”

Ward shrugged.

They caught  up with Randy and their father. Ward thought the afternoon exceptional, the river music perfectly pitched, trees casting just the right gradations of shade along the path they made. He barely restrained himself from running up to the attic room desk, from diving into a poem that was coming forward with easy urgency, a fine new gift from that ancient, fecund land and from his reawakening mind and soul. And when all was said and done, in no small measure, from family.

Friday’s Passing Fancies/Poem: Word Puzzle

eary-fall-bishops-close-random-cj-135

Today it won’t come easy, in spite of wanting.
Letters skim off meanings of entire words,
inviolate vowels and consonants harbor
little truths as more beg entry to the
charismatic soul, disquieted mind.

Some poems and other matters are made
of hard beginnings and loose ends,
moments that culminate like
fire breaking out from logs
that mean to just spit and sizzle

or the other way around.
Each one, poem or passage, is made
of this and that, despite refining,
wrestling. The waiting.

Tunneling with words cannot be more than it is;
certain revelations will not reveal life itself.
The latest story may only be
a closing of an eye caught
winking in reflections.

Writing: Getting My Money’s Worth

 

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It was clear what I was going to write about today–friendship, perhaps a specific friend, current or past. First I shopped at Goodwill with a daughter, then got a few groceries. I worried a bit about having the afternoon free to tackle my subject. Once home, however, I realized laundry needed to be done. After I got that going, I was hungry so took my time eating yogurt and some trail mix for a late lunch. Then I tidied up and that led to lingering over several childhood pictures I’d left on my desk when searching for my passport. Then I stared at the stacks of books and wondered which ones should go into a “Still to Read This Summer” pile. I was able to resist the urge to go through them that moment. Things could wait; I needed to write.

It was four o’clock in the afternoon and I hadn’t put one word on the page. How many more ways could writing be avoided? Not many more; I write something every day. Besides, I am committed to writing two prose pieces (one fiction, one non-fiction) and two short poems weekly for my blogs.

I have many topics for non-fiction. I don’t maintain a list but they gather and file themselves in my mind. From the moment I awaken cogitation about writing begins and today was no exception.

But one topic kept nagging me: how does one continue being a writer despite those dreaded black times when a project or piece seems to be going nowhere, few who know you even care, those who have authority deem your work less than worthy or worse, and your toil and effort seem wasted even to yourself?

I recently decided to pay a well-known editor to assess the first one hundred pages of my first completed novel, the one that I began in 1999 (perhaps before). I had deferred it a long while; it’s an expensive service. I had researched editors off and on, so when I finally found someone I respected, had met before and appreciated and who was willing to look at my work sooner rather than later, I dug up the money. Yes, you read it right: I cannot afford to pay for editing of over five hundred pages of my novel. It made sense that the opening chapters would provide enough material for J. to deeply scrutinize themes, some basic character development, voice, plot development and dramatic arcs, mechanics, and so on. I would take her evaluation and use it to improve things. Or not.

I had felt for the last decade that it lacked what it needed. I had gone through over the entire five hundred pages with a fine-toothed comb at least seven times; smaller cuts and alterations occurred sometimes daily. When sharing it in writing groups, I received mixed responses, much helpful feedback. Around five years ago I stopped revising and mulling it over. I was sick and tired of it, despite the devotion pledged to it. I was busy working on other projects, sending out other manuscripts. But my first novel, Other Than Words, sat untouched until I found J. I had to know if having had an excerpt published and nominated for a Pushcart Prize was a strong enough indicator that the novel could succeed, or if it needed to be rewritten. Or even trashed.

After two weeks J. got back to me with a six page summary and painstaking notations. Somehow, before I opened the email and documents, I knew to steel myself. Afterall, I’d been unhappy with it long before hiring her.

Essentially, she stated the pages fail in critical ways. They don’t move fast enough, offer enough dramatic hooks, are too interior, need more of a traditional plot structure than what I aimed to accomplish. Not only that, the female protagonist of this two-part novel was “unlikable and tiresome by page 100.” That was a bit miserable to hear although the character was supposed to be difficult at the start. She evolves over the course of the story and is even admirable, I think, and loveable–much later. But point taken. The reader has to empathize and be intrigued by charcters to even continue to read. How could I have missed that elementary truth?

