Friday’s Quick Pick: Berry Gorging Time

One of my favorite trips in summer was visiting Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada as well as surrounding areas. Glorious Rocky Mountain vistas, turquoise lakes, pristine wilderness stretching for miles and miles. One of the most remarkable experiences we had was watching at least a dozen bears gorging on great offerings of just-ripened berries alongside the road. Cars lined up right by them. Berries were growing along the roads and were easy pickings. People cautiously snapped pictures of these majestic, powerful creatures. Perhaps one of two ventured out of their vehicles.

Their very presence was enchanting and awe-inspiring; it gave me chills to be in their presence. And intimidating, as some feasted only feet away, and all were close enough to charge. They move rapidly. But the bumper crop of berries kept them fully engaged. Since there was such an abundance, we heard they were out roaming, eating their fill everywhere and thus, there were trails and areas we could not walk or hike, at the least warned with orange ties to trees and signs.

I think this cub is a grizzly bear. There is a black bear in the second to last frame but there were other sorts of bears in the area taking advantage of the berry abundance. (Let me know for certain if you are a bear expert!)

I have so many beautiful shots–how could they not be with such landscapes?–of that journey, more may show up here from time to time. Enjoy!

Banff-KananaskisBears-Canmore-8-10 041 Banff-KananaskisBears-Canmore-8-10 045 Banff-KananaskisBears-Canmore-8-10 044 Banff-KananaskisBears-Canmore-8-10 048 Banff-KananaskisBears-Canmore-8-10 050 Banff-KananaskisBears-Canmore-8-10 034Banff-KananaskisBears-Canmore-8-10 053

Posted in Canadian travels, nonfiction, photographic essay, photography, prose, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments

High School Reunions…Made for Other Folks

BannerEvery summer there are high school class reunions going on, or there are plans for one sooner or later. It’s clear many people like to attend them, enjoy catching up with friends from ten, twenty, thirty or more years back. It’s almost an American institution, perhaps a more grown up rite of passage. They meet before and after the official reunion dinner and dance. They gather for drinks, for lunches, for fun outdoor activities. I’m guessing about this–I don’t know the trends for current high school reunions–as, so far, I don’t intend on attending a future one in the Midwestern town where I grew up. I don’t have the energy, patience or perhaps steely nerves.

I did go to a reunion once, in 1988. That was my class’ twentieth reunion. My age, 38. I can bring to the fore a picture of my spouse and me standing in front of my parents’ house in the town of my childhood and youth. Marc wore a nice suit and looked darned good. I was tan, slim with muscular arms and legs. My hair was cropped very short and streaked with blond. My dress had a straight black skirt with bodice of blue and white floral design, a funky but trendy combination of feminine/sporty. I wore high heels which about ruined me by end of night.

The tan and body shape were partly a result of being active outdoors even then, without any taint of sunblock. I also wrangled five kids daily. But the main reason was that I engaged in serious weight lifting and circuit training four times a week or more. I had a thing about being fit, storing optimum energy for 24 hour use despite regularly feeling undermined by: migraines (newest aggravation then), a lifelong digestive disorder treated but often downplayed, PTSD and sporadically managed alcohol abuse. Oh and the fatigue that’s part of parenting five. (Sorry to have to put those two sentences together. I love my kids!)

But you couldn’t really tell all this by looking at me. That was the point. I suppose that is the point for all who attend these things–we want to put on our best faces. But first there was the challenge of even trying to place name with faces–and if the face changed much, the names become irrelevant. I mean, twenty years! Greetings were enthusiastic but brief.  Conversations seemed truncated, casual in a studied way, friendly without effecting significant interest. The main topics were career choice/trajectory, place of residence, marital and parenthood status. And a boat load of reminiscences. Recollections of the good ole neighborhoods; games won and lost together; foolish escapades survived; people longed for or dated, left or found (careful what you reveal–they might be sitting across from you); demon and angel teachers and trying classes; college experiences and degrees; travel to far flung places since then. And so on. That might seem a lot but it’s said in bursts of fast paragraphs with short sentences while others try to talk over you. I strained to acknowledge everyone courteously, with small successes.

I had little idea what to say in those rapid exchanges. I am verbal, for certain, but under either less or more personal circumstances. How to abbreviate my own history? I considered: well, I had married twice, was raising a bunch of children. I’d embarked on a career path that included developing/overseeing geriatric programs/services. I had studied painting/creative writing and sociology/linguistics. Not quite what folks expected since I had been raised and trained to be a classical musician. Or at least a singer. But I was not singing anymore nor did I play cello much. I had not even gone into theater. During my youth, I’d been in plays, even written a few, adored being in musicals. I still loved to dance, however, and when the DJ got things going Marc and I go out there and shimmied and shook. Rhythm is not a small thing to us, but a uniting force. I was relived to not have to make small talk so let it all loose out there. Afterwards, some people asked if I was an aerobics instructor, which I found strangely satisfactory yet also dismal.

Other than that, I have little memory of the whole thing. I felt too dazed to record it in my memory bank. It wasn’t that I drank a lot–I drank nothing at all since I’d been sober quite awhile. But I do know no one really spoke with my spouse; he was not from the area. He was rather an undefinable race (multiracial, now). Our small city was quite insular in certain ways, more upper class and educated than not, far more white than not, generally conservative as well as civil and friendly. People inquired after my parents, who were well known and liked, and my ambitious siblings. The food was decent, the music loud and appropriately nostalgic. Everyone was bright eyed. Still, all seemed a bit hazy, off-kilter even stone cold sober. I felt like a reluctant participant in a vaguely familiar cabaret.

Conversations ran out of steam sooner than expected. I had imagined we’d have lively interactions, that there would be some heft in our exchanges–we were grown-ups now, right?– and that it might be fun to rejoin friends of yesteryear. It turned out the ones I hoped most to see didn’t come. Maybe there were too busy or intimidated or bored with the idea. I wished I had their numbers.A famous classmate, the cartoonist Cathy Guisewite, arrived stealthily in a trim, beautifully tailored pink suit and left just as invisibly. We didn’t speak; I felt it crass to push through the tight circle around her. We’d shared drama and English classes, had once talked about creativity and adolescent angst. But it was okay with me–she was living a weirdly famous life doing something I’d never predicted. I was still trying to figure out what I was going to do with my own life besides navigate the wild endless seas of motherhood and wifedom.

The main point was this: I had no idea who these names and faces really were. I welcomed all exterior presentations, recognized most despite a few false starts. But gone was the easy (or lukewarm or uneasy) familiarity that had been engendered during our youth. That had been so important to us all. Like many of the others, I had left our city, more or less, around eighteen. I had lived all over the place. My closest friends had moved, as well, and they hadn’t gotten plane tickets. I had also married right before age twenty-one, unlike most other women I knew–they’d finished college and embarked on careers before making such a momentous decision. And I’d divorced, remarried. My life was complicated. Weren’t theirs, too?

Well, I’d never know. It turned out that people don’t speak of personal matters at class reunions. I guess this demonstrates reasonable personal and social boundaries but still, I got such little sense of how and why they had changed and what mattered most that it all may as well have been occurring in an unreal environ. For one thing, I noted they tended to huddle together with whoever they’d hung with during school. It was surprising that aging cheerleaders and athletes circled up, the intellectuals and creatives convened in another spot, the proud but less-well-heeled here, the ivy leaguers with understated elegance there and so on. I wished everyone would break it up, then circle up in a quiet place (sans alcohol) and just tell us who they really were and what the heck they enjoyed doing these days. And throw in a good story or two. Or heck, I thought, let’s just make a snake line and sing out, dance and shout–that would be more fun! Except for the drunks who had only started on their alcohol goals.

It became apparent there was no clear cut spot for me as Marc and I sat back and watched. I could feel him getting twitchy; he’s even more an introvert than I.

Perhaps that was true even twenty years earlier. I’d been an athletic girl but mostly into the arts and academically oriented;  middle class but with well-educated, outgoing parents and talented siblings. And I dated plenty in between studies and performances. But there were other things going on that no one knew of, or if so said nothing. Of course, most kids grow up with difficulties of one stripe or another. But who admitted it as we once strode down those long hallways, flirted, joked and tussled, strove to be cool or at least act unruffled? Back then I was pretty sure my issues were as apparent as a brash tattoo. The school was small enough that rumors; even real stuff circulated fast. I’d acted as if none of it was anyone’s business and worked harder to excel.

Twenty years past that time and it seemed we were all still on exhibit. I was chafing under a barrage of superficial anecdotes, forced laughter, a sour waft of alcohol on everyone’s breath as they awkwardly hugged or whispered in my ear. Trying to catch meaning of basic content over roar of music and tangled conversations was…trying. When people resorted to yelling, I retreated in defeat, my spouse holding my hand.

Marc and I kept smiling back, enjoyed a last couple of rousing and also tender dances–the best part of the night, perhaps–then left long before eleven o’clock. Maybe the more interesting stuff happened later. I was so glad to breathe fresh air and then drive away, even though there were good folks inside. I wondered how they really felt about the hullabaloo. Most probably had a blast worth sharing. Well, we each have our needs, our ways and means.

But I decided that would be my last reunion. If I wanted to better know old acquaintances or once-dear friends there had to be more effective ways. In time, there were. On its way to our homes and hands was the internet with attendant gadgetry–all the social media we could ask for and more. But do these modes of communication help us genuinely reconnect? I remain unconvinced.

So it may seem antithetical that I’m part of an online group that helps old school chums get in touch. Or at least check out current data, maybe a photo. I’ve shared thoughts with a few. Mostly I’m just as curious as the next person, so drop in to see who is where and doing what. It’s a very brief cyberspace greeting, less personal even than Facebook. I’m not sure why I keep my membership up as it hasn’t brought any real satisfaction, no more than that night in 1988 when we clinked glasses, tossed about a few words.

The real surprise: the number of people who have visited my profile. It’s a large number and it utterly baffles me. Why and how might so many think they remember me? And more so, the comments they leave at times are…well, they can move me a little. When someone noted that they always felt good when thinking of me, it was as if that person had offered a thing both generous and undeserved. I was so intent on slogging through life in the 1960s that survival mode took much of what I had; likely the rest went to music. Trying to undo damage of trauma with random drugs didn’t work too well. Seeking spiritual wholeness in ways and places that often led right back to a harried life was fraught with booby traps. I was adrift between grief and a fickle hope; the steadfast buoy was my small, heavily tested faith in God.

Honestly, I was apart from those youthful crowds. I strode on stage and performed, asked probing questions in class, enjoyed friends, dated good-lookers, brainy types. I so wanted to be kind. I wanted to be smart. And fun yet far deeper than that. But I was not optimistic, not certain of any future at all. I felt as if I walked alone despite the lovely and not so lovely people that came and went in my life.

The bigger story, of course, is that we each suffer, strive, fail and begin again if we are fortunate. It’s a gift to be able to go on; some of us, let us not forget, do not. Those who must, do change somehow–we’re human, we have an adaptability quotient– and sometimes a great deal. We may yet own personality characteristics displayed in school years. And we might have grown into a talent, garnered success predicted in hale and hearty yearbook messages. Or maybe we chose far different courses in life, became persons no one suspected would emerge. But we have certainly moved on, most of us, by now.

At reunions or in other transitory encounters, the real and true story will likely remain hidden from glimpses shared. But you never know what can happen when you reach toward the past or are reached.

Recently a friend I made at age 14 found me on Facebook. I know, a twist of fate since I have been critical of such things but time will tell. She meant a lot during the short period I knew her. She was funny, fascinated by everything, endearing in her kindnesses with a creative spark lighting her up. She hailed from the West coast; that alone made her exotic, so of interest. We hit it off, had great times for a year and a half. And then she moved away. I so missed her. I’ve often wondered: what happened to that firecracker gal? I even borrowed part of her name for a character when writing a novel.

So when she found me, it was a delight. Now maybe I’ll be able to fill in some blanks. Who she is yet becoming, what and who she cares about, what she adores about getting older and what she finds annoying. Or maybe we’ll have a warm moment and then…nothing. I’ll take the small risk. I suspect it will be worth it.

But another reunion of my graduating class? I’ve done that already. Give me the chance to sit across from a person, share a meandering conversation. Let’s take a hike and enjoy the mysteries of the wilds. Let me listen closely and embrace a kindred spirit or discover someone I didn’t ever expect. Life that means something tends to surprise.

I will offer and hope for an authentic, a true person. There has been great artificiality and terrible deceit in the world–was that what we thought would aggregate as we rallied for world peace and better education, for freedom of speech and greater equality? I may again protest, will work for common ground and share the love I believe keeps this world yet turning. I can also be a better friend today as my world overlaps yours at many a turn. But the resonant multi-layered truth is what I prefer even as it becomes complicated. It was always and still remains one of those sacred things. In this regard, I won’t likely change.

 

Posted in creative nonfiction, essays, memoir, nonfiction, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

The Islander and the Gardeners

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Sometimes I hated taking these jobs, which was ridiculous because anyone would give their eye teeth to get a job one like that. But it was also nuts how much money people could spend on lawn maintenance. How fussy they could be. While most of our customers required basics like a good sprinkler system, regular trimmings and mowings with fertilizing and weed eradication, the Howes required painstaking edgings and hands-and-knees labor. Had to oust those mosses and tiny sprouts of grass that persisted between cobblestones and so on. I wondered if we were hired to beat back a pesky beast named Nature, lest it creep up, pry open their massive front door and invade the family. I told Rudy this was the last time. I was getting tired of worrying about unattainable perfection.

“Of course it isn’t the last time, Cassie,” he said good-naturedly. “You know we count on these customers.”

He was boss despite the fact we were married; it was his business first. It had grown enough to add two employees since I came on, I reminded him at times. I got a pat on the back and a vacation of my choice when we did really well. With Rudy, of course. My best friend, business partner, lover.

We went to the Howes’ every Friday around ten. Not earlier, or it would annoy the Mrs. The Mr.’s first name was Brent but we called him Mr. Howe. His personal name on the check he signed each month almost made him feel more approachable but not quite. I thought he was an oral surgeon, or was it an investment banker? I couldn’t keep him straight from the other well-off customers on the West side of the city. It didn’t much matter. It might never have mattered if Mrs. Howe hadn’t been in my view every Friday. If she hadn’t made him matter.

She’d appear like clockwork around the time we got there. The second story sleeping porch was outside, I assumed, their bedroom. I guessed she got up, got ready for the day and ate before we arrived. Then she promptly sat in her white wrought iron chair and table overlooking the side yard and she’d get to work on something–reading, calculating something, writing?–while drinking a cup of coffee or tea.

The first time I saw her was when carefully going over the lawn’s requirements with Rudy. Mr. Howe had left a voice message that one spot was on the verge of being water-logged and there was a bit of a spongy area, that was true, but earth’s density wasn’t necessarily uniform. There might be an issue, maybe not much of one.

I heard the door open with a homely squeak, then shut with a thud. I thought it needed a squirt of WD40. Mrs. Howe looked over our heads and across the street, pressed a flyaway strand of light brown hair behind her ear. She wore it back in a ponytail, low and sleek like those women pictured atop fancy horses. She saw me but turned to the table and sat down.

We walked the yard talking about saturation and soil types and readjusted the gauges and pressure for the sprinkler system. All seemed okay overall, time would tell. Rudy got started on edging; I started on the ivy, taking out the lowest vines, hard to do as they were so tenacious.

It was interesting about the ivy. It was considered a nasty invader by and large, yet many building and home owners let it creep in and up for decorative effect. It seemed to endear itself to some. Mr. Howe said he was wanted to vote for full removal but his wife liked it latching onto the trunk of an old red oak tree. Typical of herbera hibernica, it would take over entirely so we were meant to try to contain it as best we could.

“Mrs. Howe thought ivy–a different sort–was beautiful when growing up and residing in the Azores the last three decades,” he said with resignation. “So it stays for now.”

Rudy smiled at him blankly, then squinted his eyes as he tried to think.

“There are nine of the islands. Just west of Portugal.”

I had read of them so jumped in. “I’ve heard it’s beautiful there, a little like Hawaii.”

Mr. Howe smiled back at me, lips closed over his teeth. “Yes. Their ivy is a symbol of heartiness and loyalty, she says– the romance of it is what she likes. As long as it’s growth can be reasonably curtailed, I’ll try to live with it.”

“Yes, sir,” Rudy said. They strolled about, talked of other needs as I studied the plantings of flowers, the richly dispersed colors, and planned out what needed what.

I gave a brief thought to the Azores. How exotic its name, how far from home Mrs. Howe was now.

“He isn’t going to be my favorite customer but it’ll be fine,” Rudy said during break.

“Why?”

“Maybe a little arrogant. Not the first time.”

“I thought the same.”

“It’s only work,” Rudy said and offered me a bite of his apple.

He could put things in such a simple, clear perspective. He was like the Buddha of Northwest gardening; I’d thought about renaming our business “Zen for All Gardens” but he’d dismiss it with a chortle.

******

The second week, Mrs. Howe was on the porch by the time we arrived a bit early. She was bent over the table again. This time it was clear she was writing as she raise a hand with a pen or pencil in it. Sometimes scratched her head with it. I’d look up every now and then to see if she was gone but she remained rooted in that spot the two hours we were there. It threatened rain, and we worked more quickly. Right before we finished I glanced up again and saw she had disappeared inside. I wiped the sweat from my neck and face with a big white handkerchief and wondered what it was like to write and relax on a breezy porch, then do more of the same in air conditioning the rest of the day. I had done physical labor most of my life and it suited me well. I couldn’t imagine sitting that long except at end of day when my muscles held a righteous ache, when my body got refueling and rest.

I wondered if she had kids but that didn’t seem so. She was younger than he was, for sure, closer to my age. Maybe Mrs. Howe worked the other days and on Fridays she was home. And that’s why we came then, so she could watch over our activities. But she hadn’t spoken to us and seemed unconcerned about what we did. And so I put her out of my mind, didn’t think about the Azores, either. You could never really know about customers–your employers. Do the job well, then be done with it.

“I’m already a little tired of Mr. Howe’s griping about the bushes,” Rudy said the fourth week. “First he wants them left alone, then he wants them trimmed and wonders why I didn’t suggest it. Well, he said no to start with. We’d better get on with it.”

I heard the porch door behind us as we wielded pruning shears, knife and saw. There was much to do, but she hesitated, leaned against the porch railing and looked right at us. Then me, eyes sliding over my features and away. Her hand lifted from the railing just a little, a shy wave that was mostly flattened fingers, then she sat down at her round table.

The gesture got to me a little; it was as if she let me know she knew I was aware of her. And she paid attention to me–us–from up there.

“Come on, Cassie, they’re having a shindig tonight,” Rudy said under his breath, “so we have to get it all done right and on time.”

“A party? That’s so nice–such a gorgeous day. I can just imagine that wide, deep back yard, the patio strung with fairy lights…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” He gave me a quick rub on the shoulders. “We have our own little oasis, too.”

“That’s true,” I agreed. A patio hemmed in by a shed and garage and  lots of potted plants, a koi pond smack in the middle. All Rudy’s ideas; it had been his house before I arrived. I did like it, it just wasn’t expansive and filled with lush flowering bushes and giant trees–all that we kept in great shape. And they had that blue-tiled pool by the southern exposure property line.

I could smell the jasmine hanging in the air, its rich sweetness cloying, saw magnolias’ waxy whiteness glow in the sunlight. The pink and yellow roses would be perfection in moonlight. I daydreamed as I clipped back the rhoddies.

“Hey, how about we invite Sandy and Gina over for steaks tomorrow? We’ll stop by the butcher’s, grab extra beer on the way home. But we’ll have to clean up the patio.”

“Sounds good. Maybe they’ll hogtie Jim and bring him so he and Roger can play video games.”

Roger, our son (mine, now also his), aged fifteen, was aggravating when he had to stay home for more than an hour or two at a time. We were waiting for him to morph back into the person we knew he was and could be again. There were sporadic signs of hope.

I studied Mrs. Howe as I worked. There was a slump in her thin shoulders, a deep curve in her long neck as she scribbled away in a journal or sketchpad, it was hard to tell. I wondered if she was excited about her party and what food she was making–or maybe it would be catered. I thought not, something special from her islands, and imagined the light conversation, scrumptious food and glittering pool.

The next week as I worked on ivy again, Mrs. Howe sat at her table but watched me awhile, then stood and paced. She sipped from her cup and stretched and twisted to loosen kinks, I guessed. She had a lithe figure, not like mine. I was of medium build but very strong, my thigh and arm muscles getting a bit massive from all the lifting, pulling and reaching we did. I felt healthy, was certain Rudy liked my looks. He moved to the back yard as he handed me clippers, directing me to another spot.

“Cassie? So sorry…is that your name?”

I looked up. Her voice was a gentle eruption, her accent filling out the words. She smiled and it changed her small face from sad and pinched to more open, even lively. Though her shoulder-length hair was light, her brows were darker and dramatically emphasized deep-set eyes.

“If you and Rudy are thirsty, please help yourself to fresh lemonade on the porch.” She pointed below and to the front. “On a table, left of the bench swing.”

“Oh, nice, ” I stammered, surprised she spoke so much to me.

She tentatively raised her fingers, a timid gesture, as she had before, then sat and got back to writing with renewed focus, left hand pressed against her head to prop it up.

The drink was homemade, wafer-thin lemon pieces floating in it. Cool, crisp, sweet and tart like my grandmother used to make it. The pale green glass was etched with vine and floral design. The many miniature ice cubes clinked like they wanted to clamber out I pressed the cold surface beaded with moisture to my hot forehead, then finished it off. When I went back to thank her, she was gone.

Did she write about the Azores? Her life before and after? Did she write about dreams, her friends here or abroad? Maybe it was a long letter, the start of a memoir as an Azorean–was that the right word? I’d read it.

I sometimes wrote about my dreams when I awakened. They were good, mostly, but not always, so then I wrote about them to get them out of my head. It worked.

******

It was August already, nearly the end. And boiling, so hot that my brown t-shirt stuck to my chest and back. I was more wet than dry. Rudy didn’t sweat like I did. He tended to be cool and collected physically and mentally as I shoved saturated curls back under my baseball cap and scoured my face with a handkerchief, which was already damp just from hanging out in my pocket.

There were moles, Rudy suspected, so he was off to investigate their tunneling in the back,look for more dirt-filled holes. He was good at ridding yards of the solitary insectivores but often said if every one had a cat it’d be less of an issue and cheaper. The byways they made fascinated him. I was getting ready to manicure the lawn and fired up the mower for the front. Heavy clouds were piling up in the southwest behind a line of black walnut trees. Warm rain would arrive soon.

Mrs. Howe was on the porch; I stifled an urge to wave. She made sure there was a pitcher of iced water, lemonade or limeade on the porch for us now. She was barefoot. I could see that because her legs were stretched out, arched feet atop the railing. A wide brimmed straw hat shielded her from the sunshine and obscured her face. Her shoulders trembled, then rocked ever so slightly. I stood there ready to start the mower but couldn’t move. She was weeping, I thought, yes, she was definitely crying and not easily. I hesitated as she bent over the table with face in both hands, then I started it up anyway. It wasn’t my business, after all, was it? I was a bit embarrassed for her, wanted to offer her cover. She remained there but I turned my back worked away. The lawn was huge. It took a lot to get it just right but the wind came up to cool me, a boon.

We wrapped things up, raindrops spitting, Rudy hefting things into the truck, I was gathering up a couple stray tools and it was then I saw her. I was in the back yard a moment and she was carrying out a small pile of notebooks in a rush, and opened a big trash can, opened up a tied off bag and shoved them in. Then she smashed the lid down tight, leaning on it with her full weight, as if it must never come open again. And then stood with arms dangling at her sides, head tilted up to sudden heavy rain, hat slipping down against her back. Her eyes were closed and she swayed, leaned back as if gravity was pulling her. I stepped forward, afraid she would fall and hard. But she jerked her head back down and looked around the yard. Then saw me.

“This rain is a blessing.” She held her palms up as it splashed all over her. “It reminds me of…well, it’s just good.”

“Sure is,” I said.

“I better get in and let you go.”

Mrs. Howe entered her big house, closed the back door tightly, her face and a hand pressed briefly against one small, rectangular window. Then she disappeared.

I didn’t think about a thing, I just walked to the trash can, opened it, tore open the smaller garbage bag, took out the notebooks, crammed them under my loose, wet shirt and walked fast to the truck. I wondered if there was anything disgusting on them but kept moving. Rudy was coming around the other corner. I beat him into the cab, stuffed three notebooks under the seat.

He jumped in, slammed to door, fired up the engine. “No cook-out tonight!”

“No, but we can order out.”

He leaned over and kissed me on the tip of my nose and then a long one on my rain-wet lips. I kissed him right back but knew I would be reading notebooks that night, not much else.

******

Roger was at his friend’s house so would be home tomorrow. Rudy was sleeping, his arm flung above his head, a light burr of snoring emitted from the slit formed between his lips. Part of me wanted to wake him up and tell him things. Part of me said that was foolish, let him rest. I listened to the sensible part.

Downstairs I curled up on the couch, turned on a small lamp and opened a notebook. This was the second time I’d read them, the first being a fast look as I took my nightly soak before dinner. The pages were a little damp but nothing was obscured by fragrant bubbles.

In late June she wrote:

He is not just the man he shows to others, he is someone today that he will not be tomorrow. I cannot keep track of who he is. Two nights ago he was attentive, found me inviting and lovely and we played a word game–he loves those and is good at them. I won but only once and he was alright with that. Later we ate cold roast beef with Italian bread and drank wine on the sleeping porch and he said he wished we had sleeping bags and a lantern. He said it was the best roast beef he’d ever eaten and thanked me. He held me so close I felt we dissolved into the night. I felt this was bliss, I could never love him that much again.

I was right. Today he told me I had better learn to cook, entertaining was critical to his career and he wasn’t going to always hire a caterer. And it wasn’t about my Portuguese heritage and what my mother taught me, it had to be sophisticated, damn it, why didn’t I know this? He threw out the roast beef, said it was badly seasoned and stick to fish, which I should know, being from “that island.”

I turned a page to July:

And when he is late–three hours too late for our usual seven o-clock  supper–he tells me he was with Harold and Jim to discuss another case but then there was a receipt. I was washing his shirts and there it was, 21 Club, charged a lot of drinks and food. I looked it up. It is not where he would talk about cases, cocktail waitresses dress little and badly, the  place is a misery. I can’t ask him. He’ll shrug it off, say that it was just a late business  dinner, he had called me and I didn’t answer and so what? He works hard, I need to lay off.

He is right. I didn’t answer. I was angry as the food grew cold on the terrace, I was watching television in desperation. He is late more often but this? I didn’t expect it, that’s all. He is always so the gentleman. For three years of marriage he has portrayed an example of respect and commitment to work, to the community. I thought–well, not recently–to me.

Except that I have been wondering awhile: what else, what else is there, who is this mystery man? I am afraid of what isn’t known. How to know even as I do not want to know…or how to make it work, still.

Two weeks later in July:

This time he says I have a terrible memory, he never said that and sometimes wonders if I even listen well and what is my problem that I can’t do that?

Why does he say one thing, then later completely deny it? It keeps happening.

We were talking about jury duty, how I have to go. He said it was the most boring thing, he hated it, a sad waste of time. But last fall he said how much he enjoyed it, that it was fascinating to hear the arguments, that being part of a jury was so important. I told him he told me differently before and repeated what I recalled. He looked at me as if I was acting absurd; he’d never say that and it was obviously wrong. He sure would not say it was a great experience. A civic obligation, yes, but not of personal interest to him. He laughed harshly.

I felt so confused, maybe he was right and I was wrong. I went to bed long before he did and pretended I was asleep when he came in. But I can recall that conversation a year ago as clearly as if it was yesterday. I have an excellent memory. It is he who is wrong or is living some other reality. Or something…

Two weeks ago, August:

This is the most daring thing I have done since marrying Brent. Told some of  the truth in these pages. But I know these notebooks are dangerous in this house, in my reality. I don’t know why I do it. I just have to put it in real words, I guess.

Today I mentioned that it’s his father’s birthday. I suggested he call him, that’s all, tell him happy birthday and have a good update. Brent’s practice has gotten so strong and I feel his father will appreciate that. They aren’t close, I know. Todd lives so far away; he travels a lot since his wife–my mother-in-law– died. I barely knew her, six months and she was dead. I didn’t like her very much and feel guilty about it but she wasn’t kind like my mother.

Brent suddenly lost it,  yelled at me. I can’t bring up his father as he is “a witless little man who made his fortune leeching off others, including Mother.” I started to leave, said I was sorry, but he grabbed my arm, squeezed it til it hurt, repeated that his father was a fool and a weakling, he learned from that, at least.

His voice and eyes went cold: “He’s nothing to me. I made myself who I am without him–alone. Don’t forget that.”

I slipped away when he let go and got his drink, then started reading the paper. It was like–a furious storm…it was over and it was nothing to him.

Shaking. I am quivering. Shaken more each day.

Where is that man who visited Ponta Delgada and swept me off my feet? My family was so happy for me, proud of my coming here to start a new adventure. He’s a stranger to me.

All I can think of is the ocean breezes, the taste of fire-grilled fish, the laughter of aunts and uncles, my mother and father, all of us around the big table on our stone terrace. The stars were so lively, the breezes sweet and savory, salt and honey. What was I thinking? That money would mean more?

I will go mad if I stay, I can feel it–worse is ahead.

I have been warned enough.

I turned out the light, felt wildly awake so waited for dawn to arrive, for sadness to drift off. I had known something was wrong from the start at the Howes’ elegant house. As I watched her write and write. I felt a muddled secret clawing its way out. But I was only the gardener, not a friend. Not even a well-meaning neighbor.

And then: I’m a thief, anyway, and what can a thief do? I had knowledge I could not even use, could not share without unhappy repercussions.

And my last thought before sleep found me: How fortunate I am, with Rudy and Roger–this simple life.

******

“Hey, I forgot to tell you that Brent Howe called last night to cancel the rest of the month. Said he won’t need us awhile, in fact. He may get back in touch later.” He paused work on a wild juniper bush.

I clutched an empty planter I was carrying. “Really? Why?”

“Says he’s cutting expenses a bit, some sort of legal issue, I guess, with his oral surgery practice.”

“Oh. Did he say anything about his wife?”

Rudy looked up. “As a matter of fact, he said she was leaving for somewhere tomorrow morning, a vacation maybe? Anyway, I had said she was a nice lady and he said thanks for our hard work.” He surmised my response. “Why do you ask?”

I made a little moue. “Oh, she said something about missing her homeland. Seemed sad to me.”

“Huh, I never talked to her once.” He shook his head and smiled. “You get attached to our customers, Kay. That makes things more complicated…but that’s my girl, an open heart.”

As soon as we got home from work I bathed, then took out my laptop. I looked up flights to the Azores the following day, a Friday. One at six a.m. I closed the laptop and felt relief wash over me like a cool wave.

“Kay, there’s an actual letter here for you!” Rudy called up the stairwell.

I went down, snatched the pale blue envelope from his hand. The spaghetti sauce he had started made my mouth water. Calmed me. No return address. I ripped it open, then sat on a stool at the counter as he hummed and made a mess cooking.

Dear Miss Cassie (aka Mrs. Rudy Blair…),

You were there. As I wrote on the porch, as I thought about things. I wondered if you might say something to me, but you never did, you were busy with gardening, you had a job to get done. You were careful, discreet.

But you SAW me. You watched, suspected something, I didn’t know just what but I even wanted you to see me. And finally you noticed I tossed the journals. I sat in the kitchen plotting my escape as you looked in the trash. Stole my journals! I almost ran out and grabbed you, said those were my property, who were you to invade my privacy? But in the end it didn’t even matter as you could sense my fear, I knew it. My misgivings. And that was some relief, like safety offered me in a pit of heartache and confusion. It was almost like having my sister, though we didn’t even get to be friends.

I thought: how is it I cannot speak aloud these things? But my own family and friends are not here. Only the gardener knows, she is a stranger.

So you are the only one who knew some truth. It was bad, but I am leaving it behind. Please destroy the journals, they are useless now. I am returning to our pretty wine-stemmed Canary ivy, a stubborn heart-shaped sort that claims a wall along my mother’s house. Back to my rapturous sea, to my tiny island. To those who know and deeply love me.

Miss Cassie, I am leaving so soon. He now lets me  go. I would make trouble for him if I stayed!

If you ever want to visit the Azores, contact me at the email or address below. Contact me, in fact,  anytime. I would like to hear from you, how you are doing with that gardening and your life. You are quite good at both, I think, you with your pleasing Rudy.

Thank you for not letting me be invisible. It gave me strength. A small gift to hold onto as I prepare to depart.

Atenciosamente,

Lucia Galanos 

(soon no longer Howe)

A big sigh escaped, one of relief and satisfaction as I pressed the letter into the envelope, folded and put it in my pocket. Patted it twice. Swallowed hard.

Rudy’s low bushy eyebrows were up high and on hold; I knew he was wondering. But Roger burst through the kitchen door.

“What’s for dinner?” he said, his voice warbling, then cracking.

My husband would have to wait, maybe for a long while. I sort of liked having a good secret–not the theft, I felt embarrassed, knew it was bad–and savoring Lucia’s good words even after I stole those glimpses. There were tons of pages I never dared to read; I’d seen enough, felt Brent Howe’s dark shadow pass over me. And I already had hauled them off to be shredded with my own recyclable paper products.

“How can I help, good  lookin’? How about a salad?”

Rudy tossed me a tomato and onion and I grabbed the cutting board. Roger snagged the Italian bread and tore off a hunk to gnaw as he joined in a simple everyday conversation, a major score–for us all, as I saw it.

 

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

“Passing Fancies”: Sea Worthy, a Poem

Audubon trails, Tillamook Forestry and Oceanside day trip 089

Happy Friday, Readers!

The above photo is where I was last Sunday. Ahhh.

I am writing to tell you that this is the inaugural post of an end-of-week series called “Passing Fancies/Quick Picks.” I hope each is worth a good glance or read. It will offer a photo or a poem or a mix of elements–with a whole lot less words than my usual offerings. I do know I tend toward verbose. So these picks will be easier on the eye and, hopefully, mind.

For years I’ve maintained 2 other blogs on WordPress, one for poetry and one for photography. It didn’t make sense. “Tales for Life” is my primary blog. I have posted here twice weekly for about three years. That’s a lot of prose. Yet one more post per week seems doable. I am starting to consider how to improve the blog. This is one tentative step taken.

“Passing Fancies” will be primarily poetry on a range of topics, with occasional mixed- genre but shorter pieces. “Quick Picks” will be just photos of curious, unique or beautiful moments I have discovered with my camera. Each Friday they will take turns, i.e., every other Friday will be poems, with photos the other two Fridays. We’ll see what happens…

I have only published one photo in a lit journal…with a poem, actually, entitled “Whatever Is This” in the online journal The Blue Hour (a fave poem of mine, as it came to me all in a wondrous rush). So I see myself just as a hobbyist–one who loves to share visual inspiration via photography (and very occasionally, drawing or painting). I’ve published more poetry in journals or anthologies than prose over many years. Though I’ve written fiction since childhood (YA stories, too) it wasn’t the big tug as a writer–poetry initially was. Then adult mainstream fiction called me so poem-making took a dive as I became captivated. I also am learning more about nonfiction writing and am enjoying it a great deal.

But poetry can distill life, heighten moments and clarify murkiness in a way that prose does not–at least, for me. It is can be experienced as more spiritually-infused–and is also more immediately personal, though certainly not always about me. I guess I have missed it more than I knew. I might need to start submitting more poems as well as stories.

Let me know what you think. I am glad to keep at it and also see if it gets any “thumbs up.” All that said, I offer today’s poem:

 

Sea Worthy

It’s the seeking that tells me things;

I remain steadfast, ask for more.

Waves churn around body and mind as if

yielding energy as wisdom.

Skin is transparent under this sun,

heart a small shell emptied

yet the sea tells me more riddles.

Such power is so aged it needs no name.

What means this sea, this wind, this briny life?

It is a mantra, I another creature surrendering.

Salt stuns my lips, words evaporate into light.

Audubon trails, Tillamook Forestry and Oceanside day trip 080

 

(Photos also by Cynthia Guenther Richardson)

Posted in Photos with poetry, poem-making, poetry, poetry as story, Uncategorized, updating blog | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

The Game: Why We Play or Not

Laurelhurst people, mansion, blue top 020

Games, a good thing, right?

A thought keeps circling my mind: to be (and play) alone, or be with others, or with others yet remain alone…and what really defines “alone” in our often virtually designed, tech-impacted world?  Is it a positive thing to be alone–or not? Why is solitariness often abandoned in favor of disposable distraction?

More researchers are stating that engagement with others helps us live better and longer, enlarges our perspectives and guarantees more happiness. It is said we engage less real in community gatherings yet we are not so at ease in solitude. To be solitary is not that desirable, it seems, at least not as manifested in the twenty-first century. Alone time can be toxic to health at worst or unfulfilling at best.

How does a person manage an experience of hanging out with her/his singular self? Increasingly, it means reaching for an electronic device. It is so common, most likely don’t take note of what they are doing: it is now automatic. And as they text, for example, they don’t have to worry about how they look, the way they speak, what their emotions reveal. They can avoid or make things up. Alter the truth if needed with an emoji.

This has been on my mind since I visited my daughter in South Carolina. I watched in a confused state while we strolled about a pleasant riverside park. There were a dozen or more others wandering around with noses to cell phones, their movements goal-driven, quick and mostly silent. I kept waiting for someone to talk, to interact with one another. The relative silence was spooky. It was like watching random groupings of robots clothed in human flesh and clothes. They did not seem to notice one another or surroundings. But they were sharing some sort of experience in a parallel manner.

Looking for a reference point that I might comprehend, I flashed back (no pun intended…) on the late sixties and early seventies parties where the participants dropped acid or used other hallucinogenic drugs to then enter individual kaleidoscopic, madcap adventures of the brain chemistry: together yet separate in their altered states. But they certainly emitted various sounds, even discernible language. There was music in the back ground or someone was inspired to make it on a guitar or a flute or a big drum–on pots and pans or one’s own voice would do. There were physical and emotional exchanges, for good or ill. Discussions that ran in labyrinthine circles. I can’t say such gatherings were the best times of our (hippie) lives, but we did interact in all sorts of interesting ways.

But this was not like that–it was something foreign to me. I felt almost disoriented just watching. Then my daughter got me up to speed. They were playing Pokémon Go. I had never heard of it, so she briefly explained and we walked on. But I kept looking over my shoulder or noticing more of these young adults and no-so-young ones following visual cures or directives given by their phones.

Their phones. I just didn’t get the point, but clearly they  found it entertaining and interesting enough to spend a sunny afternoon doing.  Since then I’ve read a bit about Pokémon Go and have seen my grandson play as well as plenty of strangers. But technology and what it creates–and what the companies market—is the issue.

There are two attitudes circulating about the effects of electronic gadgetry–i.e., tablets, e-readers, video games, cell phones, personal computers, televisions and any others I have left out due to my ignorance. One espouses the multitudinous wonders, the vistas we now can explore,  altered and perfected realities we can enter into with a click, flick and swipe. This view espouses an interesting “benefit” of the latest manifestation of Pokémon, insisting the game will rouse indoor-inhabiting, computer-attached children and friends and deposit them in an outdoor setting. They can wander about together capturing wild and tiny critters that dwell within the augmented reality. This is a sort of socializing, I gather, an enhanced by electronica fraternizing. And one of the motivations for development of this game was to encourage people to get off their couches and get out to the parks or anywhere else they want to engage in said playing among other human beings. And hopefully, they will watch where they are going and no one gets hurt.

Which brings me to the other viewpoint, namely that people are already becoming more isolated–often seemingly by choice–due to keen interested in entertainment that has nothing to do with direct (read: three dimensional) contact with people. I glanced at an article with a photo depicting a man and woman using their laptops side by side at bedtime, No physical contact, no verbal interaction going on. The question posed: is this your relationship? In other words, was technology becoming the interloper?  Well, of course it is. And how many people find this rather perverse, that manufactured devices–can separate one from the other while captivating each? That the express purpose of said devices is to entertain and purportedly inform the operator of the object and quickly? (This is not about what computers can do to help compile and order data for business and other organizational needs.)

Sometimes it appears to be another fancier variation of the ole “divide and conquer.” And yet people are mesmerized. (Alright, I am now writing on my laptop. My last electric typewriter is packed away in a closet–and the effect was the same when I used that keyboard and paper: I wrote alone. But corrections were perhaps harder and more trees were used up, okay.) I think spellbound is an accurate word for what can happen when we turn on that magic screen which does fascinating and weird things the moment it lights up. We lose touch with other matters and persons because it is all-encompassing, corralling our minds and deluging our senses with input that dazzles or mollifies.

But I have digressed. This topic is so big, and like its actual manifestations it can nab a person and stir up realms that I only peripherally imagined thirty or forty years ago. I find myself wondering what George Orwell would think, what Frank Herbert would say, how Ray Bradbury would respond to this present state of tech affairs. Would they be horrified or flummoxed or gratified?

I think of our national health concerns–obesity with its serious complications, heart disease, cancer, depression and anxiety for starters–which are connected at least in part with contemporary lifestyle choices. Are computers and their cousins part of a trend to cop out and opt out? Can they usurp our power to take charge and accomplish more and better in some essential ways? Surely becoming inert for hours before a screen, our eyes unblinking, our trunks in stasis, can be detrimental to our well being. And yet these habits and requirements are so integrated into our lives that we don’t know how to take issue with it or even if we seriously ought to do so. How to live with and without the distractions and aids that technology provides?

 

It may or may not have been simpler fifty years ago. But back when my friends and I were trying hard to study Kierkegaard and de Beauvoir, Camus and Sartre, it was the newly coined “existential anxiety” we worried about, spiritual and philosophical matters that triggered heated debates. Authentic Identity and principled ideology were major topics and we plunged ahead despite having more energy than wisdom. The responsibilities of our power of human choice, as well as awareness of one’s ultimately solitary existence, were plenty angst-ridden. What would far greater technology bring to the fore? We imagined, we read, we mulled it over and went forward with our lives the best we could. I can’t say my generation entirely embraced the immense changes we suspected were on the way. Some of us hid out, some tried and failed to make social change happen and some triumphed even while bobbing along with the cultural currents.

Later, in retrospect, it seems my own family had lived and toiled in a world more apart from others’. My parents certainly thought a television was unnecessary. We didn’t have one until 1963 (I was 13 then) and it was not much regarded with either respect or enthusiasm. We rarely watched it. We already had radio and the stereo. But mostly we were too busy. I won’t drive the details into the ground as I’ve written of this  many times. But our lives were chock-full of academics, friends, outings and camps and lessons, the arts, sports for fun and competition, church, neighborhood social occasions. I didn’t feel we lived differently from others–my friends had similar schedules, endeavors and commitments. If there was time for sheer entertainment, there were always more arts activities. Or reading for pleasure. Playing outdoors. Doing nothing on the front porch–or counting makes and numbers of cars that passed– or hanging out in the big backyard maple were options. I do not recall worrying about being either alone or with others. I got both–and less alone time. I was rarely bored.

There was not a headline-provoking, cultural review of whether or not we had enough time together or apart from our fellow Americans. There was work; there was family; there were friends and the greater community and world. There were activities galore from which to choose, many of them free of charge. But we either relied on one another or we relied on ourselves for engagement in life–not a major attention-consuming gadget.

These things have changed, that is for certain. Is it for the greater well being of human life? Or is it to our detriment? Both, it has been noted. It seems too complex at times to tackle–so much information is required and that even changes fast. I move back and forth over data and consider opposing  possibilities. Technology expands our understanding and reach of so much; it can provide solutions that are critical. Previously unknown options that may lead to illumination on many levels. But it also intrudes and confounds, diverts and can–I’m just going to say it–numb the human mind and heart. Puts us into a zone that is at moments indistinguishable from an eccentric, hybridized robotic mode.

Can we truly not bear just being with ourselves, living our ordinary, daily lives? Do we require ever more stimulation–the sort that is devised for us– to stay awake in this world, to feel what we think is actually better? A world that is altered beyond recognition? I suspect the question reverberates among human beings as all countries are provided more intriguing devices and diversions. These may be quick fixes to transform the moment–why not? Pick up the almighty phone, turn on televisions (one in every room) or laptops. The marketing and publicity budgets for these products must be monstrous.

But the questions lose personal meaning for me even as I note them. I don’t crave relief or distraction of that sort. I do not want artificial or superficial company. I’m not a purist; I have a phone, a laptop. I inherited an older Samsung tablet when my husband got bored with it and occasionally I watch a series I like. I just don’t long for quick fixes, not unless I count dark chocolate– useful for a few minutes of elevated serotonin as well an taste bud heaven. For one thing, the fixes don’t work that well. When you turn off a device, there you are, your worries and longings still swirling about. Sooner or later, they need to be welcomed or sorted or will nag you like a host of gnats.

Not that I am beyond a day of unhappiness, a spurt of anxiety or even thunderbolt of raw dread. But I find it better to sit with feelings, let them come and go. Or call another human being. Let myself just be present with a searching mind and soul. Once, at fifteen, at twenty-five, at even thirty-five, I could have answered: yes, my life is woven with this flood of damnable anguish and I want it dissipated by something, anything. Obliterated, even. I tried drugs and alcohol awhile to corral trauma and the demons that trailed it, but they were not powerful enough to change my life in ways I most wanted. For that, I had to take my own action under guidance of the Creator’s wisdom and Light. And reach for helping hands.

Though I do enjoy people–sharing activities, meals and conversations, prayer, creative expression and work– I profoundly appreciate being alone. No live wire technology. Just thorough quietness and emptier space, my own breath to breathe in, then out. It gives me opportunity to turn inward and outward, to scrutinize what is inside or probe the greater world about me. I don’t want or need any ultra sensations most of the time. I can be taken beyond myself with a mysterious poem, a forest walk, a song that offers truth or majesty or plain good rhythm. My own senses do a fine job even after all this time on the  planet. After all, that’s why we’re born with them, to be provided with a rich human experience, gather and file information in our remarkable minds, enjoy bounties of earth and wonders of each other as we go forth.

There is this life to live each day as I will. I enjoy many freedoms of choice. For this I am grateful beyond measure. I do not desire a constant barrage of ideas, data and entertainment that someone else devised to woo my attention day in and day out. I like that “off” button almost more that the “on” one. I embrace the natural reality within human experience–flawed as it can be.

My son–a pro skater, residential/commercial painter, seeker of adventure–and I were talking yesterday about crickets and nature.

He said, “I could stand in my vegetable garden and listen to crickets for hours. I can’t get enough of them. Or even a chance to just meditate, to experience what is right here. To feel the mystery, you know?”

Yes, I know.

Last night as my husband and I were half-watching the Summer Olympics, I suddenly heard loud crickets outside our windows. It was if they had waited, then noted the same cue and began in full voice. It is not a usual spot for them to cluster. We turned off the television and leaned against the screens, then went outside and listened. A veritable symphony of naturally synchronized cricket music. It was a small rapture to be their audience. On our walks we are often treated with different performances on each block.

So I would ask the tech moguls to rein in that greed impulse, to not utterly take over the unfettered landscape. Please do not alter these daily amazements, so much complex beauty. Can you imagine life with crickets that are virtual? I would rather not. Rather, let us always savor the soft darkness, the hosting trees and bushes, the crickets hiding shyly while their singing fills the air.

No enhancements needed. No augmentation of reality required.

So, anybody up for a game of Scrabble or Balderdash, a pick-up game of basketball or a hike in the mountains? We can throw in a virtual game along the way if absolutely necessary, I suppose. If I am thought to be antiquated, I’m alright with that. Computers and their ilk are a social norm now and can be enriching; they have a place in my life. But we all still inhabit actual human bodies and this remains our planetary domain– if we are fortunate. And wise.

Posted in creative nonfiction, essays, nonfiction, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments