Roses and Gunshots: A Tale of My City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re from Michigan.”

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

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

“Okay, have good day, thank you.”

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

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

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

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

“That’s for sure!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, why?”

“I think they were gunshots.”

Alexandra looked up, eyes wide, then resumed eating.

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

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

“Sure, I will.”

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

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

Josh and I talked more than night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acting the Expert When Surrender is Needed

The human being has a serious inclination to make masterful talk, to inform, educate, even enlighten another of our species, then ultimately persuade the listener of one’s own point of view. We do this nearly without thinking during normal conversations, peppering our speech with ideas and details that are meant to define an experience with our first hand experience, and thus determined authority. It’s as if we believe we are each born experts in both broad and specific ways and so proceed in life on that presumption.

Perhaps we are experts–but of our own perceptions, our individual viewpoints. Or education and long experience makes us seem so. For all intents and purposes, what we think we know is also what is more or less real–in our minds, if no one else’s.

Consider one ordinary exchange:

“Watch out, you’re going to hit that car–the light is red!”

“What? I see the car, the light was yellow. Plenty of room, no harm done.”

“Yellow means slow to stop soon and was red as you turned. It’s alarming how that might have been an accident.”

“It means to speed up to not get caught in a red light, actually. I had plenty of time. You overreacted.”

“It’s not safe, pushing on fast at the last moment, not gauging distances clearly.”

“What’s not safe is you barking at me to watch out, it distracts me, then I lose needed focus.”

“You need to drive more carefully.”

“You ought to chill out and just let me drive. I’ve been doing so a long time now.”

“Wait, where are you going? Turn left there, it’s much faster.”

“It’s actually longer, that way is residential streets.”

“You miss traffic jams. I guarantee it’s ten minutes faster at least due to light traffic. I go this way all the time–”

“I’m turning on Siri; she knows the best way.”

“My gosh, an annoying computer and not one bit of driving experience although ‘she’ insists on directing us.”

“Siri has updated, inside info on all routes.”

Slightly sulking wife turns to the window, stares into the traffic. She would like to silence that computer once and for all, just take charge of that steering wheel herself. She sighs. It’s better to relent sometimes. But next time she is insisting on driving, her way.

Both are convinced they know what’s going on and what’s needed and what is not. They likely each have valid points. They each have literal viewpoints that create a manner of decision and action. Yet both desire to exert influence over the other. One or the other will win out unless a stalemate occurs. This time the driver did since he was in control of the vehicle and she at least verbally backed down. And it’s just a drive through town on a few errands, not a critical point to be made, not a major decision (unless he should not be driving due to a fading of keen senses). But we love our viewpoints, our familiar and comforting subjectivity. We know our own minds and assert them.

I’ve delved into this issue the past week–that sometimes overwhelming urge we have to make our voices heard, opinions accepted, our purported knowledge well heeded. There is such a powerful need to impact others, to even change them in some well-considered ways. And it is usually “for your own good”–this, from our singular and considered position.

If it is an acquaintance or even a stranger, that is one thing. We have interchanges in an elevator, on a park bench, at an event or when sharing a ride to work. But even interactions about weather at the grocery check out stand can be comically loaded with impulses to have the last word. This happens to me.

Checker: “How is it out there now?”

Me: “Great. Started out out temperate, getting hotter. So nice I got my sandals out.”

C: “I’ve waited so long for a day of real sunshine. It seemed grey and chilly earlier.”

Me: “Sunshine will prevail. But it changes you know, rain and wind, a smattering of hail, then bright clear skies. It’s Oregon, we like it.” (What does he mean by “real sunshine”?)

C: “I actually bought an umbrella, first ever. I’m from Arizona. It’s never warm enough here, wear layers all the time or about freeze.”

Me: “I see…it’ll be up to eighty, ninety soon, stays clear and hot until late October then the rains return.”

C: “I’ll adapt, right?…There you go, thanks for shopping at Fred Meyer!”

Me: “Welcome to Oregon, hope you’ll enjoy being here!”

