A Few Mavens of Wisdom: What They Offered Me

As the rain started to spit and splash, I thought about the many women who have most impacted me. This came on the heels of an hour and a half long gab with someone I value: Beth, my mother-in-law. She lives in Florida; we live in the Northwest so long phone calls are the best we can do most often. The conversation engaged me while finishing laundry, then as I took my usual long walk. I am not a stationary phone user, no matter where I am but she admires that I can power walk and talk at once.

I imagine her in that worn, comfy chair in her living room, feet up, beloved books about her. I would rather be there to share tea and family updates, run errands for her, hear her current viewpoints on her passions of theology mixed with odds and ends of philosophy and psychology, as well as theories on education and youth. She has smart ideas about a wide spectrum of topics. We talk about nearly everything as I did with my own mother. Perhaps more.

She cleared her throat and said, “I find it regrettable that I have to search for words at times, and then have to make do with an inferior word, something not truly accurate. My faculties are slowing down.”

She stated this dilemma with acceptance, but I detected a dash of annoyance.

I suppressed a small laugh, as she was serious. “I have always admired your exacting use of language and still don’t find it lacking. I enjoy talking with you partly for that reason.”

“Well, with my education, all the reading I do, it’s a disappointment at times to face it. My memory is the culprit, I think. It hesitates, doesn’t immediately connect each word together, anymore.”

“Your birthday is coming up. I know you don’t expect to feel fifty or even sixty.”

“No, each decade is a little more slowing down. We aren’t meant to last indefinitely in frail flesh. I’ll be eighty-nine.”

I had forgotten what age she’d be in January– mid-eighties, I thought. I don’t think of her age as we converse. On her birthday I’ll send a specially picked card and gift card to Portland’s fine Powell’s independent bookstore.

I did not say with a chuckle: You’re entitled to have a little loss of memory or razor-sharp language skills!  It would seem irrelevant and inane to her. She is used to having her faculties working very well. Now her eyes are worsening, too. Beth made her point and the truth of it presented itself shortly after: a pause and fishing for the perfectly placed word. But we moved on from there without any difficulty. She is remarkable. Not only because she is one year from ninety and mostly intact.

I was on my way to admiring her from the first time we met. It seemed she was okay with me. Still, I was half-hippie even in my late twenties, didn’t have a decent job, had two children already from a failed first marriage and a new baby on its way… before even quite marrying her son, father of unborn child. It was embarrassing to me, hard to be there at that time, in that home. Her son had not been close to her for many years. I wasn’t sure what to expect at all. But she, as well as the attending and formidable Grandma Suzy were sociable enough. Perhaps they were too polite to indicate they had doubts. My parents certainly had some and said so. But we did get married and Beth was around here and there, more clearly for and not against me. Us.

Who Beth is has begun to slowly unfold over time. I knew she’d received her Bachelor degree from Michigan State University in the late nineteen forties and taught elementary and middle school students. After additional education, she taught those with “special needs” as it was designated. She had long ago met and married a Black man in college; it was a nearly forbidden interracial marriage. This was well before most would even consider marrying outside one’s own race. It was hard though they had two capable sons; the marriage ended after some years. She played classical piano well and still exalts in fine music. A lover of literature, she now reads only nonfiction, a voluminous number of books, even as her eyesight fades and falters. She told me today that she has ordered ahead, to make sure she has what she wants to yet read–before her sight utterly dims. In time, she also became an amateur scholar of Biblical text/translations and various arcane theological tomes. Religious and metaphysical discussions are deep and esoteric.

But she has also been a mother-in-law who secretly bought me the perfume called “Anais Anais” after I announced it a potpourri of sheer delight. She didn’t blink an eye but supported me as I tackled complex duties and needs as a stepmother. She has cheered me on as I’ve pursued writing and other passions rather than chastise me for not being more domestic in orientation. I can talk to her about writing better than with most of my peers; she knows the worth of a word instinctively and enjoys learning of my process.

Beth calls to chat if she deosn;t hear from us for awhile and always answers my phone calls with pleasure. But she is as much defined to me by what she does not do: offer advice unless sought; interfere with our decisions; criticize. She is a person who listens, who hears. Her lightning quick mind can offer extraordinary insights, along with a dose of humor. I have been blessed to have such a mother-in-law. I know she has had painful twists and random downturns in her life, yet she remains open to possibilities and ideas. And her frankness sometimes shocks me as well as makes me laugh.

As I have also aged, she has frequented my life with considerate gestures, like a beautiful china tea set I use a few times weekly, crystal bells for the Christmas tree. I send her pretty postcards from everywhere we travel and long, typed letters. She remains a champion of a deliberate, thoughtful life and now encourages others to do the same. An example of what everyday courage and hope can look like makes me thankful for knowing her. The son I married is reflective of some of her attributes, of course, as well as her interesting quirks. It is fun to hear them chat at length after years of warmer and frequent connections.

It is a wonder that I have rarely felt entirely alone as I’ve trod the proverbial highways and byways. Many of my best teachers were ones I may not have recognized as such at the time, as surely can happen, as we can’t anticipate when a messenger or guide may show up.

But some we do. One was my own mother. I have written much about her here so will not dwell long on her life and ways. Her industriousness, curiosity, creative spirit and zest for life were examples not lost on me. I can still hear her laugh at an absurd incident as well as just for plain old joy, but I also recall how quickly she wept for those who suffered or from her own hurt and frustration. I never saw this as less than a rich humanness and it moved me. Her intuition, love of beauty; grace in grappling with disaster; her tireless capacity for helping; the take charge attitude and organizational talent–all these strengthened me, prepared me better for my own dreaming and doing. Her deficits only served to make her more interesting and complex, as is true of all people I have known.

Some people speak little or less ably, yet manage to instruct well. When I was in elementary school and my mother taught other children, I from time to time walked after school to her best friend’s house to wait for her. Mom had to drive home from a distance and do errands. Winetta Titus’ house was half a block from Eastlawn Elementary. As soon as I entered her foyer I was, well, at home. My second home, with my second mother. The air was aromatic with food–dinner, snacks, bread or other baked goods–and furniture polish, plus a hint of nail polish or perfume from the hallway where Jo, her daughter’s room was. (Jo was eight years older  so I spoke little with her. But stacks of movie celebrity magazines were shared with me. They were considered useless, even tawdry by my parents so I felt a guilty pleasure gawking at the stars.)

Mrs. Titus’ spacious, orderly living room had a back wall comprised of huge windows. I could immediately view the big yard and extravagant garden. Not just a few rows of veggies, but overflowing rows of flowers, many of which seemed achingly beautiful, almost mysterious. Gardening was Mrs. Titus’ happy hobby; she had to have had magic hands, secret knowledge. She also fed birds from various bird feeders attached to windows or on long poles. She tirelessly battled bandit squirrels and sometimes lost; since then I’ve not much fondness for the fluffy-tailed rodents. But just having time to watch all that in play, to wander beyond the elegant French doors that led to patio and yard with nary another pressing thing on my mind–that was heavenly. The birds were like friends of hers, then mine, and she could name them all. I learned to recognize a few of them as well as their songs. And I helped her pick and arrange flowers for colorful bouquets–sometimes got to take a bunch home, a gift I never found less than fabulous. Our own yard had flowers (irises, tulips, gladiolas) lined up at attention alongside the house and garage but not such exotic profusion.

Like my mother, she sewed well and often. I might sit in her sewing room and watch her turn fabric into something useful–memorable quilts, for example. She might ask me to help in the kitchen or at least keep her company. To dry dishes or help make dinner for her daughter and husband, even if it was handing her a measuring cup or peeling a small potato. In my own house there were so many people and such tight schedules of activities for all that I rarely had the luxury of hanging about a kitchen or watching out windows. Mrs. Titus would ask about my day, what I was learning, how my skating or cello lessons were going. It felt a bonus to be asked to stay for dinner. Yes, it was different from home–it was emptier, quieter–but often seemed calmer. When my mother arrived it was a surprise that so much time had passed. I loved how they greeted each other, with hugs and chatter.

If you had met Winetta Titus at a community meeting or in a store you might have said she had a prickly personality, even a bit of severe quality which seemed written on her face with sharp nose and pursed lips. She could be sarcastic, I realized, was quick to fuss at her daughter. She and her husband could have loud fusses–strange to me, as my parents disagreed privately, almost unknown to us. Her sadness floated about at times but there was contentment with her skills and tasks, real joy in her birds and garden. She did volunteer work for many in our city.

Whatever was brewing under the surface of her life, there was a wellspring of kindness. I felt I got the best of her; not once did I doubt her true heart. Some years later when I was furious and aching, adrift and seeking relief in substances, she never judged me, never scolded. I’ll not forget when we crossed paths in church. She silently embraced me and I held on; she whispered she loved me and that life would be good again. That alone carried me forward a long while. I accepted her love and believed that she knew the truth of pressing onward, of surviving.

Mrs. Titus was one who showed me how to be more inclusive, helpful, and appreciative–all by being that way with me. I felt safe with her those early years when her home was a friendly sanctuary.

I, of course, had teachers who mentored me and neighbors were fine examples of accomplished adulthood. Friends of my parents at times seemed more like older aunts (and uncles) and I also enjoyed caring blood aunts. I had more good examples than many.

Often it was female (male, too) writers, artists, dancers and musicians who held powerful places in my life. They might local artists or visiting from afar–we welcomed them in our home, at times–but also those I admired from afar: cellist Jacqueline DuPre; dancer Martha Graham; painter Georgia O’Keefe; folk singers Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Buffy Saint Marie; writers Madeline L’Engle, Flannery O’Connor and poet Muriel Rukeyser–to name a very few. I once heard the opera singer Leontyne Price perform. Afterwards, via my father’s contacts, I went backstage and got her autograph backstage. Her patience and smile lifted me as much as her soaring voice.

Denise Levertov was among the extraordinary poets whose writings I savored, memorized, aspired to learn from as I studied her work. She sadly died in 1997 at age 74 after an illustrious career. It was in 1964 when I bought Levertov’s poetry book O Taste and See, also the title of one of my favorite poems. I still have the book with its yellowed pages, the corners dog-eared for poems I especially liked, phrases check-marked. I would share one here if copyright allowed.

Her deep sensitivity to the natural world soothed me. Words revealing a sense of separateness reassured me. Her spiritual quandaries and, finally, peace helped guide me. Her politics were personal. As I grew up her work for feminism echoed my own thoughts. I had an ally even though she was her words on paper–they were another real person’s  experience, a woman who had done with her life some of what I longed to try to do. She knew what I wondered over–knew very much more. As she moved through the world she found there sacredness–this resonated with me. I knew someone else saw what I saw, transcribed it exquisitely as I struggled with my own voice as a young writer. She also was honest about many things unjust and ugly; it was painful yet liberating: I was a person who craved to understand the whole picture, all truths of it. Reading her was a small mercy and provided another seed of hope. I regret I never attended a reading. I hadn’t even know until too late that she lived in Seattle, where I might have driven within 3 hours to hear her speak each careful word.

There are so many to whom I feel indebted; they were there at the right moments to aid me on my path. There are those who will never know fame but truly are noteworthy. Those better known can always use one more thank you. I need to praise others often, recount blessings received from their labors, time, creativity and patience. The few mentioned today remain among a large group who gave without fully realizing what they did for the searching, idealistic, wounded and hopeful youth I was. I took with me their probing questions and wide-ranging answers. Their rebellious streaks, prayerful spirits and a compassionate desire to enhance life, not underestimate or denigrate it. I can only hope my living has begun to reflect well on what they taught me. Happily, the learning and my evolution aren’t yet finished.

But I must tell you: I am booking us a flight to Florida. It is time to see my mother-in-law, Beth, face-to-face again, to take her hands in mine and tell her how much I care.

 

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

The Fine Art of Brady O’Connell

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

What more could she say? It was how things were, wasn’t that right? Some had opportunity and with it, money, and some did not. Some had love and others had less than what they’d dreamed and hoped for, schemed over. Nicola was not the sort who nattered on and on about what she didn’t get. It was tiresome, even to her own ears. But this was harder to take that she’d expected. After  a couple of weeks it still reared up and kicked at her.

Brady hunched over the table. He leaned on his elbows, arms crossed against a massive chest. His shoulders about blotted out the window behind him. Nicola mused that he was beginning to look like one of those aging television wrestlers, still big on top, paunchy form there down. He was, in fact, a middle-aged academician who taught art history and drawing at the community college.  He was good at what he did; she ought to be more proud of him. But he had, it turned out, so little ambition that he hadn’t bothered after a certain point to ferret out a more prestigious position. Say, overseas. Or on one of the finer coastal campuses where you could escape it all, dawdling along an infinite beach. Brady said it himself: “I teach first for love of it, then for a small studio space, then for money.”

“They’ve earned it, this is a reward,” he offered once more.

Nicola stuck out her neck so she could better peer at his guileless eyes. She tried to keep the acid from her words. “We’ve earned it, too, in notable sweat and blood, but it doesn’t add up the same as persistent career ladder climbing. With resultant promotions.”

“We need to be happy for them,” he gently protested, arms opened in an expansive gesture.

“Right, I’m pleased for them. They’re our second best friends–well, maybe third–and they have always wanted to go to the Mediterranean. On a cruise. Not that I would go on a cruise. All those people adrift on a gigantic boat with nothing to see but endless water. Then docking and unloading, touristing about, eating your fill of who knows what, sun rays welcomed as if immune to damage, then just loading up again Ha.”

His considerable brow creased and smoothed as he stretched. “I thought you loved the idea or a boat trip.”

“I did until I heard the itinerary. And Trina is taking a huge basically empty suitcase she can cram full of trinkets and finds. Seems an excessive approach, how much can you buy that you need?” She glanced out the window: sheets of rain, granite sky, forlorn trees. “Still.”

Relived to hear her dismissal of a big trip, Brady’s mind calmed, then began to fill with images of Trina and his good friend Hans luxuriating on a tawny bluff overlooking a sapphire sea. He pictured how he’d pull out his sketchbook as if it was him not Hans going, and then opening his case of colored pencils. How wonderful to go somewhere mind boggling, experience fresh horizons. He could nearly feel Greek island warmth spread over his balding pate, onto his face and neck. Who knew what masterpiece he might be inspired to create there?

Nicola knew that dreamy, self referential look so got up. She carefully placed their cups in the sink. On the way to the laundry room, she muttered an uncivilized word. What was he thinking– that she would forever hold on for some small reward? All the years she had scrimped and made do and gone along with his plans and they were still barely ahead of the rising costs of living. Life too often felt like a ravenous bear that had to be kept well-fed, then tricked to avert its charging down a short trail to her door.

She’d worked, too, as a dental office manager. Until the highway car smash-up, leg breaking in two places, her right two middle fingers numb after hand injury and so-called reparative surgery. She was no longer fast or accurate on a keyboard, worked only two days a week answering the phone. It was almost humiliating to be there at all.

Nicola dropped things most of the time unless she immediately recalled her left hand was now meant to be dominant. More useful or prized items had been lost to that lapse of memory in two years than were lost in the previous twenty. Now she did lost of crossword puzzles–they didn’t require a fully legible scrawl–or played solitaire or read book after book or puttered in the yard. She took care of Brady. She waited until her fully employed friends were home from work to chat but they always rushed about –could they call her later?

There was a tomato-y spot on Brady’s newer, blue oxford button-down. She saturated it with stain remover, scrubbed until knuckles complained but it remained, a brown blot on an otherwise amenable expanse of blue. The tidy stacks of folded underwear, khakis, tops and towels on a bench gave her some relief. Such a dependable result of her effort was lovely. But as soon as she gazed on them, touching their smooth coolness, her lower lip trembled. The thought of clean laundry making her day right while Trina prepared for exotic shores and bliss–it was too much.

Brady checked his watch, got up and grabbed his jacket from the hall coat tree. He had two classes; time for reveries later. Maybe when he got out his paper, pastels and pencils before turning in. If Nicola didn’t require a lot of care. She had been rather moody of late. Well, since the accident she had, in truth, become more dauntlessly pessimistic. Before then she had allowed room for a gleam of hope here and there at least. That he could live with far better. Now she slipped away into a funk where he, groping, had trouble locating her. It wasn’t a die hard depression, exactly (she had gone through that right after the accident and surgery), just a lukewarm response. Recently it had begun to grow into a predatory resignation, tearing at any peace left.

Since Trina and Hans had informed them of their holiday cruise plans, he thought. All her envy, hurt and regret had come trickling back into their lives, weakening tenuous good will. Brady took his baseball cap from a hook and opened the door. He got half-way out and then stepped  back in.

“Bye Nic, love, see you tonight. It’s Tuesday so I’ll bring Chinese for late dinner.”

He waited as long as he could for her reply, a few beats, but nothing came.

 

******

Brady O’Connell enjoyed seeing the wavering line of colorful, often disheveled students file into his classroom. He loved the lively chatter, anticipating their very occupation of his time and that space. He admired their studied resistance to the banal for fifty minutes while with him. They weren’t entirely thrilled with drawing techniques or an assignment, perhaps, of filling a blank space with a collage of feeling they couldn’t verbalize, nor the history of porcelain or the rise and fall of impressionism. But they did come more than half-ready to attend to his words, ask a number of considered questions. On a good day, that is. The rest of the time, he got to elucidate his knowledge, then demonstrate his skills and wait from them to behave more adult, just catch on. He’d share stories of intrigue, trial and error and creative triumph throughout the centuries. It seemed to help some to utilize this enlarged context for their own aspirations and failures. Brady felt useful, happy when their eyes lit up and they leaned in to him, then got to work.

They asked him occasionally about his own work. He’d refer them to a handful of art journals and an upcoming exhibition. He excelled in detailed colored pencil drawings of nature and also rigorous, elegant architecture, the two intimately related in his mind regarding form and function. Yet it was never done, the demanding work of striving for further excellence. His job depended on it and he knew it was the basis of a vital sense of self-worth. Nicola felt he aimed too low; he felt he was stretching –and was stretched–rather far and high. He wondered how she’d feel if her well being depended on something as nebulous and fickle as creative input and output. How could you measure that? It wasn’t like billing for gold crowns or ordering drill bits. Or like tallying an amount coupons saved on a shopping trip. Or how many hands of solitaire were won out of fifteen. Fifteen in one day she’d confessed, for crying out loud! And that was random, not part of any daily, responsible agenda. That made it more terrible.

There now, this had to stop, he was becoming unkind. But she was becoming more unreachable.

It was the last week of classes until the new term. The students were lazier, missing, inattentive except for one or two motivated artists. Brady gave in their inertia as the afternoon went by. Let his mind go as they worked on a last assignment. They talked in low, chirpy tones of vacation plans. He found himself wandering down nostalgia’s byways, times he had gone skiing with his family over high school week-ends, college breaks. The northern peaks, the place he had perfected slalom skiing. Where he had broken his ankle. Where his parents had announced their separation after twenty years. And where he had met Nicola.

She’d been nineteen, a waitress at Broken Top Ski Resort where his family stayed.

“You going to stare at that menu all afternoon or what?” she’d asked sweetly, with an edge.

Brady had looked up, startled out of a bleary haze. He’d been on the slopes since early morning.

She gave him a grin that flashed teeth, a front tooth just overlapping another. It gave her an approachable look, for she was tall, fit and radiant in the empty dining room.

“You got any cheddar and spinach Quiche left? And more coffee. Please.”

“For you, we might,” she said and poured coffee in his cup, then hummed all the way to the kitchen. He was the most promising thing that had happened in many a day.

When he had finished she asked if he was going to the slopes again that night. He was wiped out, wanted to languish by the massive stone fireplace but curiosity prevailed. And that was the start of young love that became deeper than they expected. He closed his eyes and felt again the razor cold wind on his cheeks, a roaring fire enliven body and soul, her shoulder against his as they talked. Of what did they speak? It was so long ago.

“Mr. O’Connell? My drawing?”

He looked into the smooth brown face of his student and smiled. The work looked wonderful, as usual. She was good. “You’re going to be a fine artist one day, Aarati.”

“Thanks, so you keep telling me.” She smiled back. “Hey, you going anywhere fun for the holidays?”

“Not that I know of, just the usual. You?”

“Snowboarding on the mountain.”

“Mt. Hood?”

She nodded, her whole body emanating excitement. “The snowfall has been amazing. Well, I gotta catch Suzanne and Joe. Have a good one, Mr. O’Connell!”

He beamed at her the best he could but she had already left. As the final student slipped away, Brady stuffed papers, notebooks, pens and pencils into his aging leather briefcase and turned out the lights. Trudged to his office.

“Have a good one.” What does that mean? Have a nice time not a crummy time? Have a decent moment or two with my increasingly morose wife? Root out good stuff from the morass? Is it really all up to me?

The warmth and ease of his day evaporated from his mind. He straightened his aching fullback shoulders that never had done the game enough justice–he was not the player his father had expected. Seemed at times he replayed the same ole game everywhere. Brady put on his hat, tidied up his desk, took off for Ying’s to get dinner.

******

Nicola was sick of Chinese on Tuesdays but she finished every last bite because she was hungry and she hadn’t wanted to dissuade him. She was a decent cook but often disinterested; but she had come to lean on their routines as had he. Brady finished, then cleaned the containers to recycle.

“You do anything fun today? I thought you were going to meet Jude for coffee.”

Nicola pushed back from the table. “She changed plans, said she had to meet with a co-worker for drinks to discuss a new strategy. You know our daughter. Her work is never done, her star is not yet risen high enough.”

He laughed despite himself. It was true, the kid had tenacity and ambition, put them both to shame. Give her time, he thought ruefully.

“Well, I have some things to do. I’ll see you upstairs later.”

Nicola shrugged and opened her crossword puzzle book. What was another word for antelope, nine letters, with the letter “h”?

The wind picked up and sang through a window crack. She moved to the living room, added wood to the low fire and settled into the couch. The flare of flames swirled and danced, released of entrapment. Nicola puzzled over the blanks in her book. What did antelopes look like up close? Why were they fabled for gracefulness? How did they live and die? They had lovely horns.

She faded and dozed, head full of springing creatures in a dazzling desert.

Brady stood behind her, touching the silky ends of her light hair shining in firelight, wondering whether to wake her or wait until morning to talk. About how they had let things get away from them. How they were becoming old prematurely. How he had been neglectful and felt badly about it and knew she deserved much more than he had given her. How he was terribly sorry she still couldn’t well use her hand, that it would have been the end of him if the same occurred. It couldn’t be much easier for her, as much as she enjoyed writing letters and cards to family and friends, doing her crosswords, playing cards.

He sat beside her and her eyelids fluttered.

“It’s pretty late, Nic.”

“Hmm.” She let her head flop against his shoulder. “Pronghorn…is the word…”

“What’s that? I’d hoped we could talk a little.”

“Now? Why?” Her eyes flew open.

Brady took her hands in his. Her long face with crinkles about the eyes; lips under which was etched a tiny scar where she’d fallen as a child; the changing color of her eyes, two oceans that reflected every feeling. He wanted to make things right. He could at least start.

“I found us a cabin.”

“A cabin? Whatever for?”

“Time away.”

Nicola eyed him suspiciously. “For what? Where?”

“Just to be together. Do things we haven’t done in a long time. Have some fun, damn it. It looks a bit run down on the website, don’t get too thrilled. But it has a wood stove, a nice big bed, homey living space. In the Cascades, near a smaller, out of the way ski resort. For five days following Christmas.”

Nicola’s anxious eyes grew large with disbelief. Deep longing and remnants of sadness showing themselves as the chill, too long  a wedge, began to ease. It was love that graced her heart. She half-wanted to be cynical but fell into him, face buried in chest, arms wrapped around his bulk. He held on as if she might yet take her leave. Kissed her hair and neck, breathed her in. Envisioned their life together rampant with possibilities, a hope made of reclaimed kindness.

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Friday’s Passing Fancies/Poem: A Rain Healing

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Prelude to winter’s grand opening,
flush me with rain’s old arias,
invite creeks, rivers to turn me
like a single rusted ruby leaf
which knows no fear of falling.

Release me into fern canopy,
moss bedstead, stony path to rest
so that heaven’s sheer blood
runs rich and swift to my heart.

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Posted in Northwest poetry, Photos with poetry, poetry, poetry as prayer, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Framing Life

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The theater of living provides an endless array of delights, an intriguing jumble of conundrums. A panorama of mystery that goes blood deep and beyond. It throws me for a loop at times, can wound me, but I relish again a brighter state of being. It is a numinous realm that we move within, if only we can stay awake to become more intimate with it. Or I should say, it is magic, the sort that is the real stuff, unadulterated.

I would guess living with someone who thinks like this is not simple. There are pros and cons of working at living a creative life propelled by a spiritual bent. My days and nights are underpinned by deep roots of belief in a higher power whom I call God for the purpose of easier communications. (I don’t know what God’s true name sounds like but I feel it often, everywhere.) For as long as I can recall, I have sought to tap a source that is omnipresent, if often constricted by human definitions. It makes me not content to skim the surface of things, as there is no impenetrable “surface”–the exterior I see beckons and what lies beneath is a richer extension of it, a spiraling variation, another chain of possibilities. And guiding me is the constant sense of being connected to earth and to humanity while being tethered to the universe. To the great knowns and unknowns.

As a young person, I assumed everyone thought this way. How could they not? It would be like not realizing lungs were the organs of distribution for crucial air to be carried into our blood, to our sinews and brain–and for releasing CO2. And that trees et al have a vital part to play. But by adolescence I at least realized we each experienced existence uniquely–furthermore, developed different ideas and ways of using them. What I see from my little window on the world may appear to encompass all but, of course, it does not–it likely cannot encompass much of who you are unless you invite me to your window awhile. Or I request information and then try to fill in the blanks, at best. So I’ve continued to watch, feel, think, sense, listen, take mental notes. And what is revealed is often amazing to contemplate.

Like the neighbor many years ago who I liked in a general sort of way but worried about. She was very well spoken– held a Ph.D.–and was guarded sometimes pleasant. But she also who kept us up at night, seemingly rearranging furniture, opening and shutting file cabinet drawers (we thought). She talked loudly to herself, placed alarming political messages on her car windows. I asked her many times to please be more quiet so we could get some sleep. I once banged on her door the next morning, demanding silence…she said, “Then call the police!” I felt perhaps she was mentally ill. I wanted to know her story and I cared–I was a mental health clinician then–but she wasn’t telling it. She was a powerful person who felt lost.

One day she packed up and left with her son, and the key to her distress and fear was shared with me. She had been a teacher in a school across the street from the federal building in Oklahoma City when it was bombed by a domestic terrorist. She was a witness and a victim. She never really recovered. She lost many; her survival was a nightmare day and night. I went to my place and wept, for her and for myself, felt ashamed of my lack of patience and acceptance. It hurt to meet my shortcomings face-on. But she had made an impression. She helped me see I always need to think a gain–not react but think and sense what the bigger truth might be.

So you never do know, until you know more. We live with one another in a world that seems prone to catastrophes more than ever. But we still have beauty and wonder. We can share tenderness and courage with one another. There are terrible things, yes, but there still is goodness and we must not forget that, either.

I suspect many who do not feel part of the entirety of life manage to frequently and temporarily disconnect. From themselves and others, global life and the universal ball of wax. There are so many ways to do it. I certainly once tried–I drank or used various drugs, I worked too hard, loved too much or badly, slept less than sensible, tried to lose myself in a multitude of ways. I had my memory jogged a few harsh times and fortunately recalled that to be awake was far more rewarding that sleepwalking through life. The last time–decades ago–it finally “took”. More or less, most of the time.

So, to go forth and embrace–a good intention tempered by caution as needed.

I might appear hobbled by an insistent interest in too much, a magnetic pull to whatever is perceived. For example, walking with me may require forbearance. I start out fast, prefer to go quickly, yet move in fits and starts, pausing to take a closer look at a vine against a fence, a white porch with a green chair, a tree branch with three yellow leaves against a cloudy sky, a scarlet flower that lies amid crispy curling leaves. Then comes a lady in a bulky coat and floral scarf. She bends over to pet a grey Persian cat who has chosen to rest at her feet. The sun emboldens the space; the cat languishes. It shoots a glance at me as I hesitate behind the woman; it has green eyes. The lady and I smile, nod, move on. I feel good. I liked how her eyes warmed, the woman’s not the cat’s. The cat is gorgeous, tolerant, regal and now addresses more important matters than my admiring words. We have, afterall, already exchanged flick of energy, that recognition by one being of another.

My husband waits a few steps apart. He looks on the ground for the odd rock, interesting sticks, the bit of detritus worth a moment. He, too, is present in experience but the wide arc of scanning, a review of everything does not move him in the way it does me. I want to absorb the lovely strangeness of life, its willful and predetermined responses. To be open to its vagaries. Let it all trickle through me as if I am a sieve, catching and savoring the choice parts amind the  big picture.

One way to immerse myself in this buzz of daily living is taking photos as I go. I carry a camera (other than phone camera) everywhere. I seek to frame the richness of territories and persons within it. Grand or humble designs of civilization and the natural world that may open like secret chests when I attend them. There is a vibrant energy inherent in any moment, a tableau, an object. The life force is a basic phenomenon; it animates all living things. I like how the French put it: esprit de vie, or life spirit. It emanates from all things in some way or another. My camera takes charge as soon as I push a button. What I see again in the resultant photograph is not always what I think I saw. I am often surprised by the more or the less of an image, but in the meantime, I have chosen to focus in the here and now. To be open to what crosses my path and vice versa. And most often it shimmers with something, a vibrational presence, a welcome, a dazzle of curious joy.

It is simple and exacting at once to take pictures. But I don’t worry about becoming a great photographer; I expect different things of this happy habit. I do aspire to note and capture some essence of a thing or being. I want to see and find truth, the one nestled within another. What astonishes is how much variety of life there is, how what is similar, especially human beings, can be so alike yet distinct. All this patterning and deviation from pattern arranges a vivid criss-crossing, a panoramic verve. And I value the peculiarity of being human, that we have personal identity, a spirit we can claim as ours due to DNA, group culture and life circumstances as well as our relationship to this greater picture. To an ever-evolving and sacred map of infinity.

Earth. The plant and animal life it sustains is a freakishly complex yet flexible work, in process of being born, growing and living. Dying. Rebirthing. That little remains static is essential to the scheme. We witness its suffering, too. I give my attention to this composition of energies. I don’t want to be distracted or seduced by spectacles that lack substance. Fabulous work is going on quietly beneath our noses; dramas unfold in nature and lives that we barely can imagine. We inhabit this place with minds intent on other things, on the minutiae of daily routines, demands of work, wants and basic needs. We rather too often take our beating hearts for granted until our living is under siege. Unpredictable events are spawned by weather or political conflict, or disharmony between friends or strangers, misunderstandings within our own families. How can we allow ourselves to be waylaid when we have brains wired to make choices–smarter ones? It happens so easily.

So begin again, I think.

I awaken and come back to the body’s reign. I sit down at our too-cluttered table, drink tea, welcome another chance to survey more unfolding of events. I pray for opportunities to learn and love, to better trust my instincts, my evaluative skills. I hope for rain and sun; both are necessary and appreciated.

I do value my traditions, principles and insights, yes. But I also keep strong my desire to learn more of what I do not know or understand. I want to honor these moments I am given. That includes clarifying a more thorough view of what being alive means to people, to me. I care not only about what works, symmetry and a flawless synchrony but about errors and anomalies. It all is here to explore and consider. Life is a empowered by its essence of one sort or another. As creatures set upon this globe, we do not have to do much more but stay alive in the end, I suppose. But it flourishes with our contributions, hopefully for the greater good, not just our own. Experience is truly transformative when we participate in the creative actions that occur each day.

So I watch, I listen, I aim and I click the camera button. The photographs tell me generous stories. I am filled up as I enter the moment and share it. They give me a way to better understand. And the taking of a picture also gives me freedom from this nattering self. One moment is suspended, is a gift, even as it is already moving through and beyond me. I am important enough but so is all that is before me, incandescent with matter and spirit.

Discover and believe. Live and strive. Do not forget to offer your beauty and help to one another. Become your own best witness to the smallest of miracles.

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Posted in creative nonfiction, nonfiction, Pacific Northwest, Personal essay, photography, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Shalimar Girls

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From the beginning their families thought they’d not ever end up friends. It might have been that way if they’d paid serious attention to differences. Lillian had dark hair with its own personality, was slight and wiry, easy with silence. Lana was all peaches and cream, spoke to adults with a polish that offered thoughts tinged with a supposition of authority. Lillian lived at the end of a dead-end road with her mother and father and larger family. Lana was in town, that corner blue and white Victorian; her uncle also housed his medical practice in an attached office. They’d known one another since childhood but from a distance. Then gradually they found each other. Both sang–rather, Lillian tried her best–in the Methodist youth choir. Before long they sat together in a back pew every Sunday.

On church bulletins they scribbled notes about everything–the new calf Lillian helped birth; Lana’s disagreement with her aunt about wearing her mother’s perfume; the fall school mixer neither could bear to attend; essays each would help the other finish; their first crushes. In the school hallways they often linked arms, headed to the restroom to catch up. At lunch time they’d sit together though other friends looked askance at first. The rest of the kids began to call them “The Two Ls”, or “L1” and “L2”–Lana being L1, never mind it was taken for granted she must be the first of the two. Lillian was used to that, even at home, where her older brothers and a sister overtook everything as if food, clothes, or attention were their birthrights, with Lillian apparently meant to fend for herself. Lana about made up for that, with her confidences, sparkling smile and good will. And Lana found her friend’s shyer yet stronger, trustworthy character terribly admirable in a friend.

They just got on well and that was that.

Before long they shared many week-end hours, too, except for times when Lillian couldn’t get away from farm chores or Lana had dance or art classes or other plans. It was as if they lived double lives sometimes, and they were a faint mystery. But Lana’s aunt and uncle had  money and status; her father garnered prestige as a private pilot who was gone most of the time. Lillian’s family was respected and her parents were hard workers, fair in church and the marketplace.

“Why do you think my dad is always on the go?” Lana asked one day after school.

They’d gone to Red’s Restaurant for lime and vanilla Cokes. Hunched over the table, they slurped the sugary fizz and took turns eating one French fry at a time, swirling each in a mound of ketchup.

“Because he loves to fly?” Lillian licked a couple of salty fingers, thought better of it and wiped them on her napkin.

Lana shook her head, wide grey eyes peering through a fringe of bangs. “Well, he does, but not that.”

“Because he’s good at what he does and is making a living? And he’s saving money up to move out of your uncle’s?”

“No, for sure, not the last. Dad likes being closer to Uncle Carter since Mom died. He loves that house and Aunt Margo’s heavy fat-filled meals.” She made a bad face. “Me being safe and sound when he flies.” She shook her bangs back and sat up straight. “He just doesn’t like to be home since Mom isn’t around. And he doesn’t like looking at me because I look like her.”

Lillian crammed another fry in, then considered. “Not so, Lana.”

“Yes so. He’s determined to erase her from his mind. The less he has to spend time with me, the more he can forget.”

She closed her eyes. Lillian couldn’t help noting again how long her lashes were. Her own were dark but stubby. She chewed and swallowed the fry. Lillian never knew what to say when Lana made such pronouncements. She didn’t really know Mrs. Danforth, Lana’s mother, except from afar, long ago. It had been four years since her car had slid across the county road and smashed into a tree after the historic ice storm. She and Lana became actual friends after all that; Lana  spoke very little of the accident. She had been in the back seat but emerged with a broken leg and whiplash and concussion; she apparently recalled nothing else. But it stayed deep within her, the smashing up and the losing a parent. Lillian felt it.

“He’s still sad. Maybe kinda lost?”

“Not a good excuse. I’m still here. I’m trying my best.”

“I know. I imagine it’s too hard, sometimes.”

Lana crossed her arms over her chest with a thump. A long fry dangled out of the side of her mouth. Every time she chewed a little more it bounced up and down. She took hold of it, put it between her fingers and blew out as if it was smoke, her nose in the air and eyes half-shut. A bit like her Aunt Margo.

“Lana!”

She laughed the tough feelings away and they ate the last few fries. Late afternoon light filtered through the slats that separated them from another booth, striping the table with skinny bars. Lana slid her fingers across the pattern. Lillian did the same and their hands made graceful dances, then silly shadow creatures, weaving in and out of the bright and dark. Lana thought how often it felt as if she lived behind invisible bars, a restless captive in a beautiful house where no one was allowed to fuss about things or smudge a centimeter of floor. Her aunt was determined to make her into someone she didn’t want to be, not anymore, too well-mannered and dull. Her uncle was looser. His intrinsic goodness spread like peace between her resistance and his wife’s insistence on her own way. So Lana gravitated to him and slid away from her meticulous ways. It was more miserable at times than she admitted to anyone but Lillian. She was supposed to be privileged, and that caused her to muffle scream now and then. No one whose mother died was remotely privileged.

They walked back to Lana’s house. Lillian’s oldest brother would pick up Lillian after his work at the garden center in a couple of hours.

“We’re here, Aunt Margo, going upstairs now!”

She could smell pork and potatoes roasting and her stomach lurched. She hated pork as much as she hated venison, which Lillian found baffling. Deer meat was needed in her family’s household many times and it tasted fine to her.

“Alright, please hang up your jackets,” her aunt called from somewhere, far enough.

In her pale yellow room, Lana was safe. That’s how she more and more felt. I was as if she’s been running all day long from one base to another with the ball being thrown hard and just missing her and she makes another dash for it and then waits, then another and then she takes her chances and she slides into home base, at last! She closes the door. Then nothing will happen to her that she doesn’t allow.

The girls bounced back on the big bed and sat with heads against the wall.

“When is your dad coming back this time?” Lillian asked. She grabbed a magazine from a pile on bedside table.

“Maybe before Thanksgiving, maybe not. He said he would…he has to fly back from Alaska to Washington to here. I picture him zigzagging over mountains and hope he stays up high.”

“All that snow. The clouds up there must look like fluffy, snowy mounds, too.” She looked at her friend, eyes round. “It sounds amazing.”

“It is, I guess. I hope you’ll fly with me sometime, get over your fear. But I don’t even know where he is right now. Are you just having the grandparents over for Thanksgiving?”

Lillian put down the magazine though her eye lingered on a picture. “I can’t see how they do that. I’m no good with make-up, I always look like I’m playing dress up.” Lillian grabbed her frothy hair and pulled it back in a misshapen ponytail.”Yeah, unless Mom isn’t talking to her mother, then it’ll be an empty table because Granddaddy isn’t about to come without Grandma.” She made a face of distaste.”I’d just as soon skip the whole thing.”

“Me, too. Let’s just go to Redmond’s that day instead.” She clucked at her. “Don’t put yourself down like that. You’ve got your own unique style.”

“So you say. Anyway, they’re closed and besides, I love our apple and pumpkin pies. You just should come to our place.”

“I wish! Please sneak me away!”

“You really don’t. Your dad, number one. My overwhelming family, number two.”

Lana sighed and put her arm through the crook of Lillian’s and they browsed the magazine, reacting with thumbs up or down or a choice criticism, depending on who and what it was.

Lillian knew what would happen at her house and Lana knew, too. Granddaddy would get into politics with her father and they’d first trade reasonable if rambling paragraphs. Then the beers would be brought out–Granddaddy kept them in a cooler in his truck despite her mother and Grandma forbidding it– and all their talk would get puffed up with their high and mighty principles and their tempers would threaten to burst. Her siblings would join in here and there with their smart-alecky ideas. Lillian and her mother would try to keep a lid on it. Grandma would shrink into herself, slink into the kitchen to make more coffee. And then her grandfather would make as if he’s going to throw a punch and her brothers would have to break it up and take him out for fresh air. Lillian and her mother and sister would clean up the table mess. Grandma would slice and plate the pies and when the men all returned, no one dared say a word except for how good dessert was. And that would be it. They’d watch the game and fall asleep.

She’d grab her jacket, slip out the back door and head to the pond. Lie down in the musky damp of brown and green grasses. The sky would wink at her. The sun would sink, paint the sky with watercolors that felt like life at peace, then longing. Tears would come as she thought of all she wished for–to go to college, to write for a newspaper or magazine– and all she believed she might be if only she could get out of there. At least she’d have the sky and birds and frogs to herself a few moments.

Lillian closed the magazine and faced her friend. “You know what? I’m going to ask everyone what they’re grateful for right from the start. Maybe that’ll help keep things right.”

“And what will you say when it’s your turn?”

“Easy. That we’re best friends. I don’t think I’d manage being fourteen if you weren’t here.”

Lana leaned her head on her shoulder. “Me, either, Lil.” She wriggled a bit to get more comfortable, then jumped up. “I just got an inspiration. Let’s find my mom’s Shalimar. It has to be in Aunt Margo’s room or in their bathroom.”

“Is that safe? I mean, will she come up to check on you–and then what?”

“Either she’s making her corny Christmas cards or she’s in the kitchen cooking–that’s all she’s been doing lately when I get home.”

“I’ve never been in your parents’ room. It’s an invasion of privacy, you know?”

“What do you think she did when she took my mother’s perfume from here? That’s a violation for sure!”

“Okay, Lana, pipe down, lead the way.”

The hallway felt like it went on forever, the red and gold Persian runner flowing down its length. On tiptoe they followed it to the end. The last door on the left was closed. Lana hesitated, then turned the glass doorknob and pushed it half-open, then pulled it to behind them.

It was the loftiest, loveliest room Lillian had ever seen. A canopy bed was against the pale blue wall to the right, so high off the hardwood floor she didn’t know how they got into or out of it. Two sets of luxe drapes were a soft blue with white sheer ones between them. The room was full of elegant old furniture that glowed in swaths of sunlight.. A big ivory chair with a needlework footstool sat between the tall double windows. It seemed all wrapped up in silky softness.

“I could sleep all day and night here, imagine the dreams you’d have,” Lillian breathed. The room smelled floral, fresh. Unlike the rooms in her house, which gave off a tired scent, one of old earthy air and faint sweat which, even with the windows open, never quite left.

“Think about the perfume now–where she’d hide it!” she commanded.

Lana was already into the chest of drawers carefully lifting items.

“I never knew she liked lacy stuff, drawers stink like lavender.” She wrinkled her nose, then pulled open three more and moved about more things, held up a pair of navy and green plaid socks. “His favorites!”

They snickered and went on, looking into a trunk at the end of the bed where blankets were stored, then to a desk; it had a neat fold-down writing surface like Lillian had only seen in an antique shop. Each drawer was wrenched open with some effort, then found wanting. Lana looked around and eyed the vanity with the huge round mirror. They walked toward it, their reflections showing their stealthy advance. Lillian was enchanted by its graceful lines, the vast mirror. They had one bathroom plus a full-length mirror attached to the front closet door in their house.

It suddenly felt as if this was one place they must not disturb with more pawing about. Lillian suggested a woman’s private things were in her vanity, meant for her special daily or nightly preparations.

“I feel like we’re trespassing.”

But Lana had no qualms and searched among fancy bottles, half-used unguents and lotions and containers of unknowns. In the last bottom drawer there it sat, a circular bottle with a pointed stopper. With its label of red and white, it shone in her hands.

“Girls! Dinner!”

Aunt Margo’s high voice rang out like a muffled bell, a warning. The reality of what they were doing was enough an alarm. They hurried out, into the hallway and to Lana’s refuge.

“Be there soon!” she called out as they skidded into her room.

“What are we going to do now?”

“Smell it! It’s heavenly, you must know.”

She held up the glass bottle. The golden liquid glimmered in the fading light. Once the bottle was unstopped, scent escaped and filled the room with a richness that suffused their nostrils and heads with happiness.

Lana placed a finger over the opening and turned the bottle upside down, dabbed her neck and then Lillian’s as Lillian, too late, shrank back.

“What are you doing? She’ll know now!”

“I don’t care! It’s mine. It was my mom’s and it’s meant for me, she can’t have it, not now or ever.” Her eyes glistened as she pressed the bottle between clasped hands, a possession of such value that one would have to pry it from her with a fierce grip to get it. Then she secured the stopper and put it under her mattress.

Lillian inhaled the delicious perfume. “Okay, then. Let’s go down.”

They descended the stairs together, acting brave the way they usually did, then seated themselves at the table.

Uncle Carter was there, done for the day. He looked up and lifted an eyebrow, his nose catching a whiff of a something odd but familiar.

“Lana, did you…?”

She looked at her uncle, then glanced at Lillian who just squeezed her hand tight under the table.

“Ah,” he said, his head to one side, then unfolded his napkin.

When Aunt Margo entered the room with the pork roast she froze and narrowed her eyes at her niece, then started again, and stumbled on the heavy rug. The steaming roast slid off its fine white platter and hit the rug, bounced once and came to a rest against the table legs. Aunt Margo shrieked. Lana bit her lip and held her breath to keep from laughing; Lillian squeezed her hand tighter. Uncle Carter’s eyebrows shot up and stayed put.

Aunt Margo turned on them. “You girls have gotten up to no good! Now look!”

Uncle Carter rose and then bent down to pick up the roast. “Now, Margo, we’ll just wash it off. Good as new.”

“Carter, that’s absurd, it will taste awful!”

He disappeared through the kitchen doors, holding it in his hands like a baby.

Aunt Margo put her fists to hips. Her eyes blazed but her voice was a near-whisper that hurtled each word. “You had no right to enter and go through our bedroom, that is private and off-limits and you know it, Miss Lana Danforth. And I was only trying to protect you.”

Lana rose, holding onto Lillian’s hand so that she had to go along with it.

“That is my mother’s bottle of perfume. You have no right to take it from me. It is my choice to wear it, I’m not a little kid and she left it for me.” She swallowed the words that wanted to come out hard and loud. “It’s all I have left of her except for a few bits and pieces. It…just…” She covered her face with her hands.

“Shalimar smells like her mom, Mrs. Danforth, that’s what she means…” Lillian said. “She just has to have it.”

“I…you…oh…!” Aunt Margo clutched her throat, then left the room.

The girls grabbed a roll each, pushed away from the table and went out to the porch. Huddled  in the chilly early evening. They drew in sharp November air with hints of rain on it again, smelled leaves that were fallen and soon crumbling into the dirt, sniffed the heavenly Shalimar as it settled and made itself at home on their skin. They crafted a necessary apology for Lana to say to her aunt and Lillian to add to when she came by. They counted the days until Christmas Eve and listed wishes. Talked of Lana’s mother death, yet somehow let out of that bottle and her father flying in soon. They mused over where they might be in five years. The way science fascinated Lana and how she imagined being a doctor, too. The ancient English teacher who predicted Lana would make a decent journalist one day.

If they would still call on one another, trust each other, stay in sync.

“That’s one thing we know for sure,” Lillian said as her oldest brother pulled up in his rattling truck.

Lana hugged her until it almost hurt, but it was a good thing. “Tomorrow, Shalimar Girl.”

They waved until each disappeared. Being called that, a Shalimar Girl–divinely lovely, smart, grown up, even–reminded Lillian to keep her head up no matter what, even feeling a bit different, adrift from her family. It also told her she had been given access to something vitally important to her closest friend. She went home content.

But Lana lay down in her bed, arms clutching her pillow, face hidden under covers, and mourned her mother as the night opened its velvet infinity. Lost herself there until she succumbed to slumber in a deeper realm of love.

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Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments