The Rhapsodic Ways of Music



It was just Gustav Mahler and me in the elegant auditorium. He may have been born nearly one hundred years before me but no matter. He may as well have visited this century, jumped on that stage. I almost could see  him there, his intense, intelligent profile. His judicious conducting, passion imbued with delicate control. The present conductor, though excellent, melted away. For over an hour I was ensnared, mesmerized and startled by each note he belabored in the year’s span between 1901 to 1902. And beyond. He couldn’t let go of what was driven by love. It must have kept him fretfully awake as he took risks, poured forth the music. But I heard only the luminescent completion of his sweat and toil. Thought: What sort of great good fortune enables me to hear today what Mahler began in earnest 113 long years ago? That live musicians can interpret those difficult black notes upon the pages tonight? And I can surrender myself to it.

I’m not a classical music critic or scholar so cannot go further and impress you with my insight into Mahler’s “Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor”. I can tell you the three sections made of five movements are a panorama of sound and feeling, thought and experience. Seldom have I heard every instrument given so much to say, the voices of woodwinds, brass, strings and percussion stirring and essential. And far from sounding archaic or stilted –however you may consider classical music at times–this symphony presaged a contemporary view. It help initiate a visionary change. I find the composer deeply intriguing as well as gifted for this composition alone.

But to get back to sitting in the seat in that auditorium. It fell over me as if the barrier of flesh had fallen. That whirlwind of notes spun and drifted through me. Defined the air I breathed. I felt it in places where no words can form, where blood leaves and returns to heart and then transfuses soul. Does this sound too much? You weren’t there with me, my friendly reader. Language does not do it justice. The intricate connection between vehemence and tenderness, the interplay of sorrow and love all have a perfect place within the measures. I cannot imagine why he was never satisfied with his Fifth Symphony. For me it is numinous perfection which I hope to revisit many times.

This is the value of live music, one of many sorts I seek. This is why I buy symphony tickets each season despite the cost. It is why I look for every event that can be managed as the holiday season amps up. Sometimes the performances are spontaneous. Some are happenstance when I am not seeking them. In the summer I have availed myself of free concerts, usually outdoors, which is another sort of happiness. I have been known to stand awhile to hear a talented drummer on a street corner pulling music from a five gallon pail. But when the temperature drops, the rains fall and Columbia Gorge wind starts to whip about my sonorous chimes on the balcony, I prepare for musical events in wonderful locations. There are several auditoriums to visit; I prefer some acoustics better than others. But it is the live performance I need to experience. Hearing a quartet of bluegrass musicians at the farmer’s market or a Baroque orchestra are both satisfying.

Seeing and hearing musicians place instruments in hand, to lips and chin and chest, then breathe life into notations–well. It’s vital, isn’t it? It is an outreaching of life in a form that can seem utterly pure, devoid of consternation or falsehood. At least for me.

I read recently of professional and amateur musicians in Ireland who gather every year to promote and support a traditional Irish music school. They talked about the essential need of young students to learn instruments and the old music. They are passionate about this, help raise money for the school. It is a community endeavor, the learning, performing and celebrating. Beyond that, it is an active, happy lifestyle. There are often three generations of musicians coming together not only during the summer school but also at many times over the year. Families play together. Old folks share their songs with youngsters. The tales and jigs and sense of belonging keep the music going on and on.

I can well appreciate this. I have written before of growing up in a musical family, that my father played multiple instruments well. We were taught from a very young age how to play something. Our old baby grand piano took up one-third of our living room. There was always someone playing it or a stringed instrument, with later additions of woodwinds like bassoon, clarinet, flute, saxophone and more. I played cello, as my oldest sister did. But singing was my first love, whether creating my own songs or learning an art song for a competition.

When our family gathered around the piano we made good harmonies. Our squabbles dissipated. Problems were momentarily irrelevant. My mother paused to listen; her encouraging presence spurred us on. Our extended family held many musicians as well, and whenever we got together there was music first and last. In church I suppose people wondered about us (though most already knew us) in one of the left front rows. Or wished we would just pipe down. All seven of us–unless my father directed one of the choirs that day–would sing out, the hymns one more opportunity to use full voice, make harmony, share our united love of music. I remember thinking as a kid that music was God’s mouth from which Spirit spoke. Give sound to the notes; there was music as prayer.

The operative words are “love” and “united”. That’s how it began for me, this great companionship with music. Live, daily made music was part of awakening and going to sleep. School and after school. It was a challenge, a solace. It could be demanding or acquiescent, offered diversion and fun, inspired me when discouraged and soothed the wounds of growing up. It was a guardian angel. It was just life in our home. But also of my choosing.

This week-end in my old hometown in Michigan is a lovely celebration of sixty years of the yearly talent show called Rhapsody Rendezvous. I heard about it because a videographer contacted my sister. Then I read about it in the town’s paper. My father instituted this event back in 1955 when he needed to raise funds for his high school orchestra’s trip to a music conference. The first years it was called The Talent Assembly but I knew it as the fancier rendition. Students and teachers were called upon to audition with entertaining acts of all sorts. My father got out his saxophone, clarinet and trombone to play music that no one knew he could play. He was known as a “string man” who played violin and viola. But he got on stage with a handful of other music teachers, playing rousing songs of earlier eras or Broadway tunes. They had a blast. All of my siblings and I performed in the talent shows. I still have a couple of black and white pictures of me singing, one with musical friends. The song “People” was my crowd pleaser.

The shows never failed to elicit a hearty response from audiences which were comprised of students, their families and other citizens. There were many talented youngsters brave enough to stand in a spotlight. Seeing the teachers do funny, interesting things was a boon to students who discovered the staff had skills and personalities encompassing more than teaching math or history. From stage hands to lighting techs, scenery designers to performers, the Rhapsody Rendezvous has always been a shared experience. It moved from the high school to the Midland Center for Performing Arts in the early seventies. By then I was living elsewhere. I would have liked to experience it from a prime seat in the first-class auditorium. My father would be so pleased to know it still mobilizes performing impulses, both for the students and for the old hometown’s benefit. For the sake of music.

Give me, then, more Gustav Mahler (and so many others) or sacred music, bring on the jazz or soul or folk. May I nourish myself always with the feast of music. And make it live, please. Whatever the concert program is, I want to claim a good seat in order to hear well music that lifts into rafters of a building or the cathedral of sky. From outer to inner ear: move me. Fill me. Let me feel it all. Reaffirm I am fully human but with a longing for the Divine that music powers from within. For it goes on for all eternity, I expect.


(This movement is the most famous but to really appreciate the symphony, I hope you will seek it out in its entirety.)



Posted in creative nonfiction, memoir, Personal essay, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

We’re All Tourists

Photo from

Photo from Patricia McNair via

I knew him before all the furor started, when no one thought much of him and never guessed who he’d become. I’m talking about other people. There were things on my mind, like my cousin Arnie in jail and my mom tiptoeing around like she was a mouse. Dad had taken off my junior year and then we lost our bungalow. And then there was Ginny Marston’s smile which looked like it belonged to a movie star, which was good and not good.

But since we lived above the three car garage on Mrs. Tilby’s property, I knew Michael. Mrs. Tilby, his mother and a widow, tended to not talk to us except to ask if we’d please pick up the mail for her at the gate or would we mind getting cough drops when we were going to the store. Little things that she didn’t feel like dealing with or didn’t bother to ask Michael to do. It irked my mom. But she was alright. She rented to us when few others would have.

So I thought of Michael as belonging to the property and maybe his mother. Some called him a mama’s boy, an only child still at home. Kept to himself. He worked three days a week in the family’s law business, fraud investigation. At twenty-nine, he seemed old to me.

I got to know him by accident. I was roaming the field behind their yard, trying to flush out rabbits. Crouching low, inching along. Then I saw pant legs which would have shaken me except I had just trained my eye on one plump, four-legged creature.

“John, right?” he said.

“Shhh!” Then thought to look up.

I saw it was our landlord. A backpack was dropped at his feet. He had the sort of boots I admired, sturdy leather, lace-up ankle boots.

I stood up. “Joel,” I answered, half-offering a hand which he ignored. “I’m just scouting rabbits.” I pointed to a clump of bushes where I had last seen them, now surely gone. “Is that all good with you?”

He shrugged, then stuck out his broad, dry hand.”I’m Michael. I’m sure mother wouldn’t miss a few. Not fond of rabbit stew.”

“I don’t hunt and kill them!” The idea gave me a shiver. “Deer, okay, but not rabbit. I just like being outdoors, watching things.”

“I see. You ever get a deer?”

“Not yet. I only hunt with Arnie, my cousin, and he’s…gone awhile. You?”

“Once. With my dad. Years ago.”

We just stood there, me in my jeans and dirty tennis shoes and stained hoodie. Michael shorter than I thought, bulky in a kind of bush jacket. Those great boots. He looked like he was going on a picnic or birdwatching. I saw he had a camera in hand. Maybe I had interrupted his fancy, urban wildlife picture-taking. But it was his place.

“Should I leave?”

“It’s okay. You live with your mom in the apartment. How’s that working out?”

My turn to shrug but it was more like a shoulder stretch as I stifled a sudden yawn. I wanted to get back to the rabbits, then get home. “Not bad for a two bedroom. Bigger living room than we had before. But weird living above cars. And a Cadillac…truck.” I turned my head at a sound. “Look.”

Two greyish-tan rabbits scattered, hightailing it to better cover.

Michael hoisted his backpack. “Well, we used to rent it to tourists who came for the fishing and all. It’s better having just a family there. But we’re all tourists however we live as I see it.”

He shot me a wry grin. I thought about that a second. I wasn’t sure if he was joking or being deep.

“Yeah, maybe so…”

He gazed toward the horizon. “Well, the light isn’t as good as it was, so I’m headed back. Enjoy the property, don’t make a mess anywhere.”

I watched Michael lumber along, zigzagging through grasses and weeds. He paused and looked up, pointed his camera toward a branch. Maybe it was a certain bird he was after. He snapped a photo and left.

We got used to each other. I’d see him pass in the distance when I roamed the woods. Sometimes we waved at each other as he was coming in from work or elsewhere. I sat on the balcony off the living room if it didn’t rain, watched the road and a pretty birch wood. Finished homework. His silver BMW gleamed in the fading sunlight, then disappeared into its bunker beneath us. I could hear him walk up the winding stone pathway to their gigantic back porch. A faint thud as the back door closed. I liked that he went in back.

Mom often noted Micheal was going to be one rich bachelor when Mrs. Tilby passed. I half-wondered if she wished she’d had a daughter so she could somehow marry her off to him.

“I just think he’d be a nice husband–quiet and smart–and anyone can see they would be secure.”

“Not like us, you mean. Kinda poor. Well, he’s a little young for you, mom.” I was anxious to get over to see Ginny. “And you havent; signed the divorce papers.”

“Joel, you know better…! Anyway. Just wondering what he’s about. I see him with his mother or running errands, strolling the streets. He’s always snapping pictures of this and that.”

“He’s not that happy.”

I don’t know why I said it. But I knew it was true. I’d seen it on his face alot.

“And you know this because…? Special observations from your balcony perch? Some people say–”

“Mom, I’m going to Ginny’s. Call Caroline if you want to gossip.”

I wasn’t interested. But I thought he was probably really bored. How could anyone so obviously enjoy the outdoors and stand being stuck in an office? I was going to be a forest ranger, I hoped.

Their gigantic, sprawling house was at the edge of town. Michael’s grandfather had bought a lot of land to protect and enjoy. I got mad when Ginny said she was sorry we had to live over a garage. I loved the quietness. I felt lucky to have all that land I could walk. I felt even less sure of Ginny when I heard her telling a friend how we had to live above expensive cars and I had not once driven one of them. Yet, she added. There was a breathless edge to her voice that reminded me of Arnie’s. He’d gotten locked up because he liked other people’s cars way too much.

Michael and I sometimes crossed paths on the Tilby acreage. I had gotten to taking a book or my cheap binoculars. I liked to spy on the animals, look into undergrowth or close up to a nurse log. I saw Michael doing the same with high-powered ones–he let me look once–and he always had that camera in hand, too. We might talk or not and usually only a few words. He seemed to crave solitude like I did. I noticed he always wore those boots and jacket with lots of pockets, a uniform, I imagined, for his real life. I pondered his statement about being tourists on earth. It struck me as smart.

One Saturday we both ended up at Skinny Creek that wound through trees. I kept hoping it would run wider and deeper, flush with fish, but no luck.

“You like your job? I don’t think I could do that all day.”

He chuckled. It altered his wide, jowlly face, made it friendlier.”I like having work to do but not so much that kind.” He pointed at a yellow winged bird high above as it flapped away. “You like school?”

“No. But I can get through it. I have to be a forest ranger, definitely.”

“Ah. My grandfather lobbied for preservation of forests all over the state. My dad, less so. He liked three-piece suits a great deal and fine booze, and the rest.”

“Money.” I leaned over the creek bank with a finger and watched a turtle creep down a thick wet branch.

“Yes, indeed.” He squatted. I looked at him. His eyes were deep-set. They flicked to mine, held steady. “Money matters. But not so much as people think. Take me. I have some. But I love photography more than anything. And nature. But I’m expected to stay in the family business. She’s alone now. There are many expectations. So I take photographs as much as I can. And wait.”