It was only a chat about weather…but I really wanted him to appreciate a place where the beauty is magical no matter the season and go on to explain how our weather changes our landscapes and impacts choices in interesting, positive ways. He surely wanted me to understand how hard it is to get used to a different clime; he missed the predictable dry heat of his home state.

Just a passing exchange.

What happens when something closer to home challenges us? When we feel that something is not going the way it ought to according to our estimations and yet the other person insists it is well and good? The hardest of all quandaries to address meaningfully is with those we love. When is too much said, too much influence attempted? When do we step back, admit things will go the way they will go? When do our frank opinions start to sound like severe directives? The dread static of interference?

As a parent, we are expected to be the ultimate guides. Or to at least gain enough trustworthy information that we’re able to behave like we can do the job. Some decisions are instinct for most parents: to nourish our children physically, mentally and emotionally; keep them safe from harm; train them in all sort of skills; provide assistance and feedback as they progress or need more aid and practice. And we want them to feel well loved. According to our cultural norms and traditions, we have further priorities to address as they grow up. We do whatever we can to ensure they get the information needed, then use it satisfactorily. And explore their lives from a solid base of confidence. This all seems reasonable most of the time, an arduous task during others.

But we all know that no matter how well we manage to pull off parenting responsibilities, little ones have minds of their own from a very early age. And then they grow up and our opinions and expertise mean less than a a pinch of salt and a dash of pepper tossed over popcorn and potatoes. They can and do make up their own minds They’re turn into adults somewhere in their early twenties. They’ve already stumbled, fallen and gotten back up, even become stronger and smarter–more than a few times if fortunate.

So just why am I standing here going on and on about what may well be the better way, what is probably in point of fact the wiser choice? Excuse me, a look tells me or a pause on the phone: thanks for those awesome words but we have complicated lives to attend to and we do have a tentative plan–don’t I have a busy life of my own? They might not say all that but I hear it.

Yet, wait a minute. I have decades on them. I have experiences they have never had and may not. I have knowledge that might be derived from excellent and arcane sources that could transform their lives. I just know those adult kids really well after the diapers and strep throats and night terrors and scabby knees. After we’ve shared heartbreaks and missed chances and anxiety over more change and the victories and moments of stirring clarity and the strength and courage that courses through their tender selves like life giving, sometimes even holy, water. The healing that comes when loving kindness is infused into rancorous wounds.

It’s sacred, being a parent. It demands of us much. We are witnesses to a life changing before our eyes. And our speaking and listening both helped keep them on the road that’s unspooled present and future for a long while. Safe! we’ve breathed again and again. Or if not then we waited without end at bedside, outside closed doors, in the night as we called for angels. In the kitchen making something that they liked. Put that kettle on for soothing tea, anything to help them rebound.

The truth is, I would take out my heart and lay it down for them. I would leap over a burning bridge to rescue them. I would find and carry their souls in my own hands out of a menacing darkness and into the lustrous light. And I am a woman for whom motherhood was not originally in the foreseeable, feasible plan.

So when an adult who was once my small child, a grown person whom I so love chooses to do something I do not understand, I have tried to quell my response unless requested. But not always, not by a long shot. I have to be honest, it almost seems unnatural after those intense decades of being ever-present and needed. So I attempt to offer thoughts with care even when I feel the weight of urgency. I remind myself: they are smart people, creative thinkers, they have an array of attitudes, ideas and feelings, too.

It’s not my life, after all.

It might be marrying someone I have not even had the chance to properly know. Leaving a fine job for other interesting but uncertain possibilities. Adventuring to places that are so far away and seem risky. Changing the configuration of a family despite the clear challenges. Moving to another place when the old one could improve if given more time and effort. But they have come up with a mutable plan, a working map and preferred criteria. My input is only useful or impractical data and may or may not be discarded.

The thing is, I know they generally value my well honed opinions. They call or stop by to toss about ideas with me, share work lives and creations, ask for some skill or ability of which they need to avail themselves. Most still even name their hurt, hopes, joys. They know they can always get a hug. They know I can listen. I have spent a lifetime of listening to clients and also to friends and family. I can be quiet, can wait, observe. But I also have a need to be honest about what I think and to inquire after more when I don’t understand well enough.

I am not good at being fully neutral with my family. Aloof or inscrutable, disengaged. Utterly objective. Sometimes I have to pray long and hard to regain a viewpoint that will enable me to place distance between us even as I zero in on the issues. It can be a hard maneuver to pull off but I have gotten better at it. I also pay attention to Mother Wit, my gut.

Nonetheless there are many times when what I think is not particularly relevant to these adults. They may not even ask much less tell me the good stuff in the first place. But when they share their lives and I’m taken aback by matters revealed, I have to remember I want to be the sort of parent I at times wish was here for me: someone calm, attentive, with a sense of humor, too. Able to consider a kid’s view valid even if all whys and wherefores are elusive. I would want respect. Trust in ability to make good decisions. Due consideration of the whole story. Acceptance of my adult life, anyway. Love.

All this is just what they deserve, as well.

I also ask myself: what was I thinking and doing at their age and what did my mother say or not say to me? She managed to get some decent sleep and also care about me despite some choices made that she sighed or likely wept over. She knew what I know now: you cannot act like an expert and blatantly insist on the wisdom of parental opinions and viewpoints no matter how you might want to… not with grown children. Especially when it is not their wish. I can’t any longer take away treats; I can’t give them “time out.” Nor do I want to, thank goodness.

But lest the reader think the five I raised are not quick to engage in their debates, too, it can seem like pandemonium around our table when they visit. Each one for themselves and yet in the end they are each one for all, too. I guess they’ve been taught to question, to probe, to re-imagine, to assiduously examine. But they know when enough is enough. They know to be kind.

So, I now do know what to do with my important advice. Leave it, tell it to pipe down. All my pushy, incisive, needful words can find another place to stir things up: a poem, a story, a walk along a brilliant river. Or to find solace: a prayer, a talk with my spouse or a friend, another walk in life-affirming woods and dale. I can manage my own self. Why would my children not do the same?

I feel humbled. I don’t always. Sometimes I feel as if someone must please hear me but today I think I’m the one who needs to reckon with greater truth. What do I know except for myself and even then…? I am not in charge of anyone else’s life. My mind can be a lively though peaceful haven or a corral knocked about by a hundred wild horses in it. I want to let out those beautiful and maddening horses. I can always look for them later. I prefer my innermost haven more right now.

My children, I surrender my worries and questions today and maybe even the morrow. I give over to the choices and aspirations that make up your own journeying. I want you to take chances that matter to you, to dream wiser and farther. To become your extraordinary human selves. And may our paths forever cross along the curious byways we take, the bends, twists, peaks and valleys that we each chart and traverse along our way.

 

Days of Loss, Treasures Revisited

All photographs by Cynthia Guenther Richardson copyright 2017

I’m not able to write fiction today; it takes me 6-8 hours per short story posting. It might be feasible if I propped my eyes open all night, even made a pot of coffee but I drink that substance sparingly so that’s out. I’m a bit weary but have now paused after hours better spent–have to say it as today it is certainly true– with my extended family than at this computer. And believe me, I am madly in love with writing. (Posts this short are like teasers; I always long to pick and play with more and more of those acrobatic words.)

But it’s Memorial Day. A day set aside in remembrance of those innumerable ones who have given their lives defending our country. And it is a somber day for other reasons.

Over the week-end in my city two brave people’s lives were lost while stepping in to defend two teen-aged, apparently Muslim girls who sat on a train enduring hate mongering. A third man is still in hospital with severe injuries. The perpetrator–who spewed racist epithets and threats then resorted to deadly knife violence when well-meaning strangers intervened–was soon arrested. But what was done was done and so fast. This happened not that far from my neighborhood, on public transportation that thousands routinely take to get to work, to home, to see friends, to attend events. It is a horrific crime, a nightmare of a reality to victims’ families and friends. To the witnesses.

