An Accidental Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I moaned. “Naomi! Where’s Naomi?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, I am so, so sorry!”

“It’s okay!”

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We waved goodbye.

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bravehearts, One and All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are Hearts Among Others

67 BDay 006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are you, are you home? 

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

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

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

Another gift. They were sure adding up.

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

“Wow, nice!” Allanya exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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