“I have those, …expectations, I mean. But wait for what?”

I picked up the turtle and set it down on my knee. I figured he might mean until his mother died or until he got the nerve to leave. It felt a little too personal but at the same time, we were just tossing out thoughts. It seemed natural out there.

Michael sighed. As if he didn’t want to have to explain anything but would if he had to, because I had nicely asked.

I shifted and got steadier in the muck. “It’s okay. I have to wait to leave this fishbowl town and go find mountains. But could be worse.” I replaced the turtle on the stick and got up.

“You’re right, Joel. I meant wait until something bigger happens.”

Michel took some shots of the creek and turtle, leaves falling and another bird. We walked together a little, then he split off. On the way back I thought how if I had gotten an older brother, someone like Michael would have been okay.

Days, then a couple of weeks went by. I got more busy with school, football, spent time with Ginny less, then sometimes Val, a new girl in town who liked to hike.

Then it happened.

I was wasting time until meeting friends and wandered further than usual. There was an abandoned Ford truck in the middle of a field. I could see the cab. It was maybe nineteen seventy-something. It had been blue; now the paint was chipped and faded. The body was more rust and blemish than good clean metal. Tires were long gone. Windows windows rolled down or gone. Weeds grew high like a protective fence around it. A little lopsided, the bed of the truck had branches in it, leaves, dead wildflowers. I wondered how many others had been there. Some crushed beer cans lay on the torn plastic bench seat. They were from way before my time.

I climbed into the bed and jumped on it a few times, then piled up the branches in a corner. Grabbed an oil-stained rag, the lid of a can and a torn up t-shirt stiff as a board. Set them in the corner, too. I climbed atop the dented cab and threw out my arms to the sky. I felt good lately. My mom was perking up, getting her sense of humor back. My cousin was out of jail. Maybe we’d go hunting with his dad. And Val was getting interesting.

“Yes!” I shouted, my fists pumping into the open sky.

I jumped down again. Did a little dance on the metal bed, making a racket. Ordinarily I was very quiet out there but what the heck. I saw a few tiny flakes of snow. I felt a surge of adrenalin and danced a little more. Animals would figure it out or hide. After that I sat on the hood and dangled my feet. Greyness seeped into the sunlit sky and the blanket of clouds thickened. I’d smelled snow coming all day.

It fell. On my cheeks, on my eyelids, jacket. I climbed up to the cab and held out my hands, smelled deeply of the icy-silvery-wild-apple air. Soft white flakes fell faster, sailed and whipped around, a snow dance. I closed my eyes and listened to the wind until cold tunnelled its way into my jacket.

I slid off  and down as dusk fell, ran out of the field. Through the clumps of trees. I glimpsed Michael heading to his house in the distance but kept on, then burst into the warm apartment. My mom was pleased I fell onto the steaming chili with a mean appetite.

Two days later she tossed the slim newspaper in front of me. My phone was ringing but I didn’t answer.


She pointed at the picture on the front page with a look of confusion and surprise. It said: “Joel’s Place”.

It was me, kicking up my heels in the back of a beat-up truck. I’m jumping about a foot off the bed, knees up and feet splayed, arms stretched up, head thrown back. Face half-covered by the hoodie I wore under my jacket. But you can tell it’s me. It’s my smile, my mug, alright. The November woods, the light snow and field looked beautiful. I had been there, after all. So, apparently, had Michael.

“Did you know he took this? Michael Tilby! It’s good, Joel, you look really good. His mother showed me and seemed baffled. Not upset, she thinks her son is talented. But still–”

“Wow. My gosh! I’ll explain later–have to call Val back.”

“Famous already, huh?”

That’s what Val said, and we laughed. We didn’t know what was coming.

Some kids thought it was weird. Arnie found it amazing I personally knew Michael. I thought it funny so much fuss was made of it. Still, the picture was special. It looked old-fashioned, black and white and sorta raw. The way he caught the angle of light, the different shadows. Almost like you could walk right into it, too. It was surprising Michael had gone unnoticed. But I knew he’d had lots of practice getting his best shots. He was likely there first. And waited.

I had felt happy, confident; there it was for everyone to see. Mom said I was going places. She said it was the best thing to happen in our family in a long time. It made me feel proud.

Michael, it turned out, had taken quite a few pictures of me screwing around on that broken down truck. So I gave him permission to publish more in a couple of magazines. Then he sold several. Eventually he got a fancy photography award for the series. And then another one for a shot of me standing on the cab, eyes shut in the snow, winter’s magic moodiness right there.

So he moved on. Success gave him the freedom he wanted. His mother is okay; we watch out for her. “I’m still just a tourist, Joel, you, too,” he says when he calls. He’s thanked me too much, offered to help me with college, which is scary–means I have to work harder. And I felt good when they were published, sure. But it was more than that. Michael welcomed me onto his grandfather’s land. Then he made it official with a picture, a title, my little nutty moment. His kindness, man–that’s what no one seems to get. That was more than enough for one year in my life.


Posted in fiction, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Ethics of Transparency



Maybe it was just an “off” day at my neighborhood grocery store. The polar vortex has been wreaking havoc–the sleet was attacking cars and houses on my way there–but I had a baffling experience. Actually, three separate ones.

First I stopped at the in-store pharmacy to pick up a prescription. Turned out there were two. I barely glanced at them, then paid. As I was walking away from the window I looked more closely at the bottles. One was, in fact, a prescription that I had just picked up a week before and hadn’t even used since the back pain was allayed. I handed it back to the pharmacy tech who looked at me blankly.

“I just bought this but I just picked up the original prescription last week. I know there are monthly automatically refills but it has been seven days–I don’t need a refill.”

“Oh. We can’t take that back–you left the pharmacy with it.”

“I stepped away but came right back. I’m actually a bit concerned that the pharmacy would refill this when it is a muscle relaxant and I just was given thirty pills last week.”

“You don’t want it on automatic refill, then?”

“Well, I don’t want it refilled in seven days, no. Maybe in thirty days, but not likely then, either. But certainly not in seven. Right?”

The quiet-eyed young woman looked at me, speechless. She could see I wasn’t going to budge.

“I’ll talk to the pharmacist.”

She returned in a minute and spoke conspiratorially. “Oh, you’re lucky! I’ll refund you money but this really shouldn’t happen.”

“I agree. I mean, I should not have a thirty-day refill in just a week. especially not a prescription like this one.”

As we were completing the transaction, the pharmacist came up to the window.

He frowned a bit. “It’s not really legal to take back a prescription once you walk away with it. It can’t happen again.”