And then I think of Manchester. And so many other places and persons, countless intolerable losses that permeate our earth, this home we are to share.

So I felt strongly this was a time to even more appreciate those who matter so much to me. To pause in prayer and slow way down. I put aside thoughts of writing and now here I sit thinking. What visits me with increasing familiarity is that mixture of sorrow, incomprehension, gratitude laced with tenderness. Inside my essential being remains glowing embers of hope. I don’t always see why, but faith in goodness is rooted there. What language can muster any order or sense from cavernous depths of human despair? Such pain nonetheless can reveal in its darkest moments a relentless, fierce pursuit of hope…We work to believe and find strength as we connect through the haze of doubts.

So I shared ordinary activities today that mean so much. I gathered with family to share a table full of good food, and hugs, ideas, anecdotes, experiences, passions. We are all talkers sooner or later and it can go on a long while, wave upon wave.

We spoke of the violence. But we also talked about rock hunting (saw new ones my son brought), health and healing, true love here and in the beyond, books, beading and jewelry (niece), yard and electrical work, dill potato salad (I make a good one) and delicious chicken linguine and baked beans with unusual ingredients. Packing up and moving to new homes, making custom T-shirts and hats (son and sister), print making (sister-in-law) and photography. Carburetors (one brought as a gift) and vintage cars and motorcycles rusting or running. Being an active jazz musician at seventy eight (brother). House painting jobs and the risk of carpal tunnel. Pyramids, aliens (son, his partner, niece’s partner). Outer space exploration versus earth sciences (I was thinking of this more than speaking). Grandchildren growing up and away, skateboarding (son is a pro), jumping on a trampoline (I enjoy with grandkids), learning to drive and also driving as downright irritating. Also learning to play piano to better compose music. Cherry and marionberry pie with ice cream to savor, even admire. And mentions of those not present: they are always missed. Dogs abounded, which was good. My sister’s attentiveness, smile, and hug were better. I enjoyed her fun yard art; she likes to paint creatures salvaged at estate sales.

If there were captivating characters ready made for short stories… well, beloved relatives could fit the bill fine. A family, as we know, is designed of custom- created individuals sharing genetic, historical and/or emotional material. And how fabulous that is, you have to agree. Except when you feel it may not be so all that, or not all the time. We all have opinions and viewpoints, after all. We can find ourselves at cross purposes and out of key as well as filled with exquisite harmonies made by all (which has layers of meanings for me since we are a musical crew).

I am glad to report today was like a satisfying gift bonus, as when you open the main package and then discover goodies hidden about the expected one. It was reassuring and invigorating to mingle with those who are interesting, goodhearted, often (dryly) humorous persons. And who feel like real friends, not obligatory ones.

Add in packed-with-info phone calls and lengthy texts that count for more time shared–not all are family members who reside in Oregon. Space can be healthy and good except when you really want them all with you. Close, safe.

This long week-end also afforded more time with my overtaxed, oft-traveling spouse. And since the hard and daily rains have ended and we’ve been able to get out and about more, we revisited a few places we love. Birds singing their small hearts out was exquisite, even poignant; how they moved me. I leave you with scenes from nature’s variety which proves a constant source of renewal. So I can be and do better. So we can go out and love even truer. Bravely, despite risks. This is basic wisdom. Other peoples in other times have used it well; so can  we.

Noble Woods, Steigerwald, Vancouver Lake 100

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.

 

How to Survive Even Small Potatoes Public Speaking

They had the nerve to turn up. All lined up at long tables or in rows of chairs or crowded into a stuffy box of a space, elbow to elbow. You would appreciate such comfort of neighboring bodily warmth because you’re shivering despite commanding all parts to be as still as possible. The room appears spectacularly huge from your spot at the podium. It seems off-kilter, to sway the barest amount but you have your wits about you enough to realize this is not a boat; the sense of vertigo is your own. Sweat has begun to swamp the nape of your neck and under arms and then just hang out there. The heartbeat that began to race a little in quiet earnest an hour ago is now having a field day, banging like a three alarm disaster has been called in to you, the owner of the small pumping organ.

You have made a quick assessment of the situation and determine you must leave now. Except that you really cannot; you agreed to do this in a moment of blithe idiocy. Why ever did you sign up for this job/event/reading? You have absolutely nothing to say to anyone, after all. You note the usual glass of water; your throat is already dry as desert air. But whether you can pick it up without it shaking and slopping all over your attractive attire is uncertain; you would rather not try. So you take a quavering breath, dampen your lips and then the words–what are they, do they cohere at all?–fall into the room and head to all those listening ears.

I should note right now that this isn’t a step-by-step how-to sort of article that immediately makes speaking to ten or a hundred or a thousand a breezy experience. It’s just my story of how I have done it. Speaking publicly in any setting can be survived and even enjoyed if you are apprised of its demands and open to surprises. You might have an advantage if you also like challenges, as it can be taxing, too. I know this after having plenty of experience talking about various topics (and performing) in front of many groups. Not a professional public speaker, I’ve often considered how fulfilling it would be despite not being such a blazingly confident or the most entertaining of speakers. I have found it worth even those preparatory moments hijacked at times by annoying nerves.

First of all, that anxiety–the flip-flopping stomach with queasiness, lightheadedness, a touch of shakiness, that thought forming idea that I could possibly faint or go mute or have a heart attack–is the result of a surge of mighty adrenaline. I know–we all know– what that is and how it works, and yet at the time it feels like a serious annoyance or, worse, an intrusive chemical that might kill me. Then I recall that this is the nervousness that precedes any presentation and it is akin to excitement. Body and mind are getting charged up for delivery of enthusiastic energy: anticipation of sharing useful information or my writing to those who can use the material and/or apparently have an interest.

I don’t have debilitating stage fright, I admit. Most of my blog readers know that I grew up performing within a musical family, then in musical groups and as soloist. I played cello and sang, as well as performed in dance events/plays//musicals. But that doesn’t mean nervousness wasn’t an issue, even after becoming more experienced. I rarely ate before I performed since my digestion always took the opportunity to threaten my last bit of composure. I especially worried I might forget lines, music, lyrics, cues and position on stage, the choreography. I knew memory could vanish with an upsurge of an anxiety that fed itself to grow into outright fear. Then came being frozen in time and space: blankness. (Luckily, with work lectures and poetry/prose readings, I’ve usually had notes but one can still lose one’s place or go blank.) I learned my tipping point–where anticipation and nerves turn fully against me and render a reading or performance poor to nil. So I kept working on techniques that soothed the nervous system. Obviously, knowing one’s material exceedingly well is of first importance in performance. And knowing how to improvise when publicly speaking is a skill that often aids the delivery.

Not focusing on an audience as either Enemy or Ultimate Judge (though at times there have been actual judges in my past) makes a big difference. They are only human beings, like me. They are a gathering of them, to be sure, and they want to get their money’s or time’s worth, yes. But they are not going to throw rotten tomatoes at me or even boo at me or walk out, likely. They want to see success happen, not have a terrible time. But even sneaking a peek at the audience can be disruptive to the process preceding a walk onto a stage or speaking space. Chatting with some quietly may help; taking a few sip of water whets the whistle; and a last review of what is about to happen keeps the focus. And always simply breathe. Breathing slowly and evenly matters tremendously; it moderates that pesky heart rate, gives more oxygen to the trusty body that must soon deliver the words. Since I have heart disease with tachycardia and various arrhythmias, this is critical or it may get carried away and I’ll be derailed too long, bringing it down again. Usually I go into the job or event knowing my heart is running faster than is comfortable but I will make it. (Or they can call 911 if needed.)

Since I was a mental health/addictions clinician for twenty-plus years it seems I ought to have gotten over these symptoms. I at times have felt disappointed in the returning symptoms. But it was not the same as performing to an audience, even in a packed auditorium, that chose to attend. Additionally, I remind myself it is excitement, not fear, and that is mostly correct.

Instead had to enter rooms filled with perhaps twenty-five clients–there due to being court-referred for various reasons or because their lives had unraveled emotionally or physically and they hit rock bottom. That meant they were not a happy bunch eager to sit quietly as I talked. (This time I will skip sharing experiences when teaching high risk youth in a room that could barely contain so much defiant energy–another post.) They were angry, resentful about all I stood for in their minds, ashamed, depressed, high on the drug of choice or craving it. They were bored and  distracted. They disliked parting with their money and using their time for a consequence they tended to feel was undeserved. Or that they felt very badly about happening, such as: Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants (DUII) or a drug delivery or possession charge, other related criminal charges stemming from substance abuse and addiction, or loss of their families, even their children, due to their criminal behaviors and addictions. And when there was additional mental illness in the mix, it got more complicated, their responses less predictable and at times less manageable for all.

On top of all this, I was not a “hip” thirty year old who dressed and talked as they did; I was a middle-aged woman who had her own manner and style that was not often shared by them. So it was not a picnic for any of us,  as you may imagine. And yet, I had things to offer; they were to hear me out. In time, we got to know one another, trust one another enough, sometimes a lot. Until then, I always entered the room with a genuine ‘Welcome to my group” and made clear nothing could keep me from good will and straight talk.

But I knew they saw me, at times, as one more hurdle, one more enemy to appease. That is not how I saw them. I knew they were ill, lost souls searching for more, angry men and women who could change their lives if they decided it was worth it. Their stories were harrowing and confounding even to them. I entered my group rooms with materials in hand that could illuminate the illness of addiction, the interplay of mental illness. But I also just took myself in. I was a clinician with clear boundaries–I was not one to share personal history of my own recovery–but I spoke from what I understood and what I knew might help. I shared form a desire to help one more person stay alive and find peace and contentment. I was not someone who needed some skewed power or looked for gratitude. I just wanted their attention for an hour. There were many ways to get an audience involved, even a tough one.

One was to engage them in my topics and talk. I asked them questions. Their opinions, ideas and experiences meant something to me and, more importantly, could help other clients. Even if someone vehemently opposed what I said, I encouraged them to tell us why and how they arrived at those conclusions. In time, even the quietest or most sullen spoke up more spontaneously. People like to be given the opportunity to share their thoughts; they need to be heard. I have also been angrily stared at by genuinely tough men and women who sat with arms clamped over chests. But in a month or two, they were loosened up, even sat forward and shared a few things, took a chance.

If someone refused to show respect to others or myself, they had to leave and meet with me before coming back to the next group. But this was infrequent. People are curious and they want to understand themselves and concerning issues. They want to be stirred up a bit to better brainstorm and find solutions. So even though there were those who pulled faces, challenged me and even argued, I also knew that if I was an authentic human being who demonstrated that I was an ally, materials and interactions could construct a bridge to a better destination.

Another way to manage a lecture is to utilize multimedia tools. As you might guess, this could make a lecture even more effective. Discussions arose naturally from watching a well executed film, studying neurology/biology of addiction plotted in colorful diagrams, hearing stories of others who had been there and done that and survived to tell the tale. I used an erasable board, writing down questions and their issues and ideas, naming items crucial to topics, listing pros and cons that they helped define.

The very act of drawing on mental and physical pent up energy helped me with nervousness that accompanied opening paragraphs of didactic lectures. I was spurred on to define concretely and usefully both data and ideas; this in turn enabled people to better identify facts of their life situations. Any time I could simplify, I did so. Any time I could use an analogy that made information more relevant, it was done. Any time humor was appropriate I inserted it even if few outright laughed. My goal was to care, educate, encourage and respect my audience–and that might mean being tough in responses and forthright but never demeaning or insincere. I was fully human and didn’t act otherwise.

The nervousness never entirely left me after all that time when I was to talk to a room full of clients who looked at me a little funny–thousands of people came and went over those decades. Because I might not–in fact, did not– have all the answers. I might say something ill-advised. I made mistakes in my speaking, got a little embarrassed more times than I can recall, had to laugh it off and ask for their forbearance. Being human helped my case; others can empathize with making mistakes and make no comment. And I used discomfort and more nervous energy to propel myself forward. Into that dense emotional space and into the lecture. Into lives of others, with care. That moment when I was face-to-face with someone who was struggling to “get it” and there were tears or anger to witness and accept.

I absolutely believed in what I was doing, and that is key to delivering an even halfway effective talk. No one–even if they disliked me or went for another drink or drug or had another emotional crisis-left the groups thinking I didn’t care about recovery and mental health. That I didn’t care about their lives. But neither did I take responsibility for their decisions once they walked out. My group room experience, just like my individual counseling sessions, was a two-way street. Only they could decide what they would get out of it and what they would take home. How and when they would take their mindsets and actions in hand to create better health. Even happiness.

Finally, the thing that most guides, even saves, me is knowing that lecturing/teaching/advising/entertaining a group is it is not about me. It is about them. And as an important aside, an audience does not really want you to fail. (That was true even in my counseling career. People might appear to sabotage things but in the end they were calling attention to themselves, the need for attention and help. And no one likes to feel they are wasting time or money so they like getting something decent.)

So, what about another sort of public speaking, say, poetry and prose readings, some reader’s theater? That’s clearly more akin to the traditional performance that was a mainstay of my childhood and young adulthood. Theoretically it should be familiar and thus less intimidating that talking to a room full of suspicious, irritable strangers. But it is more specifically, immediately personal. This public sharing is predicated upon revealing my innermost personhood. With the written page being read by unknown readers there is some remove and a sense of protection, illusion or not. But standing before an anticipating crowd with only my own pieces of writing, the work and the writer directly in the spotlight–that’s another kind of challenge. Interestingly, this sort of public experience is still not ultimately about me even thought it feels more like it is. It is about transmitting an idea, a sense of time and place, characters or feelings to other people. It is a performance for, a giving to the listener. But it takes a few minutes to quiet down the antsy ego and remember that.

There is still the nervous flutter of gut, a heightened sense of experience, a thought flashing like a warning: what if they don’t like this at all…But then I remember that this time no one is forced to be there. My writing is being offered to others who love to write or want to write. or they value poetry or short stories or essays, and they want to see what someone else is doing, imagining, laboring over. No one who reads their work to the public feels shielded enough. But that vulnerability is what gives rise to the uncoiling story and rhythm of poetry in the first place and it carries the work into the world, too. Being vulnerable becomes the strength one taps to excavate the truest sense of life and its language; it becomes a raw power that is harnessed, then let loose to labor and rise. But it can still feel like a sudden unwanted nakedness of heart and soul.

That admitted, I have read my writing over a hundred times–I’m not sure how many. I’ve gained a lot being a part of different writing communities. Sharing  one’s work is often a part of that, whether a novice, seasoned writer and/or an avid reader. I appreciate hearing other writers read work aloud. I seem to  have a natural inclination to do the same. I learned long ago that it is not just the writing but the delivery that counts. Some writing is excellent but when read aloud by the one who penned it fails like a lead balloon. So it can be tricky to read aloud written pieces to groups. A few experiences come to mind that caused me to seriously pause before taking the risk needed to read to others what mattered so much to me.

One was at an urban writing institute that is well-regarded, its director being a nationally known poet, himself. The upstairs room was a little box, holding about twenty chairs in small rows. It was evening and it was summer, therefore felt close even with windows open. After a couple of mediocre readers (their work was not my taste, either), a very fine poet, a fine reader, had just finished. People clearly appreciated his work. I had the discomfiting thought that I had no business going up there after such a writer. But there was a paused after my name was announced and it was either slink past the staring audience or just get the deed done. My flutters were immense. I kept gulping air. I realized that this was my challenge: to set free in the room some poems that had never been heard in that rather esteemed place. And I like a good challenge. I had already figured that people might be unimpressed, or bored, or interested in only their own work. But they might like the poems a little. Meanwhile, I was getting more exposure and experience reading. I had hope for my poetry and wanted reactions or I wouldn’t have come to the reading. Unless I lost my voice it would be okay, even if there was no applause.

I took a few good breaths (remember, a critical action), noted I was glad to be there, shared a bit of background to the writing. Then I  began to read with my “strong alto” voice. I made myself look out at others. They looked back and listened. I let the poems move through me and to them. I forgot myself. It turned out fine. I always thank the audience (and my counseling groups, for that matter) for listening to me. I was happily asked to return.

Another experience was at a writing group of women. This occurred after having written very little for some years. It was being run by women, as well. I was used to more mixed gender groups and was curious. A particular approach the group facilitators used is the Amherst Method. We were given a writing prompt and strict periods of time, then we each read (if we chose) our lines or pages. Everyone–usually eight to ten people–was fidgety. Sitting in a circle can engender more uncertainty and squeamishness than being in a large auditorium. The sheer proximity of thinking, feeling persons, strangers at that point, can seem daunting. I am actually a very private person in the flesh. And of course I had no idea if anyone would like what I wrote–it was often fiction, a piece written in two or ten or twenty minutes with no editing. We were not to criticize but support and highlight positives.

It seemed a bit strange–it was not a performance, it was not a reading. It was a sort of critique group but without any constructive criticism. And they weren’t people I knew although we were to read our words as if we trusted each other. But would I get useful feedback? Did they really have a passion about writing? Did they read good books? Had they spent a lot of their lives writing as I had? I who was feeling edgy and judgmental, it turned out. But I read and paid heed to each response as well as their proffered writings.

I learned a lot at that writing group over time. To be flexible in expectations. To write more spontaneously. To be more open to different styles, goals and needs of writing. To find lessons in writing that was very constrained by a timer or subject or a certain word–writing often arrived fresh, unrevised and even stream of consciousness. I lost all worry about reading to this group as we got to know one another, even became in some instances friends. We were together to write more freely, without angst and that was good.

The third experience to share is that of reading an excerpt of my novel Other Than Words. As with most other pieces read aloud to others it was published, this time in an anthology called VoiceCatchers. It also was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, which was a humbling honor. Perhaps because I had invested so much time and labor into the yet-unpublished novel, I felt a weight on my shoulders as I waited my turn to read. It meant something to me to be asked to read it in the elegant room of our main county library. Many fine writers were assembled, as well as family and friends of the readers and those well engaged in Portland’s literary community. My heart thudded like crazy and I wondered if my stomach would stop quivering. I knew how to read in public. But before a standing room only crowd, could I read the words of my story with steadiness and clarity, with passion? I loved the characters in that novel; I felt protective of the small but potent scene I would be sharing.

I thought, who am I to read this thing before all those smart, discriminating people? But hey, I was on the list so I got up with knees shaking and read. Rather, the story opened and moved out from my grasp. I gave in to the narrative tension, interactions and dialogue. I lost myself again and the story took full rein.

I looked out over the audience, let my eyes meet theirs openly, read to each person as if weaving a tale resonant with matters they knew already. Because in it were hurts and healings, the triumphs and failures we all knew. I wanted to release minute seeds of magic that had driven me to write it, then let it take root within them a short time.

As I came to the end of the last sentence there was silence. I felt it. A sound of hearts and minds attuned and humming, a gentle acceptance, a depth of understanding that arises from listening generously. And then, the applause and my genuine thanks. I had made it through the reading. I had offered what meant most to me and it was welcomed.

Do that much when you have the honor to give any public speech: tell the truth as you know it while acknowledging it is one among others. That what you have to share may be embraced or may not be–or not entirely or not at that moment. It remains worth being offered. It can make a positive difference for someone out there. And then have a good time riding the flow as you relax and forget yourself, as all are in this jumble of lifelong learning, being and doing together.