An Accidental Life

It was morning, end of August and blazing hot but humid. Now and then a lesser flame of wind swept in to further melt me. Perspiration evaporated then returned to linger on my pinkening skin. I drove along the familiar country road, elbow hanging out the window, thrilled with our new powder blue Opel Kadett. Heat waves shimmered off the pavement. On the radio Pat Metheny’s guitar was soaring, whining, reaching out to whomever had ears to hear. I was tapping out rhythms on the steering wheel, singing with Pat and his band. It was a so-yellow-blue-it-could-blind-you kind of day, the road mostly mine.

I was on my way to an art history college class, my first time back since the precarious birth of my first child in February at age 23. Jubilance filled me, I felt light as a balloon. First of all, tiny Naomi had fought a few battles but thrived despite coming to us two and a half months early. And I was going to be one step closer to my degree. I glanced at a blur of endless fields of corn, dense, tall and begging to be harvested. I missed Naomi even as I enjoyed a small rush of freedom. A perfect day all around.

But then: scramble of noises, painful jolts, car pushed and spinning, crashing forward fast and I was fading even faster. Aching head, breath heavy, pain shooting through every nerve. Car smashed into what, how, where?

“Miss, miss, oh dear God, can you hear me? I hit you, I am so sorry, didn’t see you just the corn! Stay awake now, stay awake!”

All vanished from presence of mind and body, all fell dark. Even the new silence ended as time recoiled, vanished.

Inside a small space I looked down, down, down from its ceiling at two people busy with another, a body that was mine. Wailing sirens, vehicle swaying.

“She’s in shock–lost consciousness again! Check vitals!” The man slapped the wall hard between cab and work space.

I hovered, amorphous, invisible, curious to see such a small creature, limbs flaccid, clothing askew, head and knee bleeding, body so frail. Cared for but emptied. The animal I knew well lay physically below and suffered, nothing I could do, only wait to return or leave. I felt sorry but detached and so very calm as the EMTs got busier. Flesh of me must have been charged with pain, but then more deeply stilled. What was to come of me? I desired to stay alive in that world. The men worked, I watched, waited. A breath and heartbeat called. Movement downward toward my body and slipping into that hardscrabble place of a perishable body. Then nothing at all for a very long while.

I came to amid brutal lights in the emergency room of a trauma center of inner city Saginaw, Michigan. Ned, my husband, and his mother stared down at me, relieved and talking to me, trying to explain things. I could hear so little. Feel surprisingly little; pain medicine coursed through my veins.

“Cynthia,” my husband said. His rough hand went to mine.

“I was watching a movie of me…from above,” I mumbled.

“What?”  My mother-in-law asked, startled. “What  does that mean?”

“You were? Oh…” Ned said. “Not good, but it could be worse. You had a concussion, banged and slashed your knee and forehead. They sewed you up. You’ve been out for hours, between medicine and slipping back and forth…somewhere.”

I squinted up at worried faces, closed my eyes again. I wanted more than anything to sleep a long while more. My whole being and body ached despite pain medicine, as if it had been shoved side to side and I hadn’t caught back up with it yet.

“Good to see you’ve awakened. You’re extremely fortunate, young lady, no internal damage. The nurse will keep monitoring you. I’ll be back in a bit.” A white coated doctor had stuck his head in; out it went again.

“We have to keep you more awake for the next 24 hours or more. I’ll keep waking you every hour to make sure you’re going to be alright–the concussion,” he explained.

I moaned. “Naomi! Where’s Naomi?”

“With Grandpa, of course.” My mother-in-law looked at me oddly, not the first time.

“For a minute, I thought… so glad she wasn’t with me.”

“You were going to class, remember?” Ned responded, worried I had lost track of all.

“Yeah,” I replied, a sweep of relief flooding me. As if I had lucked out to be in the car all alone, that she had been home and safe as needed. “What happened?”

“A man was driving along, about 50 mph at a perpendicular angle to your road and didn’t see his stop sign as he neared the crossroads. He said all there was, was cornfields. He assumed the intersecting road had the stop sign but wasn’t concerned and there you were. He kept talking about there being all that high corn.”

I shuddered: the shocking impact, that barest moment before I blacked out, then awakened then lost consciousness again. And the ambulance ride when I was on the top of the ceiling. But all else before and after those few moments was gone.

“He’s a minister,” Ned went on, “and he stayed for hours after he was looked over, worrying about you. He gave me his card; I said I’d let him know. He’s got a few bruises and small cuts but he had a much heavier car. He’s very sorry and of course it’s his fault. His car T-boned your side of the Opel and it spun around then finally crashed into a stop sign post opposite the one he should have seen. Our new car was totaled. They used the ‘jaws of life’ to get you out… you lost consciousness quite awhile. A pretty bad accident, Cynthia…”

His square, warm hand was one mine as I drifted on the edge of a netherworld, in and out. Our pretty new car, gone. I was alive, no internal injuries or broken bones! But my head and knee were starting to hurt like hell…my neck felt seared by awakening pain and I had on a stiff neck collar. Major whiplash, I guessed.

Did Ned say the man was a minster? I wondered who he was, where he had been going, and then recalled how distressed he was before I passed out.

******

After more hours I was deemed fit enough to go home since I seemed lucid and cognizant of all. I was given crutches. It would be over a month before I could walk unaided on the bashed kneecap–not broken, miraculously, but tissues deeply bruised and a wound across it about two inches now stitched up. On the way home we got stuck in evening traffic in city center. My body was returning to itself more fully; it was so hard to sit, and to bear the roaring of engines, honking and grinding of gears, the passersby staring at my bandaged head or so I thought. I worked at keeping at bay the fear that another car might zoom into us.

And then the full bladder suddenly awakened, too, and demanded attention.

“Oh my gosh, I can’t wait until we get home!”

“There aren’t restrooms nearby and we’re stuck. Everything must have slowed way down when you lost consciousness… If you can’t wait, you just can’t. Let her rip. It’s a truck seat, it can be cleaned.”

“I’m sorry, I am so, so sorry!”

“It’s okay!”

I felt betrayed then by that simple physiological function, the body a bit battered yes and then it had to test me further. Embarrassed, even ashamed, I obeyed his suggestion as there as no other choice. He looked away. I began to cry as the seat got wetter and covered my face. Marriage brought many things unexpected and hard.

After that I examined my forehead in the visor mirror. A huge bandage covered the space above my left eye. Ned glanced at me from the corner of his eye, saying nothing, driving the rattling truck on home. Home to our daughter. Home where the back yard spread out like an open field, and wild grasses swayed in sweetest summer breezes, stars glittered and winked, and the moon glowed benignly upon us. We laughed a little as we rolled windows all the way down, tension easing as we moved through city congestion toward the outskirts where we made a life. Back to our miracle baby.

I was awakened every hour. I lay on my  back, Naomi close on my chest, and listened to her light breath, felt Ned’s quiet body gravitating to mine, his words few. The cooling breeze flew into the window, a summer night’s healing. I thanked God for being with us once again.

******

A couple of weeks later the gravel driveway announced the arrival of a car. Ned was home from work; I was tending to Naomi. It was a man’s voice and it sounded Southern. In a moment, Ned ushered him in. He wore a brown, fedora-style hat that he took off as he nodded at me.

I don’t even recall if his name was given though surely it was, preceded by “Pastor.” The name was not the important part to me. His presence was.

Ned looked skeptical but was polite enough. “This is the man from the accident…he wants to meet you.”

He was tall and bony so that his modest shiny suit hung loosely from his frame, a shock of pale hair was receding, and his light blue eyes were full of emotion. He clutched his hat in fidgety hands. He began to speak in earnest, voice soft and lilting.

“I just had to find you, Miss Cynthia, had to know what had happened to you and how you are doing. Your husband told me your names and I found you in the phone book…and here I am. I still feel terrible, toss and turn at night wondering how it could have been avoided. I should have known better; I’ve gone over and over it. The corn was so high everywhere I looked–the country roads…But that’s no excuse. I failed to stop. I hit your car and caused you grievous injury. I’m a Baptist minister. I have prayed every day and night for your good recovery. I hope you can forgive me.” His eyes welled up. “You hurt your head badly–and your knee! Will you be alright? What about the scarring? You’re so young. And you have a little baby!”

“There is really no forgiveness needed, it was a true accident,” I reassured him.  “All will be alright.”

We told him what the doctor had said, what we expected, which was that all would heal up and all should be well. I had barely thought about the scar with its twelve long stitches; it curved in an “S” shape, a deep red tiny snake a bit above my left eye and all the way to my hairline; it was true the doctor had not made an art of his stitchery. My kneecap skin was the same, less stitches but not pleasant.

We talked a little about the crash, but I spared him my details. I didn’t want to cause him more distress. Like being on that ambulance ceiling staring down at my body and feeling there was a choice to stay or go. And the pain and losing control of my bladder.

“I suspect the scars will fade in time. My hair naturally falls over my forehead, anyway!”

“I would pay for plastic surgery, if that would help–you are too young and lovely to have that all your life. And it’s a reminder.”

The very idea stunned me. Plastic surgery never entered my mind. It was simply unneeded. I was far more concerned about my knee so I’d soon have less hobbling about, return to more vigorous activity. There was physical therapy to help out.

“No, not necessary, really. Your insurance has covered everything else. That’s wonderful. And I’m going to be fine, healing up more by the hour. But it was very kind of you to come by and check on me. To offer more.”

He stood there with that sad hat in hand and I offered my hand to him. Then I felt a need to hug him; he hugged me back. We walked him outdoors.

He turned at his car door.”I’ll pray for more good healing. God be with you all. Thank you for seeing me.”

“God was with us both… I made it out alright and you did, too.”

We waved goodbye.

I got better fast. The accident seemed long past as autumn arrived. I never heard from him again. I thought about his compassion, his prayers, at the crash scene and their continuance. His accountability. Good will.

His genuine caring presence has stayed with me all these years.

******

I have written of that good man because I have had cause to remember him vividly again. The old neck injury flared in my early forties in the form of early onset arthritis of the upper spine. There had been a second injury from an assault to compound the matter. By the time I was in my late forties, there were increasingly difficult headaches caused by neck/shoulder muscle spasms and increased stiffness. I kept active and tried to stay limber and continued on. But into my fifties, that burning pain and headache could morph into a ceaseless state, a nightmare, lasting all day and into the next. I refused opiate pain medications and took acetaminophen and ibuprofen despite the latter causing stomach problems. After my heart disease diagnosis and new medications, my cardiologist said ibuprofen was out. I have had a great many physical therapy sessions over the years, chiropractor treatments, acupuncture, massage, have used heat and cold, frequent daily stretches. I love being active and so have done the things I always have loved, as much as possible.

One can certainly learn to live with and beyond even hounding pain without narcotics. I don’t want to use medication I don’t absolutely need to take. But now, occasionally, I do. To just rest, to keep blood pressure down and my heart rhythms happy when it is at that point where it has dug in too deep. It runs right up my neck to my skull, into my brain or so it seems. I cannot think of anything else when it will not let go.

There are far reaching effects of old injuries and damage done. I have been laid flat for parts of days at a time. I have had daily routines impaired, as certain head and arm movements aggravate bone-on-bone friction, those nerves a conduit of sensations not desired. Writing and sitting for long hours can agitate the inflammation and muscle spasms. I can’t turn my head fully from side to side and spinal stenosis is creating other problems. So something needs to be done before greater degeneration of the spine facets occurs. There will be a consult soon with a neurosurgeon to learn of the options.

But this week I think of that gentleman with hat in hand, recall his consideration. Empathy. Despite being a stranger he wanted what was good and helpful for me. Enough to find and see me face to face and offer regret for something that was not truly his fault. It was a freak accident, as accidents often are. My two long scars have remained, paler and softer yet I still do believe God was with us. And his prayers may well have held back the specter of death as I lay in that ambulance looking down at my damaged body, wondering: is it time?

How can this not be possible? Faith and prayer are potent in a world of disbelief, ironic disputes of spiritual matters. But I can tell you that anything is possible.

No, it was not the right time to go. A whole lifetime was yet given to me. I have come close more than once to leaving this world; it was not the first or last occasion to be jolted from my body, watching drama unfold below, wondering many things upon return to flesh, blood, bones–this temporary home we move within. But one does simply hold on if possible though I find it is little more loosely. Life can’t be clutched to love it well or for it to embrace us back. I am planning decades more to explore the gifts of this tilting planet. And to plow through rough spots. Something can be learned, no matter what. And I remain thankful for all chances to live life in its entirety, whatever comes.

I hope that good man has been happy with his chances, too.

Roses and Gunshots: A Tale of My City

The move to the Pacific Northwest from the Detroit metropolitan area was one I had put off for a good twenty years. Now we were headed to the piney-aired, sweeping embrace of the City of Roses. I felt ready for such a momentous alteration of my life, even days negotiating variable weather and terrain, pulling a cumbersome U-Haul. Give me mountains, give me wilderness, give me the wherewithal to welcome the unknowns ahead!

I wasn’t a complete newbie to the area. I had visited Oregon. I had also lived in a town outside of Seattle, Washington when I was eighteen for a year or so with an older sister. In a log cabin on a beautiful lake. It was paradise to me, but a paradise charged with and marred by an excess of youthful adventures and mishaps. It was then back to Michigan. But the mountain peaks, rain forest all about us, that vibrant pioneering city, the hearty, open-minded people stayed with me. A creeping homesickness for that geography and way of life distracted, even haunted me over the following years. It was a part of the country I had to be again, my Shangri-La. If it wasn’t to be Washington, then neighboring Oregon would do just fine.

Every time I drove anywhere down the flat roads of mid-Michigan, I would look at the clouds on the horizon and imagine they were mountains rising up. When I visited northern Michigan along the vast Great Lakes–the best place in the state–I was taken back to evergreen forests of the Northwest, the lake I knew and the wild Pacific Ocean beyond.

When I was 42, I had a chance at last to leave behind a Midwestern landscape and suburban lifestyle of seven years that had left their marks on me. It was a time of transition for me and two of my children, the other three having left home already. I had undergone a divorce and an impulsive remarriage. The new marriage did not last long after the move. But the relocation to Portland, Oregon was to become the joy I had hoped it would be. “Become” is the operative word. The change was not without several other glitches, lean times and homesickness despite my best hopes and efforts. There were moments I believed I had also fallen for an elusive romantic dream of “place”, but made another poor decision. Was it too late to hope for much better, to redirect my derailed life?

It was not nearly too late. And if it was the wrong choice of a mate–charismatic and capable but devious, controlling–it was the right place to flourish. I kept telling my children that as well as myself as I sought better jobs, attended college again off and on. My eighteen year old son took to Portland as if he’d been born to the Northwest but my twelve year old daughter took time sizing things up. She did love the street fashion and creative mix of people, the energetic urban atmosphere. I liked having two siblings here. Countryside that soothed and inspired me, weather I loved. I felt, too, that houses and buildings reached farther in design, painted brighter colors, and people dressed more casually as well as uniquely. What a far cry from fast paced, homogeneous suburbia, from a culture where people were pressured to conform and not question, not color outside the lines. It was wonderful yet jarring to finally take up a spot in this freer environment amid majestic natural habitats.

We initially lived in a roomy, two-story house that was one of a few belonging to my sister. It was a gift to move from a house to a house, since I had no job awaiting. But the first day I saw it I wondered if she’d lost her mind. Wasn’t it supposed to be in a more orderly, a trimmed-lawn-and-hedges sort of area similar to one we’d left? Wasn’t it a bit…well, bland, a bit ramshackle?

“You’re living in the real city now,” sister Allanya informed me.

“What do you mean, the real city?” I asked. “We just moved from Detroit, Michigan!” Meaning: that madly aggressive and industrious and rather dirty, spread out city of millions; the automotive capitol of the world (still, in 1992)!

“You’ve lived in a fairly tony suburb,” she reminded me, “not inner city Detroit.”

“Well, we lived on a more modest street in a one square mile village. I guess it considered a good suburb–it was certainly picturesque,” I agreed.

Now you live in the city with diversity of many sorts. This is close-in NE, meaning close to city center. Our downtown area is not like Detroit’s, if you recall; it’s generally safe. This neighborhood is variable block by block, perhaps, but this block is great. The area is improving a lot; it’s a great investment. I hope you’ll love it inside.”

Allanya bought houses and often renovated them; they were kept a few short years as rentals, then sold. I was getting a discount on rent and was deeply grateful for a readied house. I was only feeling the newcomer, unaccustomed to the ways and means of our new hometown.

The house itself was nondescript outside but, as promised, indoors it was spacious, light-flooded, attractive. It had a living room fireplace, a feature not in our last home. It had an enclosed porch/ sunroom I could use to write. Also a partially-finished basement with one bedroom and bathroom; huge kitchen with french doors and three bedrooms upstairs with bathroom. There was a vase full of cheery, fresh cut flowers on the table. We felt so welcomed. What more could we possibly want? So we lugged our suitcases up the stairs and unloaded the U Haul.

The back yard was good-sized with a garage. It had a weathered picnic table. Was that an alley back there? I peered over a fence, wondering how busy that got. My daughter and I took a walk the next day, down the block and to a busy intersection. We located the stop where she’d get the bus to school if she couldn’t be driven (she’d always been driven to school by me). Not a school bus. A regular city bus, unheard of in MI. as school transport and thus strange to us. I had been told by my sister that most kids took city buses by middle school; public transportation was so ubiquitous that youth and a great many adults went everywhere via bus system. I vowed to get a job that allowed me to drive her. I half promised to learn the bus system.

On the way back we noticed a small box of a nondescript store simply named “J’s Market.” It was a quick-stop sort of place; we were thirsty so went in search of sodas. It seemed a good sign that there was a place so close in case we needed a can of soup or a gallon of milk. We entered  and found the usual fare though it seemed dingier than expected. We browsed and were immediately watched by a hawkeyed older Asian store clerk, who simply nodded at me when I smiled and greeted him. As we checked out, I tried to be friendly.

“We’re new in the neighborhood. Nice to find a store so close.”

“Okay, good,” he said, taking my money.

“We’re from Michigan.”

“People coming all over.” He hadn’t looked up yet.

“I imagine so, it is a beautiful city.”

“Okay, have good day, thank you.”

We gave a little wave as we exited and he finally smiled ever so slightly, nodded again.

“What do you think so far?” I asked Alexandra.

That felt sort of weird. It sure is different here. But I think I like it.”

“Well, new places and people are good. We’re not in the ‘burbs, anymore.”

“That’s for sure!”

“You have a great view from your room onto the front yard. Big trees, too, like home.”

“Yeah,” she said and looked around at the street, stores, other houses, as if looking for something that could become her new inner magnetic North.

The truth was, it felt far more like a city than our sheltered suburb despite living within reach of a major megapolis for years. But day by day we began to adapt. Alexandra felt alright taking the bus soon and met a couple of nice girls. Josh made instant friends within the skateboarding world and got work right away as a commercial painter. I found a first job, then a better job, then was laid off, then found a position at a youth residential alcohol and drug treatment center that would be a springboard for a whole new career as a counselor. But there were things that worried me, too. It wasn’t the alienated, wounded, angry kids with whom I intensely interacted during long hours at work. It wasn’t the brief marriage ending. It was what happened on the streets about us.

We had made our lives comfortable after about a year. Everyone had their routine;  life was navigable again. We were decidedly happy with Portland’s variety of offerings and each of us made some connection to the community and developed promising friendships.

One early morning I was awakened by loud noises, one and then two sudden bangs close together that sliced through the silence. Maybe fireworks? I lifted my head from bed, heard nothing more, got up and ready for work. Odd that someone would be setting those off then. I forgot about it for an hour.

Josh came into the kitchen. “You hear those, Mom?”

“Yes, why?”

“I think they were gunshots.”

Alexandra looked up, eyes wide, then resumed eating.

“I seriously doubt it, we’ve felt safe enough here, haven’t we?”

“Yeah, but keep an eye out. Things can be sketchy at times, that’s what I’ve noticed.”

“Sure, I will.”

“I’ll see what I can find out. Be careful out there.”

I called in late to work and took her to school that day and a few after, eyeing houses and streets, driving with hands clutching the wheel. It wasn’t quite the first time I had heard alarming shots in my life, but it was so incongruous to hear in the morning that it hadn’t occurred to me it was a gun. Where were we, back in Detroit where you couldn’t venture safely past Eight Mile even in your car because scary things can happen in just a split second? I refused to believe it. We loved the house. My daughter’s school was very good, my son had good work and I was back on my feet.

Josh and I talked more than night.

“There’s lately been more gang activity around here, ” he said. “Better stay alert.”

“What? More activity lately? I haven’t seen anything, not really.”

“Maybe because we don’t know what to look for. Someone said there’s a house down at the next corner…” He pointed north. “Stay on our block or just south.”

I thought about it overnight and decided to take a casual drive around the area. I was not going to live on high alert all the time or be scared or teach my daughter to live afraid. But I wanted to know what was going on. The house my son had mentioned could pass as any house yet all  windows were curtained. On the porch were a couple of men with red bandanas around their heads, bare arms densely tattooed, with what I couldn’t make out in a fast glance. But since many youth I worked with were gang-members or peripherally associated, I knew what Crips and Bloods were; the lounging men were likely Bloods.

My heart rate rose. Sunglasses on, I kept my head forward and moved on. When I got a few houses down, I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw the men go inside. I turned the corner and went around another block and then back home. Sitting in the driveway, I wondered if the shots had come from there or if I was making something of what might be very little. I knew that it was not a good sign to see young men–and women–wearing bandanas of red or blue or yellow or a few other colors with other signifying clothing, depending on the part of the city you were in. Wearing of colors: a bold and direct statement, a warning, a clear sign of inclusion in a way of life, for life.

A neighbor lady with whom I’d  become friendly knew of it all already. “Ignore them or whatever goes on, that’s the best thing, just go about your business,” she advised–or cautioned.

Over the next few weeks there was no unusual activity, though occasionally a random gunshot might be heard ringing out in farther distance. Then one evening on a week-end when I was alone: the unmatchable roar of a muscle car was heard as it streaked past the house and neared the next corner. Shots punctuated the air multiple times; return fire occurred. It was loud enough that my ears recoiled. I moved into the back of our home, adrenalin surging, disoriented. Wasn’t the gang house at the northern corner? What did they have to do with our quiet, family-friendly block? Would the police be called? Shortly I heard sirens and tires screeching and more shots and more sirens. And then that silence which falls all around when something bad has happened. No one came out, nothing was said loud enough for others to hear. I crept up to a living room window, saw the blue and white flashing lights of police vehicles.

It was a long night. I did not tell Alexandra the next day. I did tell Josh and we determined that we should start looking for another place to live even though it might be hard financially. I then found out day from neighbors that every single day my children and I–and so many more—had been walking right by another gang house on our own corner. A dispute had turned virulent. I scoured the rental ads and looked at places but had less luck that anticipated. I took more shifts at work to save more money.

A couple of weeks later my daughter and I were sleeping soundly after a game of Scrabble. Josh was gone as he more often was, nineteen and having fallen in love. It was the voices at first that I heard, muted shouts outside my bedroom window which faced the back yard and alley. Initially I thought little of it though annoyed, turned over and tried to sleep. But the voices got louder and then came thundering feet on the dirt and gravel alleyway, and then came gunshots, two, three four. Then from the front of the house, gunshots, poppoppoppop! Then another back and front.

“Alexandra!” I called out her name through thick, alive darkness.

“Mom!” she shouted back, so frightened I could even feel her heart beating a million beats a minute. Like mine.

“Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

Nothing. I lay paralyzed a second as I heard more scurrying and voices giving directions of some sort outside. I began to slip off the bed, inch my way toward her room  when suddenly I realized Alexandra was rapidly crawling along the hallway and then across my floor. Was reaching for me.

“Mom, the gunshots! They went by my window!” She was yelling in a hoarse whisper.”Are they out back now?”

I pulled her down. We lay on the floor, my arm clamping her to the rug.

“Shhh…be still,” I said, lying close.”Don’t talk now.”

I could hear her trying not to cry, trying to not hyperventilate. I felt my own throat constrict, my chest thud as we waited for a long while, what seemed like hours. There was a rumble of sounds and then silence and then more silence, and then babble of hushed voices but it was people out in the street talking, I imagined. I told her to lay still and I’d be right back. I crawled into her room. The front windows overlooked the street, so I peeked around the edge of a curtain. There was a handful of neighbors in a yard across from us and then sirens wailed and police cars. I was tempted to go into the street to find out more but my daughter was shivering on the floor in my room so back I went.

“It’s all over,” I said, praying it was true.

She slept restlessly in my bed that night, a first in many years. We talked about it, how one stray bullet could have hit her from the front street or me from the alley gunfire. We were horrified by the possibility. We remained shaken by our new reality for weeks: we now lived in a place where guns were readily used in the city’s warfare and criminal activity, where what was a beautiful place could be changed to one of fear and trembling. We had left Detroit but had come to this. I felt depressed that I had made this decision. I had brought my children there with promises of good things, happier times.

We moved her bed far away from the windows. But it hadn’t been gang-related. J’s Market had been robbed, and people in the store ran after the guys. It was not the first time and some said would likely not be the last. But the owner would not give up.

We loved that high-ceilinged, spacious house; it was close to my job and most neighbors were kindly. But I started seriously looking for an accommodating apartment in a safer part of the city still close to her school. Josh found his own way after I located a good place roughly twenty blocks away but a whole new world and before long, we were gone. My sister had decided to sell her house, anyway.

That was twenty-five years ago. The old neighborhood is so different from what we knew that as I drove past the old place it seemed I’d made a wrong turn. There are pricey big stores where small crusty shops stood. The streets look sharper, brighter, repaired in all the most right ways. Gentrification is happening all over the city as more people move here and greater services are in demand. I can’t say I like it much; somehow it seems unreal to me, almost like the suburban life seems to me now. I know it has pushed plenty of people far out of their comfort zones, and also their very homes.

But J’s Market is still there, a little freshened but still and worn, busy as ever. I’ve stopped there a couple times and recognize no one, of course.  The Asian owner had ended up being more chatty with us, as we stopped there frequently, and had wished us well when we moved. I wonder who owns it now. I wonder over the fortitude or stubbornness of business owners who have refused to let gang wars or robbers shut them down. Who now won’t be bought easily and thus lose their toehold I on their neighborhood. And it is not lost on me that many who might want to leave a certain place cannot and there are those who would not ever consider it if they could only find a way ro stay. This is only my story; I did what worked for me, and it was not easy financially those years.

I have to be honest, though. We yet do occasionally hear fainter and even closer gunshots from this vantage point, within boundaries of one of several gracious historical neighborhoods. It’s still a densely packed area, “close-in”, and there will always be sirens and lots of traffic nearby and random disputes on the streets even while one admires Portland’s quirky attractions, surprising wonders and the beauties of the Northwest. It’s the actual city, as my sister once emphasized, even if it is smaller than some others I’ve admired. Lots of entrepreneurial energy is apparent, a trademark of our town. The arts and sciences flourish in fascinating forms and nature goes wild even within city limits.

But then I am yanked from deep of night and dreamy slumber: there is a familiar bambambambam, the echoing retort of a gun or two and I wonder what’s happening, what’s next, what should I do. Slowly I release taut breath, wait for emptied silence, turn over. Go to sleep once more. I wouldn’t want to live any place else, at least for the time being. Which is what I say every year.

A Summer Fair of Peculiar and Pleasing Note (Going Strong After 40-odd Years)

Enter at your own risk: you’ve made your way to the Oregon Country Fair!

I let my daughter and her fiance lead the way in 2012 when they finally convinced my husband and me to attend for one day. Immediately it felt as if I was stepping back into those hippie days when I attended open air music and other arts festivals with like-minded friends. I prepared for the inevitable scent of marijuana on the breeze, outrageous costumery and random hi-jinks. I was not much off the mark. Come along with the four of us to get a taste of a slightly mad, creative and fun event. Showtime!

According to Wikipedia and website info, the Oregon Country Fair was conceived and first unrolled in 1969 as a benefit for an alternative school. Over the decades this fair has grown into a colossal event with at least 45,00 visitors over a three day period. Set within wooded acreage owned by OCF outside of Veneta, Oregon, it’s billed as a non-profit educational organization. They still donate funds to their chosen recipients. It has a half dozen permanent staff but thousands of volunteers, performers and artisans contribute to its ongoing annual event and they clearly provide its longevity.  But most likely go because it remains an outpost of hippiedom with its expressive arts, a broad array of seldom seen or heard fantastical fare. Plus, you can wear beautiful wings or whatever desired (it may at times be a bit risque, allowed within limits). Even if you are a 60+ years person one is encouraged to doff enchanted fairy or steampunk or what-have-you accouterments. It’s the fair’s intention that we become a part of the performance, the zany milieu.

I confess to having appeared rather an ordinary woman and did not sport iridescent wings… somewhat to my regret as I do have the capacity in me. But I did appreciate my daughter’s red dress and fancy touches of gold. And nabbed this picture of her multiple smiling faces! Others were casually attired while some were eye-popping.

On offer were food and drink, entertainment galore, arts and crafts, music and dance; vaudeville, circus acts, marching bands plus solo musicians of all types and even spoken word. There are 960 booths at which to gawk and spend money. Workshops abound regarding all types of physical and spiritual well being plus arts and crafts. Concerts can be heard coming around each new scene, and many buskers enthusiastically perform along winding, green paths. Even a few talented children got in the act.

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The above picture shows a musical sculpture. It was mesmerizing to coax resonant notes and unusual sounds by striking or pounding on varying parts of the metal design. I do not recall who built it.

Moving along through the treed acreage was like being sheltered by a dome of green light. We walked amid mobile fantasy that unfolded one act after another while walking through a cheerful crowd. Even stone cold sober one begins to feel one’s consciousness altered due to a myriad of changing, vibrant sights, scents, tastes and sounds. If stimulation and surprise are not something you seek this is not the place to be; one may as well surrender or go home.

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I felt I needed to attend the OCF at least once, as it is a Pacific Northwest experience, creative connection between people who might not intersect otherwise. One enters into experience as spectators during performances but then again by interacting with a kaleidoscopic moments, an abundance of milling, motley characters. The crowd was dense and sights numerous, yet there was a pervasive sense of surprise, wonderment. Peaceable pleasure.

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Though I was tired out at end of a long day, ready to lounge in air conditioning with a tall iced tea, I’m glad we attended with our youngest daughter and her partner. Once was satisfying– an infusion of unique possibilities acted out in the open air– and perhaps enough for me as I embraced my own real hippie scenarios long ago. My husband found it a bit much but remained a good sport. It is one kind of Oregon summer tradition and thousands love to come year after year.

I hope you have enjoyed the abbreviated but decent sampling of an Oregon Country Fair experience as I saw it in 2012. Need a recharge? Want to push some boundaries but harmlessly? Looking for poetic inspiration? Everyone needs small breaks from a more mundane reality. May you embrace your own weird, lively, magical outing this summer!

Behold What the Eye Can See

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

It happens to me often and here it was again as we moved through the scenery. Beguilement.

Expansive views of the acreage of Asheville, North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate (built in 1895 and owned by the George Vanderbilt family known for their shipping and railroad empires) are majestic and bucolic. They thrill the eye, the sweeping views evocative of tranquil order, supported by nature and hidden human industry. I absorbed each vista with breathless anticipation of the next bend we would round. It wasn’t so much being impressed by the property as being impacted by the changing scenes. Each bigger picture was mesmerizing in breadth and scope. I could have looked and looked and never been satiated. Such plenitude of detail that at moments I could hardly absorb it all. Even withstand it. That’s just how it is for me. I’m certain it’s the same for others, especially those who have a passion to observe, to know more intimately what they see.

Not that it was overwhelming in a deleterious way. The copious beauty was varied and intense. There is something within me that, though filling up to overflowing expands further for more. I feel hunger for it all, want it imprinted within. And to partake of any wisdom moving beneath the robust and delicate scenes. For what my eyes see, ears hear–they teach me things. Our senses are gifts, conduits to greater understandings, not just of a moment but of complex universal designs. I follow my eye and instincts to discover an abundance of intrigue.

But I need to dismantle it a little. I take camera in hand and as all who love visual arts, focus on separate tableaus with their telltale clues, delights. Eye/mind/soul zero in on minute parts, look into shadows. Seek one cloud’s shape within greater configurations. Each piece is cohesive in its specificity, sometimes even more so than the extended view. They all have value; I am drawn in by a propulsive curiosity. I want to see well the exterior but also find an interior liveliness that is like a secret. It’s a treasure hunt for mind and senses. Any moment can harbor possibility and that is the real magnet that draws me. I can define an object before me , but what does it mean? How did/does it function in space and time? What matters or mattered about it within a garden, in a room, a life?

This is what attracts me in daily living: about everything. Put another way, what exists in this present can well hold my attention, but what has captivating potential–and everything does–is a series of magic doors I seek to open. If a glimpse offers a story, even a tiny one, I have been granted access to a journey that leads to challenges, a certain enchantment and most often, fulfillment. I can’t really lose. All of life is a story within another story within another, like Russian nesting dolls or better yet, a puzzle that is partially solved while added to over time.

I used to pretend being a reporter when I was a kid. I sat at a child-sized roll top desk with cubbyholes, took notes of various household and neighborhood goings on, filed them away in their slots and  folders. Diaries to detail more thoughts and experiences were required. I wrote and produced plays with neighborhood buddies and tried in vain to charge admission. We attempted full make up and ragtag costumes and hung a sheet for a curtain. We had decent turnouts. And then there would be a brief song on the radio which evoked extemporaneous movements–lo, a dance unleashing its tale. There was always something to hear, see, smell, taste, touch–and to read! and a cohort to do things with!– that jogged an expressive impulse. Take the navy, wide brimmed hat with sheer white and pink flowers at the ribbon my mother made with her own hands. It settled onto her silvery hair. It had presence all its own as she wore it; it did things with her. Another story idea.

Let’s take dolls as inspiration. Owning some of the first Barbie dolls was a blast.  I became stage manager and director of their adventures. I’d get the big square floor pillow–brown corduroy–and then cover a matchbox with a handkerchief for a couch or bed, bring in rocks, twigs and grass for a yard, sneak my mother’s fancy scarves to create exotic wardrobes and floor covering. The finishing touches were always changing but each mattered in that moment.  (I know, it’s not PC these days to say I enjoyed playing with Barbie and gang. She did not do dishes and Ken did not mow lawns. It’d now likely be demoted to mere play therapy as well, sadly.) Barbie et al and I got all sorts of events going; those dolls unlocked ideas and enlarged experiences like crazy. They led lives with fine sensibilities but had a talent for spontaneous fun. Or I should say it seemed they did but I was the supposed director.

It took very little to have a good time. From seemingly nothing could come anything at all. A sunny spot by or even under the scarred baby grand piano was a world to be reckoned with, mine to develop and claim. A starry night and a blanket. A cozy camp out within evergreens.

The back yard, with its shade trees and pines and bushes made a great stage but so did various living rooms and bedrooms, a porch or park or back steps. I didn’t even have to make much up, though. Tall tales unfolded all around me as life was textured and colored with people, places, events. I was charmed and mystified by myriad scenes, found them dramatically provocative of ideas and emotions. There still might arise an urge to embroider it–seeing an abandoned plaid, overstuffed chair or a cafe umbrella shading a person at a table whose single booted foot and “talking” hand were seen. Something had already happened, was happening or was about to happen. And I wanted to know, even if I had to fill in the gaps.

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This capacity for probing with problem solving–the urge to learn–is an attribute we all enjoy. It has been a powerful driving force in my everyday life. And because of this, I am never bored. Entertainment is within reach at any given time. There is endless mystery. I am duly humbled by how little I yet know and understand and experience a thrill from ongoing explorations. Even the momentary, least noteworthy ones. Or perhaps those are the best, at times.

It’s all in the details, that was what I was thinking on my power walk today. Walks are interrupted frequently as I pause to examine something. I spot a teal green gate at the side of a rambling house and above it is a heavily leafed branch; amber light is streaming through treetops. There is a soft splash, cat’s whiny meow, breath of wind. Leaves on trees shimmy, almost singing. How all this transfixes me… there is a sense of prescience. But of what? Of life happening and about to happen. Of  intricate connections, from behemoth tree to blades of grass to wooden gate to all creatures to crown of sky and beyond and to this moment. I am flabbergasted by the wonder of it. It is an intimate place in which we live and learn.

I am not naive. I have not lived a breezy, protected life. Surely no one truly does, for so much of what we do and hope for is a grab bag, like it or not. The very beauty that we need to love can hurt beyond measure when we’re vulnerable or anguished. As a young teen I still recall a moment when I experienced the unbounded extraordinariness of just being alive yet also felt  bereft. I stretched my arms around a favorite oak tree and wept. Later I wrote a poem, a terribly adolescent poem, and there is a line that’s stayed with me over 60 years: and yet beauty bites the bleeding heart. I loved so much and easily and still was rent by life’s bitter parts. As we each are.

But nothing is wasted in life; we experience it and let it go or keep it close, even recycle it sooner or later. We reinvent ourselves any way we can and need to do. It is our story to make happen. There is much to be unveiled as breath enters, nourishes microscopic cells, exits the miraculous lungs; while this fist sized muscle of heart beats its tireless rhythms for me. So I listen and watch, reach out, seek more. Wonder visits me like a loving old friend and we root out bits and clues, celebrate even when I get worn out and crabby. I do not want to be careless with the  bounties offered, nor dismiss the grace of moments I am allowed to inhabit. Big picture or small, the scenes of life are ours to unveil.

My visit to the Biltmore Estate gave me a renewed appreciation of my life situation, the assortment of whims, choices, dreams and labors. I left with a more vivid view of settings and circumstances within which the Vanderbilts conducted parts of their lives. The estate might have fleshed out the family more with traces of their individuality, remnants of yearnings. (George man loved books, that was encouraging, and hopefully the women did, as well. ) A visible legacy other than only wealth, with signs of daily interactions, musings and matters of the heart that roiled, pacified and beguiled–those underpinning and perhaps secreted away from such power and industry. I have more investigating to undertake. But I couldn’t help but think of them traversing the stone steps, gliding across endless rooms, seeking solace or joy in the gardens as they spoke in hushed tones. Can we have Act 1 outlined and set up, please?

Then again, maybe I will move on to fleeting moments of lives being lived, scenarios created this very second. Wait, see how the summer light moves across the grass and street? All it takes is observation plus a dash of imagination, same as it did as a kid.

Bravehearts, One and All

Photo: Man on balcony of Biltmore Estate by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of bravery. It intrigues and impresses me. I haven’t looked up the definition since elementary school, but I’m confident of its core meaning. It is generally equated with being willing to face and cope with unseen or unwanted challenges, to persist in holding steady or going forward despite strictures, opposition or hardship. It is about nurturing hope despite a current reality that serves to quash hope. Bravery involves finding reserves of strength though feeling weak, harnessing courage in presence of fear, and taking meaningful risks when one might be cautioned otherwise. It is standing up, stepping out, going forth because one must. Or one determines it more desirable. To do otherwise would be harder to live with even if there is reasonable chance of failure. Bravery calls for a deep moral fortitude, for a tensile mind and will.

Often it seems we don’t even know we possess these until we need to use them. They come to us at our command or perhaps with assistance. Surprised, we revel in new prowess it can afford us.

Then again, I may be kidding myself. How much do I know about the need of truly mighty bravery? It’s true I’ve had diverse experiences through which to assess such qualities in people, either first or second hand. But neither do they include the full spectrum of circumstances by which people develop then utilize an almost mythic bravery. I am not a trauma nurse or doctor, disaster aid worker, war veterans’ services provider–those who surely see this firsthand. But I am a retired alcohol/drug and mental health counselor. And I have been witness to a lot of true stories that caused my heart and spirit to lurch and weep and experience great joy for lives lost and found again.

But I don’t have to go to work to see lives being lived despite many perils. There are examples of this even on streets I traverse, places I go.

For months homeless men have made their shelter in a cement entryway of a nearby church. The doors remain locked but this area is free to use. In bone chill of rainy winter they huddled deep into worn sleeping bags or tattered blankets. Sometimes a radio could be heard. Sometimes they’d be talking with one another–perhaps two or three as if there was a limit–or sharing a hot or cold drink. As the seasons morphed into warmer days and nights, they’ve been there less. But mostly they are there, belongings piled up on carts or in plastic bags. They–or others–rummage in our garbage for salvageable food or cans and bottles to turn in. And when it’s a decent day for one reason or another or weather is more amenable, off they go. I rarely have seen them arrive or leave; they just are there and not there. They, like thousands more, live a nomadic life in our city. They are tough or get toughened in every way to just go on living.

They are brave urban street survivors. They endure so much of what we will not ever have to, if we enjoy better fortune. By that I mean we have adequate income to cover our needs, adequate care and medicines to help treat illnesses of all sorts, none of a variety of addictions (gambling is perhaps the worst) that plunge us far over the edge with little help of rescue. I’ve had many clients who lived in city’s forests, along streets in tents or boxes or in relentless heat and cold of the open air under the freeway overpass. Their feet get weary and wounded from walking–from poorly fitting shoes, no socks, no shoes. They live with hunger despite a free warm meal once a day and handouts. They get lonely except for a stray dog they feed scraps and then give a name to only to know it might be taken or die or run off, or a buddy or two they trust this week. They suffer from maladies that they just ignore or cannot get treated. Fight to keep what little they have from those who rob them, and suffer attacks from stronger and angrier people.

The ones who came to me for help desired a safe place for their own, even a very small room. Or a  corner under an awning or camping in bushes with no one bothering them since being in open air offers freedoms, too. Sitting in my comfy office I knew they came partly for respite a while, for dryness or warmth or air conditioning. And to talk and just be heard. To get help with an opiate, methamphetamine or benzodiazepine addiction; or bipolar  or psychotic episodes or recurrent depression with crippling anxiety. To find a way out of the particular rabbit  hole they found themselves in despite once dreaming and working for a far different life. No one expects to be homeless, after all.

Not often did they admit to being brave but they knew they coped with things a great many others cannot. And endurable and enduring street life is predicated on one’s wits, physical and psychic strength–being able to engage in fully operant survival mode. Some might say “dumb luck” also played a part in staying alive. Still, I’d remind them that basic bravery was a prime asset among internal  and external resources that worked on their behalf. That dipping into even a piddling spring of hope one day to the next enabled someone to not throw in the towel. Because often all appears lost to the mentally ill and physically debilitated, the addicted and traumatized. There is powerful value in this tool for survival, this bravery. To keep on until a better answer is found. And this often did bring them to my door, seeking change. Renewal.

Their sort of bravery works for them. It is not a choice often, but more a requirement. It is far different to have to deal with harsh realities and try to make a change than to choose to face fear in order to do something new that is engaging and meant for one’s own satisfaction.

Bravery is a potent quality for us all to use, however. There are people who stand up for basic human rights despite any backlash from naysayers. Those who sacrifice personal security or even their lives to help or defend others. People determined to generate improvements in quality of life despite opposition branding them variously as budget busters or out of touch with real communities or having too radical an approach to make viable change happen.

Then there are the rest of us, perhaps at first glance ordinary people, no celebrated dragon slayers. We live our lives quietly, industriously, but often with fervency, a sense of expectancy. We are visited by lesser and greater life problems. Our strong bodies get busted. The love of our life finds then marries someone else. A best friend behaves like an enemy, or worse yet drifts away without a backward glance. Our talents fail to bring us the supposed glory we envisioned. Our good education somehow prepared us for a mundane job. We fail our children in small ways that will haunt us or in a big way that is never beyond shamed and pained attention. Our lives can be dolorous, frayed by restlessness, thinned by loneliness. Tried in seven variations yet discovered wanting again.

But we prevail, anyway. We chose to continue tromping on our way. We’d rather try again–if nothing more than because we wonder what else is out there. Trying emphasizes seeking or finding opportunities; it implies better possibilities. Ones that are preferable to the present circumstance.

All that bobbing about on the river of life, or being impeded by rock, branch or uncharted, unnatural dam. All the re-routing we must make. It takes stamina, too. We do not get to live by instinct alone but also must engage brain and soul power.

When once I was struggling with my own upended life, a person of authority told me something that stayed with me ever after–but as an example of what was an untruth. She said, “Trying isn’t close to enough and is not the point here. Only victory over your trauma symptoms will be enough, but that’s unlikely.”

I was a teenager in a psychiatric ward where I was sent to “get over” a damaged childhood. I had had about enough of adults’ ignorant ways. I looked at the psychiatrist to see if she was joking. She was not.

I retorted, “Victory is right in this terrible trying I do every day and night. Don’t you tell me trying doesn’t count. I’ll succeed because I’ll try hard enough and long enough to figure things out. Get better, get out of here and go on.”

With her words to fight against and my stubborn pushing forward, I began to think of myself as someone who might rise above. Who could change things even if they needed to be done alone. I loathed that place with its high, narrow windows and guttural sounds all night long and the mind-numbing pills I rarely swallowed. I began to alter my internal life story from one of fear to a tentative then quiet boldness. I did not feel brave but profoundly longed to be. So I started to act as if I was. Increments of courage propelled me. I learned to endure a dim and haunted place where many seemed to be fading or forgotten. To feel their ruinous grief within echoing walls while sorting out my own. To scrub bathrooms with a toothbrush when I broke a rule. To float beyond it all while trying to block out someone screaming in the night. I would not succumb. I found even an approximation of bravery cast enough encouraging light to offer refuge until the real thing kicked in.

Of course more challenges lay ahead. But I saw a light and parsed out some of what might work to better reassemble the pieces.

That was an experience long ago lived. But today’s post has another, far happier genesis.

I was on the East coast last week and got to spend time with my oldest daughter, a sculptor who teaches at a university. Naomi (Falk, not Richardson if you look for her on Instagram) was buying rather esoteric and expensive items for an upcoming sailing trip to Greenland starting in July. (Rubber boots, dry pack, super dark sunglasses that cost plenty, special socks and other clothing, etc.) She made an iPad purchase and was been talking with the salesman about how she needed certain video editing capacities and waterproof features for a trip. He inquired about it further so she shared more. He “high-fived” her and peppered her with excited questions. A Hawaiian, he’d been following the return of a traditional Polynesian voyaging canoe after three years at sea with navigation via only stars, wind and waves.

That conversation was a first and fascinating to hear. After two days with her I’d seen a different reaction. This man got it entirely. Usually when people asked and she shared the basics, they responded with mouth hanging open. Incredulous. Or they blinked at her blankly, repeated her statement but as a question, to make sure they heard right. She said something like this:

“I’m going on a trip in a fifty-one foot sailing vessel with a small crew and a few others for an artists’ residency. But it’s also about examining environmental issues, climate changes and how they’re impacting glaciers and Greenlanders. Yep, sailing up the East coast toward Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and then to Greenland’s western coast. ”

And she’d note: “I know only basics of sailing, but may not need to use my limited knowledge. I’d like to, though. I hope to scuba dive at some point.”

Or she would say: “Why am I doing it? Well, it’s not something I’d be expected to do. It interests me, the whole experience. I took a boat around and to the Faroe Islands last year, had an artists’ residency in Iceland before that– I can do Europe, for example, any old time. In fact, have gone and will go again.”

She was generally grinning while speaking, yet her essential equanimity always struck me. But that is Naomi. She gathers much information, cogitates, makes a decision and goes forward, even if there are more questions to be answered. She trusts her process and gut. She takes calculated risks, ones that many would not consider much less do. I consider her brave in more ways than one. Born at two and a half pounds, two and a half months early in the mid-70s when such preemies were not often expected to live much less fully thrive, she seemed pretty brave from the start.

“My brave and foolish daughter, dear Naomi,” I teased as we headed back to the hotel laden with her purchases, and we laughed even as I gulped a little.

And then I thought more about those words.  It’s not that she feels no trepidation. It’s that she does/creates/investigates unusual things, anyway. Isn’t that what it takes in life to keep the wheels turning? I mean all the wheels–the wheel of invention, the wheels of learning and time and creativity, of us becoming adaptable, goals being met and life being lived? We need common sense; I’m a huge proponent of the homely quality that withstands many stressors. But we need to take risks, too, that teach us what we are made of and what we may need to know. Lessons and insights that can connect us to more than our claustrophobia-prone, exclusive ways of being. And it takes bravery to take the first step away from all familiar toward something imagined but not wholly known. It requires visionary breadth to position ourselves in a scenario far different than what we know in this moment.

Whether life is terribly hard and wounding or safe yet empty of curious impulses, we cannot forge any new path without resurrecting our waiting bravery. And to do that may mean being a little foolish at times. Conjuring and planning what may not seem to make complete sense but which triggers a compelling sync with who we’re meant to be. Energy of anticipation. Magnetism of secret dreams unveiled. A sense of embarking on a finer adventure. Being true to our best selves.

We all are capable of being brave. In fact, I believe we are born to it. Perhaps we just forget in the morass of daily duties what bravery is, how it feels. It feels vibrant. (Even dauntless, not so foolish a thing to feel as we stumble–it’s like having a burly staff for balance.) We would do well to call it forth for ourselves and others, then do more good and be who we long to be. Call it forth even more under the press of worldly burdens and losses. There are days when opening the door requires a mantle of bravery for an emboldened step beyond the threshold. Find the heart to claim it and take a chance.

Naomi posing good-naturedly at McColl Center for Art+Innovation, Charlotte, NC