I opened my mouth, then closed it. I decided it best not to engage in further discussion about refilling a medication weeks before it was due. Or question why, then, he was refunding my cash. It was ten bucks–that wasn’t really the issue here. I took the refund and moved on.

Next up was the deli counter. I eyed the mesquite wood smoked turkey, the cheaper one, with all the nitrates and antibiotics. My favorite deli person was there after being gone awhile.

“Oh, hi! How are you? Great. Could I have one-third pound of the mesquite turkey breast?”


I nodded.

“The other brands are so good, you know. Would you like a sample of this one?” She pointed at the most expensive kind.


She had already turned away. Before I knew it she had placed a slice of the $12.99/pound brand on the counter to test out. I did. The woman has always been friendly and helpful and I was glad to see her cheery face. It was top-notch meat as I knew it would be.

“Okay, but just a third pound, as usual.”

I was talking to someone else when she handed me the bag of sliced meat. It felt a bit heavy as I turned my cart around. Sure enough, it was one pound not a third.

I was about to say something but she was busy helping another. I felt slightly disappointed. Maybe she didn’t remember me or my usual orders of one-third pound only, despite my seeing her there for years. BShe may not have heard me. But I took the bait, the sample, after all. I might have been more savvy, too.

It was one thing to hand back a bottle of pills I shouldn’t even have. It was another to hand back sliced deli meat and ask for two-thirds of it to be removed. Besides, she had always served me kindly. Maybe it would look good for her that more meat was sold today, who knows?

As I was checking out with all my items, the cashier was intent on his work and I was wondering over the deli lady and pharmacist. It was time to swipe my debit card.

“Oops, my rewards card! Have to give that to you for the points. You forgot to ask me for it. That doesn’t usually happen. But here it is.”

I was smiling at him and had spoken in a light-hearted way, but he frowned at me.”I did ask if you had put all your stuff in the card reader.” He punched some buttons. “Swipe again.”

“Oh, I did, but I don’t swipe my rewards card, right? You get my number with your magic scanner.”

He took my rewards card. Rewards points add up. He handed me the receipt with a nod and a less than spontaneous smile. I thanked him and left.

On the way home I recalled an error of over two hundred dollars at the store after my husband had picked up wedding flowers for me. I realized the cashier had hurriedly scanned each label only once rather than for each arrangement. The next day I returned to the florist and paid up. She was embarrassed and so relieved she nearly teared up. It made a difference in her till and my conscience.

This is not, however, about customer service not being what it used to be. In fact, my neighborhood store has been my spot for twenty years. I appreciate it enough to call it by an affectionate nickname rather than its formal name. The customer service is generally outstanding–I wrote a commendation about a sales person recently. And even though there is a new, fancy and overpriced “natural foods” store nearby, I am not tempted to run there.

I admit it did not escape me that in two of the instances the responsibility wasn’t shouldered by the employees. (I hope the deli person would have gladly decreased the weight of turkey if asked.)

It had to be the weather system, a pressure change; sleet and snow falling from the heavens is a rarity and we temporarily lose our equlibirium in this town.

No, this is about my tendency to speak up. Complain. Note errors and request corrections. I have a reputation among family and friends as one who will not easily let things be if they appear wrong. If I am served a dish at a restaurant that is not well-prepared, it goes back. If I buy something that doesn’t hold up through the first washing, it is returned immediately. When a sales person is rude or outright lying rather than bothering to locate something–and I find it on my own–I address it. I figure if people expect a good service rendered for a price paid and if that service doesn’t happen, then the situation needs to be remedied.

As you might imagine, things can get stirred up. I’m not aggressive but …politely adamant. Forthcoming. Occasionally my spouse or others might hide their faces. I still stand my ground. Despite the outcome, I have rarely regretted trying to address a deleterious situation.

I contracted with a provider of chairs for my daughter’s wedding. Everything seemed perfect until the day of the wedding. A huge truck (which had arrived late and was bound for a bigger delivery later) had trouble maneuvering the narrow service road. It delayed the wedding nearly twenty minutes.

I had a reasonable discussion with the company about extra money paid to ensure delivery and pick up times specific, or “sharp time.” I wanted that money refunded, as there was nothing “sharp” about the delivery (or pick up). When the owner’s wife emerged from her private office, I began to feel a little doubt. Her presence was made clear: formidable. She was taller, older, better dressed than I was and knew how to talk business with precision. But I was committed. The exchange grew animated. It was their series of errors, not mine. After fifteen minutes, she agreed it was not good that the wedding was delayed due to her driver. She almost began to concede that there should have been a smaller truck or logistics ought to have been better planned, then caught herself and retreated to her office. But I did not have to pay extra for “sharp time.”

All the above refers to services or products provided. But is it always worth it to press matters when a more serious situation is perceived as wrong or unwise? I certainly found out the hard way at work over the years. If my boss was open to hearing concerns or issues, then yes, it was worth it. If not, I risked creating conflict and a more difficult job scenario, then working harder at times to stay in good graces. But people knew I would keep ethics as my top priority with my clients and co-workers–like it or not.

It was drummed into me to be responsible for my actions. I grew up thinking others were given the same dictates. Additionally, I experienced abuse that was kept so secret there were many years of suffering before I made it known. “Courage despite the odds” became a new motto. I vowed to make accountability a trait I would hold dear. I held others accountable as well. And I knew I’d have to fight that sly leaning toward self-righteousness–so many people let things slide by and it didn’t seem that terrible except to me–so I tried to take my own daily moral inventory.

I have taken ethics seriously in my personal life and in work. The principles governing choices matter. They are a standard of ideals and behaviors that signal a determination to take action correctly, even morally. If someone verbally commits to something, that is as good as a signature on the line to me. If we all know what the rules are, then the procedure or game or endeavor will unfold according to those rules if at all possible. If there are underhanded activities and someone I know falls victim, I will stand up and say so. And as a wife, sister, mother and grandmother, if there is unfair treatment of my family when all has been completely reviewed, you will find me ready to fight for justice. If someone is to blame, I’ll stand by them but the responsibility will be theirs.

As a counselor I gladly made a vow to practice my trade within a legally binding agreement to provide ethical services. During my last position I labored as long as I could before I decided to leave the place of employment after many years. There were too many blurred lines, too many practices that avoided or even violated ethics we were to uphold. Many were just swept under the rug. I was vocal but barely heard; superiors attempted to placate me. They knew they could count on me to do good work. But when unethical issues impacted both employees and our clients, that was it. Many things happened that I documented and eventually handed the HR Director the day I left the company.

The last straw happened as I was doing paperwork after my late therapy group on the second floor. There was another counselor there. She waved me on my way but I waited for her to get done. I felt we shouldn’t be left alone in the large, empty building. I had repeatedly asked for more security measures: at least two or three persons present (I was fairly often alone) in the building at night, an alarm system, better lighting for the isolated parking lot and walkways, locks for the door to the team room since distressed clients could and did walk right in, an emergency code word to use over speaker phone in case we were threatened or attacked by clients (which had happened). To no avail. My co-workers admitted they were concerned, too, but they wanted to keep their jobs more. I loved my work as a mental health and addictions clinician but safety was paramount in a field where anything can happen. And does happen, as headlines shout at us every day.

We didn’t even know it was happening, although I thought I’d heard something beneath us. Had even gone down to finally turn out a lobby light as we left. But someone (it was later speculated a client or delivery person) had sneaked in with other people, then hidden in a room after hours. And stole thousands of dollars worth of items, tried to steal medications. Right below our floor as I worked uneasily. We were lucky. Our clients could become violent in a flash.

What had begun as an ethics question–how to ensure safety for all our clients, and how to keep the environment safe both for effective treatment and for providers–became an answer, loud and clear to me. Time to retire. When I talked with the HR Director, she was appalled at what I had experienced for months. Why hadn’t I directly contacted her? Well, it had occurred to me. But I kept expecting my supervisor to finally do something. I kept trying to go through proscribed channels.

I learned something that day. Sometimes one ought to consider being more bold than I had been as it may garner a better result. I was offered my job back. But it was too late. I was done, and in the end, I felt felt at peace with my choice.

The bigger question in my personal life now that I am not working for pay is: how much can an issue ultimately matter? How do I pick my battles? I am in the habit of being in an advocacy position for others. But I also look out for myself. I count on myself first, others second. It seems the sensible thing. The world can be frenzied, fraught with complex demands, pressured by a drive to get more accomplished in less time. We become beset by distractions and must determine what deserves attention at any given moment.

I want a quality life. Time is a disappearing act, invisible and scarce save for what the clock insists. I want good things like everyone does, experiences I can count as worthwhile and enjoyable. Details can have a mighty impact on the overall picture. I don’t require perfection, but I do seek excellence. Then the pieces tend to align well. I belive we are still more likely to get what we need if we ask, even lobby for it. And more often what we genuinely want.

It’s risky speaking up and stating the truth as we see it. It requires taking chances that may not end up as hoped. The vulnerability can seem too great when we get serious about personal matters like love and trust. How best to be honest and when is it enough–or too much? I want to live my life responsibly, for others and for myself. It has been a paramount goal. If wrong, I’ll admit to error first, try to correct matters. I can also accept a “good job done”. If we each stand up and are counted, we can be heard–but not if we wish we had spoken yet remain silent. We are so fortunate to have a gift of freedom to speak what we mean. God willing, I will not sqaunder it.

Authenticity is part of seeking the truth. It is a powerful thing. We respond to this quality in many instances, whether being riveted by great performers to making true friends to respecting good bosses. Why not be the sort of human beings who are as we appear, people who live what we believe?

May we strive to be transparent. To seek justice in even simple ways. To discover and share small and large truths as they need to be known.

Posted in memoir, non-fiction, Personal essay, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Smoke and Spice


The broad-shouldered guy with the widow’s peak (which he liked to hide under a baseball cap) didn’t think he liked selling things. He wasn’t a natural when he was a youth working retail, and if he hadn’t a pressing need of more money he would never have called about this sales job. And then said, “Yes, I can start immediately.” But so far he had been stationed in the music section of the store and that made it much more than tolerable. He had feared it would end up being all books, the main commodity. A lucky break.

Herbert “Heb” Taylor originally studied, worked and plotted to become a self-supporting musician. He did passably well financially if one counted private parties, charity galas, wedding receptions, church solos, and a three-year gig at a neighborhood bar Thursday nights. He had strong, nimble hands for keyboard and he could sing well enough that people asked–no, demanded–to hear more. But college (nearly a B.S., biology major) needed more critical attention. Then a detour to the Air Force. War. More war. Eventually back home and there was his parents’ split to cope with, not to mention his own radically changed view of the world. Of everyday things. People. Heb found work in a small biotech company and hunkered down in his cubicle, becoming fruitful if underpaid. Perhaps he was content some days.

It got harder to get back to making pure auditory pleasure his goal. Because that is what music was for him: happy gifts delivered via ear. Oh, he had heard people philosophize about making a connection to some higher power, or creative labor that contributed to the betterment of humanity but, frankly, he didn’t go that far. Maybe he had just forgotten. He certainly heard less distinctly since flying and, well, the rest. His playing was recalled as one does a time of life when things were simpler, safer, brighter.

Heb sometimes sat at the upright piano he’d picked up for his cabin at the edge of town. Ran his fingers over the white and black keys and let tuneful turns of his fingertips just happen. Since his neighbors were a distance from him–his place wasn’t quite waterfront, nor as accessible–Heb could have left the door and windows open and banged away. But rarely was he so moved. It was the briefest giddy jig or a melancholy trail of notes descending until, defeated by a lack of enthusiasm, he let a last note slip into silence.

Well, that was what becoming an adult had brought. Once he had had a good time, now he had memories that haunted him and bills to pay and decent work to do. He took the week-end sales job because extra cash would help pay off a boat he had impulsively purchased. He’d also decided to do some travelling after the New Year, go to Wisconsin to see his parents. Maybe visit an old Air Force buddy.

Truth be told, he liked staying very busy.

Selling music came more easily than expected. He fielded questions with a smile, offered suggestions, detailed esoteric differences within genres, led them to CDs for their heart’s desires. Or created a desire for something they didn’t know they wanted. Heb’s native love for and acquired knowledge of music was enough to make the job yield good results for business and himself. His supervisor hinted there might be a full-time position in the next few months; he declined with sincere thanks.

One afternoon when there was a lull he took a swipe at dusty albums in the world music section. There were five people milling about, all absorbed in their searches and sample listening. Heb stopped to check out the Portuguese and then South American sections and pulled out a Brazilian album. He was overcome with a desire to be languishing on a tropical beach. He closed his eyes a moment to better zoom in on glittering sand and turquoise sea. He smelled a salt-laden breeze, admired bronzed skin, noted a bright flower adorning the ear of a woman running toward water’s edge. Then there was another scent, something woodsy. No, smokey, delicate yet distinctive, soft and pungent, lingering in his nostrils. What sort of wood emitted such smoke? Right behind it wafted a cinnamon-spicey fragrance. He opened his eyes and nodded at a couple of punky kids who passed. Blinked, trying to shake off the olfactory spell as he noticed a lanky customer gripping a few CDs.

“Sorry, just thinking,” Heb mumbled, then brightened. “How can I help you?”

“Ah, music does that to me, too! No prob! Just need to buy these, Herb, can’t sneak them out.”

Heb didn’t correct him. It was a common error even though it was clear on the name tag. They headed to the register.

After the purchase was made, Heb caught the evocative scent in the air again and he wondered if he should be alarmed. Fire? He scanned the store. No one was concerned. His customers kept drifting in, chatting among themselves.

“Sir? The amazing Ms. Miranda Lambert? Where?”

He’d almost saluted when he heard the “sir”, then nodded at her congenially. Maybe he looked older than thirty-seven. His one bathroom mirror stayed fogged up after a shower so he just pulled a comb through his short hair. In his car he checked in the visor mirror to make sure there was no leftover shave cream or nicks. Age stopped meaning anything when he was flying. Risking everything.

The country-loving woman hoisted a toddler on a hip. Heb led the way and showed her where the artist was. Behind him were three people clogging an aisle, an older guy with his grandson and a younger woman lugging along an overstuffed leather bag as she flipped through cases. Heb edged away but spicy tendrils of scent prickled his nostrils. He looked back at the customers. Heb thought of favorite pies of his past. Maybe he’d try baking one and invite Kevin from work (and his wife?) over. He tried to smell less.

What was going on? He couldn’t start sniffing around the store. It was true he had a sensitive nose; he got it from his mother. After the tours of duty he worried his sense of smell wouldn’t return. Or better put, return whole and correct. He smelled things, often at odd times, but not those he cared to remember. Then he moved from the city to his cabin in the woods. Things began to straighten out. He noticed all his senses worked better in an open space created by natural elements. Nothing felt irrevocably damaged out there. Or, much less often.

Now the woodsy smoke and cinnamon or nutmeg– what was it?–were so strong they were driving him a little nuts. These were two of his favorites. How could they not be? One meant warmth for skin and bones and another flavored food for belly–and both soothed the soul. It made Heb think of jazz piano played before a glowing hearth, a hot mulled cider with cinnamon stick in hand. Or pure, deep rest. It made him drowsy thinking of it.

“Yessir, got my country gal. What’s your liking?”

The lady with the fussy kid. Was she flirting with him? Heb took her CD and rang it up.

“A little bit of everything. I am democratic, even indiscriminate at times, I’m afraid. Thanks for coming in. Enjoy.”

The woman shook her head, maybe to shake out her tight curls, or get his attention. Or indicate she didn’t get what he’d said.

She stared at his name tag. “H-E-B. Okay, Heb! Later?”

He stood idle a few minutes. Smoothed his forehead to help clear himself of distractions. The smoke and spice slowly dissipated. He tried to think who all had been present, what they looked like, and who had left already but it struck him as a strange thing to be doing. They were strangers and he was just a sales associate at a store. What would they think if he did follow it–followed them–til he found the source? His boss would be called over and for very good reason.

The next Saturday after work, as the sunset dimmed its burnished beauty, Heb found himself at the keyboard. He’d thought of getting the piano tuned up–it was painful tapping three soured keys–but his hands fell upon each note without judgment. He ran up and down scales, sought out major and minor chords. Found a light-hearted melody hiding among them and followed it around a winding path and back home again. A space inside him opened and songs Heb used to play flew up and out, landing on his fingertips. He felt gently possessed of them, then usurped by their command. And gave in long as he could. It was a joy, a relief but it also felt like a new problem.

The darkness knotted itself about his cabin. Heb’s hands gave out. Better to not let that happen again. It stirred things up. He felt himself long for sleep. He got kindling and logs, lit a fire in the wood stove. The roar of his thoughts took over, a return of warrior cries and plane engines faltering, guns and wounds and eyes that you once could read rendered blind with fear, covered with death. He put his feet as close to the stove as he could and leaned back in the rocker and looked for something good inside his head.

On Sunday morning, the store was busier than usual. The jump on Veteran’s Day: sales. He found it strange and terrible that this could be a reason for increasing commerce. He thought he’d get a couple questions about whether or not he’d served; that’s how people were. Nosey. And he’d have to answer something. It would depend on who was asking.

It was close to his lunch hour when he realized he had sold twenty-six albums in under four hours and people were still queuing up. He had help this time, a wispy girl with a friendly manner who determined right off he was a vet. Heb circulated around the edges, on the look-out for anyone with sticky fingers, finding CDs left in wrong places and refiling them, picking up the odd glove or stray receipt. There, at position on the carpet where he was snatching gum wrappers he caught the scents. The mixture of wood on fire with cinnamon laced with something spicier. Maybe even pepper. Or pine. It was getting harder to sort out by the second. Heb hadn’t noticed the complexity before. He looked up.

Three feet away, by the end of the display case, stood a woman who might have burst out of an ad for riding boots–hers were that expensive. From her ear lobes hung a pair of golden oak leaf earrings. A red cape hid her arms and two-thirds of her torso.

“So, Herb without the ‘r’, tell me about jazz pianists.”

He stood too fast, the blood seeping away from his brain.

“Marian McPartland? Bill Evans? Shall I go on? Is that what you mean?”

“Why you have so few.” Her cropped platinum hair stuck up on top, as if she had worn a hat in. “And not one of mine.” She clasped her hands in front of her, which made her look less irritated, more earnest. “Although I’m more of a vocalist than pianist, if I’m honest.” She said this as an aside.


Heb took a step back so he could take her in better. She had a big enough presence but there was that unusual smoke and cinnamon thing. Finally. Up close it was like a cross between a quick shake and a long hug. And she looked familiar.

“I know I should know who you are…but I confess, I don’t.”

She laughed loudly, mouth wide open, but ended on a light note. “Not exactly famous–yet! I’m Analise Mars.”

Heb had seen her name but he was wondering about that perfume she was wearing. His hyper awareness was embarrassing but he kept pace. “Oh, the top billed act at the new place, Travertine/One Degree.”

“And others,” she said as if to herself as she looked past him. “Well, not a fan, I gather. No matter. I was just checking how many of my albums you’re carrying. It’s discouraging the count is zero.” She sighed a wilting sound.

He was riveted. How could one not be? She was nearly as tall as he, her face was vivid, animated. Eyes that sparked when she laughed. He waited to hear what was next, breathing deeply but discreetly as possible, when she turned, cape circling out from her body. And left.

It wasn’t easy for her to disappear in a crowd between her white-blonde crazy hair and red cape. He could have spotted her in the night rain at two hundred yards. She exited the store. Heb felt a wince of disappointment. He wondered how many times she had been there and slipped away. At least three. How did he miss that? Why did she keep coming back?

A customer with a small dog held tightly in his arms flagged him down. Heb was officially on lunch hour so referred him to his sales associate. Though he thought the dog clever, sliding out of the person’s arms, in search of something more, following his nose.

After a sandwich and a coffee, he sat watching skaters glide around the ice rink, wondering if he should get a dog, himself. He had lived alone in the cabin a few years and all he had were small bugs and beasts and trees and his own company. Oh, there were a couple of friends from work who stopped by. But he had been thinking about a hunting dog, maybe a beagle.

Analise plopped down in the chair opposite him just as he took a deep quaff.

“Me, a happy buzzing bee! Yet your attention is so hard to capture you may as well be a stone in a river, not a flower in the meadow.”

“What?” He chortled despite the coffee and a little dribbled out the side of his mouth. “Did you really say that?”

She clamped her arms in front of her chest. “Too many old standards sung, you know? The ole metaphors just grab hold and make themselves part of my vocabulary. Besides, I compare everything to something else. It’s a hazard of being a songwriter.”

“I see that.” He wiped his lips and chin. “But what do you mean?”

She raised her already-arched eyebrows. “It means I have been in your store four times the last couple weeks and you haven’t noticed me until I nearly stepped on you today.”

“Flattering. I think. Not entirely true. But why?”

“I know your friend at work. Kevin Harris. Brother-in-law. He says you’re a pianist. Not that I don’t already know plenty of musicians, but he said you had a great ear for jazz. But don’t play much. That can happen to us all… So I thought I’d introduce myself and see when we can jam a bit. Shake things out.”

It was as if someone turned on the floodlights. He heard her loud and clear. Even though she was more or less some zany stranger, he believed her. It made the sort of uncommon good sense he’d been missing in his life. He needed music. She made music. He was too alone, too introspective. She was welcoming, open, offering a connection to…maybe friendship, if he could bear to hope for so much.

He felt fear creep in but smiled back.

“Kevin,” he repeated, “he’s my cube mate. Look, I haven’t played in years. Other things have taken up time and energy. I just have a battered upright, needs tuning.”

Analise was smiling. She reached out her hand and patted his. “Good. Let’s get started. How about Wednesday evening? Just a couple of hours? Where do you live? Or would you rather come to my place? I do have a scarred, resonant baby grand.”

“Wait. Wait a minute. I don’t know. I have to get back to work. Let me think it over.”

“Yeah, check it out with Kevin. Okay, Herb without the ‘r’. Sorry. Heb. I like it. Heb Taylor! Good musician’s name, right?”

She got up and her cape got up with her and they started to twirl away.

“Wait, Analise. One question. You wear a distinctive perfume…smokey with cinnamon. I smelled it the first time you came around, I guess. Can I ask what that is?” He didn’t want say “spicy”. It might put her off when he was truly curious.

Analise came back grinning, hands on hips. “Perfume? Don’t care for it. I use cedar in my fireplace which heats much of my apartment so there might be a smokiness that pervades my very being. Apropos for a jazz singer, yes? Or maybe it’s you–you smell like old-cabin-with-woodstove. Cinnamon? Hmmm. Do I bake? Not often. Well, Heb, I’ll have to think about that and get back to you. At our jam fest. “

Heb watched the ruby-red coat streak through the crowd. He finished his coffee; he had a good many hours to work. It wasn’t his fireplace that got to burn sweet, pungent cedar, no. His stove burned hard, durable oak down to the last little ember. Down to a dank, cooled rubble of ashes. The thought stayed with him, bittersweet.

Maybe he should get a dog. It was possible he would tell Analise to come by some Wednesday night. But he knew for certain he was getting the upright tuned. Then he would open the windows and door a little. And just play.


Posted in fiction, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Being at Peace with All You Feel


"Sunset Melt" by Niya Christine

“Sunset Melt” by Niya Christine


I arrived a few minutes early for my doctor’s appointment, looking forward to reading several pages of the book I had brought. But even though I am an established patient there, there was paperwork on a clipboard handed to me. Once seated, I noted that the pages were turned back to page 3. The section I was to apparently fill out was highlighted canary yellow. Because I have an odd fascination with forms and questionnaires, I readied my trusty pen and put on my reading glasses.

1. Are you depressed?

Yes or No.  (Please circle)

2. Do you find you have little to no energy or lack interest in your work or hobbies?

Yes or No.

If you have answered “no” to these questions, you may skip the rest of the form. Please hand to the nurse when you are called forward for your appointment.

I had checked “No’ to both initial questions but couldn’t help scanning the remainder. Chronic aches and pains, persistent sleep problems, irritation, moodiness, a drink every night and so on were noted in the group. What did they mean by all this? I pondered them a minute, wondering what I was missing out on.

Taking stock, then.

Sleep: insomnia has been with me since my late forties, more noticeably the last ten years. I have adapted, even come to appreciate the solitary late or interrupted hours that can yield more time for reading, writing, puttering.

Pain: I came to the doctor due to lower back achiness that has dug its heels in recently and sometimes awakens me. And, sure, I have a few aches and long term issues (heart disease, for example) that grab me from time to time, like it or not. I don’t often complain.  If it comes to 911 status I can reach out. In the meantime I’m busy livining. Griping alleviates aggravation for a moment, agreed, but fails to resolve things for the long haul.

Alcohol. Anyone who drinks a few times a week for barely three years plus a few more worse times and develops an issue with it should just not drink. Been there; over it.

On to irritation. Well, yes, I am at times prickly, some days much more than others. It seems a part of my general constitution. In the last few weeks there have been some irritants: unfriendly cliques at the gym that take up too much space literally and otherwise, bad manners, overpriced goods, drivers that barely reign in the urge to run me over when I am crossing the street. Wait, there are television commercials that couldn’t possibly appeal to anything that breathes, the way I drop bottles or glasses but catch them at the last second while often spilling the contents, anyway. How about when I get in the car and my purse strap is snagged by the door, yanking me half out of the car? (I am in a hurry and it’s one more thing…) My husband abandoning half-full mugs and candy wrappings on the lamp tables as though this is a hotel and I am the maid. And all the tea towels–where do they go when earlier I placed another fresh one on the oven door? (On the floor, atop the salad bowl…I call out the spouse again, sorry.) And I was surprisingly irritated when I saw myself in the daughter’s wedding pictures. It was as if I had been carefully shoved into the elegant sapphire blue lace dress. Do I really own those hips? Drat! A “mini-muffin top” for all posterity.

That was a long paragraph, I agree. But we all can get irritated. On to that next word: moody. Who came up with that? What does it mean, away? Do I experience moods? Yes, a good variety. Do they change throughout the week or even day? Absolutely.

I was called to the examing room. The nurse scanned my answers. “You’re not depressed?” she asked. “And you don’t drink?” Her incredulity was almost kept at bay.

I smiled amiably to reassure her. “No. Just have some back pain.”

The rest of the visit was easy as that. I apparently have a little arthritis despite hiking, power walking, Zumba-ing and working out at the gym. Or, the doc said, because I am so active. Huh? Such is life.

But do not mistake my light-hearted response to the questionnaire as indifference to depression. I am pleased my medical office is concerned about depression. I hope they really notice when someone is, especially if a patient lies on forms.

It’s just that I have a prejudice against questionnaires that try to determine what is going on with our personhood in two–or ten–easy questions. Human beings are so much more multi-faceted than that a form can begin to ascertain. And when did you last tell the whole truth of your life on a piece of paper? It’s not a quiz about one’s favorite vacation spots.

If I had filled it out three weeks ago I would have had to answer “yes” to the first two questions. It was post-wedding (I know, old news–this is it for a while). The day after company left, I was so exhausted I could not move. I lay on my Lazy Boy chair most of two days in between rudimentary chores. Two more days and I was re-engaging in my life but still felt like a wet noodle. That goes for emotions as well. I was drained, fried, wiped out, discombobulated, and randomly feeling like I was floating outside my body. I also had a worse-than-moderate migraine that lasted a couple of days which suspended my brain function in that weird migraine way. And there was a core sadness that it was all over and everyone was gone, with happiness that A. was married. And I made an ongoing critique of the event, moment by moment. It was a full Technicolor movie of memories entertaining and distracting me way past two in the morning. I got tired of all the fun…

About a half-dozen feelings were layered atop one another. But I just went with it. I figured in another week things would fall into a more balanced state. Things did.

When I was daily counseling mentally ill and addicted persons, this question came up every day: Is the client long-term clinically depressed or is he/she experiencing grief and loss, frustration, anger, exhaustion, loneliness, discouragement, physical ailments, or other trying experiences that he/she wants helps with and can work through with better coping skills? And, equally important, is this client using alcohol and/or other drugs to mute the effects of the difficulty? If so, then symptoms of depression are likely secondary to the substance abuse.

In a way it was that simple for me, even though people who are hurting and flailing are more complicated than either question, just as with that medical form. But I could start there. In time I would come round to a full and clear determination. Make diagnoses and a plan. Help was within reach in any case. As each person began to get honest with themselves (first crucial step) and me, they could begin to notice what emotions were authentic and key and often, why. When they identified the critical issues, they could begin to see a little gleam of light in the murkiness and start to be proactive. To redesign their thinking, behaviors and thus, their lives.

One of my favorite educational topics for my groups was identifying and living with emotions. At the inception of the first group attendees would throw each other looks, oh yay, now we get to talk about our feelings...Yawn. By the end of the session they would be discussing how feelings impact brain chemistry and vice versa, how feelings can be felt, corralled or altered naturally. How drugs and alcohol can manipulate them. How the vast spectrum of feelings are a healthy sign of being alive and how they enable us to be effective people. They would begin exchanging stories about their real lives. Within the next two groups they would have let go of their facades, shared surprising things with others, connected, even cried.

Yes, even the men, even the tough guys–and gals. Not every one, of course. There might be that couple of folks who were simply not interested, i.e., not ready. Or struggling with terminal illness. Mired in the muck of addiction or confounded by their own criminality. But even they came around to their feelings sooner or later, even if grudgingly or stuck in anger (an easier one to identify and feel). We can’t sit on feelings forever. They pop right back up like a balloon bounces up after being forced underwater. It’s too tiring to hold that balloon down forever. The thing is, I said, you don’t have to do battle with feelings. Or be embarrassed by them. You can become friendly with them, get to know them. Then let them go. They are integral to our personalities so may as well be amicable with them.

I was born experiencing emotions intensely and not masking them well. By adolescence they often seemed to grab and lead me around by the nose. I addressed my own hard issues but my basic nature didn’t change that much. My face equals an open book most of the time. What I have learned is that feelings are a gift. They inform me about others and myself. They give me energy, fuel my curiosity so that I get up and get going on slower days. They give me clues about my health. Feelings insure I am a person who responds to this nutty and intriguing world, other people, to my thinking and imagining. Without feelings I could not empathize with others. Or stand up for what I believe in. Or grieve over losses. Protect myself from what is dangerous to my well-being. Take care of myself. Feelings link me to the outside world as well as to an internal one. To my body as well as mind and soul. They are the magic stuff from which we are made, along with the esoteric workings of our brains and all the other systems we need in order to live on earth.

Deep, tenacious depression? That is another thing altogether. It is a despair that alters everything. Becomes numbness, emotions seeping away into nothing. That is when you cannot any longer feel much of anything at all. It is intolerable. As if you are looking into a bottomless void or worse, that void seems to be yourself. It has been called an eternal shadow, the black dog, a hidden beast, the demon on the shoulder. A creeping, strangling thing that takes from people precious reserves of hope. That is the malady the doctor’s office– wants to expose and help. For good reason. If you have been there even for a short time–countless people land there at sometime in life as have I, not too long but quite enough–you do not forget. But there is good, expert help out there, so answer those two questions if you are asked. Or better yet, pick up the phone, call someone you trust and this time, speak the truth.

I am very grateful depression hasn’t ruled my life. I have serious compassion for those who do. Neither do my emotions in general take the upper hand all the time, which may be fortunate for those around me. But I do give them lots of room to move and breathe. Let them out, allow them to speak. I have strong emotions–not every one does, actually, nor all the time–and I delight in them. I am very attached to life; the feelings it offers are one of the pluses. They can be mystifying as well as challenging. I pay attention to them the minute I awaken, as they are a barometer as much as the one outdoors. Usually I am a bit low–I tend to think it is because when I finally do sleep I so love the dream world that I do not want to exit it yet–until I shower and put in my contacts. I come to, check the sky and breezes (for some reason, this seems crucial to awakening–primitive I must be). Put on the tea kettle, toast a bagel. Reach for my meditation books. Pray to be a blessing, not an impediment, pray for those who suffer everywhere. Ask for Love to surround me and clarify my goals for the day.

But if my melancholy lingers awhile I have to tell you, I usually don’t bother to avoid or change it. I give it space and time. Feel it. Feelings are fluid, not indelible. We can just acknowledge them as they come and they go. Most of the time I am good with that. But I do at times have my own questions: What is burbling under that sensation, this emotion? What is the signpost saying, where is it pointing? Or it is just a passing energy, come from who knows where and disappearing like vapor?

As living breathing organisms, we are gifted with feeling the pain and joy, anger and rapture. The dizzying sweetness and alarming sour. I hope you welcome your emotions as esteemed visitors. Sit with each awhile. Learn each one’s ways and lessons, honor their part in your short, valuable life. Let them not mistake you for an enemy when you are, in fact, the good host or hostess who has opened the door to your domain.





Posted in creative nonfiction, memoir, non-fiction, Personal essay, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment