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.

 

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

 

Dear Holidays: Let’s Take It Easy

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What do carved pumpkins, specters lazing on porches, rustling cornstalks and twinkling orange lights do for you? Bring a robust cheer to your routine day? Provide inspiration for your own DIY frenzy? Or do they trigger a mixed response– as they do me?

Creative Halloween decorations make me a bit nervous. It’s like being pleased by something that also provokes wariness: what is behind this rampage of homespun design? The first displays of skeletons and gargantuan webs stretched across porches and climbed by black spangled spiders are fun but don’t seem entirely benign. And it’s not that I have an abhorrence of Halloween. As a kid I had a blast running (gently) amuck in energy-charged neighborhoods in my funky costumes, thrilled as my hand-decorated paper bag filled with cavity-inviting, scrumptious treats. For many I years enjoyed going out with grandchildren, though times changed and everyone is more cautious.

But these fanciful decorations are a precursor to all that follows–Thanksgiving and Christmas. Sure enough, as I wander the neighborhood chuckling over decor, I’m trapped, thinking of holidays when I prefer to not be. It’s October. Bring on bonfires, hot mulled cider and apple strudel, crispy vibrant leaves, that shock of wind with a hint of an edge. But please hold the smorgasbord of Thanksgiving displays and those creeping  signals of impending Christmas hullabaloo.

Lest you get the idea that I don’t enjoy a redolent spread on our old oak dining table or getting a fresh-cut fir tree from foggy country acreage–I do. And this year is no different. I am also a Christian so Christmas narrates events that resonate deeply. But all the holiday celebrations that are touted as essential to my well-being take a low spot on a list full of other things. That is part of the problem: I don’t really have time for all of this. It matters little that I don’t work for a paycheck now. I’m more than busy with what matters–plus a fair amount of frivolity tossed in daily. Why mar it with mad pressure to make these holidays jollier than last year, expectations of “hostess with the mostest”? And a panoply of gifts? We have five adult children and their partners; five grandchildren and additional folks. I love to give interesting items to others, do so any old time of the year. I don’t so appreciate hunting and foraging amid throngs for stuff trotted out and designated for commercialized holidays. Gifts that may not click with me or, likely, the giftee.

And I don’t crave a lot of visual stimuli to remind me of holidays. My home doesn’t need to be orange pumpkin-marked, scarecrow-adorned–nor cheaply tinseled, swathed in massive red bows, fake snow sprayed in clumps and bits. I do like baking my few favorite holiday cookies and treats; we all love eating them. I am no longer truly cooking–I gradually opted out–so you can’t count on me to stuff and baste that turkey in November, though my spouse will (and enjoy it, too). I’ll make hearty salads and cut up veggies for steaming. And enhance the table with a variety of candles, a centerpiece and my good yellow (or pine-green or deep burgundy) tablecloth.

I can assure you I’m not stingy or curmudgeonly. In fact, as others grumble about the holiday season, I’ve tended to anticipate the fun, richer moments it affords. But the last few years we’ve privately said: “Let’s skip the holidays–maybe go to Hawaii!” as if we mean it a little. We’re a little older, and perhaps less enthused as well as underwhelmed by commercial overkill. Plus, let’s face it, there is no sprawling country domain to which our family comes to gather–the one adorning Christmas cards or gazed upon in movies when a child. No bell-ringing sleigh ride over hill and dale to Grandmother’s (our humble, cheery) shining bright house.

But it’s more than that for me. And I am trying to sort it out.

My niece and nephew-in-law are moving today, all the way to Texas. This may seem irrelevant but they are two more whose exodus changes life’s greater landscape. I didn’t see them often over the twenty-eight years my niece, Lori, lived there–they resided in suburban Seattle. I saw them more at Lori’s mom’s, my oldest sister’s home, whenever I visited her and my zestful brother-in-law. I’m wondering why now–I could have made even more of an effort. We could have made more memories–I enjoy being an aunt and I don’t only like my handful of nieces, I love them, of course.

Last week we got together with much of the Portland family in attendance to send them off. But she also wanted to bring items she had sorted from her mother’s last home. Because my sis, Marinell, passed away a year and a half ago; her well-loved husband, six months later. Still, I hummed as I shined up our apartment and put on an outfit that reminded me of my sister and our gabby shopping trips. Recalled the good times Lori and her husband and we have shared in the past. We would be a small, chattering, motley group. I made coffee and tea, assembled shortbread cookies on a floral glass serving plate. Lit two small candles in amber owl holders as a nod to October’s wiles.

We assembled: my remaining sister, my oldest brother and his wife, a niece and her guy, Lori and her husband and my spouse and I. Lori opened an photgraph album. Family energy seemed to spill from pictures, those noteworthy or ordinary moments created by siblings and parents, our large extended family. A faint shiver fell upon me–those gone were with us. As we reminisced, I thought of the remainder. Moved to different geographies if not in the land of the sentient. My other brother and sister-in-law are in Virginia; most of our grown children thrive in other states.

This is the way it goes, I well know, and want to believe I accept: we are born with fanfare; hopefully live to the fullest and the best we can; exit the world alone or surrounded by whomever cares. We make our transitory marks in the world, are forgotten. We come together, are broken apart, share joys, sorrows and countless mundane moments that structure our lives.

Lori unwrapped from tissue paper some hand-sewn clothing belonging to Marinell, and preserved for fifty years or more. Dresses and a blouse and skirts my mother had once expertly made. As she held them each up, I saw Marinell once more in her features and mannerisms. My hands smoothed the taffeta and polished cotton, lace and netting, examined the interesting old buttons. Lori offered any my vintage-loving daughters (or I) might enjoy as a gift. I chose ones that seemed suitable and knew how pleased they’d be pleased to keep and even wear, finely made one-of-a kind pieces by their grandmother. (For more about her creations, please see this post: Handmade: Being a Seamstress’ Daughter)

Suddenly fresh sadness caught me off guard. I looked at Lori. Saw it in her eyes, too, but we decided no, not then, not such tender sadness to complicate a last visit. I appreciated the past but wanted to celebrate her movement forward, toward new possibilities now that her sons were grown and her mother and stepfather (really her second father, she felt) gone. We all went off to an Italian restaurant, filled up with good food, stories and debated ideas, then pffered a delayed Bon Voyage. It was hard. I wondered what Christmas would look like in Texas for Lori and her husband, prayed it might be imbued with times of ease and joy as well as any fanfare they desire. I want you to be truly happy I thought as we blinked back tears, exchanged warm hugs.

So when I think of the holidays, I also think of this: how many have gone on in one way or another. Family has always been a high priority. I was the last born, a surprise to a woman who was already swamped with four close in age and teaching other children, as well as my father’s more public career. Forty years old at my birth (five years after her last), I never knew her as truly young though her spriti was bright and strong. I grew up with an overachieving, colorful family and then, at age 13, my siblings were no longer present. They were all college students and after that, they followed their careers’ paths. Two remain in the Pacific Northwest and are in their seventies, both engaged in full lives. (And we remain here partly because of my husband’s career–perhaps we’ll away, who knows?)

It is now much the same with my children’s situations. One, an arts center outreach and marketing manager, lives in California with her husband. Another is a chaplain/minister in Virginia. A third is an associate art professor/sculptor in South Carolina. They are working where they have jobs and count their blessings. They are, excepting the California offspring, very far from here and she is unable to get away from work around holiday seasons. Two more reside in our city; three grandchildren are also here. But the crowd around our table or living room is becoming smaller than I’d like it.

My parents passed away decades ago. I think often of visiting my mother-in-law, in her late eighties, in Florida. I bring it up to my husband often, with a growing sense of urgency. I so appreciate Beth’s inquisitive mind, exacting language and positive attitude. Her faith and will to persevere. She’d be so pleased to see us again. So tonight he is researching our options. It’s possible we’ll go before or after Christmas. I’m getting excited by that idea. Hawaii can wait–maybe next year. Maybe not.

Suddenly the holidays are feeling more enticing. I don’t have to worry; I can take it easy. Keep my priorities clear. Who needs what will be put aside or eventually tossed away? It is family, always family that sings to my soul outside my individual creative endeavors. I don’t need fancy or unique or glittery or snowy. I’d rather give and receive love, time, talk, a variety of activity. I vow to stay well focused on the essential core I value. Whether a small grouping or bigger one, whether family and friends or others in need: I want to share myself. Kindly, wisely, with laughter and hugs. Even without splendid trimmings which can distract too much. Alright, I do admit one small orange straw pumpkin and a white ceramic one came out for my niece and all. Just for the table centerpiece. And there will be an evergreen (with berries) bough or wreath on our door. Meanwhile, it is still October, the days shaped by brightly drifting leaves and the musical rain, evenings made better with a big cozy blanket and fragrant mugs of clove and cinnamon tea. I’m keeping it simpler from here on out.

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Harry Brill’s Pants

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Harry Brill sometimes opened his door wearing nothing but a frayed button-down shirt, this time one with the thankfully longer tail. He leaned on his walker and squinted through the screen, breath leaking out in a plume of smoke. As Home Care Manager, I’d had very few complaints about Harry besides his sporadic state of undress, but that alone kept many personal care workers at bay. Many quit the first day. I drove twenty miles out to the small, dilapidated trailer park to check up on him. As Home Care Manager I investigated complaints and took action as needed, among other things. Once more I would remind him of appropriate ways to behave with his aides.

He threw me a look of irritation, motioned me in and bumpily turned his walker around to move forward. I let the flimsy screen door slam, not from a fit of rudeness but because he’d once told me it always comforted him to hear it; his wife had let it slam on purpose each time returning home. I waited for him to back up and sit in the frayed blanket-covered easy chair, then sat across from him. I tried to breathe lightly. The air was slimy with smoke and bacon or sausage grease.

“Why gracing me with a visit so soon, Cynthia?” he asked with a barely disguised growl.

“Good morning, Harry, where are your pants today?”

He rubbed his sparse white hair. “Maybe in the bathroom. Sometimes they just stay put.”

“So I understand. But they need to come along with you to the living room and front door, remember?”

He gave me that look that said even dolts knew that but he’d consider it further.

“Ain’t always easy to get ’em back up, as you know.”

“That’s why you have help.”

“They ain’t always here, are they?” He pulled another cigarette out of his shirt pocket and stuck it behind his ear. “But now you’re here you can help.”

“Of course, Harry, as always.”

I entered the bathroom, retrieved crumpled black sweatpants from the bathroom floor. Harry pushed the walker aside so I could better pull them over his purplish feet, up over rough shins and knobby knees toward his hips.

“Your turn, hike them up the best you can. Got a hold of them now? That’s it. You’re better able when sitting here, I think. Maybe the back of the sturdy chair helps.”

“Yep, I guess, got ‘er done.” He grunted as I sank into the couch. I opened a folder of notes on clients I’d be visiting, taking my time.

“It’s hardly worth the effort some days, if you want to know. And my legs ain’t too bad-looking, are they? Just a little weak-kneed.”

“So you say. Now we can better chat. How is that Georgia working out three days a week?”

He leaned forward. “Well, she tattled on me, I see, not so sure. But she can cook the out of beef stew and chicken wings and fried taters. And she’s real clean, likes to polish.”

The main room didn’t look any different than before Georgia started working there. It was in colorful disarray: a few shoe boxes of snapshots and cards, old magazines and mail teetering, discarded cigarette packages. Two used bowls with big spoons along with mugs were on a side table where dust gently accumulated. The lamp bulb was dim but I make out the oval mirror behind Harry, a smudged, streaked glass. It wasn’t at all good for his allergies but the smoke was likely thicker than dust.

“She was last here Friday, Harry. That’s three days. The dust still gathers in random piles– if you even look for it.”

He sniffed. “Well, last week Georgia brought her son and we played instead.”

“Ah.” I wrote a line or two. Georgia and Terrance/confer with Boss Marcia– or not? “What did you play?”

“What d’ya think? Checkers! I beat that squirt and her. But nice boy, maybe five, minds his mom.”

I considered Harry as he looked out the door, then took the mashed cigarette out, lit it with his red Bic lighter. Inhaled, coughed, inhaled again. He was eighty and had had both hips replaced, the last surgery not as successful. His one living daughter was in Texas. His nephew came around every couple of months with extra food and a hundred for utilities, sometimes stayed for a quick chat.  The nephew cared but he didn’t have time; he had his own life, as he reminded her when she called with an update.

Harry had had five personal care aides in the past seven months. If it wasn’t his smoking, it was his pants left behind; if it wasn’t surliness, it was his Meals on Wheels deliveries spoiling on the counter.

“I don’t know. I want you to stay here, too, but you sometimes get in our way…we have to have a sound strategy.”

“Yeah, guess that’s so.”

The cigarette was held up in front of him between index finger and thumb. He studied it as if it held an answer, then took a long drag. I waited from him to exhale; sometimes he’d hold it in an extra few seconds as if challenging me to say something. I didn’t. I knew he’d smoke until he left us behind. He had told me time and time again that his father and grandfather had smoked right up until ages 90 and 94. “It’s a genetic thing,” he’d say. “We got stronger lungs than most, nicotine sets with us just fine.”This despite his worsening cough for which he would not see a doctor.

He forced out the smoke between pursed lips, hacked once. “But what d’ya expect? I’m used to my own ways.”

“True. Well, do you want help or do you want something else?”

He narrowed his rheumy eyes at me. “What’s the ‘else’ part?” He stubbed out the cigarette. “Not my nephew again…”

I took a deep breath. I had not been looking forward to this moment. “A referral to other housing. That retirement place he had mentioned. He’s got the money to help out, as you know.”

Harry lay his crooked palm against his chest. “It’ll kill me. He’s always sticking his nose where it don’t need to be stuck… but I won’t leave. Georgia is pretty good, we can make do. I’ll keep my pants handier, I’ll figure out how to get ’em on, I’ll try to smoke less, I’ll eat those–”

“Hang on. You’ll smoke less? Is she that good?”

“By Jiminy, she’s great!” he said, mugging surprise at his confession. “She can cook, she can play a couple of games, she has a kid who laughs–what more could I want?” He shook his head and his brow wrinkled more. “But, that’s right, she can’t clean worth a damn! Maybe we can get someone else in for that if it gets too bad, huh? Gotta keep the nephew happy, okay?”

He tossed me a look. There was a glimpse of his sometimes hidden good nature beneath the bluster and pout. His color, I noticed, was better than last month. He sat up straighter with bony shoulders thrust back as if to convince me of his vitality. The truth was I already knew he was more hearty than most his age. That’s one reason I was fighting so hard for him to just stay put. Marcia was getting on me since we’d had complaints that he was not keeping clean enough, too often without pants, difficult to manage, whatever that meant. He took only a blood pressure pill and one for his stomach, something for pain on the few days or nights his hip felt too bad. His mind was working overtime from what I could tell. I saw no reason to recommend pushing him out his door but Marcia saw things in a different light.

“Georgia was well recommended by another client before… she… passed.” I looked right at him to see if that bothered him but he just nodded. “She’s a hard worker, but I didn’t know she didn’t clean well. That’s sort of important, Harry, hygienic conditions. You seem to manage, anyway, but she needs to step it up.”

He nodded again. “I do manage. I’m getting old, Cynthia, I don’t need perfection. But I’ll talk to her and Terrance, they’ll help me out.”

I considered if I should tell him her son was actually her grandson but did not. I had met the young one;  he was big hearted, spirited but well-behaved. I knew the rules, but Terrance liked the old folks, Georgia said. I had told her to not mention her grandson going with her. I knew it might cost me a reprimand or worse but it just made sense. Most older adults enjoyed kids around a bit. It was a win-win as I saw it; I was trying to develop more inter-generational events at the senior center.

“Okay. I’ll talk to Georgia about a few things. Maybe she can come earlier in the day, get you dressed, make breakfast, too. We’ll see how you both do the next three months. And then I’ll be back, if not before.”

“Now don’t go hard on her.” His voice lost its edge and I paused. “You have kids, Cynthia?”

I put my folders into my briefcase. “I do. Five.”

“By Jiminy, lady, that’s a bunch of crazy kittens to let loose! How you manage all this?”

“I muddle my way through, Harry, just like everybody does.” I sighed to emphasize. “We each have our work cut out, right?”

“Well, you seem to do okay, I’ll say that. Maybe I like your stopping by.”

“You might? Harry, watch it now, you’ll go dewy-eyed on me.”

Harry picked up his crumpled cigarette pack and pulled out another cigarette, lit it with his trusty Bic and puffed. “Worse can happen to a man, I guess.”

“But you really need to keep those pants on if you can, Harry, it’s not so much to ask. It can scare people sometimes.”

“It does? Huh. I’ll do my best, that’s all I can do, they just sometimes slip away. But Georgia–will she come back?”

“I imagine so. I’ll call with our decisions about everything soon.”

When I stood up, he did, too, slow but certain, then shuffled behind me to the battered screen door. I pushed it open, took in a chest full of fresh air but carefully so he wouldn’t notice how much I needed to breathe it in. I needed to quit smoking, myself; the thought of being his age and still smoking like a chimney, playing with fate, was too much to bear.

I stepped out to the weathered landing of the wooden front steps, surveyed the trailer park slumped in another day’s slow ending. Half a dozen of them, all filled with older people, with their travails, longings and keepsakes. I knew them all and would be back.

His face on the other side of the half-opened screen brightened as I turned to say goodbye.

“‘Til next time, Cynthia.”

“Until then.”

I ran down the steps and got in my car, started the engine and slowly started down the semi-circular dirt driveway. Harry was still at the door, waving. I stuck my hand out the window and gave a neat wave back. Afternoon light slipped through oak tree branches and made a shining path through fallen leaves. The scruffy, narrow yard lit up in a soft blaze of color. Harry’s door closed with an agreeable bang.

******

Notes on this post:

You may think this fiction, but it is loosely based on one of many real experiences; it fulfills criteria of (quite) creative non-fiction. That’s how I’ve chosen to categorize it, anyway, at this time. I have and shall change all names (most I have forgotten) and identifying characteristics. I’ve created scenarios that are amalgams of a few certain years and places that made up my experience. The elderly people I served are long gone now; it’s been thirty years.

I was employed by a large senior services center in a suburb of Detroit for a few years. Starting as a part-time Adult Care Aide, I progressed to Home Care Assistant and then became Manager. It was an even bigger job than I had thought. There were 350 homebound clients on average who required hot meals delivered as well as personal care services. All this so they could live and, perhaps, die in their own homes as they desired. I assessed and checked in on them, meditated family conflicts and provided resources. I hired, trained and managed 150 aides. Though it was a demanding job, I had a passion for it and missed it after moving to a new city where I began a different career. If there had been a comparable position, I would have continued in the field of geriatrics. (The need for income was paramount and addictions and mental health services offered more abundant work at the time. That turned out fine, too.)

I was told the place I once worked is no more, undoubtedly replaced by a larger building and better diversified programs overseen by county and state. But I hope to write of more personal experiences. The center was a unique place, and being of service for so many in need–who yet had much to offer, too–made a profound impact on my thinking and on my living.

Living Life Amid Passing Shadows

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson 9/16
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson 9/16

There are occasional days I awaken as if slogging through a heavy mist of haunting dreams, feet unsteady on the floor, body trying to find a barest sense of consciousness amid a three-dimensional space. I perform preparations for further entry into daytime accompanied by a low groan or two. Dressed, wet hair dripping, I finally turn on the tea kettle. I manage to feel less weary as its soft sizzle of sounds hum through the kitchen. Curtains and windows are throw open in living and dining room; balcony door is cracked wide. Let come the light, come the fresh air, there we go.

The Irish Breakfast teabag greets boiling water and I stare into deepening amber. I must get more awake, greet my life with eyes fully open. I will meditate and pray longer, for this may be a day that will take more work to mine the beauty and hope that enliven my life. My love for the world–mine and our greater one– is straddled with grief. I am often surprised by this. Ask my spouse and he will tell you I am a person who is primarily even-keeled, rolling with the weather of life, even optimistic by nature. It wasn’t always that way. I learned a few things.

But am I feeling a little depressed those certain mornings (day, evening)? My training indicates it can happen that way, sudden brief lows, even mild yet disheartening. Close-up experience being myself may indicate otherwise; there is usually to be a reason. A lifetime of valuing the intelligence of emotion also chimes in. I know the voice or silence as well as the faces of depression, the energy and mass of it from repeated encounters with mental health clients. And I have known it in my personal journey when facing serious crises. It carried my burdens with bleak misery. But the older I become, the more I feel “the blues” is but one more variation of the expansive spectrum of emotions–if generally an indicator of other, less visible feelings. And it is not the enemy but another ally, nudging me to take notice. To see what else is going on. It’s a little like the relentless shriek of the tea kettle telling me it is liable to go dry, so time to take action.

That loaded word, “depression”, floats by our collective eyes and ears more times than I can count these days. It certainly was a major focal point all day long when I was a counselor. Also prior to that, while working with geriatric and disabled populations. It has become a dominant topic in literary, scientific and spiritual journals, even popular magazines. It often takes center stage during commercial breaks on television, courtesy of the octopus reach of Big Pharma. It can be a source of discussion among friends, acquaintances, family members. I have lost people to suicide; I don’t underestimate its debilitating, even lethal effect.

Clearly depression is entrenched in our socio-psychological lexicon following centuries of being a word not uttered if it could be helped. Or quietly, behind closed doors. And even then, it was called something else. The varieties of depression have been re-categorized or redefined to keep up with the evolution of diagnostic techniques and manuals. (Or the other way around; it depends on your viewpoint.)

Back when I was working in mental health agencies, powerful grief and loss usually underlay depression symptoms–it might have been an event that kept cropping up (say, ancient family dysfunction fueled by ongoing abuses or abandonments) or a very fresh experience. Anything from unemployment or medical issues to relationship trouble or moving to a new city, even loss of dreams and goals. Addictions of all sorts are also both symptoms and triggers. But right there I’m going to stop. I’m leaving the finer details to diagnosticians who are working away in the field.

I’m going back to my opening theme, those times when walking and thinking are reminiscent of trudging through noxious mud. Because I have worked at gaining self-knowledge a long time now, I also know the acrobatics my mind can perform and the poisons my spirit can let in. So I am ready when my response is needed. I know when and how I must take myself in hand.

If we are in large part what and who we tell ourselves, then I’m a curious human being with intellectual capability, decent physical equipment, rich emotional responses and a seeking soul. All these work together from what I can tell, for if one aspect goes a little awry, others tend to malfunction some. I am made of homeostatic systems that make a whole, one that runs well and without much fretting when systems do their work appropriately. All I have to do is see to insure my human beingness remains tuned up–attend to whatever is askew and appreciate its design and function. It is not so much to ask for; every creature has its work to stay alive and do what it can do.

If we stop to consider the intricate checks and balances that go on in our bodies, alone, that awareness can startle us with awe. We know the brain does countless jobs each moment and exerts tremendous influence– we haven’t anywhere near figured out the full scope of its powers. But we do know, for instance, that sleep is critically needed to provide to good health, and for the brain to efficiently process and park information. Otherwise, we cannot operate without paying the price. (I remind myself that those nights when I awaken at 2 a.m., then return to sleep somewhere around 3:30 am.–this would contribute to anyone’s moody ineptness the next day.)

Every part of who I am wants to work at maximum levels. It is far more interesting; I gain and also give more. This requires intellectual, emotional and spiritual support and care. I know, for example, if I neglect reading meditation books and studying guiding scripture, if I don’t allow enough time to seek the Creator’s wisdom for more clarity of mind and a compassionate heart, shadows of sadness and distress may find greater opportunity to cling more than a moment. I tend to manage, anyway; there is the will, a mighty thing, to help determine quality of life. (Or better yet, there is synergism, a theological assertion that renewal is a combination of will and divine grace.) But how much better to remain rooted in my strengths as well as curtail or transform my deficits? To create more possibilities for a fuller, truer life?

I manage my health needs and revel in the body’s capabilities. I’m not ready to leave this earth. I watch over my emotional wellness because I savor happiness and peace. But I am no longer afraid of sorrow, frustration, disappointment or even failure. I’ve been there; still standing.

So I locate and nurture wellsprings of wholeness. It isn’t too hard. I admit it’s less challenging since retirement, but even as a working woman I kept those operational needs met the best I could. This is my way since I am a person who has been intimate with the vagaries of life fortunes, the loss of health, money, housing, safety, love, hope and twice, nearly my life. Yes, then, I have been to some deep pits. I didn’t expect to step into or get tossed in them. Who ever does? The climbing or tunneling out was exhausting, lonely, left a few marks from hoisting mental, spiritual and physical burdens, from the clawing and gnashing of teeth as I searched for relief. That rejuvenating sip of air, illuminating pinprick of light–it can turn the tides of mind.

Yes, far easier to maintain the well-being I have developed– and take rapid action to repair breakage or malfunctioning than let things head sideways.

We likely agree it’s sometimes a strange and arduous thing to inhabit this human flesh. Optimism can be fickle, faith can get slippery and resources run out more than we’d like. How much we admire the creatures who carry on their business without, we suspect, any thought to the future, without consternation over much while driven by instinct. But we are not they. Let us live the parts we have been given, then seek to make them finer.

When a disenchanted melancholy swirls about then settles on my shoulders like a ill-fitting cape, I  don’t panic. I wear it awhile. Acknowledge it. Let it visit me, talk to it, carry it about. Listen to any stories it has to tell, let clues surface. It has come to keep me company. But I don’t give it undue attention, either. The feeling will depart, either when it is ready or when I determine it is time. If a feeling hangs on to my detriment, I know what to do: reap spiritual sustenance; walk, hike, dance; eat smartly; rest even small pockets of time; visit and help others; make or bring life-affirming music and art and literature more deeply into my days and nights. And do not stay glued to electronic mediums, especially when it emphasizes negativity, subjects me to ever more violence. I–we–clearly need edification, more potent solutions born of thoughtful consideration.

But when there is a long and opaque shadow cast, it pays to well investigate the source. A shadow is only light blocked. Is it a circumstance that will pass? Is it a person whose presence is overwhelming the positive in my life? Is it something I have no direct control over, anyway–the complex state of this world, weather, my aging siblings’ health, other peoples’ beliefs? Or is it me? More often than not I am getting in the way, complicating things, being slow to mend a torn or sore spot. Maybe I just feel lazy; it requires strategy and effort to change.

I may be blocking the very light I need to thrive. If that is the case, I may find the deeper shadows suitable for encouraging self-pity, the last thing that’s needed. I can get out of my own way. Then I can influence the issues I can address. But I do not have to make it a big production, either. When a touch or full-on case of melancholy is experienced, quiet work usually gets the job done better than a dramatic response. Either way, its up to me.

Try this next time awakening with your own shadowy companion: give it your respect. What would we be without the mystery of shadow; it helps delineate our lives, as well, and gives us more depth and mystery. So make a fresh cup of coffee or tea to savor, open your window and let your lungs fill right up. Find that spot of beauty and absorb it. Praise the numinous Light of all. Spread it about. We can and should embrace even the homeliness of our lives, their misaligned aspects. We ought to love the weak moments and mad bits, and exercise mercy during baffling trials. It all works well when we accept the vast variations of our living, and help it along.