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.

A Return of Ogres I Still Will Tame

Spring Everywhere! 067

The picture here represents a considerable part of my reality–I love beautiful tables and flowers and visual and performing arts and so very much more. But beyond this frame there is more than meets the eye. This day I feel a quiet desolation and seek solace.

Despite my embrace of the captivating fullness of life, real happiness arising from even transitory moments, hauntings can occur in my life unannounced. Nights hijacked by old suspects and worn out frights, mornings stolen by that which I believed were barest of images within vast, more interesting records of memory. I am at times caught unprepared and that makes it harder. This!– despite years of education and therapeutic insights, despite solid training on how to maneuver within frightening contexts both literal and figurative. I still must chase away ghosts that, though vaporous, insist on inhabiting my space. I keep thinking I should no longer have to slay those dragons, corral and banish those memories. It is only the intangible past, not the present reality but it yet survives to varying degrees, right here, within me, despite my best intentions and hard work. Mostly I am not that person with that kind of  suffering. And then it comes around again.

It was a conversation that veered suddenly into dire places. But it might be a terrible movie scene. A certain car and truck passing by. A stranger on the street who moves and watches like a predator. People who spit out hard, bitter words. The sounds of someone shoving or hitting another. A knife flashed. A fierce warning to say nothing, to make no sound. Another song that disparages women. Seeing a child whose face appears frozen rather than round with contentment. A youth whose eyes reflect a ruinous something, an emptiness where once was excitement for life.

And then I may start to free fall deep within, and the falling ignites travail and its grief. I have moments to stop the fall or it could accelerate, even if for a few moments, an hour. Or a day or two. But I am fortunate. I know what it is and I know what to do.

Anyone who has experienced significant trauma knows what this is. It has a clinical name many abbreviate, as if this might make it seem less distressing and it has been more and more tossed about for all sorts of things: PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a great deal more its name denotes at first glance. It represents an array of internal and external responses to internal or external stimuli that carry the person back to the initial trauma and feelings associated with it. It can be experienced even as difficult–or more–than the original events. Because it is never quite entirely over. We sometimes don’t care about greater understanding of the originating cause and complicated effects. We are more invested in trying to live beyond both. And our intellects, our will, tell us we can do it when emotions are busy issuing their own commands.

This thing we feel is a razor-sharp grief that resurfaces, a shock that feels like a grab around the neck. A nebulous fear that fools and undermines. A threat of hopelessness that seeks to badger one into believing there is no point to faith, courage and persistence; that peace and joy are wretched fables. It is the vivid remembrance that harm came and there was no rescuing and that this remains a possibility. It is a mirror you look into, seeing only devastation behind blurred eyes. It can take a person and transform him or her into someone unrecognizable. The tragedy of trauma injures badly and even cripples– and although healing seems complete, aging wounds can reopen to threaten the wellness that has been recreated. This is life with PTSD, even when it is familiar territory: experiencing old and new dangers, standing your ground despite renewed distress and becoming more resilient. You further determine to become and/or to remain whole.

I have often written of emotional and spiritual programs one can engage in to live beyond the harm done, to overcome trauma’s effects. And also how often in my counseling work I have seen people not only recover but come alive again (for it is a kind of rebirth to get better) in powerful ways, and move forward. I’ve spoken of my childhood abuse and adult abuse/assaults including domestic violence to help establish the honest reality of what I have lived. I haven’t written of specific events because sometimes graphic exposure does not make the story more powerful or worthwhile–nor the storyteller feel any better nor reader more truly informed. Violence against children and women: this tells of the crimes.

But trauma did not negate the happiness of my growing up, the fond memories of family cohesion and caring and many wonderful experiences I’ve freely written about. I’ve shared the fact of abuse to also demonstrate how it has become an impetus to change that led to growth. A serious challenge I took up spiritually beginning in early adolescence. It has been part of what fuels my creativity as well as strengthening empathy and compassion for others. I have deeply wanted to assure others that there is the potential for joy beyond the burden of past abuse–because I have found it, myself. This is the truth as I have known it, as well. But it doesn’t mean that my life is easy and that all that pain has vanished. It is more that I have learned to manage PTSD  symptoms and know my limits as well as my potential to be a braver and healthier woman.

Survivors of abuse need to know where our responsibility begins and ends. I was not responsible for what happened to me. I was not responsible for parents and others nearby being unable or unwilling to help me. I was not responsible for the fact that there was too little clinical knowledge forty, fifty and sixty years ago to appropriately treat children and young adults who had been violated. I was not responsible for a culture that accepts and fosters, even glorifies violence against females. I was not responsible as a teen for becoming gradually dependent on potent barbiturates, tranquilizers and amphetamine the family doctor prescribed rather than ask what was wrong. I was not responsible for feeling abandoned and thus not loved, and making poor choices that sprang from a grave sense of worthlessness. I was not responsible for the horror and pain, years and years of it. And I was not even responsible for longing to die, for nothing else made any sense. But I stayed alive. Held on to what mattered. Perhaps because I yet believed despite the seeming evidence that God had not forgotten me, that God had always offered a steadfast love.

But at some point I saw–we see–there is much work to be done and it is time to stop the blood- letting and crying out. To stop just enduring–and to get on with it. As an adult I am responsible for taking back my life. For seeking help when I have needed it, of informing myself of options available and then taking reparative action. I can be, must be, far more than a survivor. I am a human being who is living a life that I value. Making mistakes, failing to accomplish all I desire but striving to do even better, to become more enriched, kindhearted, even celebratory than yesterday. There is no other choice for me, anymore. I have lived much longer than I had expected; I have come close enough to death a few times. I know that the present offers me opportunities to be fully present and to be of good use, no matter that suffering might pair up with exultations. And in between the peaks and valleys there is just the business of life to attend to; it is my intention to attend to it as all deserve to have done.

But there are still weeping days. And the weight of hulking nights. There are memories that still twist my heart. Losses that can track me down like mad dogs. I have to take hold, take greater care. Take the time to heal that spot more again. To be patient with myself. Create kinder moments and reach out to friends and family. Remind the anguished child (who became a woman, a caretaker of other wounded ones, an adoring mother and a sort of writer-warrior) that she is never truly alone nor unloved. I must look into the ogres’ faces from time to time and find it in me to forgive as often as it takes. And maybe one day they will not materialize at all. Or I will have left the haunted premises, truly free. But if they do, I will manage.

I have questions that have no discernible answers, yes. It is disconcerting since I have a great need to understand, to embrace the truth. There are prayers I pray that may travel beyond forever or land on far planets or crowd among the prayers of millions more. But it is our human nature, too, to send a floating globe of light into dark-draped skies and with it a fledgling hope, a heartfelt longing, a silent but resounding word to God. And so today I have let the aching just be here for a bit. Acknowledged what it is. Now I remove it from my center. Hold it in my hands, raise them high; breathe in, breathe out. Let it go once more. Step out the door, move on.

 

Friends for All Sorts of Weather

The voicemail was brief and to the point. She’d called to let me know her phone had been inoperable or she sure would have called me sooner to see how things were. I’d left her a voice mail a few days earlier about my spouse’s new worrisome medical issue. Just hearing her voice brought a sense of relief. I knew we would talk more and soon. B. is always there for me and vice versa, even if we must miss each other a couple times.

I had met her 25 years ago when working with addicted, gang-affiliated, abused and generally high-risk teens in a long-term residential facility. B. was about as different from me at first glance as one might imagine: big and tough, boisterous and prone to swearing, full of jokes and quick to aggressively make her views known. I often found her obnoxious while I gained respect for her insights, her firm boundaries yet good rapport with the clients. We often clashed over the simplest things. Then we began to share a smoke during our breaks, talked more, and became cautious friends, then good friends. It turned out she had a tender side, was often considerate and could be very good natured. We made each other laugh a lot. I was still new to Portland, and having her friendship helped usher me into a more welcoming, hospitable adjustment. In time she calmed down a little, got a bit softer though her boldness and strength are never in dispute. She has shown herself to be generous with time and resources. We are very close friends and I cannot begin to say how much I yet admire and appreciate her.

Developing friendships has never been easy as it was when I was a child. I moved a lot in my twenties and thirties. Life circumstances have often created barriers– living in the isolating country, lack of free time (five kids), work demands, health problems, a spouse who prefers to be more of a loner. I have had to more often carefully root out potential friends, and sometimes have even advertised for them (more on this later). I have also had to be ready to let go of them as work and life have demanded yet another move. Luckily, I have been in Portland the longest I have lived anywhere–and some good friends have remained here, as well.

Making friends used to be clear and simple: bumping into someone at the playground while playing catch, being asked to join a group or team, perhaps finding one’s self sitting next to the new kid and wondering who she or he was–so offering a smile, asking her or his name and maybe from which street, town or state the person had moved. One was connected in a neighborhood just by being present or from engagement in school activities, church events or attending a good weather picnic and special parties that grown-ups organized. In my childhood city of Midland, population about 28,000 when I grew up, it would be hard to get too lost in a crowd for long. We knew who lived on our blocks but even beyond, who delivered mail and newspaper (as well as their families), who participated and how in school or town events. I might make a new friend because an old one invited that girl to a pajama party. And we might even know of one another already. We inhabitants of smallish hometown were familiars more often than not, knew people via family name or accomplishments, as well as other basic information like who had a big family or had lost a parent or grandparent to illness or accident (with perhaps details of same). It was a fairly friendly town, (though it could be a closed place, as well–other cities found us a bit exclusive) and finding new connections was just a part of ordinary living and doing.

My first significant best friend (beyond my several neighborhood “besties”) attended the same United Methodist Church. We met in the fifth grade in Sunday school. We noticed we shared the same first name (somehow I was dubbed “Cindy” by my teens; I didn’t like it, though, and reclaimed my birth name at 18). We sat huddled in the airy balcony during services, passing notes back and forth as we scribbled away on church bulletins. We developed a Sunday afternoon tradition of meeting at nearby Nugent Drugs’ lunch counter to enjoy a cherry or lime Coke and split an order of steamy hot French fries and gab for an hour. I’d sometimes spend the night at her place and she, at mine. We hung out in junior high school, walking arm in arm down the hallway, both of us turning when our names were called out since we answered to both. She had dark wavy hair; mine was a light auburn and she was a few inches taller. I felt part of a set of unmatched twins.

It seemed we could talk about anything–from hunky but annoying boys to hairdo fiascoes to the meaning of religion to private hurts and dreams. We lived in different areas of the city–hers was a far wealthier neighborhood. Her father worked for Dow Chemical Company in a higher up position and my father was in music and educational administration. It created a disparity in economic levels though not otherwise; it didn’t seem to matter. We were introspective with extroverted tendencies, loved academics and reading, enjoyed competition, and had four siblings who drove us nuts. Admiration played a part: I thought she was pretty and smart; she thought I had plenty of talent. But mostly we liked each other’s company. Perhaps as important or more so we entrusted each other with our secrets, our real life issues.

We began to drift apart as we got engaged in more serious high school life a few years later. It appeared we’d slowly and radically changed–or I had–and prioritized different goals. She was a debater and class president; I was edging toward hippie/folk singer/poet who explored more liberal politics. I had, instead, become best friends with another girl, someone who seemed to better understand me as I faced various challenges and trials. This new friend, Monica, was an intense personality, a rebel. I found her caring and loyal, while very zany and spontaneous. We supported each other through ups and downs that no one else comprehended as fully.

I was also very close to a boy or two, and one in particular with whom I remained friends until his death four years ago. A year before El passed away he decided to visit all his oldest friends. He flew out from the Midwest and on his itinerary Portland was a stop. We spent the entire day. I drove him to the most beautiful places, and we shared food and drink at a lovely street cafe. His conversation overflowed with happy memories and a generosity of love. It pained me to see him so ill with congestive heart failure, saw how death lurked about him and yet he was vibrant in a profoundly intrinsic way, as ever. We hugged a long moment before he turned and walked away. I watched him go and then gazed at the space where he had been. I knew he was soon to leave us all. Through the decades we’d been first and last kind to one another, shared triumphs and sorrows. Reached out to each other with phone calls, long letters, spur of the moment emails that were about creativity, the great beating heart in music–he was a sound engineer–and life’s madness as well as its ineffable beauty. I so valued and still miss El. I always felt blessed to have a male friend who had remained just that–close to my heart, as my buddy.

Although my first friend C. and I stayed in touch with occasional phone calls and with later random newsy letters, the last time we met a few years ago the conversation felt stilted. At best based loosely on reminiscences, at worst without interesting focus, losing momentum as awkward pauses derailed us. We lived in the same city so I’d hoped we’d reconnect well. Well, she’d become a political professional, had been single and childless. I’d become a mother and wife, a counselor, was deep into writing and the arts. It felt like a second loss of the same friendship though it was a matter of life taking us in far different directions. And time passing–we had quite outgrown each other, I think.

My second best friend left our hometown and found substance troubles and drifted about the Southwest– while I kept up my own drug using lifestyle, then switched track to enter college, write and paint. Then got married, had children just like that, and remained longer in Michigan. We lost track of each other fast, only years later caught up with each other again via email. But that had its limits. Too much had happened to span the gaps sufficiently, despite our deep if brief friendship of yore. I was happy to find out she taught biology and math at a Southwest high school, had two sons she adored. It was good to hear she was well, that she liked her life.

I figured out by age 20 that friendship might not, and need not, last for a whole lifetime–though I wished it would, at times. People (and friends) came and went throughout college and when moving to and living in different cities, even states. When I look back, I realize I’ve had dozens of friendships that have enriched and opened up my life. But they have not all been intimate or long-term or even valued beyond a certain circumstance. They have not always come to a gentle end, either. One or two were wrenching. Thankfully, most have been bittersweet at worst, marked by sweetest farewells at best. I’ve also twice made sincere attempts over months to become part of certain apparently pleasant groups that center around my interests–but finally gave up. Cliques are cliques, no matter one’s stage of life; I have no patience with them. (One gym membership was ended after over a year of trying to make an inroad within a group of older adults. It became apparent most had been members for even decades; their friends were picked and that was that. I found it very odd–it was just an ordinary gym.)

Work is one place to connect with others, though I feel that such friendships function best within work; otherwise, things can get complicated. But such friendships are vital to ensuring a more genial, supportive environment. I could flop down in an office chair and process a half a dozen weighty concerns about work and some of my life with several co-workers, and they would do the same. but never had dinner at each other’s homes, and seldom if ever met partners beyond the family photos on our desks, the tales we impulsively shared. Still, I can name many people I came to respect and feel fondness for, whom I would call friends even now, despite changes in work environments and passage of years. I yet have lunch very few months with a couple of co-workers from the last agency I worked at four years ago. We catch up as easily as we did before, greet each other and say farewell with firm hugs. And that is valuable to me.

Some of my good friends were found using want ads: “Looking for an experienced writer, women preferred, who would like to share/critique our writing projects. Can meet in library, coffer shop, homes. ” Others were pleas for larger writers’ critique groups. I have been in three main groups and have had one-on-one interactions with three writers in the  past few years, I also have attended weekly writing groups for various periods of time as well as attended workshops. Those provide a lot of opportunity to get to know people who love to write. The individual meetings have provided good exchanges not only of writing, but also greater discourses and disclosures that led to closeness while always centered around writing/critiquing.

After a year or more, when our projects were each addressed and reviewed with one another, those particular friendships became less important to us both. Inevitably, we met less and less and finally no longer. One friend moved to Arizona and embarked on a whole different life. Another got too busy with her family and her teaching responsibilities. A third friend and I had a significant disagreement regarding the ending of my novel, leading me to think she had missed the point of what I was writing. I think she felt the same way about her poetry and my critiques. That’s how it can go…we never mended that rift enough to be as friendly as before. You never know what will happen when you advertise for writers who may or may not become friends. Most of the time I’ve had great fun and learned more about craft, about communication of ideas and story making than when revising all alone. Writers’ groups can be equally variable while also worth one’s time and engagement.

My closest adult friends have tended to be found in recovery groups. I became involved in Alcoholic Anonymous way back in 1980. I was not glad to attend, didn’t trust it all, and found the people to be sad, touchy-feely, and overly simplistic in their thinking. Eventually I figured out there were more than a few people who knew a lot more than I did about staying sober and reconstructing a rewarding life. And out of those more contacts arose, opportunities to make friends. I could call anyone I thought a good bet for supporting a recovery lifestyle; they would listen on the phone, meet me for coffee. We had lots of satisfying conversations; I well recall the contentment they brought when I was in need of more peace.

One thing the twelve steps promise and make good on is that whenever anyone needs help they will be there, even though we didn’t know one another very well. I found that remarkable and generous. A few women and I just clicked as we learned of each other’s needs/hopes/challenges. We became trusted confidantes as well as cheerleaders for our ongoing sobriety. I knew that just by saying I had a rough day, they would immediately know what I meant and care enough to listen as well as share insights and hope with me–and soon I was able to be there for them.

No matter where I have moved–to Tennessee, to different cities and towns in Michigan, to the Pacific Northwest–I have had a ready group of friends if I so choose. I can go to a meeting even while travelling. All I have to do is walk into one, shake hands if I want to and offer my first name–not even why I am there or w hat I want out of it. I just can sit there in the midst of others who are redeveloping their broken lives or just refreshing their peace of mind. It’s a remarkable function of A.A. co-founder Bill Wilson’s original idea that one person who has a little more sobriety can and should if possible help out another. And so we do, and in the process, we form bonds that are strong. My three best friends are women who’ve been in recovery for at least as long as I have been if not more. Hard to believe that all these years have passed and that we still love each other, will take care of each other. We have seen each other at our worst and at our shining best.

Sometimes as I sit here pondering or writing, or I run errands and see other younger women linking arms, I muse over the years when friendship making could be a built in-perk of raising a family or going to work day after day. My children are grown and for the most part have moved away–or are swamped with their own work and family matters. In fact, even my grandchildren are nearly grown up or already gone. I think about how I might make more friends; I don’t have a surplus. I do find solitude refreshing, fulfilling, full of creative options I can finally enjoy. But I also miss at times the company of more than the usual crew, the exchange of a vast mix of ideas and belly laughs. I wonder if I might return to working outside home, or dive into volunteer work. I guess as we age opportunities to meet others have to be created more deliberately. But I have such gratitude for the friends I have–even if they still go to work and we have to set a date, time and place to have lunch. They are fine people to know and it sure isn’t the number but the quality of friendships we have, in the end.

Come to think of it, I am going to a meeting to see one of my three best friends tonight; I need to pick a good movie to see on Sunday with another. And I need to get back to B., who left me that voice message. I know she has her own issues and would enjoy a chat over a muffin and herbal tea or just the phone. Thank God for the beautiful saving graces of tried and true friendship. It’s like a seaworthy boat in life’s restless waters that always has room for one more.

(P.S. B. called me just as I was finishing this post–she was in need of a listening ear. I am so glad to still be here to give it.)

 

 

From Cover of Dark into Blur of Light

As a small child I experienced no consternation when getting up in a thicket of darkness to pad across the hall to my parents’ bedroom or the bathroom. Darkness was as comfortable as daylight and I liked its ways. I was good at maneuvering around objects as I made my way through childhood. I was then a happy innocent; it never occurred to me why I was unable to identify whether things were animal, mineral or vegetable farther than a couple of feet away. Everything was marked by a gentle softness; colorful forms melded into a haze of lush beauty. I had very good hearing, taste, touch, smell. Life was good just the way it was coming at me. I enjoyed the bounties of my senses every day like any healthy child.

One weekday morning in my seventh year my mother and I were walking along the sidewalk, soon to meet up with my best friend (also my first crush), Bruce H. I always met him to walk the half dozen blocks to school. I looked forward to it; we often held hands and chattered away and made plans to play after school.

“Oh, there he is! Hi there, Bruce, you’re early!” She waved at him and hurried me up.

I looked across the street. I saw the towering evergreens that partly lined his big yard–it took up a big chunk of the block. I saw cars whizzing by and heard the familiar voices of other children congregating outside their homes, getting ready to walk to our elementary school. But I didn’t see Bruce.

“Where? Oh, yeah, there he is!”

I had noticed Mom and others saw some things that I did not. Or perhaps not quite in the same ways. In fact, I had noticed this at school as well, only a little. And it bothered me, though I was not about to mention it. I just saw things a little differently, was all.

Mom bent down to look at me more closely. “You can’t actually see him, can you?…You’re squinting– again. And you hold your books up too close to your face when reading. Your teacher says you asked to be in the front row. I think you have trouble seeing–you need a vision test. I’m going to call and make an appointment for you today.”

“Well, he was so far away! I see him now–hi, Bruce!” I waved wildly, tried to shake off her  hand.

Mom made that face that said her mind was firm on this and the gig was up–I should not try to fool her again. But to be honest, I didn’t know I was trying to do that. I had simply thought my eyes were a little fuzzy and there seemed little harm in that, overall.

That walk to school was filled with quiet worry. The eye doctor was special; seeing him was not like the usual doctor visit for sore throats. I was going to have to be tested? What if I didn’t pass? Did that mean I’d have to change things, even get glasses like my father and my brother? I shuddered at the thought. I liked to race other kids, play Kick the Can and Red Rover and a bunch of other outdoor games–and go swimming and bike riding and I wanted to learn how to water and snow ski some day. What if not seeing right interfered with those? And what would I look like if I had to wear the awful things….? It ruined the day just thinking about it all.

Dr. Cummings was a patient man; he had lots of experience with families, with kids like me. He examined my eyes every which way as he explained what he was doing. You’d think we were having a friendly chat on a sunny patio  but I didn’t like it. That bright light he kept holding up to my eyes, the eye drops he squirted in, those letters on the far wall–it was so disorienting. I strained to read each letter, felt a bit dizzy and nauseous at the effort of getting them right. It was a very hard test and I was certain I wasn’t doing very well. Why couldn’t we have left things as they were? I was just fine with soft edges to things, to my life. And I could still read fine, no matter what anyone said.

Finally I hopped down from the big chair; we got my mother and met in his office. Diagnosis: myopia. nearsightedness. Not just a little bit, a lot. “Significant amount,” Mom murmured. So I needed glasses. Wait–it was true that things far away were not clear–okay, even identifiable–but so what? This was my immediate reaction plus a desire to run off, though I’d never have said it aloud to two grown-ups, important people. I meekly followed them to a wall of frames, picked out pale blue ones that looked a bite fancier. But I was not happy, not at all. When I finally returned for the fitting, I wore the homely things out of Dr. Cummings office, filled with an odd relief as well as grave uncertainty.

Yes, I could see. Really see like other kids must see! It was peculiar seeing like that–everything was in extreme detail, full spectrum color, like it was with a hand magnifier. Unless I glanced out each side. Then all went back to fuzzy mode, the familiar one. Distracting. Forward, clarity; side, fuzzy. But it was far better than before.

My first glasses in second grade brought everything into such vivid focus that it was like learning to live two different lives. One more rounded and out of focus, a lovely impressionistic view, less than practical or safe, but what I knew best. The other was clear, sharp, crammed full of faces, objects and movement that was glorious but also difficult to absorb, even harsh to body and mind. Incredibly tiny things I’d never even noticed unless I put my eyes up very, very close to them now popped out. I was astonished. It was as if I had not had real three-dimensional understanding all that time; now the world was full of corners and curbs, tiny seeds and leaves and faces with distinct features. Everything moved and changed or stayed completely perfect and still and I noted it all. Well, life suddenly had a literal perspective to appreciate, one that made things seem jumped out at me and into my new vision field. But it was beautiful to learn, satisfying to fully realize what before I had only guessed at.

But this was a given: I got teased at school. I was called “four eyes”, ridiculed by a few in my class but more by the meanest older kids about having “pop bottle bottoms” upon my face because the lenses were quite thick. I realized people were calling me by other names accidentally, as if for once no one knew who I was from a good distance. I was not the same Cynthia, apparently, and I was embarrassed, mad and disappointed that being able to see well somehow created bouts of ridicule. Bruce, loyal friend that he was, just smiled and shrugged; we got on as before. My good friends got used to them faster than did I. And since I was much better at seeing, also better at playing games– a partner or foe to be reckoned with– among other good things.

Yet I also found them a hindrance when engaged in physical activities. When I sweated in gym or on the playground, they slipped down my nose and sometimes fell off. If something–a ball, usually– hit my face, it hurt and the glasses came off. I quickly checked to make sure they weren’t bent or broken. I began to shield my eyes instinctively. When it was cold and I went into a warmer environment, they fogged up. This was a nuisance when ice skating, as I was in and out–and the snow made it hard to see, and they sometimes flew off when executing a spin or  jump. Rain was always a bother. When sunny, there were no good sunglasses to plop on–my parents wore the flip-up kind and I wasn’t going to do that. In any sort of weather, they were not the accouterments I wanted to wear.

I sometimes went home, took them off, put them in their case and sat on my bed bothered and fussy, but more at ease with them off and in my room. I read my books lying on my belly and propped up on elbows, hands holding up my head, face just a couple of inches from the page. And felt relief as the words came into focus, took me away with stories. Later when I went to bed my eyes roamed the darkness and I felt at peace. I knew exactly where things were in my house. I could, I believed, find my way in the darkest of places anywhere. My normal semi-blindness felt a familiar comfort in a more vibrant, confusing, cacophonous world.

But each morning I put on the glasses. My eyes adjusted a tad more. I got used to seeing them appear smaller behind two oval lenses. The frames redefined space around my features, as if a pricey plastic and glass magnifying device was facial jewelry of a peculiar sort. And I got used to the strangeness and wonder of remediated sight. I took them off, put them on again and just like that, so much changed. Thus, I had both the obscured but comforting vision of myopia plus intense clarity of corrected vision. I would learn how to navigate better wearing glasses with practice and time. Apparently many before me had, as I was not the only one in the world who needed them. They managed as if nothing was amiss, as per my study of my parents and brother and others indicated.

After a few weeks, no one said anything more. It turned out my mother’s advice to ignore the foolish schoolmates worked its magic. The improved vision made a real difference in the classroom or when reading music, when looking for friends, when crossing the street alone, and when trying to identify someone’s facial expressions, hence, feelings. The “positives” list kept growing. But I still was jolted when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror.

At fourteen Dr. Cummings suggested I switch to contact lenses. The idea thrilled me  but my parents weren’t convinced until he stated such lenses were thought to help improve myopia over time. I had also become more active as a figure skater and these made any sport easier. It was 1964; they weren’t very popular in my town even then. Although in 1508, Leonardo da Vinci first imagined something similar, it took research, trial and error for the next five centuries. In 1949 the first truly wearable corneal lenses were developed. In the sixties they were yet being refined and were also expensive. I couldn’t believe it when the parents agreed to the plan.

The first time I got them in, right onto my eyes (with much aid and cheering on from Dr. C.) I found them uncomfortable: irritating, almost gritty and it felt as if my eyes wanted them out. I blinked, wiped away the streaming tears, glanced about. Gradually my vision cleared; I could see most everything in the rooms quite well. Even my own unadorned face which looked once again different, quite unexpected. Added to this was the excitement, for the first time ever, of enjoying full peripheral vision.

Contact lens wearing was a magnificent hit. At first this was only allowed for a few hours daily as eyes adjusted to alterations, until both corneas accepted the plastic and glass amalgamation floating about on them. Oddly enough, it didn’t take more than a week or two before I could manage it all day ’til bedtime. It wasn’t too easy to put them in or take them out and I was always fearful of losing one (which happened innumerable times over decades, causing panic until I got a back up set) but overall I adapted well. My life became considerably enlarged simply by being able to see–from all angles at any time. Not many weather issues (though windiness can be a trial), no perspiration problems; no blindness peripherally, anymore; and no glasses to often clean or repair when dropped or keep track of and just put up with. It was a whole new world. I felt older somehow. More confident.

The first time I went to a youth dance at our large, busy community center, I was nervous. It had been only a few weeks since I had gotten the contacts. My eyes still teared a bit; I worried it might look like I was weeping. In eighth grade and in the throes of adolescence, any change a young teen undergoes is fast news at school.

I’d had plenty of reactions as I walked about in my junior high, participated as usual in classes, acted in theater and musically performed, chatted with friends–who still stared at my face. I was a cheerleader for our sports teams (“Go Cavaliers!”), as well. And reactions were pleasant if it seemed like I was now perceived differently; that was weird. Even though I had plenty of friends (and didn’t often physically “less than”) who cheered me regardless, I was taken aback by the extra attention this garnered. Flattery generally embarrassed me, put me into a near-frozen state only to be saved by very well-trained manners of a passable smile and a “Thank you.”

But I also was teased for these things: my so blue eyes had to be fake blue, were too big, really “bug-eyed” (large blue eyes: family traits), I was “getting stuck up now that you don’t have glasses”, I was “not really pretty just cute” and so on. It was way too big a deal, not appearing for years as I had behind glasses. I nearly wished I’d never gotten the contact lenses, despite being happy otherwise with their performance.

How could I be someone else, anyway? And maybe this person was who I more truly was, anyway–or becoming. It was confounding. I tried to ignore the fuss.

Then, when walking down the school hallway a handful of boys were hanging out, lined up in what we girls archly called “eyeball alley.” I fast thought of how I could avoid it, walking there alone of all things, but it was too late. It felt like passing through the gauntlet as they taunted me: “Make way for Queen Cynthia! We will let Her Highness pass this time!” They laughed and whistled and hooted and clapped.

What?! It deeply frightened me. Because I had changed one thing? I had also grown up some over the summer and returned with more curves, and now everything was more out of whack by being glasses-free. It was a horror getting through that day. I felt vulnerable in a way I had not with glasses and when a bit younger. I found myself protectively turning inward more after that. Inside that shiny, bouncy, performing teenager was a girl also wounded by life, given to creative endeavors and way too much thinking.

So I had more than a usual mix of feelings on the way to that Saturday afternoon dance. It was the first time I had been allowed to go, and with my girlfriends. We wore skirts and blouses with matching Capezio flats. We felt grown up even while preparing for such an event and when we entered that darkened basketball court, heard the pounding music, saw the mass of kids moving about and laughing, we stepped into an unknown territory. I love to dance and did, then, so as the records were played I “Twisted” and “Watusied” away with my gal pals and then, bit by bit, the boys began to ask me for a dance and we worked it out there on the floor. The Monkey, the Mashed Potato, the Pony, the Hully Gully and the Freddie”–it got fast and frenzied and was more fun as we all had in a long time. But when people gathered around and called out and clapped, I finally stopped, walked away, faded into the edges of the swaying, packed crowd. I just wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or not to get whistles though I was having a blast. My eyes were starting to smart and tear more, my feet were tired, and it was suddenly such loud music and such a crowded space. I wanted out and to f ind a cold pop. A couple of other friends agreed and we trickled out, laughing and gabbing as we reentered the blinding afternoon light.

Back home, I took out my contact lenses, put on my old glasses. It felt so good to be free of  those small concave pieces of plastic that hovered over my eyes. I scrubbed my face, got my notebook and pen, began to write. Light beamed through the white curtains as they lifted, billowed, fell and shimmied in the silken breeze. I thought about the boys with their good scents and big smiles, the freeing music, the great fun of dancing and laughing. And about the ways everything was changing fast, like a rapidly turning rainbow of lights on the dance floor, and how to navigate the bends in the roads and where I was going. And then I put pen to paper and was pulled into a poem’s reflective depths and all once more made more sense, filled me up, was on its way to being righted.

I have worn contact lenses for 42 years now. To encourage more oxygen to my corneas, I have tried soft lenses and couldn’t manage to get them in for anything, finally bursting into humiliating tears from the sheer frustration of it. I tried gas permeable lenses and had an allergic reaction of serious inflammation, so I have stuck with the rigid lenses I have worn successfully.

A few years ago an optometrist told me he could hardly believe I’d worn them so easily for that long without one problem, and that most people got Lasik surgery after such length of time as this made it possible to see perfectly without more assistance, even in older years. But my eye health was honestly very good.

“They must have extra money to toss around that I don’t have, to get Lasik,” I said. “Besides, I’m happy with things as they are.”

“Your time in these is going to come to an end, you know, maybe even five or ten years,” he said frankly, “so you better get used to wearing glasses more often again. The adjustment will be trying since there are significant corneal changes with contact lens wearers. And use moisturizing eye drops a couple of times a day, at least, especially since you stare at a computer so long.”

“I know–for a while it was like looking out of a fish bowl. I could barely make my way across a room, it can be so dizzying. So I’ve been working on wearing them  more. I’ll up the number of daily hours.”

Even with contacts lenses, I have had to wear reading glasses to see up closer since my fifties. And the trifocals I had to get four years ago, the kind with gradual and invisible division lines supposedly mimic more natural vision, are pretty good. They look nice with a simple blue wire frame; they feel much better now that I’m getting used to them. So around nine each night I remove my contacts and put my glasses on to give my eyes a well deserved rest. I feel the same relief I’ve felt every night I’ve removed contacts even though I have enjoyed them. They changed my life in some fundamental way. Freed it up, allowed me to be more vigorously active and gave me a deeper, brighter view of everything I have perceived. And of course, they did nicely alter my appearance, as those with serious myopia can appreciate.

But I’ll get used to these glasses, my before-bed eyes, before my real night eyes. It occurs to me it has all nearly come full circle. I never have lost my sense of security in the dark, even if there are “bumps in the night.” I’m the one in the house who gets up and investigates as my philosophy tends to the “far better to turn on the light and see what’s to see” sort. Except I don’t really have to fully see. I have smell, hear, touch, taste and also just plain sense things with Mother Wit. So, a tiny bit like a cat or an owl, I make my way in darkness better than many. I am not afraid. It may well be that because I never saw well–not even one’s fully delineated face just from mine, not even a book that wasn’t nearly at my nose–that it was how I was born into world, I just knew no differently. We’re made to adapt, to compensate for characteristics that are weaker or some we may even be missing. Besides, the whole truth of the world does not depend entirely on what our bodies tell us. Sweeping portions of life as I experience it happen in mind and soul–and during exchanges of feeling and information with others.

My oldest sister got the Lasik surgery done when she was in her sixties–she didn’t have poor vision and only got what I considered weak “pretend” glasses in her forties–and extolled its wonders. She kept telling me what a miracle it was to once more awaken and see the world whole and clearly in all its colors and design. And to not have to fool with those danged glasses. I’m so glad she had that pleasure before she passed away; it seemed quite important. And I cannot imagine it. I still see very little when I awaken, mostly varying degrees of light and shadowy shapes tinged gently with a few hues and tones.

But I don’t regret that this is it, contacts by day and glasses by night or whenever I want. I have more worlds to enjoy–without corrective lenses of any kind; with contacts (two kinds as I have a pair for long distance if desired), additional reading glasses as needed and then the trifocals. I don’t mind how the trifocals look, at all, on me. Funny how one’s self perception and needs change.

I’ll do whatever is required to preserve this sight, to see a bit more normally. And when I cannot any longer do so it will be a sad day, I am certain. But remember, I can maneuver my way through blurry realms of sunlight as well as deeply enveloping dark. This earth is a mysterious and remarkable place to live, any which way we can look at it. And I am looking and looking; I am seeing all that I possibly can.

 

A Man of Mozart and Motorcycles

Musician and conductor, sure, but motorcyclist?! The man in question is in his 30s here, I think.

I didn’t expect this time travel. It was an ordinary day, less rainy than usual. I was driving along narrow, congested city center streets, keeping an eye on pedestrians who blithely step out. Noting the varieties of architecture and views as I ran errands. But then Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony #6 in B Minor” came on the radio station. A sudden intake of breath. Warmth spreading through my chest. A car behind me honked; I had forgotten to move forward when the light turned green. So mesmerizing was the music that it was far safer to pull over and park.

It was not just the glorious symphony, a favorite of mine. It was my father. Through decades and celestial space he strode into mind’s eye, then took his place at the conductor’s podium on stage, his black tuxedo “tails” swaying as he conducted the very Tchaikovsky I heard. The symphonic orchestra before him responded readily. The scene was vivid; I stared at the street but still saw Dad at work. Each measure of music was interpreted by informed insights and intuitive response as he elicited music from the many instruments that made that composition whole. I began to hum and whistle along. I have played that piece, under his direction and another’s. It is dignified yet bombastic, full of drama and yet sweetly moving, a masterpiece among many. Dad loved this composer and others of such persuasions as well as the precision and stateliness of say, Mozart and Bach.

But back to my cinematic experience: my father leaned into the stage, then to the left side, to the right. His large, long-fingered hands gestured, first to percussion, violins and violas with the left and then the right with the baton held towards and underscoring the cellos and basses, the brass. The woodwinds, yes, and the choreographic scene played on. His feet stayed rooted while torso was fluid, his grey-white head lowered or raised, large blue eyes skimming players as they created what was needed. He lifted and bent with the progression of music. Arms and hands curved into music-spun air; it was all pulled forward, held steady. The measures of Tchaikovsky swelled, diminished, were given fresh life under command of his baton–and full engagement of fine musicians. It was an intimate conversation between each, for the whole. For the music. And one could see he was eloquent, as well.

Or so it seemed as I imagined, no, saw Dad immersed in the unfolding, blessed, possessed, then released by complicated music. The piece came to a close. My desire to go on with mundane tasks faltered. About to start the car, I was stopped when Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite”, a programming favorite, came on. I flashed back to an interpretative dance I made up  to this music as an eight or nine year old, then had the nerve to dance in a talent show. So taken with it was I was thrilled to be under the spell of such music, as well as wearing a costume Mom had created: my simple leotard embellished with fiery red and orange strips of chiffon that flew out from my waist and shoulders when I twirled, leapt, made like a wildly ecstatic firebird.

Two compositions, one after the other that he loved. I decided Dad might have something to say to me today, but I wasn’t sure what. I started the car, finished my errands, all the while very taken with my father’s presence. I finally headed home to think.

Watching him conduct was witnessing completed transformation by personal fulfillment: a man who half-changed into a dancer, a multilingual interpreter, a conduit of musical spirits. There was palpable strength in his movements, charged with a passion for the musical notation. There was delivery of vibrant energy to the players as well as audience. He was one of the most graceful conductors I have ever seen. My father seemed able to be utterly engaged by his body while his active mind wielded such clarity of focus. He wasn’t unusually tall. Perhaps 5’11” with head up, he was shorter than his own father and brother–and later, his sons. Yet he seemed taller, certainly when conducting. On stage he recalled an athlete’s grace although his sport was bringing forth music. And there was a charisma there that rose from deep within.

As a concert finished, he bowed in an easy manner, sending the musicians his respect as there arose rousing applause. Afterwards it was not so unlike the end of a successful sporting event: his clothing soaked with perspiration, his face pinkly glistening as he pulled from a pocket a white handkerchief to wipe down. Wavy hair fell over the broad forehead. I watched from a doorway back stage. He was still feeling adrenaline as he responded to appreciative concert goers, shook hands all around, smiled readily, bent close to talk and hear, an index finger bending the upper part of his ear toward a person.

Then he had more business to attend to. Sometimes I helped him gather and file music, take care of a misplaced instrument. But most often as a youth I remained close to the milling crowd’s edges (even if I’d played, too), observed a public man who was respected, appreciated, even loved. A duality of perception influenced my view of him: the public man others knew and the one his family knew somewhat differently.

His gregariousness always surprised me. He was far more introverted than extroverted by nature, I think, but understood how to separate the complementary aspects. As a family, we didn’t routinely spend a lot of time with him due to music-related obligations taking him out, away. More so whenever he coached our musical practice sessions.  When there, he was often reading, studying music scores as he listened to the music and then replayed the whole record–or fell exhausted at last into an easy chair. I watched him sleep more often than he ever could know. When a kid, he sometimes asked if I’d walk along his supine spine to massage aching muscles (what a work-out he had when conducting).

He did like to tell anecdotes, enjoyed plain spoken humor and groan-worthy puns; read aloud from a book or magazine something that grabbed his attention. He also read the Bible to us; we all prayed together at dinner at least. But his interests also encompassed history, nature and camping, the sciences and mathematics, classical arts, games and puzzles of many sorts, and he liked to design things much like a mechanical drawer might, or practice cursive with fine leaded pencils (he had beautiful, very rapid and small handwriting)–to name a few. Later on, he watched tennis and basketball on the TV.

He encouraged and disciplined us (often just a serious, pointed look; he had strong eyes)–but I could tell his mind dabbled in other thoughts. He often seemed to be thinking something through, perhaps music, even life’s knotty parts. So generally, to be with my father I had to go where he was, share what he did. And I was glad to do it. It might require holding the ladder steady, getting another brush as he touched up house paint every year or helping him with yard work; cleaning the ivory and ebony keys of our baby grand piano; handing him tiny pliers and a pot of warm glue as he worked in his musical instrument repair shop, down in the quiet basement.

There are other things that bring forth my father though classical music was his first passion. I might hear pieces like George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and suddenly think of him–he loved many American composers, too. It might be an old musical I recall– “Oklahoma” or “Carousel”–that brings him to mind. It could be Benny Goodman, the late “King of Swing” jazz clarinetist. Dad also played many kinds of music over his lifetime, on a variety of instruments, and no matter what it was he seemed in heaven. He was a person able to do what he loved, by and large, though he might have thrived more in a university setting rather than our small Midwestern city. He had two Masters’ degrees yet he chose to develop and administer music education programs, teach children and young adults, and to conduct and perform (in trios and quartets, symphonies, etc.).

What may not have been more common knowledge was this rather refined man also greatly enjoyed cars (to tinker with as well as drive), motorcycles and motorbikes (he rode at least a couple over the years), camping, sailing (rarer but a gift of joy to him) and swimming in lakes, playing tennis, bicycling, creating outdoor games and playing–very competitively–a few card (bridge, a favorite) and many board games. He also loved to go on a spontaneous drive or a road trip across the country. So those things are what I also did as I could.

I’d go out to the back yard, a favorite place, and it would be a blue-shiny day with nothing much to do but climb the maple tree. Then I’d spot Dad bent over the innards of a car, tools perched atop it all. He liked foreign cars, Isettas and Fiats for two, but drove others, especially Chryslers. He had a creaky red Isseta “bubble car” that I was nuts about. The door opened up in the front and on it were the steering wheel and dashboard. It fit two best. It was a “toy” car before mini-cars were popular, at least in the U.S.

I’d stand by Dad, peer under the hood at the engine and battery and all the rest I tried to understand. He’d start talking to me about what was wrong, what he intended to do without looking up. Before long, he’d be gesturing at things, note what did what. I tried to keep track of it all; he was fond of quizzing us. He sent me to get what I considered very interesting tools from the garage or basement and learned what each could do. I’d fetch oil, perhaps, a wrench or more stained red or white rags. I liked strong smells emanating from cars, the grime and grease streaking his capable hands. The grey mechanic’s suit he wore for such projects: it had deep pockets, covered regular clothes, zipped all the way up. Quite a different father than the one who conducted and taught, played viola, judged music competitions and lectured at conferences. It was someone who knew how to decipher the mysterious mechanics of things, could repair broken items which he generally took on for the household, too (though my mother had a real knack). It was someone who used a different vocabulary: carburetor, serpentine belt, alternator, power steering fluid, radiator fan, compressor, starter. I contrasted these with treble, tenor and bass clefs, andante, sotto voce and allegro, pizzicato, coda, dotted half and sixteenth notes and so on.

One of the best moments was when he’d ask me to start the car, ease onto the gas pedal while he watched things happen, leaning on both hands at the sides of the car’s guts. I’d slip in like I was in charge finally, turn the key, just able to see over the steering wheel to raised hood. The engine roaring to life, then purring happily made us both giddy. He’d tell me to gun it or go easy. If he took it for a spin, I’d hop in and off we’d go around a few corners, his sensitive ear attuned to any odd ping or squeal, and he’d sigh, grunt or hem and haw, or even slap the steering wheel, saying, “For Pete’s sake, we finally got ‘er done!”

Once back home, the sun beat down on us as he tinkered a bit more and I’d sweep the dank old garage  that held so many car stories and mice and spiders, then tidy up tools, softly singing. He’d turn to verify the tune I sang, often from musicals or a standard from big bands, then he’d look over top of his glasses and ask if I had practiced my cello and did I have homework. He’d eventually thank me for my help. I could have stayed out there the whole day but sooner or later we both had other things to do.

In retrospect I wonder if that was the Missourian boy that came out. Though he lived in town and his father was county superintendent of schools, their lives were simpler. They tended a vegetable and flower garden. Read to one another, enjoyed music. He played with sticks and old tires, whatever they found. He learned an instrument or two at a young age (as did his brothers), took to academics and skipped grades. But he liked to just sit awhile outside, listen to crickets, study the skies, make a good fire–and work on something with his hands.

Even more interesting to me was my father’s zest for motorbikes and motorcycles. I don’t recall which brands he preferred but they all impressed me with their bold rumbles, their speed, the daring they implied. Whenever he offered to take me for a spin I’d quickly tell Mom, hop on behind him before she could tell me “no” and off we’d go. He knew just what to do as we came to a fast stop or had to round sudden curves. I was never afraid. I hung on tight to his middle as wind tangled my hair and whined in my ears. I felt something special on a motorcycle, and it was fun when someone waved and called out, their surprise registered in a laugh. They became familiar with the sight of Lawrence Guenther on that crazy thing, riding to work even in a nice suit, briefcase strapped on the back.

The last time I rode with him (that Mom knew) was the day I had the accident. I was perhaps nine or ten. We’d been out and about on a humid but golden day and finally pulled into the driveway. The motor on the machine was exposed, in the middle of it and just beyond my knees. I knew to keep safe from the blazing heat but I was wearing summery shorts. When Dad parked it and put the stand down, I hopped off too fast, didn’t pay close enough attention. My exposed thigh just barely touched it. The pain was immediate and vicious and as I wept despite my desire to be tough, Dad examined the result. My thigh soon bore ridges of blisters that rose puffy and tender from reddened flesh.

My mother appeared in a hurry. The main thing was that she was scarlet-hot with anger over it, furious with my father for somehow allowing it, upset with me for not wearing longer pants at the very least. She did not like motorcycles, now even less so. Dad was quiet, felt sad for me I  said it was my mistake, since it was. It hurt more than I imagined, took weeks for multiple blisters to heal up. I had those striped scars a long time. But the thing is I was secretly proud of them. I felt it had initiated me into a small, private circle my mother clearly didn’t understand: risk takers, wind riders, pioneers who ventured beyond a safer norm. I never regretted riding with him despite the burns, and later enjoyed motorcycles with my first husband. But we managed to sneak in a couple more short rides before my teens arrived. Then I was suddenly too big to just hang out with Dad as my own interests began to morph.

I was the very last of the gang; my older four siblings were all in college by the time I was thirteen. The aloneness felt sudden though it was spread over a few years; they were closer in age than I was to them.

I didn’t yet fully realize how fortunate I was to have those parents, of course. My father and I were not to stay what felt like close to one another as I grew up. Perhaps predictably in our culture we each crossed into proscribed domains where neither was as readily welcomed. He had issues with my being on the telephone so long, stepping around me on the floor with a frown and a word, nearly tripping on the stretchy cord. He had more serious issues with the length of my skirts during the mini-skirt era. We argued politics when I became a Make Love Not War hippie activist. I snapped at him as he tried with fraying patience to help me with the algebra and geometry that came so naturally to him. I did manage to keep my grade point high which was a relief to us both. I did know better than to challenge his authority–or Mom’s– too much, as it was a serious thing to honor one’s parents.

He had his work, I had mine. Our paths crossed more often publicly at school, during various performances. We still played a game of Scrabble now and again. He would play piano, get out the ratty standards song book and I would still sing. But he also didn’t know of the abuse I had experienced earlier for years, that I suffered more as time went on but could not say why. He’d have been filled with despair and rage if he had known of it all; it also would have been a monstrous scandal in the 1950s-60s to inform authorities, take legal action. And the predator had warned me to remain silent. I believed I had to protect my family and just deal with it–as countless others did in those times and sadly, still do. It eroded me, changed me in ways I never imagined it would

Thankfully there were more happy moments to experience with him. There was still hope in the male of the species because my father was a good man, so I carried on with dating, my head filled with romance and mystery that made syrupy poems. There were saving graces of writing, music, figure skating, theater productions–and my friends. There were church and family events. I sought the warmth in his eyes, kindness of his smile, and did at times find it there. But we moved in two paths that did not converge much or so well again as my life got more complicated. And he grew older. He regretted I did not finish college before getting married; his eyes told me he knew I did, too. And then I had my family, was long gone. He was a kindly grandfather, a great game player with them. And then he passed on when I was forty.

And yet. And yet. Those times, those years made so much difference to me. To be included (and in something other than music), to be welcomed into other activities, to be treated with appreciation and affection–this is the kind of beginning every child should be able to experience. There were so many joyous times growing up that they were a shocking contrast to many unexpected difficulties. Yet they provided a bulwark against storms to be weathered–and still do. Dad’s presence was no small part of the goodness and truth I counted on as beacons in my life, a basic sense of security even as things fell apart.

Just like that, we are given back moments that can illuminate us with something important. A certain song, the way my brothers move or laugh; the shape of my son’s hands, his physical and mechanical skills; all my children’s feel for music, their commitment to creative work. Or even a particular slant of light easing through a tiny window. Just like that, my father is present in my consciousness and daily life again.

I must have needed to remember how much he loved me.

Once he showed me photographs taken while on a European trip after I had left home for good. It was of sunlight filtering through a smudged, mullioned window of an ancient building; then of light streaming through bunched dark clouds, slipping onto a sliver of river. He turned to me and said, “See there, how the light falls through the grayness and reveals hidden shapes, how it gives more life to everything, the light that always comes.” And his tired, lined face shone with appreciation, faith and hope.

Yes, my father, I feel you watching over me. And like the glowing constellations you once pointed out to me, I will keep alive what light I am given or first must find. The creative spirit you encouraged in me, the care and time you shared as you could–these things are embedded in my soul. Your determination to lead a life of prayer and service taught me much, and this has bolstered my journey. I hear you, see you. Let us be well reconciled, at peace.

 

(I’d love to show you pictures of Dad in midlife and us together later on, but this is all I found handy for this post. Please forgive yellow coloration.)

Dad in dance band–far right playing saxophone (and clarinet on floor) in his twenties.
Dad was around 41; I was about 2
Playing his viola
Dad in later 70s. He passed at age 81 of complications from a quadruple bypass.