Captivating Moments: Photography

 

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I have become more of a human being since taking photographs daily. More satisfied, centered in the moment, less opinionated of what and whom I experience. Photography offers an intense personal experience while also requiring objectivity, a distancing. It asks me to abandon restrictive thinking and give myself over to a finer sense of things, the gravitational pull of life around me. Order can be created even if there seems to be little–or exposed and higlighted. And it takes discipline, which is something I enjoy.

At the start–ages ago, back when I got my first basic Brownie camera around age nine–it was just about capturing a moment in life as it was happening. It gave me a taste of control and power to frame and steady my hand, trigger the shutter. Polaroid cameras, which developed the picture in moments, were too expensive so I had to take a roll of film to the pharmacy and wait for a couple of weeks to see what I caught on film. Sliding the shiny pictures out of the envelope brought a thrill of excitement. There were people I knew, there was my house, my yard or the park, the neighborhood’s goings-on. I could tack them on my bulletin board or in my scrapbook for safekeeping.

I didn’t understand much, even though my father had a scientific bent and explained the rudimentaries. I couldn’t get past the fact that my eye saw things upside down and so did a camera, then turned them right side up again. I did realize photographic images are two-dimensional, not three. Still, it fascinated me that I could make something occur, cause a moment in life to hold still and be made to last forever with a picture. But I had to be careful; I couldn’t waste pricey film. Taking pictures was meant to be something special. I do muse over what my father would think of digital photography: here now, gone the next second. No visible errors, less idiosyncrasy. There is much to be said for the intrigue of irregularity and for  permanence. Ten years after my first camera I got to develop my own film for a class. The alchemy that could be rendered chemically, visually and emotionally was spectacular.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, photo by Marianne Casamance

Chartres Cathedral, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; photo by Marianne Casamance

In later years, my parents travelled overseas and my father dragged along his beloved Pentax and additional lenses. That meant hundreds of photographic slides upon their return. I remember hours of being riveted by pictures of Europe projected big as life on a white screen. My parents narrated their journey with anecdotes and laughter. The pictures seemed so akin to real places and events that I could interpret the atmosphere, absorb diverse colorations or foreign designs of topography and architecture, nearly hear people chat as they ate at outdoor cafes and shimmied through narrow passageways. I felt I had gone along, had prayed within Chartres cathedral, visited Mozart’s birthplace, savored tea and biscuits at an Irish bed and breakfast. For me, pictorial images were like a magic carpet. Whatever I could see–in fact, often just visualize–took me right there.

As a child and young adult, I was results-oriented: I wanted to see the fruits of my labor, have picture souvenirs of my North American trips. It wasn’t the process that mattered so much as the result: memories, little bits of them frozen in time. But I have changed. Now when I leave the house with my humble pocket Nikon and good Fujifilm Finepix S cameras in hand, I set out to be surprised and inspired. Moved, startled, intrigued. It is a bit like playing detective: I have an urgent need to know more, to deliberate over scraps of information, to search for and gather evidence of the multitudinous layers of reality, as well as what may yet be hiding. I want to be present within the essence of life, this planet I inhabit, even the universe as it reveals its mystery moment by moment. At the very least, I want to clarify my own truth. Get to the core of things. Be attentive.

Writing has done this for me well over fifty years and sometimes I wonder how I can use up an hour or two a day taking pictures when what I need to be doing is writing. But one flows into the other seamlessly. What my vision brings to me can be made into a complex picture, then a bigger story. Walking into the world with camera in hand unlocks secrets to which I would not otherwise be so privy. I closely observe the way shadow changes rhododendron blossoms. I watch how a couple leans toward one another in the spring light, then the man turns sharply away. I see a child poke a muddy puddle and talk to himself about frogs and other beings unnamed. Over there is a house with an extravagance of foliage and two empty chairs. Who steps out in the dusk to sit there with the quieting birds? Photography uses a different part of the brain than language; it enlarges my reservoir of skills and ideas, stimulates possibilities.

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Photography stops me in my tracks. Ruminations, selfish self-regard, and odds and ends of worry all pause. It wakes me up to the variety of humans and other creatures that roam the earth and with whom I share it. I am not ever lonely when I take pictures by myself; I feel connected to everyone, often deeply. It is another way to become more aware of what is sacred in this living. If nature mimics universal design and our bodies and souls reflect the cosmos as well, what is not sacred? How can I not see God, camera or no camera? It strikes me that God is the Eye of all and we are both the seers and the seen; that thought cheers me. And I am excited my humble camera can do its small part.

There is a wealth of design out there. An old friend of mine, an artist, once said that good design was her religion. I pondered over that for, while it isn’t mine, it is certainly part of what I believe in and value. Whether natural or human-made objects, my eye seeks a contiguous whole made of intricate, often minute, pieces. Design requires proportion, light, space, perspective, materials. It requires mathematics and intuition, a feel for composition that will impact the environment and ourselves a little or a lot. We are altered by harmonious, innovative design (or a lack thereof) within our cities, our neighborhoods, our homes. We even design our own daily lives, and its signature shows up in the degree of our well-being.

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My neighborhood affords me such loveliness and fascination that every time I walk, I see things anew. The light, the weather, the time of day and angle at which I take the picture–it all matters so much. And these streets are lined with historical houses. The trees are varied, mammoth, many. Gardening is a full-on activity here, so I have the pleasure of appreciating every bit of effort people put into their yards. Our climate is good for growing things and all year nature displays her virtuosity. I count myself fortunate to be surrounded by such beauty.

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As much as I adore this visual art, documenting life as I experience it, I can’t say I have any expertise. I still feel new to it; there are volumes to learn. Still, I persist.

I have always believed being a witness is important, to whatever is unjust, turbulent or painful but also victorious, balanced or full of love. There is a part of me that wishes I had been able to become a globe-trotting photojournalist. When I was a mental health and addictions counselor I was a witness to chronic suffering, but also healthy transformation. As a writer I am witness to vagaries of the human spirit and a plethora of story that defines this world and us, both here and gone. With my camera I can discover a moment or it, me, then crystallize something of it. It takes patience but that is something I cultivate. I have the opportunity to be right there, up close. And a small revelation will unfold before my eyes. Then I can carry it home to savor the beauties. Mourn any losses. Study its lessons. Share my world with yours.

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(Other than the Wikimedia photo, these are my pictures. If you are interested further, please check out my blog Visionary Views, which is linked to this main blog.)

Posted in memoir, non-fiction, Pacific Northwest living, Personal essay, prose, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Yours is Not Mine

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Margarite’s Viewpoint

He made the decision impulsively. Very unlike him, everyone agreed, moving from one side of the river to the next, from a five bedroom, 4500 sq.ft. home in the hills to a homey bungalow on a corner. In one of the historic districts but still! I wasn’t prepared for it. I should have been. I was his wife for thirty-six years until last February. What was I going to do with all the room if he left? Not that he was there so much. But he was still vitally important to his company and that meant entertaining, plus everything we just required. The marriage had been fading a long time, so we both had ample preparation for that. No, the house was the issue along with a few other loose strings.

One Saturday I mentioned looking for a condo in southern California near one of our daughters so I could have an escape from the blasted rain all winter. We could even share it if he wanted, I thought, but knew better. He was staying at the house until we decided when to sell it. I had been resisting this part.

Robert agreed. “Go ahead, that will do you good. We should talk  about selling the house after the solarium is finished being renovated. I need to move, anyway.”

Busily repotting a plant while he sat on a white deck chair created some distance between us. I hated talking about the house and what we had to do next. It made everything so final, despite my agreeing to the divorce. Endings can be made to seem tidy while still feeling messy.

“Really? Are you being transferred?” I felt a little alarm go off.

“Putting an offer on a house.”

I heard him say “offer” and “house” but the Bensons’ riding mower next door had started up. I noticed he casually turned the page of his magazine, Smithsonian. He no longer read me articles aloud, for which I was grateful. How many random facts about the Amazon, thirteenth century Florence or how our bodies are not designed for speed can a person absorb? I had flowers on my mind; I was hosting the garden club meeting in two weeks.

“What did you say, Robert? The mower!” I gestured to the neighbor’s house. “Someone offered to buy our house before we even got it on the market?”

The magazine was tossed on the round table and he kicked his legs out. He put his hands behind his head and stretched back both elbows, that chest puffing out. His bare feet–it was seventy out–were enormous and clearly in need of grooming. I kept noticing things about him I had managed to ignore or blur. I returned to yellow pansies, pretty even though their tiny faces scowled at me. Robert says flowers don’t have faces and of course he is right, as he is about so much. But he knows nothing about making things grow.

“I’m leaving as soon as I close on a house on the east side. It’s much more manageable than this one. I thought you’d be happy to stay here–or sell. It always was for you, really–you’re good with large spaces, complicated landscaping. My career, I know, has required it. But I just want a nice new spot of my own.”

And then he got up and refilled his glass with lemonade, freshly made by yours truly. I knelt there in the dirt and watched him quaff a whole glass of it down, as though he was dying of thirst despite doing nothing all morning. How did he just go out and get a house without my considerable skills and input? How would he decorate it? The thought frightened me. What would become of it while he was gone for weeks? I needn’t worry myself about it, but still. Most of all, what drove him to leave so suddenly, the divorce papers’ ink just drying? It felt like an unecessary affront. We were amicable enough, uncoupling in a fashion that everyone envied.

