Some stories just have to be told: healing and wholeness in everyday life
Author: Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Writing and reading have always been a connector to the world of ideas and a wealth of diverse people. We are all a part of this beautiful, ever-widening web of life. Blogging enables more interaction, which I love!
For thirty years I was an addictions/mental health counselor and also a manager of home care services for elderly folks. I have published fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry and was happily nominated for a Pushcart Prize for an excerpt of my first novel (the book remains unpublished at this time).
I enjoy writing about living richly despite a diagnosis of heart disease at age 51, the healing process of addicted persons and joy and challenge of writing full-time now. Short stories are one of my writing passions but I enjoy sharing my poetry as well as a few of my photographs. In truth, I will write about anything that strikes my fancy!
My hope is that my offerings reflect a profound faith in God and our essential spirituality. I include myself as part of the diverse group of writers who seek, discover and share illuminating and positive experiences amid the troubles that living can bring us.
Let me hear from you when you visit--I would enjoy hearing your responses!
The constancy of nature is the reprieve,
entering this country of luminescent green,
pausing amid stirrings of blooms like bells.
Such brave translucence, how it sings.
Ducks, humans settle into warmth and shine.
These days break open extravagant beauty.
I am unbound from winter’s shadowed ways,
given over to a sweep of miracles washing
eyes to feet with aromas, with colors of life.
I fill up with every perfection, this balance of life, joy.
It was and perhaps is unusual for a sixteen year old to spend Saturday mornings deliberately listening to opera. Even in the context of a life already crowded with classical music and musicians and composers. I had heard opera in my family home, had been to a very few performances in our small city, in Detroit and Chicago on cultural/shopping trips with my parents. I had heard in person–and adored–Eileen Farrell, Beverly Sills and Leontyne Price. But I could not (and still cannot) pretend it was my first choice of musical composition and expression despite exquisite costumes and dramatic story arcs that usually involved grave dysfunction, passionate love with love triangles or worse, and shattering death scenes. The vocal prowess in these productions was overwhelming, in both a positive and a negative sense. And most of the time I could barely follow their vocalized lines–it was Italian or French or German, something other than English.
It was in the sixties and beyond playing my cello and singing art songs, I was becoming deeply engaged with folk music, musical theater and was discovering jazz and blues. I did not spend my slight free time studying opera, even if I did learn to sing art songs and an aria or two.
And yet there I was, sitting in a straight backed chair in a music room, operatic goings-on filling my ears via a fantastic stereo system. The room seemed in shadow; it was hushed despite an enveloping aria, the crescendo of the orchestration. There wasn’t lack of light or quiet in the usual way. It was the setting, the occupants. There were good sized windows with patterned curtains pulled back; sunlight threw luminescent stripes on plush carpet. I sat very still, as did the other two, though their eyes were closed or nearly so.
One of the others was a grown up, the kindly Mrs. B., mother of the second teenager present, whose name was W. He was also a cellist and I imagined I had been invited to the house because of that fact. Why, I didn’t really know. He was older than I by two years and about to graduate and attend a prestigious university music program. He played much better than did I, with fine skill and surprisingly rich and refined emotions for a boy, I mused whenever I heard him (sexist as it may have been, that was my thought). He was far, far quieter. He was very well off and his family was held in high regard. He was at least as academically capable if not more so. He was tall, possessed a gentlemanly air and very good looking and he was not looking at me, never had and likely never would. His honey colored hair was just long enough to fall forward and wave upon his forehead. W. looked wonderful with cello in hand. And when he walked and just sat there.
He was not far from me in the music room with a grand piano in the corner and morning light flowing into the tasteful room, with perfectly coiffed and dressed mother calm and composed as she sat back on the sofa. They were focused on the singers’ vocal gymnastics, the score unfolding with pomp and complexity. I tried with all my might to be still, too, and fully enjoy it. Each of us had a libretto, the words of the opera. They were Italian with English translation. It may have been Verdi’s or Puccini’s work, but I do not recall. I registered the beauty. And I kept wondering why I was there. had not invited me. He was always courteous in school hallways and during orchestra class, but he wasn’t looking at me as any potential love interest when he greeted or briefly chatted with me. There was something rarefied about his presence. Some perhaps found him remote or “snooty.” I saw him as intensely focused inward–on music, on studies. I recognized an introvert when I saw one, someone who pondered all kinds of matters naturally. He had an air of detached melancholia about him; I sometimes wanted to shake him up, wake him from his somnambulance. But he was far beyond my reach, older and so well behaved, at a distinct socioeconomic advantage, having an old world aristocratic air. He would soon leave our little berg, move onto greater realms.
It was Mrs. B. who had sent me handwritten correspondence on a creamy monogrammed note card, inviting me to join her son and herself (possibly her husband as well) on Saturday mornings to listen to operas. I looked at it again, turned the envelope over to study the address. Yes, it really was from that Mrs. B. of the city’s upper echelons (though my parents knew them due to their cultural support and talented children, they had economic status we did not) with her scientist husband. I had met her many times at concerts, at church and I liked being a tad intimidated. But more importantly, the note card came from none other than W.’s mother.
I showed it to my mother; casually, she looked it over.”Yes, I saw her the other day at a luncheon and she wondered if you might enjoy some opera. She mentioned then that she’d invite you to join W. and herself.” She caught my look of disbelief and smiled uncertainly. “Wouldn’t you like to go?”
“Well, she is a nice lady. And it’s a hand written invitation…how can I refuse that? I’ll call. There’s actually an RSVP on the bottom with her number. But I still wonder why she would think to ask.”
“I think she’s just being friendly, extending hospitality and music to you. And both of you kids play cello; you aren’t that far apart in age. I guess you’ll have to go see for yourself.”
I wasn’t sure about the whole thing. It seemed overly formal of her but what did I know about such things? There was W. There was their house–I so wanted to see the inside of their beautiful house, for even then I was strongly drawn to good architecture. My hometown offered many outstanding examples of wood/glass/stone contemporary homes as well as fine historical houses. The house was contemporary and eye catching viewed through a tree filled large lot. The shell of that situation was starting to fill up with possibilities. It was hard not to fantasize a meeting of eyes, then minds, perhaps hearts across the room from romantic-appearing but out of reach W. Hard to restrain my excitement at the prospect of being inside an arresting home.
I called to confirm. I tried to imagine myself there. At sixteen I was not exactly who my parents wanted me to be. It was a small town, and I was pretty sure most people knew I was swerving off the upstanding, preferred course, the path disciplined, well bred offspring held to without blinking. I had been dabbling with street drugs, already struggled with prescription drugs (Valium was a popular cure for any ailment and very addictive). I had been in a psychiatric ward. I knew anti-war protesters, had a fledgling interest in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In a family that was well trained and high achieving, I was the one running hot and wild, running a muck. From my viewpoint, I was sincerely trying to manage a life that was imbued with fear and grief but also a profound desire to live a creative life, to become spiritually true and brave. So it was surprising this family would welcome me in their midst, at that time.
Maybe, I thought, Mrs. B. and W. somehow understood. Maybe they were extending a kindness that might help me feel better. But probably they were only offering an opportunity to learn something about opera–which was neither here nor there for me as much as getting to see the house. I attended the next Saturday morning opera hour.
So there I was. The house was comprised of wood in and out with great rectangles of glass. Clean lines curved and cut through the interior with elegant simplicity. There was a surfeit of space, open stairways and a two-way fireplace. Sculptures, paintings perked up odd areas. Cathedral ceilings soared in a caramel brightness. Up an amazing set of cantilevered stairs Mrs. B. and I went, then along a hallway until we came to the music room. But it was a library, as well, three walls lined with books. Art enlivened the pale wall behind the grand piano. Mrs. B. served iced tea with delicate shortbread cookies. They sat on a china plate set upon an inlaid wood serving tray. I reached for one immediately and paired it with the tea.
W. came in a few minutes later.
“Hi, welcome to our famous opera hour. Nice that you came.” He smiled and took a chair.
I couldn’t tell whether he was being serious or slightly mocking of this apparent Saturday tradition. I decided it was in between the two, being good-natured and tolerant of his mother’s passion even if he wasn’t always so thrilled. Or was he also? W. was, after all, a very good musician, so he was likely amenable enough.
The music was layered in colorful notes, a theatrical performance sung, not only acted. The voices were beyond perfect–incandescent, magnificent, full of despondency and rejoicing, alarm and longings and betrayals and desire. But there was a grand formality to it, a ponderous nature–aspects I liked less the more I listened, which I found amusing since I had my own penchant for drama. I already knew some of the form from experiencing opera before. It helped more to see it in its regal and bellicose antics on stage. But what did I specifically know about it? I gave in and closed my eyes as had they. When I again opened my eyes at a musical pause, I became riveted by W.’s distinctive profile, the curve of his shoulders as he leaned forward.
I knew there was no reason to believe he was interested, but I couldn’t entirely give up the idea. I needed someone who understood my yearnings, imaginings, ideas that seemed to thrive mainly among dreamy romantics, spiritual sojourners and debating philosophers in the making. Maybe we were simpatico! Surely he saw that I was not just sixteen and he was older–that I was someone who could keep up with him in rigorous discussion. Or did I look like a kid who was utterly lost in this world? This environment.
I took it all in, those fabulous books, that gleaming mammoth Steinway piano (unlike our old scarred baby grand, used for fun and good music alike). Their house was like an art museum with daring lines and beautiful objects. When the music was done, we talked awhile but mostly Mrs. B. explained a few things. I cannot for the life of me recall what they were, but it was arcane information about opera, the composer.
Then she asked if I was going to pursue music as a career, like W. was.
“I would like to be a singer, not a cellist. But I also love theater, art, dance and writing…
W. suddenly looked at me more closely.
I continued. I’m fascinated by architecture but also psychology, archaeology and linguistics, nature-I have way too many interests, I guess. Music will always matter, but sometimes I feel more like a writer.”
“One can never love the arts or learning too much,” she said.
I worried my words were like loose coins rolling about in a tin can but Mrs. B. was relaxed and smiling. W. appeared to be staring in my direction but I suspected he was looking right through me. I felt embarrassed. They didn’t know me, I didn’t know them, and I had to babble away. But maybe they got it, maybe they were the sort of people who understood what my peers did not–what excited me, what held meaning to me. Adults often understood such things better–and yes, W. did seem more like an adult, I realized.
“And did you enjoy the opera today?” she asked as we stood to go.
“I did, yes,” I said, half truthfully. But it was the stronger half of my feeling.
“Then we’ll see you next Saturday morning?”
I didn’t see W. often at school. He had classes in different corridors, different friends. I didn’t see the purpose in still nurturing a desire to know him better. I knew it was not meant to be.
But I showed up again. W. was there for part of it, then wordlessly left with a small nod in my direction. Mrs. B. and I talked afterwards. She was knowledgeable not only about opera but many things. They had traveled widely, had lived interesting places. She treated me with respect and acted so interested in my thoughts, told me she loved my singing and would like to read my poems sometime. Her demeanor seemed more reasonable, good-hearted. It was like being in a cocoon of gentility lined with decency and warmth. Dr. B. stuck his head in and waved, said hello, then was gone.
On the way out, I glimpsed W. sitting at a long table, ankles crossed, a book open in his hands. He was staring again at something, through a window or at a wall, or was daydreaming–who could tell? But his face, already gaunt, seemed drawn, muscles lax, expression unreadable. I felt a stab of worry for him and it struck me that he might be depressed, perhaps lonely, too. And wondering what was coming after graduation, what was possible out there for him and in life. He may have sensed me, as he turned. Our eyes met. Nothing was said. It was enough, that sharp recognition that he knew I more than saw him and I knew he was also seeing me. The real me. I felt a shiver. I lifted my hand to him. He nodded as usual but I felt him watching as I left.