I finished the summary of insights and suggestions. It was clear she had put in a lot of effort and given me clear indicators of strengths (there were a few of those) and weaknesses (more than I’d hoped). Her words carried the authority she has in the business. She also noted I have talent, that the concept is fascinating and she appreciated themes noted in the synopsis. I saw those words the second time I read her summary and it helped.

It needs a thorough re-write and I got what I paid for and more. J. gave it acute attention. The novel can only benefit. I started to consider other corrective actions I could make, ways I could re-write the story so it is no longer two parts, change the characters to better reflect the themes and, of course, add more surefire action. The editor’s feedback was crucial in clarifying where it stands, what it needs to deliver the goods and how I might hit the target when submitting to an agent one day.

Book by Pat Walsh
Book by Pat Walsh

I may not do a thing to it. A first novel is just that–an amateur’s attempt at writing a story that is predominantly autobiographical despite attempts to clothe it otherwise. If the basic premise is good and the storyline intriguing it has life in it. Yet how much more time and sweat do I have left for this?

And there are other parts to this story. That blasted tightness in the chest when reading J.’s words. The hope that the editing suggestions would get easier and perhaps gentler the longer I read. The realization that despite her stated appreciation of my ability, she was telling me it was not at all good enough. After read-through of the writing itself with edits, I felt first intrigued, then tired out. Then I felt the deep and irritating discontent seep into me, then the sense of doom that comes from fearing ultimate failure, and the thought blinding my mind in neon caps that no matter how hard I work, there will always be something that needs fixing.

And that overarching question came to the fore. Why bother writing at all? If it does not pass muster despite talent and hard work, if someone I so respect informs me it is not great quality, what then? More toil the next five years? Is there any guarantee it will be good enough then to snag an agent, perhaps be published? Since the fourth grade (when I garnered an award for writing and discovered writing’s intoxicating effects) I’ve spent my life working on the craft of writing. Sometimes submitting work and occasionally being published, reading my work at public readings, attending writers conferences and workshops, talking to other writers about their processes, reading books on writing and publishing. Tearing up countless attempts at mastery.

There is absolutely no guarantee any one will want to publish my writing or anyone else’s who is not already well-known.

I attended a couple of lectures at yet another writers conference this week. On the blackboard was: “Agents are our friends.” But they told us what I had already heard. Whose work is selected from a slush pile is random in that they never know what will stoke their curiosity, what will be deemed original and exceptional, what will be seen as marketable enough. Well, unless someone referred you to them or your work has been in literary journals of real note. There are just too many people sending manuscripts to them and limited time and staff.

Yes, they mean to support us in our quest for greater readership–it is to their advantage, as well. But who in that audience might be taken under their wings was a mystery. We all can name books that are published though poorly written or boring, then make a lot of money–and books that are excellent, make little and disappear. And millions of writers worldwide who strive to hone their craft yet don’t ever see a thing in print. It’s enough to stop anyone from wanting to be a writer.

Not writing doesn’t interest me, however. Habit alone dictates it after writing for well over fifty years. I didn’t find enough time or energy to intensely pursue publishing when raising five children and working, struggling as a single mother off and on. Now perhaps I do. All I know is that writing makes my blood run well. It sparks circuits of energy in my brain. It nourishes serenity and fulfillment. The work of writing opens up access to information about people, place, the very nature of creativity and the presence of God.  The actions of idea to hand to paper unveil new ways to experience the universe and our place in it.Writing is alchemy of a sort so potent that words have been able to change the course of history, heal, enlighten, entertain, educate, provoke, liberate. To be able to write and to read is revolutionary. I want always to be a part of it.

That heavy cloud settled a few days, then thinned. It has nearly vanished. When the discouragement creeps in I have to take a break from myself and pay attention to the bigger picture. My money was well-spent on J.’s expertise. I learned more than I expected. Now questions proliferate what I need and want to do now with my writing hours. I may revive Other Than Words once more–my unlikable female protagonist who was struck by tragedy still has good things to say. I might, instead begin a new novel–a title that popped into my head already has me plotting away. In the end I may stick other genres.

While I am at it, it might serve me well to re-read some of the best writing books I’ve accumulated. A few have stayed unopened; it’s possible within those pages I will gain more useful tips. But giving up has never been an option. Stories still arrive and allow me to tell them. This is why writers write, after all.

MISC. 8-11-12 032

(Thanks to brilliant as well as good-hearted J.M.)