“Is it another woman?” I demanded even though I knew it was absurd. I stood, then walked toward him. He was never a man to stray; it would have taken too much effort. Robert was attached entirely to his work and when he retired in ten years there would be another passionate interest for which he developed an inordinate devotion. I’m glad I never needed that sort of  attention; I would become claustrophobic.

Robert looked at me, unblinking, as though incredulous, those thick grey eyebrows fluttering an instant as though uncertain how to match his internal response.

“You know, I like the pansies and tulips,” he said. “The rest of this-” he made a sweeping gesture with his arm across the large, bedecked yard-”always struck me as superfluous other than it provided you a haven. But that was good enough. If you could see my new yard”–he paused and I thought he was going to say it wasn’t an invitation–”is small with little to distinguish it. There is, though, a good front porch. I can sit in the breeze and watch people stroll by. I will enjoy that immensely though I know it would strike you as a waste and a bore. No, this is not about another woman, Margarite.”

And then he went indoors. I barely knew what to think. Robert on a humble porch watching neighbors. To think houses might be close enough for him to see them at table. How odd an image to summon. He’s never had time or inclination for such a life. It was always rush rush to this and that, work to do, people to meet, flights to catch. Nothing will change just because he is changing an address. He just won’t have me around to tidy up after him, to make sure his shirts are back from the cleaners, to call the caterer or make reservations when his business people come to town. To keep track of his life so he can live it elsewhere, with others.

To wake me up when he finally slips under the covers and tosses and turns, then slumbers as though dreaming is the elixir of those such as he, like Zeus and Midas. Well, maybe I will finally get some sleep. And redecorate. Possibly sell, sooner or later.

Robert’s Viewpoint

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I found it serendipitously so there’s no going back. My GPS had malfunctioned earlier in the week. I didn’t miss it until I had a business lunch on the east side with a supplier, then made a wrong turn on the way back.

It was a perfect error, leading me to a different solution. I will use it to all its advantage, cheerfully so.

Margarite and I just hadn’t wanted to face giving up that house. It was made into a home in which to raise three kids and enjoy as many dogs over the years, had been a perfect place for entertaining and her expensive love affair with gardening. It was–is–a good place, substantial, elegant, affording good views of the river and a rolling park. But we are done with it. I am, anyway. Margarite will enjoy it until the last piece of crystal and panel of draperies are removed. But she will have to start over just as I will be.

It’s shingled which is full circle in a way. Margarite will be aghast. I always said I would never again live in a house covered in shingles. My parents had one and it embarrassed me when growing up. I wanted so much more, a ravenous child with no end to my appetite. And got the positions that enabled me to buy a few houses that impressed, our last being intimidating, I suspect. But the new place has cedar shakes, not ugly green asphalt shingles like my parents’ had. It has a couple extra bedrooms upstairs for kids or grandkids when they want to come around. The back yard is smallish but big enough to fit easily a dozen on the patio. I can set a long bench or two along the edges. It has a small area that’s partly covered with an open beamed roof. Purple wisteria is hanging from it, the real estate agent informed me. It is enchanting. A new word for me to use, enchanting, and mean it.

I know it’s a shock to those who think they know me. But I have always wanted this–to detour, slow down. To sit back and observe something other than the arcane workings of international business. My best friend–is he that? do we have enough in common besides work, handball, golf?–is sure I’m having a midlife crisis and I need to buy a new Jag. I told him I’ve shifted altogether different gears. I want less, not more. My career won’t likely change, at least for now. But I can. Will. Maybe I’ll learn to cook. I like Italian, which Margarite found too common; she can have her saucy French cuisine. I want to eat fat grapes off the stem while reading a good mystery novel half the night. Walking to the store is likely as I am close to everything there; what a novelty that is. I want to listen to bossa nova and hum along with the music without anyone telling me I’m a late-booming romantic without a willing dance partner. I can dance alone. There are far worse things.

Should I have waited to see if my wife could get with my new program? No. She needs certain things and has the inner resources to adapt, believe me. She can have the possessions since she oversaw all acquisitions. Yet she lost track of our trajectory long ago, somewhere between my eighty hour work weeks and her antique clock and china collections, garden tours and trips to exotic spas. Well, I lost sight of her altogether. Soon we could only manage our separate ways. I didn’t intend this and it does hurt, still. We ended up in different places. I don’t see a way back.

But this unique new house. It has the pure lines and spaces of a structure devoid of the ostentatious. I had no idea I liked that so much but when I sat on a rocker on that porch the vise around my chest (that has been convincing me I am going to die any minute) finally loosened. There were two blue glass hummingbird feeders and I thought, I’m going to see and hear hummingbird wings flap! Ten to eighty wingbeats a second! I looked it up later but that realization bowled me over. I felt my eyes moisten even with the realtor standing nearby. My wife would think I was having a mini-breakdown.

Instead I am becoming the man she never knew and now will not know at all. I am making the years left mean something more. I feel it like a hunger, but a better sort this time. There has to be more satisfaction. Peace. I could build a koi pond in the back. Learn to meditate though that may be going a bit far. I can cut back my hours at this point. I’ll buy a basic barbecue and grill chicken legs, then invite every neighbor over! I haven’t done that in twenty years. It feels like my accidental turn offers a possibility of happiness. I aim to make that happen. Now. At last.

Posted in fiction, fiction about marriage and divorce, short fiction about family relationships, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Singing My City’s Praises

 

Portland, Oregon photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Portland, Oregon photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Portland’s weather is taking a good break from its long rainy season (we really have two seasons: cold and rainy, warming to hot and dry) and that means I am experiencing even more fulfilling days outdoors. Since I get cranky and restless when I am inside very long, this is good news for me and those who know me. I have been feeling even more gratitude for living in a place for which I have, perhaps, an inordinate fondness.

There is some danger in writing this post. Naming even a few of the wonders of my home town might inadvertently motivate large numbers of people to pack up and migrate this direction. As did I once.

We already have more traffic jams than I imagined when settling in Portland during 1993. New housing has been going up like mad, even in the particular quadrant I live within. It is part of a larger area labelled “close in” due to close proximity to city center. Old buildings are being torn down right and left–is the recession over?–and new 3000 sq.ft. houses take their places. Small parcels of land are snatched up by developers, then commandeered by towering apartment buildings, multi-purpose buildings and townhouses. Restaurants seem particularly loved in this city; new ones sprout up often, as do unique coffee shops. Architects and builders must be well-challenged by rain and the undulating landscape’s proclivity for mudslides, as well as the likelihood of eventual, significant earthquakes. We even have an active volcano across our state line that wreaks havoc from time to time as ash disperses freely.

But still they come. I know why. Let me name the ways I love Portland.

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1. Parks. Today I was duly bedazzled during my daily walk, sometimes undertaken in Laurelhurst Park. Deciduous trees are newly adorned with bright green leaves, showing off their beauty among the cedars and pines. Cherry blossoms, azaleas, rhododendrons put on their own colorful display. Dog owners were playing with their pets as they ran free in a dog run area; families and couples strolled along; runners were working up a sweat. I mused over the fact that I can get to easily a dozen city parks in under fifteen minutes by car, and about five of those within a fifteen minute walk. I am aware of at least one state park within the city; my family spends many days there each year. There are about 279 parks and natural areas in Portland. When I count Forest Park as one of my destinations I am talking about 5100 wooded acres that are inhabited by 112 bird and 62 mammal species. Forest Park is the largest forested natural area within a city limits of the U.S. We also enjoy Washington Park (which includes many attractions such as the authentic Japanese Garden) within the area and have hiked many of the 40 miles of trails over the years. And we even have a lovely, trail-strewn park that is situated on top of an extinct volcanic butte named Mt. Tabor Park. The views there of city and foothills are enchanting, especially at sunset and twilight. What’s not to enthuse about?

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2. Water. Not far from my home I can see the Willamette and the Columbia Rivers converge. These are mighty and well-utilized rivers. The Columbia  originates in British Columbia, Canada and is over 12,000 miles long. It empties into the Pacific Ocean and harbors many kinds of anadromous fish that migrate between saline water and freshwater. A short drive from our place, the 80 mile long river makes its powerful way through the Columbia River Gorge, which is awe-inspiring and at times treacherous due to fickle weather with strong winds. We can experience the tail end of those winds even in my neighborhood, 20 minutes from their source. My family and I have hiked miles of lush, sometimes taxing trails in the Gorge where bears and cougars reign.

In drier months I enjoy walking and relaxing by the Willamette River where there are colorful dragon boat races and food and music festivals in summer. I hang out by the marina because I love boats (the yachts are pretty, too), an iced coffee and cookie in hand, then head to the Saturday Market for arts and crafts from March through Christmas. There are several other waterways nearby, the Sandy River being a favorite just outside the city for tubing, swimming and picnicing. And then there is the Pacific Ocean. We can get there in under an hour and a half; we take off for the coast a few times a year. Even wintry beaches are magnetic and atmospheric, soothing to my mind and body. And there is nothing like building a fire on the beach in dry weather, quietly conversing with nature or my spouse.

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3. Mountains and rainforests. These are what initially drove me to the Northwest. Both trigger in me feelings of familiarity, awe, a sense of constancy and ancient protection. I had dreamed about mountainous territory ever since growing up in the flat, charmless (to me) open spaces of mid-Michigan. I had been excited as a younger adult to live in a northern Detroit suburb because there were at least a few rolling, verdant hills–but I secretly yearned for the valleys and heights of this country.

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To our west there are the Tualatin Mountains and beyond those, the Coast Range; to the east, the Cascade Range that, with Mt. Hood, creates a distinctive horizon. On a clear day one can see four mountain peaks: Mt. Hood and the Washington peaks of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier. So far this has been all about the emerald beauty of outdoors yet I have barely scratched the topic. We are inveterate walkers and the city accommodates that easily; we love to hike and that has led to many good adventures. But there are many more exciting activities than those. Just talk to the skiers and snow boarders, skateboarders and roller bladers, cyclists, kayakers, campers, rock climbers and backpackers, windsurfers and so on. No one who has a love affair with the outdoors feels unrequited.

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4. City center, i.e., downtown. Such offerings! Marc and I can walk a few blocks to hop on a train (“the Max”) and are downtown in a few minutes. Or we can take a streetcar or bus. City center is compact and picturesque with a mix of nineteenth century architecture and soaring contemporary skyscrapers. There are plenty of coffee shops, galleries, indoor/outdoor cafes and food carts; corner-sized parks with fountains and play areas for kids; the waterfront’s lively scene; Portland Art Museum. And there lies Pioneer Square, dubbed Portland’s living room. Last week-end we attended an Oregon Symphony concert, then walked to the Square to hear Pink Martini play with the crowd singing along. There are often musical and other events going on that are either free or cheaper than expected. And how many cities are there in which can you enjoy a leisurely walkabout after a good meal without constantly looking over your shoulder? I have never felt unsafe downtown. Since we are not drinkers we don’t hang out after eleven P.M. but even then I hear there are relatively few incidents.

We often head to the famous Powell’s City of Books. And emerge hours later laden with more delicious tomes. Portland is a city bursting with published and aspiring writers so appreciation of the written word is high. Literary groups and events abound. And further enlivening the city are world-class and innovative musicians, artists, dancers, filmakers…you get the point. We could not live happily without an active arts community and fortunately, Portlanders support them. We even have a City of Portland Arts Tax to insure they thrive in our public schools…gads, I better get that paid!

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5. People. We are the third largest city in the Northwest area after Vancouver, BC and Seattle. But we feel smallish, still. Some of that has to do with the friendliness of the overall population. And basic politeness. When I first moved here I was astounded when waiting to cross the street and a driver just stopped–no stop sign– so I could amble across. I first waited to see what they wanted–in Detroit you had to run for your life to get to the other side. But the guy smiled and waved me across. Here, people do that–smile, even greet one another instead of automatically avoiding eye contact walking. It is a slower pace, but not lazy–this city is full of industrious multi-taskers–just somehow more restful despite the onward march of innovative city planning to accommodate continued growth. I appreciate that we have diverse neighborhoods, each an interesting district of its own. If I say I am going to Hollywood (a well-heeled area but a bit vintage and homey), Hawthorne (hippie tendencies, lots of neat businesses), Alberta Arts (gentrified with newish galleries, eateries, shops and a monthly summer fair) or the Pearl (a showy phoenix of a district having risen from old warehouse blocks) or Nob Hill (upscale but mellower area abutting Forest Park)–well, everyone here knows where I am talking about. Residents and business owners could be from California, Ohio or Vermont; Viet Nam, India or Ukraine. But everyone is drawn here for something hopefully better, something that stirs or supports their ideas and hopes. It is a city that cares about helping others and accepts a diversity of lifestyles better than most cities in which I have lived. Our unofficial motto is, afterall, “Keep Portland Weird.”

I have barely begun to identify Portland’s wiles, oddities and surprises. It’s been fun sharing this very abbreviated tour with you, but I will be back with vignettes about life in “Stumptown” (due to the history of logging). I hope you can begin to see why I was glad, even relieved, to finally arrive. It’s where I belong. Maybe one day you’ll have the pleasure of experiencing Portland for yourself.

 

Flag of Portland

Flag of Portland

Posted in making a home, non-fiction, Pacific Northwest living, Personal essay, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Train to Happiness

Photo by Vivian Maier

Photo by Vivian Maier

Les had been rounded up by his mother the night before and made to pack a big suitcase plus his backpack. His back pack was a no brainer, the only place he stashed basics and important things. But the suitcase was filled with clothes he didn’t care about and an extra pair of shoes that made his feet hurt. There were two books to add, for English and math. He had homework to do. Les already decided he’d deal with it on the train ride back.

It was spring break. He’d travel eight hours, thirty-two minutes to reach his destination, if all went well. This was because his father, Dean, lived in Idaho but his mom and he lived in Wyoming. Dean actually lived with Les’ grandmother for the time being. That was because he was broke again and trying to get on his feet. The fact that Dean hadn’t really talked to his own mom for three years made it interesting, his mom said, but things were better now. They’d had a falling out, Les knew that. It had happened one Christmas Eve when he was nine and as a result he hadn’t gotten his new bike. Money always seemed to be the problem.

Dean was a good guy and an okay dad, if a little unreliable. He was a construction worker, and when he lived in Ohio (like they did until he was seven) he hadn’t made enough money. Out west the weather and times were better with more houses and businesses being built. Les could see that even in his town things had changed since there was a new canning plant. Workers had just started tearing up ground across the street for six new houses. They’d probably be so tightly packed you could see what cereal the next door neighbor was eating. It had been a big empty space as long as Les had lived there.

The trip had been a last-minute plan. Dean–Les called him that since he left his mom when Les was only three–had a gap between jobs.

“Come on over,” Dean said with enthusiasm. “I got a new blue truck –well, it’s used, but still looks new. Grandma is always wanting you to visit, as you know. We can hang out, see things.”

“Yeah, sounds good if mom agrees.”

“Of course–we already talked. Lara, I mean your mom, says she has to work extra hospital shifts this month so it works out. You’ll be fine by yourself on the train, right? I thought you’d like that and there was a deal. There’ll be adults to help out.”

“Sure!” The thought of riding alone gave him a charge. “Hey, should I bring my ball and bat? It’s my favorite thing, you know. We could play in the back or even the field.”

“Naw, got those waiting for you.”

Les figured Dean would run out and buy them after they hung up. The fact that he wanted to play ball with him was awesome.

Grandma Cora had always called Les once a month and sent him cards with frilly flowers and bright birds on them that said “Wishing you sunshine!” and “Missing you across the miles!” He hid them in his desk drawer so his friends wouldn’t harass him but he missed her, too, even though they only saw each other a couple times a year. She laughed a lot, had crazy stories and liked to buy him cheap but good gifts. And made really good red velvet cupcakes, among other things. Since Dean had moved in with her maybe he’d see them both more. He and his dad could go camping or riding bikes. Grandma’s house was just outside a small city but her big back yard opened onto pasture where somebody’s horses liked to graze. The Sawtooth Mountains looked like giants, sleepy and muscular against the sky.

Les leaned back, swayed a bit. Vibrations from the clackety clack and rush of wheels on steel rumbled through him. He watched the world go by and daydreamed. He did have company across from him, an older couple, close to Grandma Cora’s age. The man had caught Les’ eye and nodded. His arms were both tightly around his wife. She slept against him. He looked out the window most of the time, his face so still Les couldn’t imagine what he was thinking.

Les had been up since six and his stomach growled. There was a ham sandwich and a peanut butter peanut butter one in his backpack. He looked them over. On the ham sandwich was a sticky note in his mom’s neat, slanted printing: “#1 so it won’t spoil!” as if he didn’t know better. She had also sneaked in an envelope which he opened. Some cash, good, and a longer note. The scednt of ham and cheddar sandwich made his mouth water. He took a huge bite as he read.

“Les, you know you can call me day or night. Or Aunt Roberta. I hope this trip turns out to be what you hope. I think it’s great Cora will be there, too. If your dad gets too busy or ornery or you get bored just call any time. Call when you arrive. I LOVE YOU! Mom.”

Les got the ornery part. Dean could get impatient sometimes; he wasn’t used to having kids around. But he didn’t have a bad temper too often. When he did, Les went to his room or outdoors. That worried him a little but Grandma was there. He finished the sandwich and got his water bottle. He was ready for a walk around.

The sleeping woman stirred, her elbow jerking, her ankles uncrossing as if she was going to sit up. But instead, she mumbled something and the man smoothed her hair, patted her shoulder. Les tried not to stare.

“On your own?” the man asked. His voice was very deep but quiet. His wife didn’t move anymore, just sighed.

“Yeah.”

“I guess you’re big enough. About thirteen?”

Les shook his head; he knew he was tall, a little chubby. “Just twelve.” He took a sip of water. “Going to see my grandma and dad for a week or so.”

“That right? Good thing to do.” He looked back out the window.

“You travelling a long time, sir?”

The man nodded but kept watching thickly forested scenery whipping by, lines and squiggles of greenish brown. Les waited a minute–he didn’t want to be rude–before getting his backpack and standing up. Then the man glanced at Les, his eyes so pale they almost blended into the grey shadows. The man’s face was colorless, too. It scared Les, he didn’t know why.

“Second day on the train now. Hard on Fran here. Whole trip was hard, to tell the truth. How about you?”

Les sat down. “I’m great. Left early and will be at my grandma’s and dad’s for dinner.” He wondered if that was the wrong thing to say to someone who was having a hard trip. “Haven’t seen Dean–I mean, dad–since last July.”

“Looking forward to it?”

“Yes sir.” He wanted to leave awhile, check out the other people, get something sweet in the dining car. But he heard his mother saying, Good manners, now; treat people well. “My dad builds houses. My grandma plays organ at church. She has an old house with a huge yard, horses beyond it.”

His face flushed. Why was he telling this stranger stupid personal stuff? Encouraging the man more? But he felt he should.

The woman whimpered and her husband pulled her closer. “That’s good, son. You enjoy every single minute with them.”

He turned his face to the window again. Les could see the lined skin around his eyes squeeze a little, then his eyes go watery. He felt panic for a second. What were they doing on the train, anyway? He felt his legs about to push him off the seat. He wanted to think about baseball season, wonder over what his grandma was making for dinner. If Dean was going to pick him up for a hug like he still did last summer. Les sincerely hoped not.

The man rubbed his face with his right hand and looked back at Les. “We just buried my son. Had the cancer but his suffering is done.”

Les held his backpack close to his chest, heart beating a little too fast.

“Just so you know why my wife is so unsettled. Both of us. I’m sorry. You should have friendly people on your trip.” He sounded so tired.

“It’s okay. I mean, I’m sorry about your son… “

“Thank you…we just need rest. Won’t bother you anymore.”

Les scooched forward on the worn leather seat. “I’m Les Winter.”

He halfway held out his hand. Wasn’t that the right thing to do? What should he say now? Why did he have to say so much, period? Big mouth, that’s what he was, his friends even said he talked too much. He should just play with his phone and shut up.

The man took his hand off his wife, extended a long thin arm and his palm was so empty Les had to fill it with his own slightly damp hand. The man’s was dry, chilled, firm and he gave the tiniest squeeze for a second, then let go. He tried on a half-hearted smile that faded.

“Ken Haverson. Going home to California. Yes, thank you Lord, back home again.”

Les felt the sadness creep from Ken to him but waited as the man grew sleepy. But then Ken spoke again.

“You’ve been nice, Les. I hope you always aim for happiness, then you’ll get and give lots of it.”

Les watched the two of them sleeping awhile. They looked so calm and natural, as if they’d been side by side their whole lives. Then he got up and roamed a bit. He saw the landscape turn from forest to valley to mountains, shapes and colors flashing by like a beautiful story. But right then Les couldn’t wait to get off, not becasceu of Ken and Fran and their son. He just wanted to see Dean–his dad!–and grandma in the flesh by the train tracks, waiting there with arms open just for him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in family, growing up, short fiction, short fiction about family relationships, short fiction about love and loss, short stories, sons and fathers, transitions from childhood, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Soften Without Weakening

 

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CJ always walked fast in her brown Frye boots that had a hard inch high heel, the better to strike the hard byways and roads, floors of public places, rooms of homes. They announced that she was strong of mind and body, she was not wasting time, and don’t even think of accosting her. People would turn their heads, face in a frown, so loudly did her heels hit a surface.

Those boots travelled with CJ for years, carried her into woods and mountains, cities and villages, from one side of the country to the other. They covered her snug, faded jeans to the knee. She wore sporty tops, a wornout jean jacket. Her hair morphed from year to year, blond for a bit, years of cropped burnished red, then reverted to the real auburn, then finally interspersed with strands of white. Large blue, dark-rimmed eyes bore right into you when they looked into yours at all; mostly they scanned the environment, took in the milieu. Located a spot within a group that she would claim. Not reticent, CJ spoke right up, interested, attentive but she kept a psychic distance, engaging in talk smartly but without full personal committment. She had strong opinions; everyone knew them soon.

Never would she be tricked by people again, nor by life or love. But, of course, she was, often. And at the end of each day she went home, pulled off the boots that had become scuffed and pliable with wear. Washed her face, settled down with journal or books, paper and typewriter or sought guitar or piano. And then tender, responsive, yielding feelings and thoughts flowed like water from an opened spring. A little softness breathed and expanded. What moved her came to the fore, and what hurt bled so that she was both sorry and relieved to still feel it all.

This went on for a couple of decades–variations of attire, sometimes fancier footwear–until someone asked her why she acted so hard. The question was like a slap in the face but she said, “I’m not hard. I’m kind of tough, I guess, but I’m strong and that matters to me. The world is harsh, don’t you think? I guess my way works for me because I’m still going onward and upward.”

“Does it?” came the response. “Because people are afraid of you at worst, intimidated at times by your energy and bearing, and even those of us drawn to you don’t know if we’ll be welcomed or challenged…”

CJ laughed. “Well, I guess the braver ones will come forward and we’ll work it out. Or not. I can’t be responsible for what others think, only for what I choose to do. And I’m okay with things.”

“You know what? You seem…arrogant. That’s part of the problem. But maybe you’re just afraid. “

CJ turned away and stalked off. No one understood. Interacting freely and openly was so often an exercise in futility. She was better off alone except for a very few and even then…

It took awhile to find her way back to the gentle side of genuine strength. Being soft resulted in being vulnerable from what she could tell. She was in her early forties before she redesigned her behavior substantially enough to present herself more fully and honestly to others. Because there was some truth in the observer’s comment: she was pretty tough and perhaps a little arrogant, but she was also scared of various things, good-hearted and full of passion for life. Committing to absolute sobriety made an immense impact but that was only the beginning of a journey to wholeness. Well being would require more than awareness or a good plan; it required a willingness to change and redoubled efforts. Peace was the goal. The one experience she had failed to encounter since childhood.

How does someone radically change? Would that it was a natural metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, a transition that felt so reassuring, with a punch at the end: the beautiful pay-off. But adding wings to those who treat life as though it has to be wrestled, tamed and codified is an arduous task.

When people are tossed about by the vagaries of living, experience multiple losses, become used to fighting hard to stay alive, they learns that being readied for the worst can be useful. It’s like arming the alarm and sitting in wait for trouble. It creates a cynicism of the worst sort, as even vivid blue sky moments can be missed due to tracking skittish or heavy clouds. There can be so much put into survival emotionally or physically that exhaustion renders the person worn-out. Ragged. A hard shell can be the only remaining defense. This view lends itself to expectations of losing out–why go all in and embrace possibilities and happy times when you believe they will soon dissolve? Life is fickle, prone to sudden shifts. Some are convinced being stoic and putting shoulder to the wind is better than being swayed this way and that and then perhaps toppled. People who push hard through life have had enough of being down. They need to stand tall; beware anyone who takes them to their knees.

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The problem with such stolid refusal to bend or back down is what the old adage states: without flexibility, a person can break. Or just become so obdurate, so unwilling to relinquish control and to take a chance on vulnerability that there is a loss like none other: the inability to feel richness of emotion. Love and fulfillment. Deep intimacy, tranquility. Hope. That hallelujah that comes from joy.

Everyone needs to toughen up a bit. That begins as toddlers, then ever after when we fall. The kindest parent will let the child get right back up with encouragement and a gentle touch, bear the howling and sniffling then wipe tears away. If not, each fall and failure would be one too many, hard to accept as part of the process of gaining more skills. Resilience is instilled this way. Directed toward the next choices or steps, there is the belief that the coming experience will be worthy of effort, with the possibility of a better outcome.

But there are those who tumble without a kind word to shore them up. There are those, too, who have so much breakage during many kinds of falls that something inside gets crippled, stunted in the process of healing. What helps overcome pain is becoming inured to it, ignoring it, bearing it in private with no witness to offer a supportive hand. And when people who are born very tender-hearted come face to face with the frailties, ugliness or woundedness of living, it can scour their minds and souls, tear away critically protective insulation. The alternative for too many is to become harder or perish.

How can healthy living be restored? A search for balance needs to be initiated, so that endurance and stamina, courage and strength can become more potent with no loss of heart. Instead, the heart will open and become wiser as we navigate dangerous shoals effectively. It requires risk and surrender: letting feelings come and go as though through a sieve, feeling and acknowledging but not overdosing on them, not being overcome. It requires thinking imaginatively when all seems pointless or burdensome, dsicerning thenext right steps. And considering the promises and pleasure of what lies around the next corner. Not least is practicing to be a person of enduring substance, who has dignity but not arrogance. A core of strength devoid of unforgiving hardness.

A seemingly superfical alteration is trying a different costume and demeanor. When I was still counseling addicted and emotionally challenged persons full-time and saw people enter my office with shoulders rigid, lips taut, their public masks bold but full of warning, I suggested trying on a new one. Loosen the stride, smile at others first, open up personal space a little, walk with confidence, not as angry self-defense. Speak more quietly; others listen more to someone who doesn’t demand being heard. Buy new clothes or rearrange an outfit so it’s no longer armor, but only an accoutrement. An addendum to the real person who can better shine through. It’s powerful how even small adjustments can affect those who meet you. Then, forget yourself altogether. There’s a whole world out there that could use your attention. The truth is, every person needs to be seen so go ahead, look them in the eye if they don’t shy away.

Whatever lies ahead is generally as good as you make it. No one else can do it. Use your strength like a gift, not a weapon.

The last time I saw CJ was today. I looked in the mirror. I simply stopped walking as though I was on a terrible mission decades ago and discovered how it feels to not win or lose, but be at home in my own skin.  To be better powered by faith in God and acceptance of life’s whims and trials. To know that love for others never has an end; what is given away is replenished. Being fully and deeply human ended up becoming an even more extraodinary experience than expected. I feel strength of heart, of soul increasing each year.

Of course I still have boots. My favorites are soft black leather, tall and lower heeled. But barefoot or shoed, I am walking with ease, moving in peace.

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Posted in care for the soul, non-fiction, Personal essay, recovery lifestyle, self empowerment, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments