Day 4: Water’s Ways: A Short View of History, Hauntings and Happiness

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So much to write, so little time to get it written! I do feel an increasing desire to move on to topics other than our four day coastal trip. But patience, I counsel myself. There are more scenic pickings, as there were more excellent times. I never get tired of this route along U.S. 101. Note that most of the first shots across water are from the perspective of looking across the river from Oregon toward the state of Washington, one lengthy, impressive bridge span (4.1 miles long) away.

We arrived at Astoria, a bustling, important West Coast harbor where the Columbia River’s muscular currents of fresh water meet vast and briny Pacific Ocean waves. What a powerful thing it is to see and muse over. I hold deep regard for the essential pilot boats and captains, U.S. and international cargo ship crews, fishermen/women (gillnetters have a long history here) and the hearty souls who work for our critically important Coast Guard and rescue so many all year ’round. And too, there are attractive cruise boats on which I’d love to travel (hopefully next year, after a train ride to Astoria from Portland). From Astoria on the Columbia all the way across the state and to my city (settled along the intersecting Willamette River), all is carried from sea to various ports.

Astoria is the oldest American settlement west of the Rockies. It also is a major international harbor with one of the world’s most dangerous crossings from ocean into river’s mouth.  That distant, very small pilot boat is guiding the freighter toward the mouth of the Columbia River, then through an ever-shifting sandbar and into the Pacific. You will note the waiting and readied Coast Guard ship; a beautiful cruise boat (“Un-cruise Adventures”), with the last picture of the Lightship Columbia, now decommissioned. From 1892-1979, there was a lightship stationed at the entrance of the Columbia. Five miles out, it was a virtual floating town with tons of supplies and a large crew for long stays.

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A brief look at the small city’s downtown shows a couple of examples of its old style with a few shops. We stopped at Rusty Cup for coffee; note the window’s sign.

There are wonderfully preserved Victorian houses in the hills where most of the population resides. I love the Flavel House, built in 1885 and now a museum.

We spent the night in Astoria and awakened to a fine new morning. One more day out and about and on the road…

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Then it was off to Long Beach, WA. First, the bridge, a drive that stirs me as we go over the mouth of the elegant but ever-working Columbia River. To the west, an endlessly brilliant blue sea.

And we arrive in our wonderful Northwest neighbor, Washington. We stop by Middle Village and St. Mary’s Church. It gave us pause thinking of the land and the native people living her long before the famous explorers Lewis and Clark arrived. I felt a melancholy as we walked around and imagined all the activities. The world’s history is stitched with events, sagas, wars; of land being overcome, possessed again, changed; of people’s power usurped and replaced; and beginnings wrought of endings. It just goes on and on; certainly today we see versions of the same. Perhaps because of this, it gave me much to once more think about.

The next stop did nothing to dispel such cogitation: Fort Columbia. From Wikipedia comes this abbreviated description of its history:

“Fort Columbia was built from 1896 to 1904 to support the defense of the Columbia River. The fort was constructed on the Chinook Point promontory because of the unobstructed view. Fort Columbia was declared surplus at the end of World War II and was transferred to the custody of the state of Washington in 1950.[2]

In the 1960s and 1970s, Battery 246 was outfitted to serve as a Civil Defense Emergency Operating Center and was one of several possible locations the governor could use in an emergency.”

I felt the loneliness of the buildings as I walked the grounds. The vast emptiness, rather than being peaceful, felt full and restless with the past. It was a knitted-together community of soldiers that lived there and a town was not far away for some socializing on off-duty time. Yet its intended mission combined with a stark quality of the buildings (which from a distance appear a bit pleasant), now emptied of life, were a reminder of how things might have been and also developed at that place, in those times. As I tarried at various spots, then looked into a kitchen and through another window toward the ocean, it seemed deeply inhabited by its history. Some say it is a haunted place. Perhaps.

It was time to head on up to the Long Beach Peninsula, dispel the pensive mood with more sun, wind and rolling sea. The beach purports to be the longest in the world–not verified as fact, to my knowledge–and also boasts a very long boardwalk. It was a railroad town once. Walk, breathe, take in more of nature’s generous offerings.

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We stop at North Head Lighthouse, opened in 1898. Lighthouses along the coastal stretch from Oregon to British Columbia are crucial to help keep ships safer. Yet the rocky coastlines have been strewn over time with some 2000 shipwrecks and hundreds of lives lost. I chose to forego a typical lighthouse photo and snapped those below. Many visitors were moving beyond a safety fence and trekked down to the treacherous bluffs to get a closer look at the vista. I seriously considered it but moved on. This is one of the windiest places in the U.S., with winds often surpassing 100 mph. It was definitely very gusty standing there, hair whipping, eyes stinging.

I found myself drawn to the property beyond the main attraction–brightly white and rust-red Head Keeper’s dwellings, which can be rented. This might be a fine place to work on a selection of poems or a new novel; Marc offers the thought that he’d like to work on his technical book here. Mostly, though, I would want to daydream, saturate myself with the wildness, mystery and blessings of nature’s panoramic ways. I suspect those who do rent this home come to enjoy bike rides, walks and hikes, and perusing surrounding towns’ delights as well as the mesmerizing ocean.

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It was finally time to head back home. Thus ended the small journey that we packed a great deal into, enjoying varied learning experiences as well as being replenished on every plane. It was a time for us to steal a few carefree days and nights together as ironically my husband travels a great deal in and out of the country for his work. And Marc and I especially find–as most people do–bodies of fresh and salt water soothe, invigorate, lighten and inspire us. We would both return to the city happier. What my hat says sums it up. For me, another year alive despite heart health and other challenges, being able to do what I love most of the time, this is not a mere motto I take for granted: Life is good!

I hope you don’t just scrimp/save/wait for one or two fancy, expensive trips. Get in the car (or bus or train) and head out on a short ramble, even those close to home. Let taxing cares and harsher realities loosen their vise-like grip and drift away. We all need the balm of moments both meaningful and laughter-inducing. Take time to find and celebrate places and feelings you might be passing over–there are such surprises out there! Pull in close. Share wonder.

 

 

Note: This is the fourth and last part of a small series on our recent four day trip to the Oregon and Washington coasts. If interested, please check out Days 1-3 posted the last few times!

Foggy Predators, Ghostly Ships: Day 3 of the Coastal Trip

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All photographs by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

That watchful bald eagle on a basalt mound whose photo I posted last time was patiently waiting for a strike at his prey.  Success was not a surprise but the unfolding event was at once thrilling and sobering. Such precision! The crying and diving seagulls tried in vain to retrieve one of their own but the eagle was not even detained.

For humans, there’s something to be said for reasonable proximity to civilization with its conveniences and comforts. Yet we still seek wilder places if we respect, appreciate and even revere nature, as do I. I am quickly released of angst or drear, from any worldly mental detritus as my home city’s buzz and bombast is left behind. A more primitive mind is set in motion as senses are stimulated, satiated. And sometimes roused by a flashes of alarm here and there as rain forest and ocean (and other Northwest landscapes) take greater charge. More on this in a bit.

First, a few sights on the still-quiet main street of Cannon Beach since low season prevails until Memorial Day (5/29). There was a chill drizzle but we always mosey about. (I have gotten better shots in sunshine though the shops are still attractive–see my older Cannon Beach posts for prettier weather.) I tend to stop at Josephine’s to peruse the handcrafted jewelry–and chose lovely earrings. The fish and chips spot we so enjoy is not pictured, unfortunately, but is called Tom’s Fish and Chips–oddly enough! I highly recommend it.

We decided to take a drive up to a favorite spot, Ecola State Park, part of the Lewis and Clark National and Historical State Park. The narrow road winds up through old growth rain forest and thick mist hovered and shifted among the branches. The park stretches about Tillamook Head, affording famous views when clearer. It boasts viewpoints of numbers of capes, headlands and basalt rock formations.

As we parked we were one of two vehicles there. This place can feel eery, perhaps due to terrible ship wrecks over a couple of centuries or more. (The  nearby Tillamook Lighthouse was deactivated due to the dangerousness of these waters and weather.) There was greater erosion this time with fenced off areas after very stormy weather over the past year. The foamy waves below us, right beyond the cliffs of headlands, crashed and overreached all else, imbued with such kinetic energy and hidden life. A clinging fog, heavy, steely skies and the ceaseless crashing waves heard even from headlands trails emphasized this.

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Marc went to get a closer look at the sea as I wandered about alone. Suddenly in the distance a crow cawed incessantly, rhythmically, an alarm in the obscuring and isolating fog. My heart changed gears as vision and hearing tuned in. I looked around, studying bushes and forest for signs of other creatures, human or otherwise. For this is bear, cougar and elk country; there have been many such sightings. I hadn’t checked the sign that is always updated with sightings, as landslides had closed longer trails. Though I couldn’t see or hear any other unusual movement or sound, the crow’s calling kept me alert as I made my way back towards Marc. I had such a strong feeling of being covertly watched that I called out to him; he didn’t hear me due to the deafening ocean. Since I’ve had encounters in our NW and also Canadian wilderness with bears, I know to not run. But the urge can be powerful…Cougars are such sly predators, especially, not as easily kept at bay by loud human commotion and noises as bears. I hoped for the great elk, which we’ve seen in the area.

But this time I would not discover what was there or not there. The fog hung thick upon all, the stillness prevailed after the crow quieted and we were soon on our way. Was it me that startled the sentinel crow into full voice? Perhaps. It was odd other crows were not about and responding.

Sometimes nature overtakes me, somewhat frightens as well as excites–the part of me that knows a little if not enough, while at some level recognizes even more. That buried animal being with acute sensory signals, sending and receiving. But I remain drawn irrevocably to all its diversity, complexity and magnificence; its ineffable powers of mysticism and poetry.

Said crow is on guard; the silvery fog has its own life amid the verdure.

We head to nearby Indian Beach, much loved by surfers. Alas, not this day. But the opalescent light, drape of fog and the restless sea combined to create more beckoning scenes. Marc, as usual, was shell and rock hunting as I explored. I often reminded him of “sneaker” waves which rush upon and steal lives each summer.

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On the way back up I paused to take a shot of the winding path. Right ahead of me I could see results of a recent landslide close to the path and a picnic table. In fact, the next day, the road we took into the state park soon was closed due to a large landslide. Coastal land is always eroding and shifting; rock, land and mudslides are common. We take certain roads at our own risk and rarely in the height of winter’s rainy season when the Coastal Range is more unpredictable.

That brings us to packing up for the next leg of our vacation. I felt emptied of self’s pettiness, then refilled. As ever, I rediscovered many aspects nature’s majesty, how it creates and destroys, how it charms and mystifies and instructs. And I always feel my smallness, how the greater countryside oversees and and defines much of who we are now, as well as in the distant past. My insignificance is challenged; I become again more open to vaster realms of mind, body and spirit. There can be fear exploring the turbulent, multi-faceted sea but it’s born of a healthy respect. The wildness out there calls to the wildness within and I pull it in closer even as I am cautious. We are not so powerful as we like to believe; nature will remind us over and over of this. We are clearly a part of far-reaching, layered, numinous design.

We begin our drive up the sunnier northern Oregon coast to Astoria. The explorers Lewis and Clark ended up in the area. Named after John Jacob Astor ((owner of American Fur Company), in the 1880s he established a fort there. It is the oldest settlement west of the Rockies and sits at the mouth of the legendary Columbia River where it meets the Pacific Ocean, one of the most dangerous sandbar regions for ships’ crossings in the world. We love Astoria’s rich history and curious sights.

A couple of “teasers” from Astoria are below–stop by next time to see what else I saw!

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The Muse Knows: Day 1 of a Spring Beach Trip

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Pacific Ocean–all photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

There are times the muse shows up with a fine sentence or two that beckons me like a hunger-inducing aroma. Or an entire paragraph that apparently is taken out of the middle of some narrative if I could only figure out what it’s intended to be. Or the muse presents a newbie or older story character: he/she may clumsily step forward or scurry, leap or float about or suddenly wake up in a peculiar spot–maybe a tree top or a country roadside or a bar– and then speaks directly to me as if I am this being’s private audience member. Or will talk to another character, and I am warily peering into their crazily compelling lives.

Awhile back I wrote a very long poem in its entirety while walking. The words came so fast, in such an unusual format, that I recorded it on my phone as it flowed into and out of me. I came home and wrote it down with no significant revisions. It took a long time to transcribe it but I was happy when done. And it got published.

So it is true for me that I usually sit down then just let my fingers get to work writing/typing words one after the other. I don’t mean it is necessarily good stuff, I mean it flows quickly. Language inception and usage are alchemy to me. How does it manage to even begin? We–words and I–take off for somewhere or other like comfortable, mischievous cohorts. But not today! Today it has been this: what to do and how on earth to do it? This question wormed it way into my calmly reconfigured mind yesterday and today. Then this afternoon I heard the insistent MV (Muse Voice) whisper: Follow moving sunlight into moonlight; follow the soul’s light. 

You always do get stirred up by light, water, trees, sky, etc., I mutter aloud as the instructive thought lodges itself. Yet this is my only clue for a post? Wonderful, all is simpler since this is my favorite route to embark upon when writing: follow soul first, then intellect to help shape any inspiration. The words will be revealed. Pathways perk up within and without–made of striations of shifting shadows, the ripplings of chameleon light.

But it is a rather broad, misty directive from the ole muse. It might be enough if I want to open a scene with a mysterious glen where human and other magic is about to unfold and the birds are atwitter and then silence draws me to a point of light far beyond an exquisite but faint and far-off horizon….Reality wags a finger at me: readers may not want to hear about a simple visit with an ocean. And what about the hundreds of photographs from a rather short trip to a few Oregon and Washington beaches. Nothing like wading through a stranger’s fond remembrances.

I took a power (and sweaty–it is warming up, gratefully) walk. Consternation slows down mercurial creative impulses so I let it all go. Walks are powerful medicine I must daily take. Afterwards I attacked a bunch of household chores, another intervention for a cluttered mind. Finally, I stared at a vibrantly blank computer screen. I am rarely at a loss for words as those who know me can attest.

My first day back to the blog after a lovely vacation, yay!–and this is what I have? Perhaps too much time off has made me loathe to work very hard on the blog? But that isn’t it. Sometimes I have more overload to sort and prioritize before settling down, getting it onto the page. There is a lot stuffed in both my memory bank and my photo files; sometimes it seems one and the same. I pushed away a tiny niggle of anxiety. Would I get this post posted today or not?

With more consideration, I managed to extract another interpretation of the muse’s suggestion: merely sample the trip’s offerings,  offer up a small smorgasbord of choices for eye, mind, spirit. Let it go its own way.

At last, I invite you to come along on vastly abbreviated initial portions of our trip. The fact is, no decent meander is truly ordinary if we see with welcoming eyes and heart, and the Pacific Northwest coast is mind-boggling every time I stop to better absorb its wonders. There was a wealth of beauty and peace gathered over the days we were there. More pictures and thoughts are likely to be shared in posts to come as we suddenly changed our course (the best way to go) and headed north to unplanned places. It appears the muse–that mysterious, often capricious creative spirit which nudges and, at times, saves writers and others–loves to travel, too. To embrace the multi-faceted views, to enter a deeper immersion into this life. To seek out that light out amid the ruin and peril of our ailing and loved world. It is there, everywhere.

As we begin our drive from Portland, the countryside beguiles us…and we start to simply breathe.

As we begin to approach the Pacific Ocean, we often like to stop at beautiful Wheeler, a village on the north coast overlooking Nehalem Bay. There is excellent fishing and crabbing here; many enjoy kayaking and canoeing.

We arrive in Cannon Beach late in the afternoon. Before entering the town the Pacific Ocean winks and sparkles, mesmerizing us as if this is its job. The town is a favorite weekenders’ and summer vacationers’ spot. We prefer visiting coastal areas during low season (fall and winter stir up great stormy seas) rather than high season. This time we go mid-week. So it is emptier this day, quieter, and this lends a nostalgic and peaceful atmosphere.

Cannon Beach rightly touts a spectacular beach, with famous basaltic rock formations (made of lava flows from Columbia Plateau over 17 million years ago), the primary one at this beach being Haystack Rock, with wonderful tide pools. Other curious rock formations line up here and there like sentinels guarding the sandy stretches. Haystack Rock is part of Oregon Islands Wildlife Refuge, thankfully. Even the lovely Tufted Puffins favor this site as well as Pelagic Cormorants and other seabirds.

To start: breathtaking expanse of the Pacific. And you will see our quaint, tidy lodge with tables and chairs in front. The pond is pooled beyond a waterfall feature that was lovely to go to sleep to along with ocean songs. The red barn with white fencing for horses are by the Ecola River as we walk into town; horseback riding is popular on the beach.

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As evening falls upon us, the ocean is an even more seductive entity with rollicking waves, its roaring voice rising amid tidal forces. Potent sea light which reflects for miles on shifting water and illumines the long horizon alters everything moment by moment. It creates its spell, liming the cresting waves, undulating across sand, casting its radiance on all, even through free-form clouds. The salt-tinged wind (more than a bit chilly and strong) lifts me from myself, starts to set me free.

This is why we come to the coastal forests and waters: to be renewed. Follow a slow moving sun with me as it vanishes behind the seeming rim of earth.

Look for a distant Haystack Rock and misty Tillamook Rock Lighthouse (decommissioned in 1957, now privately owned and used as a columbarium), as well as the ever present Western Gulls who reign over the beaches. The last shot is taken as we walk back across an inlet and to our rental suite.

Tomorrow, we know, there awaits much more and it will be all we hope to find–even with spotty rain forecast. I’ll just follow the light I can find.

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We are Hearts Among Others

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Though my eyes were open, I wasn’t even out of bed this morning when I was planning on a day stuffed with creative choices: drawing and/or painting, starting on a montage, dancing to some bossa nova, electronica, soul or flamenco, maybe singing a song or two, taking my daily walk if the rain let up a bit, and perhaps starting a poem that I felt in sync with rather than a moderate connection to, for once. Or at least two or three of these. Because it is my earthly birthday. And one should do what one wants to do if one possibly can for at least this particular day. Or ignore it altogether, some years the best choice. Like when my oldest sister passed away a week before my birthday two years ago and we were all heading to Texas for her service. Or when there are better things to do than have dinner with cake, like becoming submerged in recreation and rest of a real vacation. Just skipping the intense focus on one more year survived (one hopefully made a little worthwhile), with the attendant hullabaloo. Additionally, much of my closest family–three of our five adult children plus son-in-law plus two twenty-something adult grandkids–do not even live within a four day’s drive nearby. Birthday fuss seems overrated, even though I have gratitude that my difficult heart continues to pump and pound with great diligence. Despite its often fast jazzy blips and propped open vessels, I live pretty darned well.

Seven days ago I had anticipated that second choice: simply not being here. Because Marc and I were going to San Diego, California. Where a semi-arid Mediterranean climate (bordering on subtropical at least in summer) landscape and the Pacific Ocean’s rolling waves have been calling to our souls and bare toes. We can avail ourselves of a plethora of interesting experiences in and around that city and on an island nearby. My husband has been there often via business trips. So he got me all revved up, enthusiastically describing the place. What a birthday gift. It was also a reward for him–time away from labor’s grind. He works harder now than he did ten years ago; it’s that sort of job.

But it didn’t happen. It was his work, of course, the boss’ directive (despite having told him we would not lose our vacation). Marc never knows exactly what day or time he will be finished, when he will have quelled another manufacturing crisis. Not until he is good-enough done, for the time being. I well know this; I’m a seasoned “corporate widow” spouse (bad way to phrase that….). Deep inside I didn’t really believe we were going anywhere for this birthday though we’ve managed it many other years. So when he called three days before our departing flight and said there had been “a change in plans”, I accepted it without serious complaint. No use wasting the energy since this has more often been the “norm” than not. So I had another plan, sketched out as above: create more diversely a few hours and enjoy more time outdoors, say, visit the Japanese Garden which just re-opened after redevelopment.

Okay, wait, greater honesty is required. I was disappointed to not go on the trip. Deflated, just enough that it hovered at the edges of my consciousness for days. Butting into my honest desire to exercise acceptance and tranquility. I know it wasn’t like he was taking me to Tuscany or the Great Wall of China…but, still.

But back to the opening scene. My phone rang. It was my other sister, the one still energetically engaged in sentient life, reminding me of a birthday lunch date. I hadn’t forgotten; it would fit nicely around noon. Then I noticed a few birthday text messages, including one from my busy fifteen year old granddaughter who took time to say sweet things. I hopped out of bed, got myself together for a minor, rather ordinary, quiet rainy morning sort of birthday. In truth, I’d already had a good celebration with two close friends over the week-end. They each got me beautiful flowers, loving cards. Another friend called. One took me out for brunch and a good gab; the other took me to see the film “Beauty and the Beast” which was fun entertainment and well done. I felt cared about; I didn’t actually need anything more.

I am good on my own, anyway. I am independent, pretty tough when the going gets bumpy. And sure don’t need presents or people hovering about as if I am a pitiful lone woman during a sparse birthday I wasn’t going to count as important.

I sure didn’t think I needed anything else. We don’t always know what we need.

As I was cleaning up after breakfast, my brother and sister-in-law called from back East to sing me “Happy Birthday” in a perfectly harmonious duet (being professional singers). A treat in itself but we caught up a bit, too. They are dear family; it was heart-filling to get the call.

I also had received some gifts in the mail. Totally unexpected, not even necessary. I tend to not want anything. I have books and music and a few other valued objects. I always feel “superfluous goodies” are something to give to my children, grandchildren and sometimes other adults. However, I got three more excellent books, a handcrafted pewter necklace and an interesting language game that can be used in play or also as prompts for my writing. To my surprise, I felt more than touched by them all this year.

Maybe because it was a more difficult twelve months than some years. But I’m resilient, adaptable, life does go on as it shall, I chant daily. One will prevail!

Then I spent the entire afternoon with my fabulous sister, Allanya, and some with her partner, enjoying stimulating talk as we ate at a favorite neighborhood spot. My lunch was tasty if unfancy (grilled chicken panini with avocado, pesto, tomato; steaming split pea/vegetable soup, freshly brewed iced tea with lemon, slices of a perfect orange). I thought as we talked: how good it is to be right here, to love these two people. After two hours at that restaurant, her partner went home.

My sister and I were off to a fine French bakery and cafe. We availed ourselves of a tantalizing array of choices that beamed at us from behind gleaming glass. I felt excited by all of them. I chose a tender, flaky, royal-sized apple turnover; she, a lemon-drizzled-with-chocolate torte. Dessert in late afternoon! With an aromatic coffee. You need to understand I am a minimalist eater so eat very simply, even carefully due to a lifelong digestive disorder. So a good meal that is happy with my taste buds plus innards is a successful, even outstanding experience.  This day was entirely satisfying in that regard–another not-so-small gift, believe me.

As I sat sipping coffee with Allanya, covering various topics and making plans for a small road trip we hope to take soon in Oregon, Marc left me a text message.

Where are you, are you home? 

No, I responded, I’m out having fun.  

Well, there is something to be delivered to our doorstep. I hope it’s safe. Must go.

He hadn’t yet mentioned my birthday, hadn’t called to wish me a happy birthday. Likely he forgot, I mused, in the midst of his mad work day, as he sometimes has. I try to overlook this; it’s not as if we are a new couple in need of constant attention or thrilled to get older each year. But this message left me perplexed. I could not imagine one thing that might be delivered he has been ensconced in Mexico three weeks. Allanya and I continued to chortle and hold forth in the candle-lit and lively cafe. I noticed through distant windows that sunshine appeared to be challenging, even perhaps defeating rainfall and accompanying dreariness. She can be a frequent time checker but not this day. I watched her unwind, ignore those streaming shadows of later afternoon. My own mind and body indulged in all the stimulating sensory input, savored our emotional and intellectual exchanges.

Another gift. They were sure adding up.

Eventually she had to go home. I was ready to walk or maybe write. When we arrived at my apartment building I saw nothing at the outside door. She sat in the car, wondering what was awaiting me though I imagined it might have been stolen. I unlocked the door, looked in the foyer: there was a large, gloriously hued floral arrangement. It smelled softly sweet. There was a small card: “I know it isn’t San Diego, but it is something.” (The rest I’ll skip.) I carried it out  and held the rainbow flowers up to her open window.

“Wow, nice!” Allanya exclaimed.

“He sent me flowers from Mexico! Well, okay, not exactly from there, but he didn’t forget!”

She admired them, then we hugged long and gently. Sisters we are first, but also best friends, more so  now that there are just two of the original three of us left. I feel I hit the jackpot to have been born into a family with my unique sisters. (The brothers are good, too.)

I went inside and considered the unfolding of a day I had thought would be simply another day–a decent one, sure, but one spent mostly alone. Removed from any celebration of jut another year, now a total of 67 years. My eyes rested on the gifts, the flowers filling my home as reminders of people whom I care deeply about. My heart went to the top notes of gratitude.

As I started writing this post, two daughters from out-of-state called. One has been attending a conference on the arts in education with her (artist) husband; the other, an associate sculpture professor, was winding up a long day after lots of grading, consults with students, meetings. At first there was an impulse to cut it short and get back to writing. But it struck me: I have hard working daughters (among three other fine children, lest they read this–though unlikely) who took the time after jam-packed days to call, to speak with me and share some of their lives, as well. This despite having sent gifts and cards and texting me earlier. And one sang “Happy Birthday.” I then told them about my day. No, I did not feel lonely at all. No, I was not much sad about the cancelled trip. I had a day of joy right here.

I pulled on my jacket for a quick walk to clear my mind. To reorder my thoughts for more writing, to appreciate the bursting abundance of spring. I considered how my day had become something other than planned or expected, as days can do. But as far as birthdays are concerned, this one was superior. Maybe staying home instead of travelling was meant to be. Maybe I needed this one certain day, to be made to pause and open up to expansive, nourishing moments right in front of my nose. It was like a little tap on the shoulder from God. The beauties of life are sometimes not where you look and clearly see, but what you may miss when looking in the wrong direction. I had to let my soul and heart, my vision be directed by others today.

What it all boils down to is something I know, but that one can never tire of learning anew: I am well loved. Happy Day of Birth to me!

I offer a few photos of the lovely flowers. Click at bottoms of pictures to see captions.

 

Opera Hour

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.