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.

Visualize This: Creating and Creator, an Intimate Life (please hold the applause)

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You know how it’s become pop psychology/spirituality to visualize something, hold it in your mind with surety and expectation of success? Maybe even draw a picture of it or write it down in bold letters to make it more concrete. Then stare at it until memorized. Take time to fully focus on the one heartfelt goal. We are assured this will help us make that goal materialize. What we want needs more formal shape to latch onto or it might slip away into the fog of nothingness. So get to visualizing and what we fervently hope for, we will eventually get. Right?

If I take a hard look at that idea, I’ll admit I’ve not been an all-out fan. I have not often constructed a definitive conclusion for anything way ahead of time. I don’t imagine a final fabulous product of my efforts– or if it is imagined at all, vaguely, in passing. It seems almost counter-productive, rather than a sure avenue to full materialization. I don’t want to limit outcomes; it is difficult to know what will be best in the final rendering. (And I say this although I am a writer. I don’t make up things, not really; they make unbridled appearances while insisting I write them. More on that later.)

There are reasons why this visualization business is not my chosen methodology for accomplishing things.

The first is that I don’t believe in an easy magic (visualize=realize) when working toward something. I find it a bit insulting that one would think I’d believe in that. This is based on experience; my entire semi-rebuttal is based on real events. (I qualify it as semi since the concept is more complicated than it appears.) Visualizing feels good, it can stir up motivation. It might provide relief from the gritty work that must be done. But it doesn’t guarantee anything more than a sense of expectancy, a hopeful respite from variable reality.

There are always exceptions. For one thing, I know that visualizing healing processes for my beleaguered muscle of a heart likely has made a difference. I thought of each procedure being done, how it carefully fixed things and further researched how all parts work together. Linking this to calls on the One Above, a far wiser resource for life wellness, further helped move me from illness into states of repair. Finally to returned well being. But I commit to getting up and running each time I have to rebound. I have also seen people self-heal. But this is other territory, an impressive intersection of the scientific and perhaps mystical. It’s not mere magic, fantastical trickery or just thinking good thoughts. It’s amazing.

But all that is not the sort of thing I refer to when noting I am not a such a cheerleader of visualizing Clear End Results.

I have written of growing up in a competitive, achieving family, with parents who held high expectations. It wasn’t wrong; it wasn’t right. Such an orientation can spur a youngster on to greater things; it may also create perfectionism that is damaging. Or some of both. Each child is built differently but the belief was that we all were capable and so had things to accomplish. We were tasked with doing as well as possible because it would be foolish to not do so. Even more, an insult to family and God to shrug off abilities, opportunities. Thus, I learned about self discipline from a very young age. I did what was required to conform to the cozy family unit. I liked my parents, admired them, enjoyed my siblings generally, appreciated challenges I was given. It wasn’t hard to be thus trained–this was the American way my friends and I grew up with during the fifties and sixties. I didn’t chafe for many years within those parameters, under firm directives. It lent security to have clarity about cause and effect, the rewards of civilized behavior and meaningful work. Or lack thereof if there was significant deviation.

This is not reflective of rigid gender roles that might have hemmed us in. My parents were forward-looking, educated and happily employed. They expected the best from us regarding scholastics and personal development. (If a brother or I had had a talent for cooking or sewing like my mother we may have learned and done that, as well, but I had less than said brother.) The Christian faith certainly guided us all. But I did not find it restrictive.

I mostly felt strong, confident and tackled what was before me, my life aimed at the goal of excellence. I worked to do as well as possible: to dance and figure skate, sing, play cello, act in plays, write poetry/ plays/stories, stay on the honor roll in school, cheerlead, make decent friends, do good things via church. My main motto by sixth grade was “Excellence Above All;” it was put all over my notebooks as other girls were covering theirs with boys’ names and flowery doodles. And I believed in its shining virtue. So this was a kind of early creative visualization practiced many years: Imagine the very best you can do, practice for mastery of each step or technique, work more, correct and then eliminate errors, practice harder until the result is what was envisioned. Needed. Required. Perfection if at all possible.

And then something gradually occurred that began to change me. I recall how it all began and what it felt like even now.

I was learning much could happen due to disciplined effort and time well used. The goals were rewarded when you took right steps and got to it. They indeed brought about consequences: applause, attention and accolades. Admiration. Ribbons and medals garnered for competitions won. Opportunities to perform more, entry to rigorous music camps. Skating events demanding more hours. Writing praised at a young age, published and displayed at a child education conference. With all this came greater expectations, more unrelenting work. So many people to please, oh my.

There was satisfaction in it, of course. I was a born performer or appeared to be, someone who naturally got out there, wanted to DO things. For a anyone who knows what it is to stand on the wide stage,heavy velvet curtains swinging open to reveal waiting audience and then a spotlight locates you… and then your song, dance or character is bit by bit revealed by your voicing and movements….well, it is thrilling, yes. It is darned fun. And the applause is that longed-for reward, the answer you had hoped for, appreciation and acceptance by peers, even. And for the audience has experienced satisfaction, too. If there are any other material gains to be gotten, you wait awhile backstage or pace hallways, breathless, until the final vote comes in that you measured up. After a decent performance, whether on ice rink or stage, people find you, circle about, press flowers, compliments and hugs onto you. And the most final, coveted word comes from parents: that I did well or that I did not quite manage this one, after all.

So it went, years after year. And I went along with it, busy and making gains.

Then, at around fourteen or fifteen, there was a turn that I took. Those rewards began to feel slight, temporary and in fact, were not what I truly wanted. They were feeling heavy with responsibility. Granted, I had some issues going on–I was a teenager, first of all; second and third, I was a survivor of abuse (not from immediate family) and taking prescribed drugs to alleviate symptoms. But this aha moment was about creativity and performance, two things that mattered most in all the world to me. My safest and happiest place, the arts. I fit there  just right yet I wasn’t feeling so giddy about those outcomes.

I remember being in a shadowy and dusty, rope-slung, prop-filled backstage, chatting with others after performing. The stage hands were shouting and doing their work.It was where activity first concentrated just following a concert or show, with performers thanking friends and family and teachers for their appreciation as they headed to change clothes. I gazed out onto that stage, the lighting softer, then dimming to nothing. and suddenly all I wanted was to disappear with it. To be free of expectations, the smiling and talking and being surrounded by excited faces. Who were these people? How much did they matter? How much of it was that my father was a beloved public figure/musician and so it was expected of me (and the rest of us) to excel? How much of it all was necessary? Which was better, playing cello or singing on a stage or in my room? The place I felt most at home was playing and singing and writing in the woods of Interlochen, the summer music camp I attended (along with my siblings, where my father also taught). Being with others who had the same passions. Why did that matter so much more than being recognized as capable?

For a couple more years I decided to perform only for myself, stay right in the moment for the art, itself. It worked so well, it scared me. The results were even better. But more ever than before, I leaned toward wanting the experiences for myself–to the consternation of parents and teachers. (Let it be known that being a talented child born into talented multi-generations of family within a smaller community is a  strange and difficult thing.) Why was I easing off? There were plans to address, a future to consider.

Sure, it was the performing arts, not private and static arts. But then it came to me: it was the doing of it that I loved best, the literal creating of something, giving shape and more freedom to music, making a bold call with soul and body, finding life in even the full, rich pauses. It was inhabiting deeply solitary work, being moved by unfolding of more creation. The merging with the vitality of one note, a word that seeks another, an array of feelings speaking one to the other. Becoming more alive in the center of devotion to the moment, the messy and despairing and elated work of it, that chasing and opening and finding. Losing myself, beauty and mystery awakening of its own accord. My own self only an instrument–mind and heart useful for a blossoming of something truer if I allowed and encouraged it.

This was what I loved about writing: it required no audience if I chose not to let it out into the world. It was alive in a very small space as it flowed from my mind and hands. A character or even observation needed no applause to sit up and start walking, finding company and goofing off or forging ahead, getting into this or that. And so I horded the time I had to write things for my own mind and my eyes. It was  mine first and last if I said nothing of it. And I found myself singing out anything at all that I desired when the house was empty, fingers crashing across the keyboard of our baby grand piano. And I was happy for that much.

So, I realized that acting on creative urges wasn’t actually about those trimmings,  nor was meeting the wishes of various factions. It wasn’t even the end result that felt momentous. It was the steady making of music, crafting a dance, honing spins and figures on ice, the delving deep into language and finding grab bags of treasures. I wanted to be fully moved, gathered into authentic experience as I made my way through passages spiritually, emotionally, physically. To be myself yet stretched far beyond self. And to do that, I saw I might need to forego robust applause or stern judgment. Or at least take a break. Because at that time it felt inauthentic more often than not.

Making any kind of art is first and last an intimate act. I needed more privacy with it, a quietness where smallest stirrings could be felt, even intuited. And needed to celebrate the living parts, not only the tedium of attempting mastery. Let the songs or stories be whatever they chose. I could shepherd them. I could tend them until they were done browsing and fattening. I had some skills and I had passion for it, and I learned more each time I started again. And as I saw that was more the way I wanted to go, there came relief. It wasn’t perhaps as secure as before. Stepping away from the rhythm, the meter, that composition of a well-trained life, that protective cocoon, I found myself falling far as well as rising up.

Many things happened that pulled me from the youthful life of performance and achievement, aiming for the next valued high bar. By the time I was out of high school, I was often using drugs legally and illegally. I soon sang less. I was not a bar singer (tried being in a bar band and hated it), not any more a classical “art” singer, no longer appearing in musicals. Jazz was still too new to me since I had rarely even heard it growing up. I was a hippie so sang folk songs, while privately I still wrote other songs, helped by keyboards and my guitar. They had been stirred up in me at a young age and kept nagging. But I rarely performed. My college friends and I sang in crowds at music festivals, smoke-filled living rooms, sometimes alone at coffee houses where everyone was loaded, so pleased. I studied art history and painting, sociology and literature and writing in college. In time, I sang and played my cello not at all. I got married. Ice skated and danced now and then. I painted as if possessed, wrote long into the night. Participated in poetry readings. The last activity was the closest I got to more regular performances. But it was different than years before. This time, It was entirely my choice to perform, as well as how and what.And it was with other poets.

Over this past Christmas I decided to share an old tape put together in 1978 for my parents, when I was twenty-eight.I don’t recall if they said anything, so likely they did not. I rarely made music after marriage and three, then five kids to raise. There wasn’t time or energy left.

That recent night I shyly gathered two visiting daughters and put it on. There was one song created during my early twenties that I thought they might appreciate. I was afraid, really, to show such a private thing as a song I wrote, sang, loved. They listened intensely. I soon saw they felt tearful so I closed my eyes. Waited. Not for anything, really, just for the song to be finally done, my twenty-something voice to stop being so plaintive. And for them to know what it had meant to me to make, to do such things.

“That was amazing, Mama, but why did you stop? How could you have stopped writing and singing songs like this? I didn’t know you were a songwriter, too!” My youngest daughter’s face, this one who sings like a jazzed-up lark, has even recorded but she has a career in the arts with little time so her own music has stepped back.She was incredulous, happy. Sad.

As if I had somehow let them down, me down. Or was that just in my mind, that old echo ringing in my ears? The fears of failure, the losses endured?

My oldest daughter, the visual artist–who sings so sweetly under her breath, once played a pure flute– looked away, hair falling over her wide-eyed face, infamous composure crumbling, her silence speaking loudly.

The tautness of truth rings like a wire disturbed; revealing one’s self can be painful for all sides. Don’t cry, I wanted to say, please do not cry for me but only any beauty you can find there. It was only this song I want you to have and keep.

I hadn’t expected such a response. I took a tremulous breath, willed myself to be calm. Lighter. This was no time to say more than intended or wise. “Thank you for listening to it. ..Music was really that great a part of me. And it remains, somehow. Life changes things; then I changed priorities. I had all that music humming inside me so sometimes made more songs. I sang some to you kids, you just didn’t know what they were. But for the most part I stopped making and singing them, at all.” I managed to smile, lingered over their shining eyes, their love. “I write stories and poems, as you know. That creative activity became my truest passion.”

The vulnerable moments inched away, that window when they saw me for a separate person, the woman I always was and still am–it closed a bit. And they do know writing and I are made for each other, that it isn’t ever about being “known.” They have read my poems and prose, comment intelligently. We talked of art in general and I was flooded with tenderness. Was glad I had shared it. That meant something. Not being on any stage. Not even any accomplishment.

I by now probably lack any driving forces of ambition along with the correct successful visualization. But the fact is, I am rarely free of visualizations whether I want them or not. The brain naturally conspires to brainstorm– and acknowledges no clock. And I know how to work very hard and quite long hours. But still, I am not yet, if ever, envisioning publishing a book, for instance. A poem here, yes, a story there. I am just too busy writing, thinking of writing, rewriting in the middle of a dream, on a walk, even when talking to someone. I am getting older. My hands are not as fast as the words that want to play and cry out and make clear. It hits me anew that time is scarcer, worth more.

Besides, we all know life is essentially pretty random. I mean, how much reality can we hope to control? Can a visionary plan make things happen? I don’t know. Work can, often. Passion matters. For me, it may take more toil and trouble than I care to know. I learned some basic lessons (“let go, let God; keep it simple; easy does it but do it; one day at a time; forgive and love one another “) the hard way awhile ago.

Mostly random, not carefully planned, is this life. It seems that what has happened year after year has been revealed to me unbidden as I trod fresh and worn paths through the uncoiling years. The surprises have been my guides and glorious wonderments the unexpected gifts, and any successes seem more like flukes or kindnesses than deserved good fortune. Everyone has visions of what life could or should be, a hope that their finest dreams endure. I have been lucky, overall. Not money, not status. Just joy in many different activities, embracing a kaleidoscope of inspirations. I keep making do with such fascinating pickings. The discovery I seek happens right now. Purposeful acts of creation go right on with or without me, it’s a well known truth. I am not the point of all this, the story is. I long ago wanted and still want first to be a small conduit for good things and know, too, the blessing and power of such a thing.

You have to adore what you want and be loyal, love yourself well enough, and then design something from the lovely mess as you go. Maybe without visualizations we cannot begin to see all options, but the heart’s desire tends to entrench itself. Just get ready, set, go.

Here, I also write for those who come to read. And so now I will engage in visualizing, in case it works better than I imagine:May all who seek, find their truest, best selves and thus find the Divine within untidy mishaps and good tasks of each day’s living. This vision looks like light spilling from a main point way out there to all other points, more light to and from you, then spiraling back. I call that a prayer but it could be a song, a line of poetry, a dance of angels, a thought that vanishes on quickening wind.

 

Green Stamps for the Soul

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Lately the concept of redemption has been a recurring visitor, a cue that tells me I should look into this further. Thus far, I haven’t come up with anything in particular that has triggered this but it won’t let go. It’s not so unusual. But I’ve decided I will sort it out here. First, I have to acknowledge some of how such “guest words” come to  be.

Words knocking on a door of the language cathedral (sorry, language is that important to me) within the brain’s acreage might be generated by cultural/sub-cultural info that targets us randomly. Or maybe it’s a condensed version of phrases I seize upon within various books. It can be a convoluted paragraph that flashes into the mind’s magnifier before awakening. Only to leave me with vague recollections as feet hit the floor, depositing an orphan word, a tiny hint of an idea into my morning. Such has it been with “redemption”–it’s trailed me, more like a misty, never relinquished cape. Perhaps because I read and write a great deal, words–people’s entire names (I usually don’t know them), prayers or places–simply come forward and pressure me for attention and a decent response. Sometimes it’s a word I don’t quite recognize so have to look it up. Occasionally there is no such word in my dictionaries. Not too sure about this; I’m uni-lingual for the most part. And words come sung to me. I know. But it’s how it is.

But I try to give these assertive nouns (or other parts of speech) their due–as least as I can see my way through it. I’m less inclined to spend hours researching, more interested in discovering where a word has traversed my own life as well as how it can be applied in a broader sense. Shared. So this is what happened with the word of “redemption” and its other forms (inflections or conjugations of the root word). The following comes forward now.

I recall two meanings of the root word “redeem” from my early years. First off, S and H Green Stamps were happily redeemable. We got them (given as a promotional ploy) at supermarkets and gas stations. After being gathered, were saved, pasted into booklets, and turned in for a multitude of coveted, useless or helpful items from the company’s catalog. I don’t recall the items gotten–doll clothing and games, tea towels, a watch, implements of various kinds–as clearly as the experience of getting, saving and using Green Stamps. It seemed as if my mother only shopped at places that gave out the mint green stamps that were then licked and pasted into each blank page. She was a great coupon clipper and user; anything that could augment income seemed invaluable. I thought those stamps were magical: buy food or gas, get bonus stamps that could deposit a toy in my hands.

I was often talked into pasting in the strips of stamps that clogged the kitchen junk drawer. I whined about it but I can tell you I enjoyed doing this. I liked the way a blank page, sectioned into small rectangular spaces corresponding to the stamps, would soon be neatly covered. To make the gummed backs stick I used a small bottle of water (we otherwise had to lick all stamps ourselves) that had a rounded yellow sponge top. By the time a booklet was filled the pages were wavy from dampness and fat with stamps. I nearly recall the scent of damp, cheap newsprint with plastered, lined up green rectangles. I placed a finished booklet on the growing pile and when done, Mom put them in a box on top of the frig. Eventually, the stamped pages led to something handy or fun. I thought of the items as gifts. But that was how it worked: your mother or father got stamps and they were complied to be redeemed, or traded, for good stuff.

The second way I understood the words redeem/redeemable/redemption was through church attendance and the Bible. The idea was to be rescued from things I did or thought that tripped me up, could tear me down and also cause others harm.  It meant being saved from going under in a vast pool of treacherous sin–all that stuff that wasn’t good for a person, stirred up more by misguided choices–through Jesus Christ’s love for humankind and his subsequent sacrifice. I saw that it meant being set free, ultimately, from tough consequences of my human tendency to make errors– like telling a fib or sassing the parents or smacking my sister back, I guessed. I might get in trouble at home but Jesus saw through to my hopefully better intentions and, if not entirely overlooked the rotten ones, then forgave them and we basically called it good for the time being.

I wasn’t always sure what I might have done wrong. But as I sat on the cushioned pew in the high-ceilinged Methodist sanctuary with a koi-filled water feature right outside to look at, I just knew God loved me. Jesus had already paid for basic human weakness that led us astray, and even future wrongdoings if I forgot how to do the right thing. Such love was clearer to me than shimmering water of the pool with blue sky bits in it, and it went way past civilized behavior like good manners or small or big mistakes of human judgment. I could count on that.

And that made me want to do better. It was a reciprocal thing: being loved by God, then passing it on while loving God back. Even then I hoped to show my appreciation, be in sync with what I thought of as Divine Spirit, a perfect harmony that sang to me, vibrated in nature. It gave me deep satisfaction and if I could have found the right words, a sense of transcendence. And it felt better to live in accordance with “First love God deeply and fully; love your neighbor as yourself” (to paraphrase the two greatest commandments Jesus noted and insisted all learn and live). My parents insisted, as well, of course. The instructions stayed with me as the eternal light that guides me. It was a serious business, redemption, but as a child I wore it lightly, as if an ordinary thing to know and accept.

It would take unspeakable tragedies, sudden losses and repeated failures; long periods of anguish over my selfishness, badly made choices and lapses of faith before I could begin to know the greater meanings and how hard it could be to hold onto the truths it embodied. It’s unfashionable to speak of guilt or remorse but they have their places in the human grab bag of feelings–and in the guide of our conscience. By trading in selfish disregard, despair and even self-loathing–costs of a life gone awry–for mercy and compassion, I found it possible to give the latter more generously to others. When you have nothing, not even hope of life, and are given one more breath as well as the means to go on, it is easy to feel humility and thankfulness. And that becomes a redemption process.

But it is still, after all these years, hard to act in accordance with an old legacy of soul-stirring rescue and renewal. It asks a lot of people to exchange their unwise whims and ravenous appetites– as well as prejudices and a tendency toward small cruelties. That we can do worse, much worse, in the name of “right and might” we know from bloodied annals of history. But do we really act as if we know we can do far better?

Since I believe we come from God, God remains within us when on earth and we return to God in an unbroken circle, I have wondered: what shatters that primary, even mystical connection? We are each birthed into the world, and we don’t usually come with beatific smiles on our faces but crying out. But we arrive equipped with intelligence, fantastic systems of locomotion and for learning, a capacity for feeling a spectrum of emotions. We arrive with impressive free will fully installed, unlike creatures who are motivated by instinct–as witnessed by even a crawling baby’s refusal to do as caregivers desire, even demand.

We think we know so much from the very start. And we do, in some unspoken way…and then smudge it up here and there because we can. And just want to. And then is there still workable knowledge? That which can make things add up to our benefit while acting in good regard for others? Is our will expansive and benevolent or spurious and undermining? It’s our choice, after all.

The word redemption comes to me again and again because it’s powerful. And we each seek it in various ways at certain times. I worry about the fate of this place, our planet Earth. We all do. We lie very still in the breath of night and maybe go to the window and try to count the inexhaustible stars and wonder how that ravishing universe can seem so rarefied yet far from our pettiness and misery, our terrible designs with their misappropriated energies and labors. We fill our lives with distractions to quell the contagious anxiety rippling around the world. How far have we come from our best beginnings? How much have we forgotten of the mysterious congruence of a universe that goes on despite our misguided, our flagging efforts here?

How lost can a species of creatures become? Are we not primal enough? Or not open enough to wisdom greater than our limited, perhaps one might think lazy, speculations?

We are naturally inclined to be explorers. And we have good clues in maps right here. They are in our natural bodies: the pumps and one way doors, a myriad of interdependent chemicals, connectors and transmitters: the blood-rich, nerve-conducting wisdom. Our bodies mirror much outside of the flesh. We have extreme mapping in our brains, those vast reservoirs full of information and imaginative juices. We enjoy our barrier busting leaps of thought. Are we irretrievably lost? Think again, only let higher functions of mind and soul open more effective routes, bolder solutions, itineraries that can take us to answers and make things work for the many– not only the few. What is below is as above; the universe and this planet are part of an infinite, barely grasped whole. Entire unto itself, we guess– yet we are within it.

So much that we can discern about us reflects the rest in endless configurations. If you love nature, you can see that: whorls of a tree’s inner trunk and planetary paths and spreading circles a single drop of water falls into a pond. So much more. We are here to immerse ourselves in such wonders and utilize our capabilities.  To pass on love as the treasure it is. We are given all this in exchange of stewardship of a planet and the tending of our human lives so that all may flourish.

And yet here we are. These times of catastrophes, power mongering, failures to communicate. It is all so not new, but nonetheless disturbing.

How, then, can we participate in the redemption of our better natures? We must not once forget the inestimable value of human beings even as we struggle with blindness or confusion. Life can be redeemed little by little, moment by moment, one more sound act of reason upheld by care. And then another and another. There is never too much kindness; we do not run out of it, not if we keep it at the ready, put it in motion. But we are not the only vital characters coming and going as the story turns. Perhaps one challenge is to know our place and yet to find it essential and beloved.

We can count on God knowing we are floundering–we, I believe, share Spirit and Mind. We are earthly specks yet celestial beings, made for greater things though we strain to understand. Still we can take action, bring to the fore our finer and braver impulses. Let the clear heart of redemption move us to trade scattered, weakened intentions for something more sound. More sacred. Practical matters and visionary potential are not mutually exclusive. We can trade for the consequences of a quiet (create/enact the work of hope; smile often, gently) or boisterous (bring on the music, speak up for change) life but do it with the transformative intentions of love.

The time we are given and endeavors we choose, I learned, are worth infinitely more than Green Stamps stuck into piles of flimsy books. It is my responsibility to daily renew commitment to an uncertain life on earth, to make sacrifices as needed and ultimately to live with deep and abiding charity. This is perhaps the means and ends of the miracle of redemption’s power.

Sharing a Life…and a Desk, Table and Lamp

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One of the basic skills we are taught at a young age is sharing. But I’m still learning, sometimes the hard way, to share. I am lately up against a “I want but he wants” dilemma in my home. I tell myself I ought to have greater adaptability. Even generally believe I do possess this attribute. But it is tested and I find it lacking. It is all about furniture, old versus newer, lighter versus darker. The look and feel of things. I recall how often and well I have compromised and shared throughout my life in order to gain better perspective.

I was raised in a family of seven, primarily in a not-too-large, two-storey, bungalow type house. Five kids shared two of the three bedrooms; for a brief time two sisters filled a double bed. And we all shared noise, food, information even if meant to be private, clothing, parental attention, musical instruments, pets, the tree swing, weekly chores, space on sofa and loveseat. And so on.

For example, it was routine to have to wait in line for the bathroom. I often sat on the top step of the stairway for that door to my immediate left to open. Often a long time, accompanied by moderate wailing toward the occupant to hurry it up. Then I dashed in before a bedroom door on the second floor cracked open, when a bigger sibling (all bigger as I was youngest) pushed me aside, yelling, “Dibs!” Same for showers and baths, of course. The parents were first, usually, and then it descended in birth order or importance of daily schedules. If there was any hot water left at the end of the line, you were incredibly lucky. I have a recollection of sharing bath water a few times as a small child, for that very reason–there was no more hot water to be had. My dad started to time bathing to ten minutes max. Complaining didn’t help a bit either way. I had to be savvier and faster to be close to front of line-up. More often than not I accepted things. But I was a bit envious of friends whose homes had two or even three bathrooms. It was not middle class fashion then to reside in such spacious homes, a bathroom on every floor, or more.

There was enough food, fortunately though we could act as if there wasn’t. Serving dishes were passed around as we helped ourselves, mindful of serving size. Still, someone might sneak an extra slice of meat or scoop of potatoes. Dessert was hardest; a pie or cake can only be cut into so many pieces and still be worth savoring. A half gallon of ice cream was emptied pronto. But we did understand all had to be divided by seven; we had to share. Except sometimes for my sister, who loved food greatly. She somehow managed to snag extra food and then made me hide it in my napkin to later give up to her. This kept her out of trouble.  My mother, if she caught me, was not to mad at me as I was often picky about food. But sometimes it seemed I deserved the “extra” just for hiding it. That sort of forced sharing did not end well. My sis saw it as theft, deserving of due punishment.

Sharing time and opportunity to practice violin, cello, bassoon, clarinet and/or piano was much harder. The living room and the den was often reserved for private students of our father’s. We sometimes had to use our bedrooms; other times, the recreation room finally created in the darker, somewhat dank basement. Or go to the back yard. We did have schedules to deal with musical pandemonium. We also practiced at school. But music was always playing or being played and we also simply adapted to the sound, even as we hoped for more quiet.

The beige telephone affixed to kitchen wall was another matter of “share and share alike”. It rang constantly for our parents and us. The long curly cord was stretched to its limit as we wound it around corners, behind closed doors. We had to call “dibs” again for its use but often just met up with friends or love interests to talk face-to face–it was easier than waiting for the darned phone. Or we waited until school or an event where we could see each other.

The entire point being: sharing wasn’t and isn’t so hard. It can be annoying but is expected, even natural coexisting in a group. Communal living needs rules for the good of the whole; that’s how families and neighborhoods work and play best.

All this history is a long lead-in to my current situation. I want it clear I was trained correctly in the behavior of sharing. After all, simple courtesy works for social betterment. I was taught to extend an attitude of sharing, to defer to others if they were older, slower, younger, injured. There were also cases that one was to defer gratification on all counts. Say, the case of entering through doors: it might be a matter of two people arriving at once. The correct thing to do is offer the other person first entry.

My situation is not as simple, but requires not so different a sharing guideline. It has to do with furniture… really, it is about family matters. I try to share and share alike, to respond from strength of love, not personal preferences, base selfishness or greed. And I misstep plenty–but that is the marriage deal, to cooperate. And it’s just…furniture… right?

My mother-in-law, about whom I truly care, is in the process of changing home bases. To that end, she is sorting and tossing her belongings and she divided a few good items between two sons with old photographs and various mementos tossed in. She informed us a couple months ago she was shipping two pieces of furniture from Florida to Oregon; there was also a lamp. I was surprised she would go to such trouble but Marc, my husband, was ready and waiting.

“They’re really here!” he exclaimed.

This was the happy response upon returning home after a long work day. I’d left three immense boxes at the lower level. He lugged and pushed them up the stairs to our apartment, was huffing and puffing and yet would not stop until all pieces were unboxed–tall piles of packing materials littering the floor–and displayed in our living room.

I, too, suddenly recognized the pieces–and immediately considered their heavy shapes and darker wood, how much room they took up, how they didn’t conform to the rest of our furniture. The pieces we have are lighter wood, oak and pine, simple clean lines. The new arrivals are walnut, cherry, and something uncertain and also darker. The lamp? Well, that was a whole other story.

“From Bay View!” he enthused.

He circled them, examined each piece, put together the secretary and the rest, eyes wide, his face enlivened by warmth of joy. He was transported back, so many years back, to the white Victorian summer home his grandparents owned in northern Michigan, right off a beautiful Lake Michigan bay. Little Traverse Bay. Bay View was established in 1875 as part of a Methodist camp meeting site as well as the U.S. Chautauqua  movement for education and the arts. And it was a part of his family legacy, including these pieces his mother shipped. And so, a part of him.

Oval lamp table (in severe need of refinishing) with ornate lamp is soon pushed against the far end (drawing attention to the blasted mid-century paneling) of the living room. The elegant secretary is pressed against another wall near the front door. Ah, yes, Bay View is present in our own place.

I knew his Grandma Susie well (Grandfather was long passed when I joined them). I thought of her as a fearsome dowager until I knew her better. She welcomed me into her life, shared genuine good will and sternness in equal measure. A teacher, she had summers off. Her daughter, Beth (mother-in-law was also a teacher), Marc and his brother remained there most of each summer. There, my husband learned much of what he considered important–about family ties, sailing, taking art classes and enjoying classical concerts via a college-run arts program, camping, swimming, being a volleyball and badminton team player. Making close friends. Building and cooking over beach fires. Sneaking out at night–the enclave held 440 cottages and people reside there only in summer– and having fun. He felt this summer life, this family life, had helped mold him in the best way. I was inclined to agree, understood the mystique of northern Michigan.

The two story house with graceful yard and towering trees was enchanting. The interior was informed by streaming light and vaporous shadow. Not a huge, fancy house yet true to architectural type, it had two porches and much gingerbread trim, and inside were nooks and crannies our children also soon enjoyed. There were narrow back stairs off the kitchen, and secret hideaways in closets, a screened side porch, quaint cozy bedrooms. The furniture and decorative touches reflected older times and customs.

The lamp we unwrap was always called a Tiffany lamp but Marc is sure it isn’t a real one but made in the style. He recalls his grandmother having its metal work painted a cream color one year; he said he was disappointed and missed the original brass. As do I. But there it sits after he cleans it up a bit, in our living room corner, on a sturdy table that is do in need of help. Part of me balks just glancing at the ensemble here, so out of place. So I watch him examine the old desk–it has a piano-type lid that lifts up to open. He checks each narrow drawer and shelf in the Federalist secretary, pulls out and sits at the writing surface. The walnut and cherry fairly glow. I readily admire it, too.

The memories attached to this furniture are powerful, happy ones. For us both. But none of it fits in our home.

My eyes rest on our old oak dining room table beyond, then the hand crafted oak and tile lamp tables between chairs and by sofa. There is a mishmash, I admit, and the pieces aren’t precious but have been our casual taste for years. Found pieces as well as searched for and bought. Things work together just fine. My resistance returns, grows stronger.

“Maybe they will fit in the second bedroom,” I suggest. “You can use the secretary for your own writing or business.” I half covet this piece for its interesting features.

“I don’t know, I’ll have to rearrange things in there.”

“We could just…store them.”

“Hmm,” he says.

He turns in his hands a hand carved horse  with rider and a wolf his great uncle once fashioned. And a tall ship model. I take a look at that.

“We might get rid of this filthy ship, for one.”

“No, not that, it just needs a good dusting, cleaning. Look at these sails! I loves boats and ships, you know.”

“I love this furniture…” he says. He hums to himself as he sorts things.

I take a deep breath and offer my thoughts. “I really don’t want it in here for long. It doesn’t match anything! But… just for now. It will take awhile to figure out what to do with them.”

It’s still hard to say much as he’s clearly enjoying his mother’s offerings. I mainly want my living room back so start to clean up packaging. But I say nothing more for a few days.

I purchase new light bulbs for the ornate lamp. There are a couple of old side chairs I notice have a darker finish so I gather and place those by the desk. I realize the cabinet that upholds the stereo is also darker…Well, the room definitely has a two-toned look now. I am distracted and even bothered whenever I enter but let it be.

One early evening after placing beneath it a lace dust cloth that was sent with, I turn the lamp on. Rich blue glass wedges behind the metalwork illuminates beautifully. It’s a scene of a turquoise lake, with sunset or sunrise of peach, ivory, rose and gold. The metalwork is of trees and bushes. I feel an appreciation for the archaic loveliness. I wouldn’t ever buy it and still am not comfortable with it here. But it’s oddness nearly attracts me.

Marc is thrilled to see it all lit up, so I turn it before he comes home from work each night. His stance visibly relaxes as he eyes the furniture his mother and grandmother passed on to him.

I enjoy purging excess material items and don’t like much clutter. He is a hunter and gather of  things, some of which I can’t relate to, at all. And what he ascribes value to, he will keep a very long time. Sometimes it can become a contentious matter. But this time I feel myself relenting.

Bay View as a home was so meaningful to him. And I understand the love of his grandparents and his mother, now 89, even though he doesn’t speak at length about the past, nor are we able to see his mother much. I have been with this man a long time; I know much of what it all means. That span of time spent summering at the Bay View house is a hallowed thing in his memory, in his deep and tenderest heart it helped shape him into who he is. It also contributed to enduring happiness for myself and our children. I am filled with gratitude for those visits.

I think, too, about Beth, how she chose these things for her son. About it being taxing, even sad, to have to sift through so much life and revisit the past. To have to address such changes and an uncertain future. We hope to visit her soon and help.

So this is what I mean about the many ways we learn to share. My failures and ineptitude, at times. It’s something we’re taught for good reason. It makes room for others’ needs and wants. It offers opportunity where there may have been none before. Sharing is an action we take for those we love on a more critical level. We’re in the same home, occupy a life together. I am certain there are items of mine my husband could well do without, too. But we make room for one another.

I take a couple pictures to study, view the pieces from different angles, in daylight and lamp light. They aren’t all that hard on the eyes, I guess, despite being so unlike the feel of our rooms. I don’t know what will ultimately happen with three gifted items that were not here for years. But for now they stay, and will gradually make themselves at home with us, no doubt.

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Bay View lamp, desk, Marc and me