If this house could be what it has been
it would tell no lies, re-frame the life
that moved within leather, flame, silver, lace.
Doors shut in and breathe out laughter, cries;
floors hold echoing footsteps fresh or failed;
walls are thick with imprints of touch,
murmurs like charms against difficult fates.
Many things that could not be said
burrowed in like snakes, beetles, foxes,
sly and beautiful, disappearing from the
redolent air and revelations of light,
this house a ruin, abhorred, left for foraging.
Yet the aggrieved abode resists emptiness,
leans into harboring woods, birdsong, rain or ice,
holds out for useful salvaging or a last liberation.
For a visitor, an eye cast about its demise,
a lingering hand held into the darkness.
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 ofeach 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.
It’s only natural that one should take stock of one’s life a few times. I don’t mean the facile review that accompanies each turning of the year, but the kind that digs deep and turns everything you thought you knew into a foreign milieu–which, nonetheless, reverberates with truth.
I was doing this as I drove from Missouri to northern Michigan, a trip made now and again to see my extended family over the last thirty years. I liked to drive, it relaxed me. In the countryside the newly assertive spring sun created a parchment-like whiteness. Roadsides once snow-hugged were murky, taupe and grey. And yet it was empty in the way a new canvas is before Darren, my husband, charts a bold line across unsuspecting space with his oil paints.
Joplin, MO. was the place I’d left behind; Marionville, MI. the village I was moving toward. I cracked the window and inhaled a lightly chilled breeze. As I cruised at 75 mph through fecund fields and rolling hills I determined it’d been a reasonably satisfying visit, if one can say being crammed into various spaces with nearly twenty-five others can be meaningful. But we do it to assure ourselves we are yet loved merely because we are part of family, and we don’t have to do anything else to garner general affection. Thus, we can take with us the belief that we are not truly as alone as imagined. It is also a gathering that reminds me there is no judgment that cannot be done or undone when blood comes into the picture.
The topic of this reunion–the 99th birthday for Great Aunt Mattie; she was not likely to make it all the way to 100–was no less than MaeLynn (she insisted it was to be spelled “Mailin” later) and Jacques (many called him Jake despite his dislike of it). It seems they finally got divorced after forty-some years together–I wasn’t counting. I hadn’t thought much of them for awhile. They had lived in France and Spain, and despite my closeness with cousin MaeLynn, they had drifted far. After a couple of years I had to let it be; she and I would always be family though things had changed. I knew there was more beneath the emotional distancing but I didn’t want to disturb the surface.
But it’s a shock to the others. Our family got all stirred up with disbelief and speculations, that such a perfect match should be dissolved. He was so successful and she, so talented. A foolish thing to undo after all this time. It made me laugh to think how most had distrusted the match at first. What I thought I understood was kept to myself.
MaeLynn was my cousin, though if you set us side by side you might have doubts. I had what my mother, an enthusiastic colorist, dubbed “a twilight look” with black-brown hair and deep blue eyes. While my cousin’s fairness–“a dawn look”, Mom said– gleamed soft and bright. Those were not the only differences. She seemed almost made up with her achievements, prettiness and an ingrained shyness and then she went away and came out a whole new person. That’s what family said, anyway, after she studied at the Sorbonne –she had a gift for French and other languages, as well as drawing and design. Not much later she found Jacques. She admitted to me she thought him a muse.
As for my personality: faster on my feet, less academic but a problem solver, someone with ambition and yet slower to find her true liberating element. “Quirky” was a word attached to me when younger. My mother thought me a sad-eyed one, akin to a gypsy child who might range far and wide before finally setting up camp. I was alright with that. And the melancholy part came and went, bothering me far less than the parents.
My cousin and her beau said they met via acquaintances at the horse races, which scandalized our Southern Baptist genes. But this Jacques was not to be corralled into anything serious quite yet. He decided to come with MaeLynn to check out her roots. His family tree was old, even illustrious. Our family tree has many kinds of roots. He could choose from mighty or humble, tenacious or weakened, creative, given to a few touches of madness–or humdrum but reliable.
I had graduated from University of Michigan two years prior, three years behind MaeLynn. The summer she brought him home I’d had a promotion at a fledgling lawyers’ office: executive legal assistant. Sounded grand. It was tedious at times but engaging as I came to know the cases and was soon keeping up with demands. I had wanted to be a lawyer, myself, but that had fizzled when money ran low, so I worked and saved like mad. I longed to get an apartment but my parents’ house accommodated me as I aimed for a future with law school. Still, I often felt the tug to run away. Where was all that life I was expecting to happen?
One night I came home to find pork roast simmering in the oven. The kitchen was dense and humid with cooking and my mother in motion.
“Get upstairs and clean up–put on that navy and green outfit, it suits you well, Jessamine–before MaeLynn comes around with her French gentleman.”
I nibbled on a large romaine leaf with a drizzle of oil and vinegar. “She’s here so soon? I thought that was day after tomorrow.”
“I don’t know where you’ve been–stuck at that desk too long, head full of murder or mayhem, no doubt. In less than an hour! Go on, now–then help with the table.”
On the way past the living room I glanced at father and he felt it, so lowered the paper and threw me that look: yes, we must get with it, it’s family reveal night–then turned the page and tried to hide himself a few more minutes. It’s not that he didn’t love his niece, he just didn’t relish being the first to determine the Frenchman’s suitability for the family, his brother’s possible son-in-law. I stifled a laugh. Dad wouldn’t likely commit either way, at least not admit much to his brother; he kept his own counsel more often than not. I saw the value of that.
After splashing cold water on my face, I dragged a brush through tangled hair. I didn’t see the point in trying to impress my own cousin and as far as her man was concerned, he’d come and go. Or if she really loved him as she insisted and he was good to her, that was that; we were all stuck with each other. I pulled on royal blue slacks and a white mandarin collared blouse which my mother found too tailored. Slipping on flats and thin silver bangles, I was done. But I hesitated at the mirror, fingers pinching cheeks, then smoothing back dark waves. I was twenty-four. MaeLynn was twenty-seven and felt aged she admitted, and if Jacques didn’t marry her soon she was coming back to the States and starting over. I studied my reflection thoughtfully. I had not once thought to get married. Had, in fact, turned down two proposals. I had wanted what my cousin got–travels abroad, exotic friends, experiences–and bided my time, reminding myself the best things came to those who worked hard and were open to opportunity. I had enough patience, even too much. Perhaps I needed more imagination or courage.
The table was fresh with yellow tulips, sparkling with lit white candles and crystal water goblets, and the food smelled perfectly seasoned when the door bell chimed twice. Dad got up to answer it and Mom came up beside him. I held back with Terra, our white American Eskimo dog.
“Sit and just smile,” I informed her and was obeyed though her tail indicated a desire to dance about. If Terra liked Jacques, I would, too.
Mom and Dad’s voices rang through the foyer and when I was on the verge of stepping forward MaeLynn’s light rise and fall of laughter stopped me. I hadn’t properly heard her voice (only on the phone) in three years and its lilt draped the rooms in silkiness. I had forgotten that elegance. Happiness swept over me. When could we leave all this, catch up on everything? Not soon, though, with Jacques DuFresne at her side, the man who had kept her from us, from me, too long.
As they rounded a corner I came forward, hands held out to her. And stopped the barest split second but still it felt like a stumble, a giveaway.
Jacques was remarkable. Handsome and lithe with conviviality, and as soon as his inquisitive dark eyes found mine I looked away. But it was too late. I felt his presence hit me like a small firework blasting in my chest. His smile radiated through space and back to me before I threw my arms around MaeLynn and held her tightly.
“Jess! Hello, hello, hello!” she said squeezing me back until we were breathless with excitement and anxiety. “Jacques–my favorite cousin, Jessamine; Jess, meet Jacques, my favorite Frenchman!”
He took my hand in both of his, kissed both my cheeks. Such contact put me off balance, and I was enveloped in an aura of brisk lime. I righted myself before fresh air became any more scarce, responded with politeness, smiled back. Terra pranced about our feet, barking with the thrill of old and new converging, and she managed a good whiff of Jacques’ pants legs before bounding over to Dad, who called her firmly. I felt vaguely alarmed by this man’s presence and was glad we sat some distance apart. On second glance I saw he was older, perhaps five years, than Mae Lynn. I immediately wondered why he hadn’t paired off for good before. Probably because he was too attractive to hold onto; no one was foolish enough to believe she’d be the one and only. Except perhaps my cousin.
“Let’s sit, eat and talk!” Mom directed, her face flushed, silvered hair glimmering in candle light.
“So here we are,” MaeLynn started as she passed potatoes au gratin, “and so much has happened. I just had to stop here before we fly on to St. Louis. I told him my cousin comes first–well, along with Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Ian–then best for last, of course, my parents. Well, so far Jacques is impressed by the scope of our country. He kept pointing out various landscapes from the plane window.”
“It’s true. I’ve been to Scandinavia, most of Europe, Asia on business but not here. Ridiculous!”
Clear English accented by his native tongue flowed gracefully. I looked at my father, who seemed a little skeptical but was at ease as he inquired of Jacques’ business.
“Textiles. A fourth generation family business, can’t get away from it, I’m afraid.”
And then they were off and running with talk of work and the market place and related safe topics. Mother kept the food coming and directed the conversation from time to time. Mae Lynn and I got in a few words about our work and family.
“What do you think?” MaeLynn mouthed at me across the table.
I nodded slowly, then asked her about her plans. They were meeting family but also taking in sights and then he would return to Paris and work; she would follow later.
“So, tell me, Jessamine, of yourself.”
I shivered at the sound of my name spoken by him, found myself fidgeting with my napkin. I plunged into work scenarios, when he asked about what I liked to do for enjoyment.
“Oh?” he said, head cocked to one side, eyes revealing pleasure.
“I studied ballet for years, but that was then, and then ballroom dancing. Waltzes, Latin dancing, and so on. I get out to dance now and then. You have this hobby in France?”
“Oh, yes. I too like to dance, it’s like creatures freed by joy, more when moonlight arrives, wonderful to do.”
“He’s a simple romantic, I suspect, despite being built of tough male genes,” Mae Lynn said. “It’s a French thing, perhaps. Everything is steeped in a subtext of poetics. Charming! But you’ve met your match in Jessamine, Jacques. Be careful, she will one day be a fierce lawyer even if her heart is made of gentler sentiments. Give me clear palpable edges of a design aesthetic, where art rises to meet every practical need.”
“Here, here,” my mother agreed as dad rolled his eyes just a little.
“A fine combining of opposites,” Jacques said looking my way and then lifted his goblet to mine, his gaze steady, magnetic. I blazed inwardly but reciprocated with a shrug, then inclined my own to each and every goblet.
“To the reign of poetry’s wisdom, to compassionate justice, and also design’s triumph,” I said.
Shifting candlelight flared then softened as we sipped and it was off into talk of travel and obligations and the necessary glue of family and back to more workaday matters. Time accordioned and before we knew it, the evening came to a close. Terra had made tentative friends with Jacques, doted on MaeLynn and she doted right back. As they left for the hotel, we waved farewells, my happiness tinged with longing. I felt we all had barely shared what mattered. They had one more day before flying to St. Louis. I would join them for sightseeing along the shores of Lake Michigan.
“He’s rather impressive, don’t you think?” Mom asked us.
Dad put his arm around her waist. “We’ll see. Smart man, could be a good catch for our MaeLynn.”
“And vice versa, dear,” she added. “And she said she is spelling it that new way: M-a-l-i-n–now, accent the first part.”
He grunted; this was irrelevant to him. To us, the family.
I slipped away, found the privacy to process our evening. I passed my mirror, stopped and scrutinized my reflection, startled by such vulnerability. It was a dangerous nakedness glimpsed, as if my sallow skin had become translucent. I was myself yet lit from deeper within and that strange glow permeated me, threatening to reveal even more.
Fear, though, gave way to curiosity, a frisson of excitement.
Waves lapped against curvaceous beaches bringing to us a song of the ancients. Skin reddened with wilderness gusts. Stoned fell into our palms, gifts from winter and the turbulence of cold meeting warmer currents. The trails were winding and long and we were strong and full of energy. Conversation was less important than the fanning out of complex life forms, a primordial mystique that came upon us, seemed to spring from our very limbs and breath. The top of Jacques’ head nearly glanced off limbs and his face radiated excitement. MaeLynn’s hand caught mine, then his, dragging us up to a peak. A valley’s loveliness swept us up, held us still. He stood between us, one arm about her, one about me so I could hardly bear it but did, then let happiness take rein. Then we were three again, set into motion again.
The laughter of that day, clean and rough and easy. Words traded as if we were the smartest and best the world had to offer. Hands grazing hands, legs pumping blood to heart to everywhere and such rich oxygen rushed to our brains we were drunk on promises of spring. We believed in all we envisioned, we were young, and it was good. We felt what we felt, thought of little beyond that moment.
I felt it coming apart beneath the seams of our childhood devotion, and perhaps so did she but we acted as if we were all meant to know and care for one another. But at the end of the trail when MaeLynn was yards ahead of us, Jacques stopped in his tracks, right before me.
“Jessamine. ” His forefinger raising my chin, his moving closer. “Always, I suspect, Jessamine.”
I lifted my hand to his, gripped it, then moved it from me just in time, before touching his strongly lined palm to my lips. The urgency of want crackled between trees, earth, us. I caught a glimpse of my cousin’s narrow back disappearing. Best friend for a lifetime.
“Jacques, be wise,” I whispered.
He looked into my eyes, intense with disquiet and brooding, and a sharp sliver of sadness cut through me. He was so close the musky heat of him seared me. I feared I might weaken or, worse, collapse from the combined weight of desire and loyalty. So I broke into a hard run. His voice trailed behind me, calling my and then her name, asking us to wait.
It has to be blood, I told myself, it has to be blood, not ever this beautiful sea of longing and bit down on my lip, the blood a taste of primal sorrow, of joy refused.
Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, my childhood left behind only to reveal more of my youth and adulthood as I drove into the giant mitten of Michigan. But somewhere along the way those times had settled in with me. Many miles I heard our names repeated–MaeLynn, Jacques, Jessamine, Darren–and I’d have to pull over, drink or eat something, listen to music turned up loud in my car. I’d commune with cows, seek new leaves and gaudy wildflowers that felt like balm of peace. I’d walk a little if there was a spot to enjoy, then get into the car again. I stopped d late at night to fall dead asleep in nameless hotels. I called Darren a few times, checked in with his personal care aide, who was steady and likely kinder than I could hope to be.
How does one explain love? I have asked myself this a thousand times since then. There were other men–men I stayed with, until I was enamored no longer. Then in my thirties there was my husband who cared for me in ways that made a difference and I, for him. Was it love that drew us to marriage and cinched us tighter with time? Is that what kept textiles and furniture pioneer Jacques, and the successful interior designer, Mailin, partnered all those years? Despite the rifts and crises, the gaps each year widening? Was it the strength of love or was it a deepening commitment and were the two so different in the end?
Darren had a stroke four years ago that left him in a wheelchair though his upper body and language were rescued mostly. We left–I left my career as a lawyer; he sold his plumbing business– a megapolis lifestyle for woods and lakes again, our first stomping grounds, and now our likely final domain. I push him outdoors each morning he can bear the air and light and effort to accept limitation. I spend my time writing poetry that sometimes I send out and sometimes tear up, take the dogs for walks that feel might never end if I kept walking. The beauty fills me as much and more than I had hoped. Solitude is unbroken unless we desire it and then we find a few friends among the woods hideaways, play cards or listen to stories or make music, remember past times and wonder over the rocky human course. Darren paints, not all that well, but he loves it. I admire his uncomplicated joy in form and color.
For me, poems are things that have to be given great breadth and depth of soul and there are days I cannot do it, at all. But I do not live without gratitude and an abiding affection for life.
This evening when the phone rang, I knew something, call it intuition or an old fear come to pass, call it a crossing of two moments beyond time that became one. I looked out the window, past the scrubby yard and dock where one weathered boat is tied up, past sway of lake water with dusk’s coral a sheen. Past the black-green evergreens’ spiky tops that always reminded me of steeples. Steeples of an infinite church that rose out of the earth, reaching skyward. I could see the North star and Venus and Mars and so much more.
Jacques. I heard his voice and it struck me to the marrow, nearly shook me apart then held me still in a thrall like a beautiful chord struck in the pure night air.
His voice vibrated along some invisible zigzag line that reached there to here.
“Are you looking at the sky? The same grand sky I can see? We can look up, know each other there. Or we might actually meet…We never danced.” Silence echoed. “Jessamine?”
My hand with phone in it slid to my chest and I prayed he could hear my heart beating. I closed my eyes. Swallowed a swell of tears. Lifted the phone back to my ear. I could hear him breathing; it was one of the tenderest sounds I would likely ever hear. And then I disconnected from silence and remnants of words, turned from that life-charging heat once and for all.
That sky beyond, the blood tie with MaeLynn–those would remain.
He took the whole day off, declared it
expendable and he, a king (I, a queen),
time freed of bite, gone slack with ease.
We took roads beyond the bridges where
sins long past, weighted days and lean nights
dissolved inside blossoming light.
This is the way we want it to be,
hands dangling in shear of wind,
two hearts plumped with laughter,
a small mastery of life reinstated
on the marshy trail, that welcoming wood.
Since the sun graced us with no precipitation in sight, we got our gear/snacks and my husband and I headed out on a day trip in Washington. We wanted to explore Salmon Creek Park. It’s a favorite spot of ours for a brisk or leisurely walk. Ordinarily we can continue 6-8 miles and we were up for the challenge. This time the creek was–not surprisingly–swollen and had overflowed its banks over winter. Earth was spongy and muddy, trails flooded in places. These are wetlands but knots of trees like it here, too. We had to forego dense forested acreage we love, as there was no dry way into it. Along the creek were signs of beavers having been hard at work, wood chips in nearly neat groupings. Some areas looked wane yet undaunted, but greenery is reasserting itself. Stones, birds, mossy sticks, roustabout water and aquamarine sky–all called to us. The early spring peepers’ songs were like bells jingling, bullfrogs like bass viols with excellent rhythm. Everywhere were people (and dogs) gathering and playing on and off the paths. It won’t be long before the weather will be finer, the rain more sporadic. Flowers and more leaves will burst in profusion. Spring will reign again.
Lately the concept of redemption has been a recurring visitor, a cue that tells me I should look into this further. Thus far, I haven’t come up with anything in particular that has triggered this but it won’t let go. It’s not so unusual. But I’ve decided I will sort it out here. First, I have to acknowledge some of how such “guest words” come to be.
Words knocking on a door of the language cathedral (sorry, language is that important to me) within the brain’s acreage might be generated by cultural/sub-cultural info that targets us randomly. Or maybe it’s a condensed version of phrases I seize upon within various books. It can be a convoluted paragraph that flashes into the mind’s magnifier before awakening. Only to leave me with vague recollections as feet hit the floor, depositing an orphan word, a tiny hint of an idea into my morning. Such has it been with “redemption”–it’s trailed me, more like a misty, never relinquished cape. Perhaps because I read and write a great deal, words–people’s entire names (I usually don’t know them), prayers or places–simply come forward and pressure me for attention and a decent response. Sometimes it’s a word I don’t quite recognize so have to look it up. Occasionally there is no such word in my dictionaries. Not too sure about this; I’m uni-lingual for the most part. And words come sung to me. I know. But it’s how it is.
But I try to give these assertive nouns (or other parts of speech) their due–as least as I can see my way through it. I’m less inclined to spend hours researching, more interested in discovering where a word has traversed my own life as well as how it can be applied in a broader sense. Shared. So this is what happened with the word of “redemption” and its other forms (inflections or conjugations of the root word). The following comes forward now.
I recall two meanings of the root word “redeem” from my early years. First off, S and H Green Stamps were happily redeemable. We got them (given as a promotional ploy) at supermarkets and gas stations. After being gathered, were saved, pasted into booklets, and turned in for a multitude of coveted, useless or helpful items from the company’s catalog. I don’t recall the items gotten–doll clothing and games, tea towels, a watch, implements of various kinds–as clearly as the experience of getting, saving and using Green Stamps. It seemed as if my mother only shopped at places that gave out the mint green stamps that were then licked and pasted into each blank page. She was a great coupon clipper and user; anything that could augment income seemed invaluable. I thought those stamps were magical: buy food or gas, get bonus stamps that could deposit a toy in my hands.
I was often talked into pasting in the strips of stamps that clogged the kitchen junk drawer. I whined about it but I can tell you I enjoyed doing this. I liked the way a blank page, sectioned into small rectangular spaces corresponding to the stamps, would soon be neatly covered. To make the gummed backs stick I used a small bottle of water (we otherwise had to lick all stamps ourselves) that had a rounded yellow sponge top. By the time a booklet was filled the pages were wavy from dampness and fat with stamps. I nearly recall the scent of damp, cheap newsprint with plastered, lined up green rectangles. I placed a finished booklet on the growing pile and when done, Mom put them in a box on top of the frig. Eventually, the stamped pages led to something handy or fun. I thought of the items as gifts. But that was how it worked: your mother or father got stamps and they were complied to be redeemed, or traded, for good stuff.
The second way I understood the words redeem/redeemable/redemption was through church attendance and the Bible. The idea was to be rescued from things I did or thought that tripped me up, could tear me down and also cause others harm. It meant being saved from going under in a vast pool of treacherous sin–all that stuff that wasn’t good for a person, stirred up more by misguided choices–through Jesus Christ’s love for humankind and his subsequent sacrifice. I saw that it meant being set free, ultimately, from tough consequences of my human tendency to make errors– like telling a fib or sassing the parents or smacking my sister back, I guessed. I might get in trouble at home but Jesus saw through to my hopefully better intentions and, if not entirely overlooked the rotten ones, then forgave them and we basically called it good for the time being.
I wasn’t always sure what I might have done wrong. But as I sat on the cushioned pew in the high-ceilinged Methodist sanctuary with a koi-filled water feature right outside to look at, I just knew God loved me. Jesus had already paid for basic human weakness that led us astray, and even future wrongdoings if I forgot how to do the right thing. Such love was clearer to me than shimmering water of the pool with blue sky bits in it, and it went way past civilized behavior like good manners or small or big mistakes of human judgment. I could count on that.
And that made me want to do better. It was a reciprocal thing: being loved by God, then passing it on while loving God back. Even then I hoped to show my appreciation, be in sync with what I thought of as Divine Spirit, a perfect harmony that sang to me, vibrated in nature. It gave me deep satisfaction and if I could have found the right words, a sense of transcendence. And it felt better to live in accordance with “First love God deeply and fully; love your neighbor as yourself” (to paraphrase the two greatest commandments Jesus noted and insisted all learn and live). My parents insisted, as well, of course. The instructions stayed with me as the eternal light that guides me. It was a serious business, redemption, but as a child I wore it lightly, as if an ordinary thing to know and accept.
It would take unspeakable tragedies, sudden losses and repeated failures; long periods of anguish over my selfishness, badly made choices and lapses of faith before I could begin to know the greater meanings and how hard it could be to hold onto the truths it embodied. It’s unfashionable to speak of guilt or remorse but they have their places in the human grab bag of feelings–and in the guide of our conscience. By trading in selfish disregard, despair and even self-loathing–costs of a life gone awry–for mercy and compassion, I found it possible to give the latter more generously to others. When you have nothing, not even hope of life, and are given one more breath as well as the means to go on, it is easy to feel humility and thankfulness. And that becomes a redemption process.
But it is still, after all these years, hard to act in accordance with an old legacy of soul-stirring rescue and renewal. It asks a lot of people to exchange their unwise whims and ravenous appetites– as well as prejudices and a tendency toward small cruelties. That we can do worse, much worse, in the name of “right and might” we know from bloodied annals of history. But do we really act as if we know we can do far better?
Since I believe we come from God, God remains within us when on earth and we return to God in an unbroken circle, I have wondered: what shatters that primary, even mystical connection? We are each birthed into the world, and we don’t usually come with beatific smiles on our faces but crying out. But we arrive equipped with intelligence, fantastic systems of locomotion and for learning, a capacity for feeling a spectrum of emotions. We arrive with impressive free will fully installed, unlike creatures who are motivated by instinct–as witnessed by even a crawling baby’s refusal to do as caregivers desire, even demand.
We think we know so much from the very start. And we do, in some unspoken way…and then smudge it up here and there because we can. And just want to. And then is there still workable knowledge? That which can make things add up to our benefit while acting in good regard for others? Is our will expansive and benevolent or spurious and undermining? It’s our choice, after all.
The word redemption comes to me again and again because it’s powerful. And we each seek it in various ways at certain times. I worry about the fate of this place, our planet Earth. We all do. We lie very still in the breath of night and maybe go to the window and try to count the inexhaustible stars and wonder how that ravishing universe can seem so rarefied yet far from our pettiness and misery, our terrible designs with their misappropriated energies and labors. We fill our lives with distractions to quell the contagious anxiety rippling around the world. How far have we come from our best beginnings? How much have we forgotten of the mysterious congruence of a universe that goes on despite our misguided, our flagging efforts here?
How lost can a species of creatures become? Are we not primal enough? Or not open enough to wisdom greater than our limited, perhaps one might think lazy, speculations?
We are naturally inclined to be explorers. And we have good clues in maps right here. They are in our natural bodies: the pumps and one way doors, a myriad of interdependent chemicals, connectors and transmitters: the blood-rich, nerve-conducting wisdom. Our bodies mirror much outside of the flesh. We have extreme mapping in our brains, those vast reservoirs full of information and imaginative juices. We enjoy our barrier busting leaps of thought. Are we irretrievably lost? Think again, only let higher functions of mind and soul open more effective routes, bolder solutions, itineraries that can take us to answers and make things work for the many– not only the few. What is below is as above; the universe and this planet are part of an infinite, barely grasped whole. Entire unto itself, we guess– yet we are within it.
So much that we can discern about us reflects the rest in endless configurations. If you love nature, you can see that: whorls of a tree’s inner trunk and planetary paths and spreading circles a single drop of water falls into a pond. So much more. We are here to immerse ourselves in such wonders and utilize our capabilities. To pass on love as the treasure it is. We are given all this in exchange of stewardship of a planet and the tending of our human lives so that all may flourish.
And yet here we are. These times of catastrophes, power mongering, failures to communicate. It is all so not new, but nonetheless disturbing.
How, then, can we participate in the redemption of our better natures? We must not once forget the inestimable value of human beings even as we struggle with blindness or confusion. Life can be redeemed little by little, moment by moment, one more sound act of reason upheld by care. And then another and another. There is never too much kindness; we do not run out of it, not if we keep it at the ready, put it in motion. But we are not the only vital characters coming and going as the story turns. Perhaps one challenge is to know our place and yet to find it essential and beloved.
We can count on God knowing we are floundering–we, I believe, share Spirit and Mind. We are earthly specks yet celestial beings, made for greater things though we strain to understand. Still we can take action, bring to the fore our finer and braver impulses. Let the clear heart of redemption move us to trade scattered, weakened intentions for something more sound. More sacred. Practical matters and visionary potential are not mutually exclusive. We can trade for the consequences of a quiet (create/enact the work of hope; smile often, gently) or boisterous (bring on the music, speak up for change) life but do it with the transformative intentions of love.
The time we are given and endeavors we choose, I learned, are worth infinitely more than Green Stamps stuck into piles of flimsy books. It is my responsibility to daily renew commitment to an uncertain life on earth, to make sacrifices as needed and ultimately to live with deep and abiding charity. This is perhaps the means and ends of the miracle of redemption’s power.