I did not return. I found an excuse the next time, then called Mrs. B. and told her I appreciated her generosity but I had much to do every week-end, And perhaps I wasn’t such an opera aficionado.
“I thought not,” she said, “but worth a try. I think so much of your family and enjoyed getting to know you a little. I felt W. might appreciate opera company, too.” She let go a very small sigh then was her upbeat self again. “I wish you the very best, my dear, and send me a poem if you like. I’m sure we’ll cross paths again.”
I don’t recall if I sent her a poem. I’m sure we saw each other at concerts. W. and I passed each other at school, were in performances together. We chatted a small amount, shyly, as if we’d revealed much in two visits and an unmasked glance. Then he graduated, was gone. I read decades later that he became a professional cellist; his photo showed a man contented, which gave me a smile. But I recall equally and with pleasure Mrs. B.’s gesture, her warmth and gracious home, the brief mornings rich music and challenges of opera. It was a world apart but worth visiting.
And I haven’t forgotten how a sudden look into a person’s eyes rendered instantly a humanity that felt profound, powerful. Vulnerable. As if the innermost door opened and truth stepped into light to allow me to witness it. It was not the last time for that to happen, but it was the last strangely lovely time with opera, W. and Mrs. B.
The experiment would not have been imagined at all without Glenna, who found a peculiar lump in her right breast. It was not the first one but the second. Since the first one had turned out to be nothing, she put off a mammogram and possible biopsy and went on with her hectic life. She maintained a great job at a burgeoning advertising agency and her three kids were used to her coming home late and helping out. She joked that the most tiring thing was expending considerable energy managing her husband, whom she adored. So life surged forward, as if pushed from behind. A few months later she found that lump again and it was larger. She had the mammogram. It was cancer. Had surgery and chemo and lived for over a year. Then was gone.
After four and a half months, Adelaine wasn’t anywhere close to being beyond the death of her best friend. She didn’t expect she ever would be. How far from it would she have to be, to not think of her daily and find tears crashing into her life like a mammoth wave? It was like looking into a canyon that had no bottom. Glenna had been her recovery sponsor, had felt also like the older sister she’d never had. They had both once been ill and became healthy, sober alcoholics; they had similar pale, unrestrained hair; a skewed sense of humor; and shared jewelry and purses any time desired. The first thing they did when they got up in the morning was call each other to see how they’d made it through the night, what their corresponding emotional temperature and mental clarity were after the first cup of coffee. And they often checked in before bedtime. Their spouses found this alternately amusing or aggravating–why didn’t they just move in together ? Maybe it was their being alcoholics; they could be weird sometimes but their husbands loved them. This was one quirky and deep friendship; they got okay with it.
The truth was, they didn’t get together that much, what with work and family needs. They waved “hello” from porches and cars as they hurried off each day (they lived across the street from one another). They took turns having monthly barbeques on week-ends. Occasionally when they got back from errands at the same time, they walked to the center of their quiet street. Stood there, getting in a quick catch up until a car came by and honked at them, at which point they huddled on a curb like gossiping old ladies and shouted to their kids to please take in the groceries.
Some days Adelaine, in need of advice, would stand on her porch and just whistle. She was good with a shrill and piercing whistle; a few dogs might come running. Then Glenna would step out and shout, “Okay, what’s up?” They’d take a quick walk if there was time. Adelaine would pour out her frustrations and her friend would tell her to “suck it up, take your own personal inventory not anyone else’s—all you have to do is stay sober today and be open to decent change, so keep it simple.” The hug was always a good one and off they went to their own houses, even if Adelaine thought Glenna often offered suggestions rather too simplified.
They went to AA meetings once a week if they could, but the rides to and from provided the only private time. Adelaine persuaded her friend into taking a few week-end trips over the years to scenic inns or city spots. In warm, drier weather they headed out for a day’s country outing, picnic basket in hand or backpacks loaded. But it was a challenge to slow down, enjoy being the close friends they agreed they were. So much other life was happening.
One of two last times Glenna spoke to Adelaine was a week before she died. She put her hand upon her shoulder, pulled her close and whispered so softly, pallid lips barely grazing her cheek: “Know yourself better now, not later, make sure your family knows who you are, too…” That, coupled with final words for Adelaine–“It’s been a good journey; you’ll always be dear to me”–were emblazoned within Adelaine. Played over and over in her mind as she worked at the medical lab and went through routines with family or attended recovery meetings. Whenever she took walks along the bluff where they liked to picnic, looking out over the passionate ocean that was coolly removed from her grief and confusion, she felt emptiness swell and take hold.
What was it Glenna wanted her to know about herself , to share more with her family? What was it Adelaine needed to do to live better? Or was it just the gearing down, taking time to be present in this moment. Something Glenna had long ago admitted was hardest for her to embrace–she had been born with the burden of nagging ambitiousness, unlike her friend. She’d once suggested to Adelaine that she was a dreamer cleverly disguised as a smartly efficient lab technician but hadn’t realized it yet.
The medical lab that employed Adelaine had undergone big changes. Two months after Glenna passed it had been absorbed by a bigger, more profitable lab and with that came a new manager and staff who then replaced various employees. When Adelaine got her pink slip, she was shocked. She had been there eleven years, she rarely missed work, she was very good at her job. It was one more boulder to load into her leaking boat of grief. She slept too much, sat gazing out the window, forgot to turn off the stove when the kettle went dry. Her teen children were starting to give her sidelong looks. Dennis was tiring of his earnest but ineffective pep talks. He was afraid she might even drink.
Adelaine was not thinking of drinking. She was thinking of sleeping for a year and if that didn’t help, going on a very long trip on her bicycle with backpack and a tent. Would that take away the misery? Still, as far as the job was concerned, there was no denying that she had felt overworked and underpaid so she tried to see it as an opportunity for…something. What, she didn’t know.
She began cleaning and organizing; that was the only thing she could think of since-she had voluminous spare time to fill. It was a good way to empty her head as well. The spare room had a large closet that had to be opened with caution as it was piled and crammed. She was about an hour into it and feeling tiny relief from the chafing second skin of sadness, when she came across a shoe box of photographs, a big rubber band about it. Adelaine opened it, took out each picture with a jolt of memory. She had proudly developed her own photographs once, when she had taken a few classes in photography and film making during that first stab at sobriety. Eight long years ago. It had helped. She’d used the camera her father had given her, an ancient Voigtlander Bessa 35 mm Rangefinder. She’d felt a thrill using it, and took her fill of information in adult education over one autumn and winter. There had been a dark room where she brought to life her pictures. Mesmerized, absorbed by the process of bringing life to images on curling rolls of real film. She couldn’t recall why she had not taken more classes. Time issues, likely. Or a lack of follow through.
She came upon more boxes. One after the other, she sorted them: her son and daughter ((Tim and Cass, now thirteen and fifteen) building immense towers with blocks and odds and ends or playing with Tazz their German shepherd (alive) and two gerbils (dead), laughing with friends in the back yard, swimming at the indoor pool, walking along edges of the dramatic Pacific. Dennis, her husband, caught riding his ratty vintage bike, wrestling with Tim and playing darts with Cass, mowing the lawn, boating at a lake, snoring in his easy chair with books scattered about.
But where was she? She looked again. Dennis took a couple of pictures–he especially liked the old camera but not nearly as did she–and finally she found one. Adelaine was pushing back her long hair as she weeded the vegetable garden. She was squinting into the sun; it was hard to tell if she was smiling or making a face at him.
But that was it. No other pictures of mother and wife, the person called Adelaine. She wondered if it was the same with her digital files and realized that was the likely case. After all, she was the photographer of the family, a chronicler of their stories, the familial historian. She was the absent one in photographs, a ghostly eye behind the camera’s more accurate eye. And in an essential if obtuse way, she had been missing from her own life for a long while, too, ever since she had started to have an alcohol problem. Staying sober had brought her better in sync with most realms of living, yes. But had it brought her closer to herself? Or was she afraid?–or just lazy, as Glenna once insinuated with a gentle jab of an elbow. After all, she’d had nineteen years sober when she exited earth so clearly she had insights that made a difference.
Adelaine leaned back, smacked her knee. That was what Glenna said. That she needed to get to know herself more intimately. Perhaps there was time and a way to do that now. She would take self portraits! See what came forward. She’d use the easy digital so she could check each one, delete as needed; there’d be too many of those. It was settled. She wanted to explore photography, anyway.
The first one wasn’t so hard. She took a self portrait of bleary eyes and mussed up hair right after she awakened. And promptly deleted it. Then took it again, catching light streaming through the sheer embroidered curtains. She may as well show unadorned truth, who really arose from the depths of sleep. She looked baffled and shy. Then she snapped a group as various household tasks were undertaken, but when she checked them it seemed she’d made a mid-twentieth century ad for housewifery. They took her aback with their soothing emptiness, even though she knew it was honorable enough work. What could she do that was different, visually interesting?
So commenced her lone day trips. On the way, she found herself holding conversations with Glenna, telling her where she was headed and why and then it felt like she heard suggestions. She was drawn to parks, great emerald swaths with flowery trees, small creatures and colorful passersby. She got a shot of herself peering around a tree trunk, kneeling at a creek with stones in hand. She liked art galleries so snagged a few shots of herself standing between monstrous metal bugs and a huge garish abstract painting–both made her think of otherworldly landscapes. The gallery owners were not enthralled so she looked for outdoor public art. Sidled up to a General, admired a dazzling salmon the size of a whale. She found nooks amid shops, and crannies within countryside. She played with light, her face fully seen and half seen and unseen and her hair floated about her shoulders with its own life. But who was emerging was not who she had thought. She had a small edginess, a sassiness that had long escaped her notice. And that forceful sadness that nearly gave off sound waves, that shaped her mouth and stunned her eyes.
One time an idle young woman offered to take her picture at a burbling fountain in the square. She urged Adelaine to jump in. She hesitated then did so despite a sign forbidding it. She let water splash over her, sticking her arms through the cascade, looking up so water streamed over her face, sunshine gilding all. The picture was a favorite; she did something not expected to be done sober, and a stranger had made her laugh. A few adults gave her looks that may as well have been finger waggings but it felt liberating to dash, smiling and dripping, to her bike. The ride home was lovely despite a chill as breezes dried her.
Over the weeks, Adelaine found it harder to arrange such outings. She found fewer reasons as to why she had to meet someone another time of day or pick up the kids at a different spot or hide in the bedroom to spend another ten minutes to capture her mood and look before going out with Dennis. It was all to accommodate her self-portraiture. She found herself snapping pictures more often. At times she freed herself of the camera, setting it up with timer at ten seconds: dancing to loud Bjork in the middle of morning; as she tossed a heaping veggie-studded salad or poured a mug of coffee, stirring cream into steaming dark richness; in the back yard dirty and pleased among tomatoes and grapevines, marigolds and geraniums; in the car while waiting for Tim after soccer, impatient and scowling. She began to mug a bit, develop a congenial smile, wink as if she had said something smart and sly and funny. She recorded her moods which were becoming more variable.
She would often think of Glenna, say to her–“I know, an uppity sort of shot, who do I think I am?”–or sense her presence poking fun, egging her on, telling her what a creative, finicky and impatient but brave and good person she really was.
It almost eased the tension and heaviness she’d felt since losing her friend and then the job, and with both a chunk of self-esteem. Photography insisted she focus on something other than sorrow. It was self indulgent, too, but she didn’t care. It meant something…she would look at the pictures and feel confounded–who was this woman? How could she have faked it for so long? And was she still play acting, wearing a small, useless life like some raggedy costume? But she wanted the kids to have something of her other than fast hellos and goodbyes, besides the fussing or praise that parents always give. Something more than the mother they knew so well. Because there was more, much more, and she was just beginning to consider herself someone who hungered to explore life, who might be able to grow as she searched different avenues. To become a more complete someone, a better version. Not only sober–as if that was the final best she could offer now– but entirely Adelaine.
One night she was trying on different clothing for a series of shots long after Dennis was out for his monthly poker game and the kids were holed up in their rooms. She had many good clothes not worn now so why not play a bit before their donation? It seemed harmless, might be revealing. She set the camera on the master bedroom fireplace mantel, aimed it toward the space she would pose, then start the timer when ready.
She had just pulled on a shimmering cranberry red sheath not worn in a couple of years. It had been bought for a cocktail party during Christmas season. She turned and twisted in the full length mirror. The scoop neck and snug cut showed her good figure. She remembered Glenna and Terry had been there; all four of them had nabbed a table together. It was softly snowing, an oddity in Oregon, and green candles were throwing off a dance of light. They laughed readily, glad to be together and looking forward during Christmas. It was right before Glenna found the lump.
Adelaine’s feet were bare so she grabbed her black tennis shoes and slipped them on. Turned her head upside down and tousled and bunched her usually tamer hair. Put on a pair of silver dangly earrings. Left her lips palest pink and dusted on soft rouge, drew silver liner along each eyelid. She glanced in the mirror. A slightly messy, glittery-eyed, curvy woman showing one comically arched eyebrow. A person veering toward nuttiness while feeling abandoned and adrift.
“Glenna ole girl, you might think this a waste but we didn’t get to goof off enough, did we? I think I get it now, what you were meaning…”
She set the camera timer, stepped back to her spot, put hands on hips and looked right into the camera, eyes unblinking as tears prickled, chapped lips holding loss like salt from the sea, then she began a smile as the camera took a shot.
There was a knock on the bedroom door.
“Who is it? Just a minute, hang on!”
“It’s just me,” Cass said and opened the door.
Adelaine froze. Cass gaped at her mother.
“What are you doing…? Or should I even ask?”
“I’m um, I’m just trying on some old clothes–”
“Playing…a kind of dress up?” Cass came closer and examined the dress. She touched her mother’s wild hair. She snickered over the shoes paired with such a dress. “I like it, sort of. Radical for you. A creative change… What were you going to do dressed like this? Not going out, right?”
Her expression showed horror at such a thought. She fingered her own short purple hair as she stared, as if comparing their two heads. Then she sat on the bed and shook her head at her mother and herself in the long mirror. They shared some features. Cass had always felt she was lucky to look like her mom not her dad, who was altogether paunchy middle-aged masculine from hairline to feet, not what he used to be, he said as he patted his stomach.
Adelaine felt relief fill her body, steady her mind. “No, I wasn’t going out. I was…” Too late, her eyes involuntarily went to her camera.
Cass followed her mother’s gaze. “You’re taking selfies?” She snorted. “Really? For what? Or for who?”
“Wait a minute, Cass, using a camera for self portraits was not always thought of as superficial, egotistical ‘selfies’. They were considered creative photography, they were important self expressions. It wasn’t so different from painting a self portrait or sculpting one. You must see it was a way of searching for and exposing a person’s real self, one’s deepest self with an honest eye, or making a creative composition of someone. Have you never heard of the famous Cindy Sherman, as a more contemporary example? She has made a career out of photographing herself in different guises.” She heard her voice increase volume but could not soften it. “And I can also snap pictures of myself to help define who I am, don’t you think? I have been a mother and a wife, an alcoholic in recovery and a laboratory worker bee, but I am more than that, I am someone who has ideas of my own, more feelings unknown, a strong urge to create something good–”
Cass held up her hands, stood before her. “Mom! Mom, hold on a minute I didn’t mean to laugh at you. Exactly. I just wondered what you were doing. I get it. I get it, okay…? ”
“You cannot possibly get it.” Adelaine stood with arms limp at her sides, features fighting against crumpling. She kicked off the tennis shoes and reached for a brush on the dresser, her back to her daughter. “I lost my best friend, I lost my job, Cass. I’m trying so hard to stay positive so just let me do what I need to do.” She yanked it through her hair.
“I know, Mama… I know, maybe not like you do, but I know it hurts and I’m sorry. I really do know life can be so awful and hard. But you’re strong, Mom. I know that, too…”
She went to her mother, took the brush, led her to the bed and sat her down. She pulled it through the fading blond, knotted length, over and over. Adelaine closed her eyes, eyelids fluttering then clamping tight. The long even strokes were just how she brushed Cass’ hair for so many years. Now it was snipped so short; it was Cass’ style for now. Her own self expression.
“You want to see what else in your closet? You have any other good dresses I haven’t seen in awhile? I can finally wear your shoe size, right? I’ve been meaning to try on your spiky navy heels, though I really do not like heels, I actually want your tall black leather boots. Let’s try them all on.”
Adelaine stopped the brushing, pulled the brush from Cass’ fingers and took the almost unbearably young hand in hers. Held it briefly against her lips, then released her.
“Thank you, Cass, you’re a most loved daughter. Do not forget. Yes, let’s take out the old stuff I don’t know what to do with. You can have a pair of the high heels if you want, but you can’t keep my best boots, no way.”
When Dennis came home, he and Tim stopped in the master bedroom’s doorway and took in a strange scene: chaos. A phantasmagoria of fashion and footwear with Adelaine and Cass dressed in get-up they’d never seen them in and, luck holding out, might never again. But the females of the household were engaged in a hilarious romp, not even bothering to greet them.
“What is this, a weird play time for girls or are you just losing it?” Tim asked, hooting at their mismatched outfits.
So the men in the family left for their respective sanctuaries. But after a moment Dennis circled back, having seen the camera, and took a picture for a keepsake.
That night Adelaine stepped onto the bedroom’s balcony as Dennis slept, searching the stars, feeling Glenna nearby. She knew what she’d be doing tomorrow and the next day and the next: taking pictures, learning how to best capture others’ essences, finding her way toward film making, discovering how to tell truthful stories of real people. All those random pictures of herself? They’d taught her a few things, as Glenna had wished. They’d be there for the children to laugh and wonder over when she was long gone. She’d add many family pictures but more would hold her presence, Adelaine the human being–who was a mother, a wife, a friend and who knew what else. All healing up bit by bit.
There were such open April skies then,
air gone silky in green crystalline light,
flowers that shimmied at a touch,
rivers rolling on, past good talk, past life.
What did not shine and wink, expecting more?
Measures of joy in us stood up, sang out,
grasped hands, linked arms, trusted time.
We can act easy, can care much but lightly.
We cannot believe what is yet to come:
bodies will loosen from our souls.
Ties between us may appear torn, broken
yet we’re woven tight with invisible thread.
Stitches seem frailer some days, need more
strength as I seek wisdom amid worldly loneliness.
Evening surrounds me like God’s whispering
beyond star dark and dazzling space,
offering bountiful nets to be filled
in spite of my paucity, asking for hallelujahs
freed up while so many anguished bow low,
hearts to earth to hope to saving Love.
They had the nerve to turn up. All lined up at long tables or in rows of chairs or crowded into a stuffy box of a space, elbow to elbow. You would appreciate such comfort of neighboring bodily warmth because you’re shivering despite commanding all parts to be as still as possible. The room appears spectacularly huge from your spot at the podium. It seems off-kilter, to sway the barest amount but you have your wits about you enough to realize this is not a boat; the sense of vertigo is your own. Sweat has begun to swamp the nape of your neck and under arms and then just hang out there. The heartbeat that began to race a little in quiet earnest an hour ago is now having a field day, banging like a three alarm disaster has been called in to you, the owner of the small pumping organ.
You have made a quick assessment of the situation and determine you must leave now. Except that you really cannot; you agreed to do this in a moment of blithe idiocy. Why ever did you sign up for this job/event/reading? You have absolutely nothing to say to anyone, after all. You note the usual glass of water; your throat is already dry as desert air. But whether you can pick it up without it shaking and slopping all over your attractive attire is uncertain; you would rather not try. So you take a quavering breath, dampen your lips and then the words–what are they, do they cohere at all?–fall into the room and head to all those listening ears.
I should note right now that this isn’t a step-by-step how-to sort of article that immediately makes speaking to ten or a hundred or a thousand a breezy experience. It’s just my story of how I have done it. Speaking publicly in any setting can be survived and even enjoyed if you are apprised of its demands and open to surprises. You might have an advantage if you also like challenges, as it can be taxing, too. I know this after having plenty of experience talking about various topics (and performing) in front of many groups. Not a professional public speaker, I’ve often considered how fulfilling it would be despite not being such a blazingly confident or the most entertaining of speakers. I have found it worth even those preparatory moments hijacked at times by annoying nerves.
First of all, that anxiety–the flip-flopping stomach with queasiness, lightheadedness, a touch of shakiness, that thought forming idea that I could possibly faint or go mute or have a heart attack–is the result of a surge of mighty adrenaline. I know–we all know– what that is and how it works, and yet at the time it feels like a serious annoyance or, worse, an intrusive chemical that might kill me. Then I recall that this is the nervousness that precedes any presentation and it is akin to excitement. Body and mind are getting charged up for delivery of enthusiastic energy: anticipation of sharing useful information or my writing to those who can use the material and/or apparently have an interest.
I don’t have debilitating stage fright, I admit. Most of my blog readers know that I grew up performing within a musical family, then in musical groups and as soloist. I played cello and sang, as well as performed in dance events/plays//musicals. But that doesn’t mean nervousness wasn’t an issue, even after becoming more experienced. I rarely ate before I performed since my digestion always took the opportunity to threaten my last bit of composure. I especially worried I might forget lines, music, lyrics, cues and position on stage, the choreography. I knew memory could vanish with an upsurge of an anxiety that fed itself to grow into outright fear. Then came being frozen in time and space: blankness. (Luckily, with work lectures and poetry/prose readings, I’ve usually had notes but one can still lose one’s place or go blank.) I learned my tipping point–where anticipation and nerves turn fully against me and render a reading or performance poor to nil. So I kept working on techniques that soothed the nervous system. Obviously, knowing one’s material exceedingly well is of first importance in performance. And knowing how to improvise when publicly speaking is a skill that often aids the delivery.
Not focusing on an audience as either Enemy or Ultimate Judge (though at times there have been actual judges in my past) makes a big difference. They are only human beings, like me. They are a gathering of them, to be sure, and they want to get their money’s or time’s worth, yes. But they are not going to throw rotten tomatoes at me or even boo at me or walk out, likely. They want to see success happen, not have a terrible time. But even sneaking a peek at the audience can be disruptive to the process preceding a walk onto a stage or speaking space. Chatting with some quietly may help; taking a few sip of water whets the whistle; and a last review of what is about to happen keeps the focus. And always simply breathe. Breathing slowly and evenly matters tremendously; it moderates that pesky heart rate, gives more oxygen to the trusty body that must soon deliver the words. Since I have heart disease with tachycardia and various arrhythmias, this is critical or it may get carried away and I’ll be derailed too long, bringing it down again. Usually I go into the job or event knowing my heart is running faster than is comfortable but I will make it. (Or they can call 911 if needed.)
Since I was a mental health/addictions clinician for twenty-plus years it seems I ought to have gotten over these symptoms. I at times have felt disappointed in the returning symptoms. But it was not the same as performing to an audience, even in a packed auditorium, that chose to attend. Additionally, I remind myself it is excitement, not fear, and that is mostly correct.
Instead had to enter rooms filled with perhaps twenty-five clients–there due to being court-referred for various reasons or because their lives had unraveled emotionally or physically and they hit rock bottom. That meant they were not a happy bunch eager to sit quietly as I talked. (This time I will skip sharing experiences when teaching high risk youth in a room that could barely contain so much defiant energy–another post.) They were angry, resentful about all I stood for in their minds, ashamed, depressed, high on the drug of choice or craving it. They were bored and distracted. They disliked parting with their money and using their time for a consequence they tended to feel was undeserved. Or that they felt very badly about happening, such as: Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants (DUII) or a drug delivery or possession charge, other related criminal charges stemming from substance abuse and addiction, or loss of their families, even their children, due to their criminal behaviors and addictions. And when there was additional mental illness in the mix, it got more complicated, their responses less predictable and at times less manageable for all.
On top of all this, I was not a “hip” thirty year old who dressed and talked as they did; I was a middle-aged woman who had her own manner and style that was not often shared by them. So it was not a picnic for any of us, as you may imagine. And yet, I had things to offer; they were to hear me out. In time, we got to know one another, trust one another enough, sometimes a lot. Until then, I always entered the room with a genuine ‘Welcome to my group” and made clear nothing could keep me from good will and straight talk.
But I knew they saw me, at times, as one more hurdle, one more enemy to appease. That is not how I saw them. I knew they were ill, lost souls searching for more, angry men and women who could change their lives if they decided it was worth it. Their stories were harrowing and confounding even to them. I entered my group rooms with materials in hand that could illuminate the illness of addiction, the interplay of mental illness. But I also just took myself in. I was a clinician with clear boundaries–I was not one to share personal history of my own recovery–but I spoke from what I understood and what I knew might help. I shared form a desire to help one more person stay alive and find peace and contentment. I was not someone who needed some skewed power or looked for gratitude. I just wanted their attention for an hour. There were many ways to get an audience involved, even a tough one.
One was to engage them in my topics and talk. I asked them questions. Their opinions, ideas and experiences meant something to me and, more importantly, could help other clients. Even if someone vehemently opposed what I said, I encouraged them to tell us why and how they arrived at those conclusions. In time, even the quietest or most sullen spoke up more spontaneously. People like to be given the opportunity to share their thoughts; they need to be heard. I have also been angrily stared at by genuinely tough men and women who sat with arms clamped over chests. But in a month or two, they were loosened up, even sat forward and shared a few things, took a chance.
If someone refused to show respect to others or myself, they had to leave and meet with me before coming back to the next group. But this was infrequent. People are curious and they want to understand themselves and concerning issues. They want to be stirred up a bit to better brainstorm and find solutions. So even though there were those who pulled faces, challenged me and even argued, I also knew that if I was an authentic human being who demonstrated that I was an ally, materials and interactions could construct a bridge to a better destination.
Another way to manage a lecture is to utilize multimedia tools. As you might guess, this could make a lecture even more effective. Discussions arose naturally from watching a well executed film, studying neurology/biology of addiction plotted in colorful diagrams, hearing stories of others who had been there and done that and survived to tell the tale. I used an erasable board, writing down questions and their issues and ideas, naming items crucial to topics, listing pros and cons that they helped define.
The very act of drawing on mental and physical pent up energy helped me with nervousness that accompanied opening paragraphs of didactic lectures. I was spurred on to define concretely and usefully both data and ideas; this in turn enabled people to better identify facts of their life situations. Any time I could simplify, I did so. Any time I could use an analogy that made information more relevant, it was done. Any time humor was appropriate I inserted it even if few outright laughed. My goal was to care, educate, encourage and respect my audience–and that might mean being tough in responses and forthright but never demeaning or insincere. I was fully human and didn’t act otherwise.
The nervousness never entirely left me after all that time when I was to talk to a room full of clients who looked at me a little funny–thousands of people came and went over those decades. Because I might not–in fact, did not– have all the answers. I might say something ill-advised. I made mistakes in my speaking, got a little embarrassed more times than I can recall, had to laugh it off and ask for their forbearance. Being human helped my case; others can empathize with making mistakes and make no comment. And I used discomfort and more nervous energy to propel myself forward. Into that dense emotional space and into the lecture. Into lives of others, with care. That moment when I was face-to-face with someone who was struggling to “get it” and there were tears or anger to witness and accept.
I absolutely believed in what I was doing, and that is key to delivering an even halfway effective talk. No one–even if they disliked me or went for another drink or drug or had another emotional crisis-left the groups thinking I didn’t care about recovery and mental health. That I didn’t care about their lives. But neither did I take responsibility for their decisions once they walked out. My group room experience, just like my individual counseling sessions, was a two-way street. Only they could decide what they would get out of it and what they would take home. How and when they would take their mindsets and actions in hand to create better health. Even happiness.
Finally, the thing that most guides, even saves, me is knowing that lecturing/teaching/advising/entertaining a group is it is not about me. It is about them. And as an important aside, an audience does not really want you to fail. (That was true even in my counseling career. People might appear to sabotage things but in the end they were calling attention to themselves, the need for attention and help. And no one likes to feel they are wasting time or money so they like getting something decent.)
So, what about another sort of public speaking, say, poetry and prose readings, some reader’s theater? That’s clearly more akin to the traditional performance that was a mainstay of my childhood and young adulthood. Theoretically it should be familiar and thus less intimidating that talking to a room full of suspicious, irritable strangers. But it is more specifically, immediately personal. This public sharing is predicated upon revealing my innermost personhood. With the written page being read by unknown readers there is some remove and a sense of protection, illusion or not. But standing before an anticipating crowd with only my own pieces of writing, the work and the writer directly in the spotlight–that’s another kind of challenge. Interestingly, this sort of public experience is still not ultimately about me even thought it feels more like it is. It is about transmitting an idea, a sense of time and place, characters or feelings to other people. It is a performance for, a giving to the listener. But it takes a few minutes to quiet down the antsy ego and remember that.
There is still the nervous flutter of gut, a heightened sense of experience, a thought flashing like a warning: what if they don’t like this at all…But then I remember that this time no one is forced to be there. My writing is being offered to others who love to write or want to write. or they value poetry or short stories or essays, and they want to see what someone else is doing, imagining, laboring over. No one who reads their work to the public feels shielded enough. But that vulnerability is what gives rise to the uncoiling story and rhythm of poetry in the first place and it carries the work into the world, too. Being vulnerable becomes the strength one taps to excavate the truest sense of life and its language; it becomes a raw power that is harnessed, then let loose to labor and rise. But it can still feel like a sudden unwanted nakedness of heart and soul.
That admitted, I have read my writing over a hundred times–I’m not sure how many. I’ve gained a lot being a part of different writing communities. Sharing one’s work is often a part of that, whether a novice, seasoned writer and/or an avid reader. I appreciate hearing other writers read work aloud. I seem to have a natural inclination to do the same. I learned long ago that it is not just the writing but the delivery that counts. Some writing is excellent but when read aloud by the one who penned it fails like a lead balloon. So it can be tricky to read aloud written pieces to groups. A few experiences come to mind that caused me to seriously pause before taking the risk needed to read to others what mattered so much to me.
One was at an urban writing institute that is well-regarded, its director being a nationally known poet, himself. The upstairs room was a little box, holding about twenty chairs in small rows. It was evening and it was summer, therefore felt close even with windows open. After a couple of mediocre readers (their work was not my taste, either), a very fine poet, a fine reader, had just finished. People clearly appreciated his work. I had the discomfiting thought that I had no business going up there after such a writer. But there was a paused after my name was announced and it was either slink past the staring audience or just get the deed done. My flutters were immense. I kept gulping air. I realized that this was my challenge: to set free in the room some poems that had never been heard in that rather esteemed place. And I like a good challenge. I had already figured that people might be unimpressed, or bored, or interested in only their own work. But they might like the poems a little. Meanwhile, I was getting more exposure and experience reading. I had hope for my poetry and wanted reactions or I wouldn’t have come to the reading. Unless I lost my voice it would be okay, even if there was no applause.
I took a few good breaths (remember, a critical action), noted I was glad to be there, shared a bit of background to the writing. Then I began to read with my “strong alto” voice. I made myself look out at others. They looked back and listened. I let the poems move through me and to them. I forgot myself. It turned out fine. I always thank the audience (and my counseling groups, for that matter) for listening to me. I was happily asked to return.
Another experience was at a writing group of women. This occurred after having written very little for some years. It was being run by women, as well. I was used to more mixed gender groups and was curious. A particular approach the group facilitators used is the Amherst Method. We were given a writing prompt and strict periods of time, then we each read (if we chose) our lines or pages. Everyone–usually eight to ten people–was fidgety. Sitting in a circle can engender more uncertainty and squeamishness than being in a large auditorium. The sheer proximity of thinking, feeling persons, strangers at that point, can seem daunting. I am actually a very private person in the flesh. And of course I had no idea if anyone would like what I wrote–it was often fiction, a piece written in two or ten or twenty minutes with no editing. We were not to criticize but support and highlight positives.
It seemed a bit strange–it was not a performance, it was not a reading. It was a sort of critique group but without any constructive criticism. And they weren’t people I knew although we were to read our words as if we trusted each other. But would I get useful feedback? Did they really have a passion about writing? Did they read good books? Had they spent a lot of their lives writing as I had? I who was feeling edgy and judgmental, it turned out. But I read and paid heed to each response as well as their proffered writings.
I learned a lot at that writing group over time. To be flexible in expectations. To write more spontaneously. To be more open to different styles, goals and needs of writing. To find lessons in writing that was very constrained by a timer or subject or a certain word–writing often arrived fresh, unrevised and even stream of consciousness. I lost all worry about reading to this group as we got to know one another, even became in some instances friends. We were together to write more freely, without angst and that was good.
The third experience to share is that of reading an excerpt of my novel Other Than Words. As with most other pieces read aloud to others it was published, this time in an anthology called VoiceCatchers. It also was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, which was a humbling honor. Perhaps because I had invested so much time and labor into the yet-unpublished novel, I felt a weight on my shoulders as I waited my turn to read. It meant something to me to be asked to read it in the elegant room of our main county library. Many fine writers were assembled, as well as family and friends of the readers and those well engaged in Portland’s literary community. My heart thudded like crazy and I wondered if my stomach would stop quivering. I knew how to read in public. But before a standing room only crowd, could I read the words of my story with steadiness and clarity, with passion? I loved the characters in that novel; I felt protective of the small but potent scene I would be sharing.
I thought, who am I to read this thing before all those smart, discriminating people? But hey, I was on the list so I got up with knees shaking and read. Rather, the story opened and moved out from my grasp. I gave in to the narrative tension, interactions and dialogue. I lost myself again and the story took full rein.
I looked out over the audience, let my eyes meet theirs openly, read to each person as if weaving a tale resonant with matters they knew already. Because in it were hurts and healings, the triumphs and failures we all knew. I wanted to release minute seeds of magic that had driven me to write it, then let it take root within them a short time.
As I came to the end of the last sentence there was silence. I felt it. A sound of hearts and minds attuned and humming, a gentle acceptance, a depth of understanding that arises from listening generously. And then, the applause and my genuine thanks. I had made it through the reading. I had offered what meant most to me and it was welcomed.
Do that much when you have the honor to give any public speech: tell the truth as you know it while acknowledging it is one among others. That what you have to share may be embraced or may not be–or not entirely or not at that moment. It remains worth being offered. It can make a positive difference for someone out there. And then have a good time riding the flow as you relax and forget yourself, as all are in this jumble of lifelong learning, being and doing together.