The Muse Knows: Day 1 of a Spring Beach Trip

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Pacific Ocean–all photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

There are times the muse shows up with a fine sentence or two that beckons me like a hunger-inducing aroma. Or an entire paragraph that apparently is taken out of the middle of some narrative if I could only figure out what it’s intended to be. Or the muse presents a newbie or older story character: he/she may clumsily step forward or scurry, leap or float about or suddenly wake up in a peculiar spot–maybe a tree top or a country roadside or a bar– and then speaks directly to me as if I am this being’s private audience member. Or will talk to another character, and I am warily peering into their crazily compelling lives.

Awhile back I wrote a very long poem in its entirety while walking. The words came so fast, in such an unusual format, that I recorded it on my phone as it flowed into and out of me. I came home and wrote it down with no significant revisions. It took a long time to transcribe it but I was happy when done. And it got published.

So it is true for me that I usually sit down then just let my fingers get to work writing/typing words one after the other. I don’t mean it is necessarily good stuff, I mean it flows quickly. Language inception and usage are alchemy to me. How does it manage to even begin? We–words and I–take off for somewhere or other like comfortable, mischievous cohorts. But not today! Today it has been this: what to do and how on earth to do it? This question wormed it way into my calmly reconfigured mind yesterday and today. Then this afternoon I heard the insistent MV (Muse Voice) whisper: Follow moving sunlight into moonlight; follow the soul’s light. 

You always do get stirred up by light, water, trees, sky, etc., I mutter aloud as the instructive thought lodges itself. Yet this is my only clue for a post? Wonderful, all is simpler since this is my favorite route to embark upon when writing: follow soul first, then intellect to help shape any inspiration. The words will be revealed. Pathways perk up within and without–made of striations of shifting shadows, the ripplings of chameleon light.

But it is a rather broad, misty directive from the ole muse. It might be enough if I want to open a scene with a mysterious glen where human and other magic is about to unfold and the birds are atwitter and then silence draws me to a point of light far beyond an exquisite but faint and far-off horizon….Reality wags a finger at me: readers may not want to hear about a simple visit with an ocean. And what about the hundreds of photographs from a rather short trip to a few Oregon and Washington beaches. Nothing like wading through a stranger’s fond remembrances.

I took a power (and sweaty–it is warming up, gratefully) walk. Consternation slows down mercurial creative impulses so I let it all go. Walks are powerful medicine I must daily take. Afterwards I attacked a bunch of household chores, another intervention for a cluttered mind. Finally, I stared at a vibrantly blank computer screen. I am rarely at a loss for words as those who know me can attest.

My first day back to the blog after a lovely vacation, yay!–and this is what I have? Perhaps too much time off has made me loathe to work very hard on the blog? But that isn’t it. Sometimes I have more overload to sort and prioritize before settling down, getting it onto the page. There is a lot stuffed in both my memory bank and my photo files; sometimes it seems one and the same. I pushed away a tiny niggle of anxiety. Would I get this post posted today or not?

With more consideration, I managed to extract another interpretation of the muse’s suggestion: merely sample the trip’s offerings,  offer up a small smorgasbord of choices for eye, mind, spirit. Let it go its own way.

At last, I invite you to come along on vastly abbreviated initial portions of our trip. The fact is, no decent meander is truly ordinary if we see with welcoming eyes and heart, and the Pacific Northwest coast is mind-boggling every time I stop to better absorb its wonders. There was a wealth of beauty and peace gathered over the days we were there. More pictures and thoughts are likely to be shared in posts to come as we suddenly changed our course (the best way to go) and headed north to unplanned places. It appears the muse–that mysterious, often capricious creative spirit which nudges and, at times, saves writers and others–loves to travel, too. To embrace the multi-faceted views, to enter a deeper immersion into this life. To seek out that light out amid the ruin and peril of our ailing and loved world. It is there, everywhere.

As we begin our drive from Portland, the countryside beguiles us…and we start to simply breathe.

As we begin to approach the Pacific Ocean, we often like to stop at beautiful Wheeler, a village on the north coast overlooking Nehalem Bay. There is excellent fishing and crabbing here; many enjoy kayaking and canoeing.

We arrive in Cannon Beach late in the afternoon. Before entering the town the Pacific Ocean winks and sparkles, mesmerizing us as if this is its job. The town is a favorite weekenders’ and summer vacationers’ spot. We prefer visiting coastal areas during low season (fall and winter stir up great stormy seas) rather than high season. This time we go mid-week. So it is emptier this day, quieter, and this lends a nostalgic and peaceful atmosphere.

Cannon Beach rightly touts a spectacular beach, with famous basaltic rock formations (made of lava flows from Columbia Plateau over 17 million years ago), the primary one at this beach being Haystack Rock, with wonderful tide pools. Other curious rock formations line up here and there like sentinels guarding the sandy stretches. Haystack Rock is part of Oregon Islands Wildlife Refuge, thankfully. Even the lovely Tufted Puffins favor this site as well as Pelagic Cormorants and other seabirds.

To start: breathtaking expanse of the Pacific. And you will see our quaint, tidy lodge with tables and chairs in front. The pond is pooled beyond a waterfall feature that was lovely to go to sleep to along with ocean songs. The red barn with white fencing for horses are by the Ecola River as we walk into town; horseback riding is popular on the beach.

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As evening falls upon us, the ocean is an even more seductive entity with rollicking waves, its roaring voice rising amid tidal forces. Potent sea light which reflects for miles on shifting water and illumines the long horizon alters everything moment by moment. It creates its spell, liming the cresting waves, undulating across sand, casting its radiance on all, even through free-form clouds. The salt-tinged wind (more than a bit chilly and strong) lifts me from myself, starts to set me free.

This is why we come to the coastal forests and waters: to be renewed. Follow a slow moving sun with me as it vanishes behind the seeming rim of earth.

Look for a distant Haystack Rock and misty Tillamook Rock Lighthouse (decommissioned in 1957, now privately owned and used as a columbarium), as well as the ever present Western Gulls who reign over the beaches. The last shot is taken as we walk back across an inlet and to our rental suite.

Tomorrow, we know, there awaits much more and it will be all we hope to find–even with spotty rain forecast. I’ll just follow the light I can find.

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Off to the Beach!

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It’s not the leisurely San Diego trip we planned a couple of weeks ago (cancelled due to my husband’s work demands) but it is the same Pacific Ocean and a very fine beach to which we’re headed to set up camp (but not in a tent– this time). It is blissfully sunny today– and may be again tomorrow. Or yet more rain and cooling temperatures again… the Pacific Northwest is what it is, in all its splendor. We’ll take the excellent along with peculiar or random times–that’s the way we like it. Besides, our massive rains lead to long spectacular summer weather. So, I praise fickle spring: a worthy prelude to greater charms to come!

This short trip is meant to take a more deliberate time to ourselves, of course. Far from city complications, the mechanical and industrial noises, drifting grit that somehow makes it into our home, the concrete grid of crowded streets with historic edifices alongside insanely expensive apartments being erected on countless leveled lots. I need to breathe easy, feel the sea salt air, stretch mind and legs along the sandy and forested coastline. To open to the mysteries and magic of nature more deeply once more, find peace in the luxury of liberated moments.

Hope you all have a more than decent rest of the week/week-end, yourselves. Be safe, be kind, be loved. Until next week–and more photos and stories!

 

 

 

A Springtime of Fear, Forest and Water

Photo: Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The land was wilder than it let on at first look, the road curving about it protectively for miles on end, with glimpses of properties blurred as Cal sped by. The forest was piney, dense and secretive. White paper birch groves showed off in flashes of sunlight. The deciduous trees wore bright green and spread their arched branches about like many-limbed dancers. He breathed here as nowhere else–not that he had not been other places more beautiful or dangerously intoxicating. But this landscape erupted seemingly from another time and had remained there. He was entering it again as the aqua Mustang took over. It nearly drove itself as coolness of shadows took turns with a weak heat of late spring light upon his face and arms.

Soon enough he downshifted and slowed to turn off at the beaten gravel road leading into the village of Snake Creek. He passed a couple of spandex-attired cyclists–tourists, he suspected–  as they nodded and swerved onto the dirt. A truck bounced past him going the other way; the Klimper brothers with sons and a shaggy dog in the back.

The village’s main artery was not so different from when he and his parents and sister lived just beyond its borders each summer. He passed The Clarion offices and the Bluestone Cafe owned now by his old friend Clarissa; the small shops for sweets and ice cream, one for odd trinkets and t-shirts and a shoe store for practical boots and fancy sandals. The only hair salon, A Cut Above, had a picture window that flashed in the sunlight. A field stone and wood library always caught his eye. His mother had been instrumental in getting it refurbished and re-stocked over thirty years ago. Not far from the village his father had taught music at United Ministries Summer Arts camp (UMSA) for what seemed forever. They’d lived in one of the large cabins built for staff. Cal and his sister, Kirsten, grew up living a dual life of strict discipline centered on the arts, and living free and happy in woods and water.

And now he was back. Not for forever, but for long enough to restore his anxious soul and nourish his numbed senses.

Ring Lake. He could see it sparkle and undulate as he drew up to the side of the road. He cut the engine, sat a moment. The lake never failed to put his mind on pause. He suspected his collages–the photojournalists with whom he had kept company for decades–would make snide comments about his chosen paradise. After all, hadn’t they been about everywhere else, documenting sights that horrified, illuminated and moved them? Joe Rasmussen, his oldest friend, his mentor, would understand this return to the old places, this “safe zone”, Cal imagined, but Joe was gone. Lost in the Amazon. Or hiding out.

Cal blinked away the image of Joe being enveloped by jungle; Cal had agreed to wait outside their pick up plane. Joe would for certain understand why Cal was cruising down this road on a sunny morning, if not exactly in the right way. He’d pull his neck back and stare at Cal as if his friend had gone and lost him mind, yet he understood how that might happen.

“Ah, a woman! She must be mighty powerful to distract you from finally–how many years since you took time off?– relaxing up in northern Michigan! And you’ve been trying to find me, too… Well, a good and real love never hurt anybody, despite all the naysayers.”

He should know, having been married far more than was reasonable. Cal got out of the car and watched a sailboat make its way toward the shore. He could almost still see Joe’s lopsided smile, his grisly white beard and his dancing, squinting eyes wreathed with wrinkles. He saw him turn away as he did that day, pumping the air with his fist as he disappeared into thickets of monstrous vines and tangled vegetation and raucous or sneaky creatures: Joe had taken off for one last chance at filming the most gigantic, mind boggling anaconda ever.

The familiar fear shot right up his back bone and it nearly lodged in his brain to expand and paralyze him before he took deep breaths, then moment by moment slowed his heart rate. Nothing was worse than dread fear, the visceral poison of being scared, how it’s tendrils shot into you with a ferocious grip and held you halfway alive, halfway toward death. Panic, it was called by the shrinks. But to Cal and his compatriots, it was just unadulterated fear, provoked by adrenalin that was fired off by something terrifying. Or even the sheer possibility. There were a lot of things to fear in the world. And when you were taking pictures of it up close, the fear could ruin you. Or be tamed by years of disciplined will, the basic training of in-depth experiences. It might save you or it might kill you; you had to decide fast.

There was nothing to fear here. Joe was far away, he vanished months ago, and there was not much more he could do about that now. If ever.

Ring Lake was turning that perfect blue-green that changed to more navy in the center depths, teal in shallower waters. Cal held this color along with the scent of water inside until he was calm. Until he felt his feet firm on wooded, rich earth once more. He was as ready to try to move on as he’d been in a while. He looked toward the peninsula seen through a thinner group of jack pines.

Should he walk up to the white chapel-house? Should he even attempt to see her? Bother her, really; she was not one to take random visitors. But she had seemed to be interested in what he said at the Bluestone Cafe as they sat together with family friend and Cal’s most loyal and original mentor, Will, editor of The Clarion.

But what was he thinking ? And how could he possibly know what she was thinking? And why this woman–after so long being on his own?

Sophia Swanson was…she was more than a tad eccentric, lovely and capable. She was mute. Had been since her husband died almost a year before. Cal turned back to his car and leaned against a door. Sugar maple leaves twirled in a shifting breeze. Squirrels raced up and down their favorite trees, chipmunks scurried about and the birds sang their lungs out. He watched the lake’s ever-changing waters, considering options and possible outcomes. He could just turn around and head back to his sister’s house on Grand Traverse Bay.

******

In her old life, if anybody had told Sophia she could be so indecisive as to feel half-mad with uncertainty, she would have vehemently refuted it. But there she was, sitting in her cozy kitchen with Daedalus, her husky-German shepherd, and he was looking up at her expectantly, patiently. It was a long while that he sat at attention, sympathetically alert to her every move. She’d have chuckled if she could but smoothed his broad back again.

She was trying to decide if she wanted to try only a very short swim–more like a good wading, then trying to submerge her chest, perhaps– in the still chilly Ring Lake or take a long nap or critically review her last two paintings leaning against a wall in the loft. The paintings interested her less; she was not so good at it though she found pleasure and peace at the easel.

A glance through the sliding glass door to the deck gave her second thoughts about the water option. It was just starting to cloud over some. Besides which, she didn’t want to go swimming, certainly not in May and not even in the swampy heat of July. The old Sophia wanted to; the new Sophia refused so far. But if she entertained the idea long enough, she might change her current mindset.

Everything in life took practice, didn’t it? Being a youngish widow certainly took practice; being a mother whose only child, Mia, now lived with an aunt–that took enormous work to accept, every moment. More like gradual surrender. No one stole her daughter but they may as well have. When Thomas died, it her life was brazenly stolen. He may as well as have taken them down with him, into that very lake outside her door. It felt as if he did, but they were left dripping with relentless life which became an urgent desire to live, if that was needed, only in limbo. At least, so it was for her. Mia was learning to unthaw the frozen grief and move on back in Vermont. Maybe Sophia should give up and go back east and live with her sister, too. But a woman who does not speak cannot succeed among speakers.

Sophia’s closest Snake Creek friend, Clarissa, had first come up with the idea of swimming about six months after he was gone.

“It’s simple, really, you just have to get moving, honey.” Clarissa spoke into a mug of hot chocolate one snow-spun night. “It’s a fact, the brain releases chemicals for healing and good thoughts!”

Sophia looked up from the fireplace, startled, shook her head vigorously. Why was Rissa being suddenly insensitive? Thomas breathed his last breath out there. He fell off the boat, slipped into swirling black water while skies crackled with lightning, never came back up to say a good-bye or to yell for help or even her name. Or that’s what she imagined. The thunder and lightning, her husband raging against everything so that he finally took up arms against the natural world he adored more than all else, and lost. Or he chose to lose the life he had, and in so doing, he left them in the nightmare of shock, sorrow and anger.

No, don’t think of it, don’t go back to all that happened again.

But Rissa persisted.

“Why not, though? Of course, yes, he drowned…I’m still sorry for it. But you’re a professional dancer and choreographer. You have to move that body more or you’ll just curl up and die, too. That’s not what you want. You can power walk a bit, you even ride a bike if you need to. And you can swim again.” She looked at Sophia as if she might just will it to happen for her. “Don’t ever say never.”

Rissa had a habit of speaking bluntly, as if her truth was clear and dominant. Sophia’s eyes stung with threat of tears but she sent them away. It was hard to hear because her friend was right, If she kept lying in bed and sitting about; if she refused to even walk along the lake’s shore; if she never did another dance warm up exercise much less a spin with a tiny leap– she would not go forward toward anything good. But her body rebelled. It ignored itself, mostly. Her very vocal chords even refused to give sound to her thoughts. Yes, her body was on hiatus. It was better than before, those first weeks when she was nearly catatonic. Now she was just speechless as a stone. But a stone that moved about with encouragement.

That next pretty morning Rissa hooked her arm in Sophia’s. They hesitantly walked at the edge of narrow beach along the small peninsula, land upon which stood their own–now, her own–renovated historic chapel. The water roared in her ears. Pebbles were hard and sharp under her rubber sandals and yet the lake looked like a magnificent– and beastly– creature. A giant open mouth that could swallow them whole. Alive. In in a few days she returned with Rissa, then others who appeared without asking –Anna and Will, Sherry and T.Z. and Frank. She finally walked in a couple of inches with bare feet. Closed her eyes, stood long enough to really feel the oddly neutral, silken touch of water. She began to concede Ring Lake could be, at times, a benign thing, breathtaking in all its moods and friendlier once more with children playing out on the raft and many water skiers, the fishermen and women, people swimming out to the small island from their ramshackle houses.

But she did not go any farther than just above her ankles. And that felt an inch too much.

Sophia thought now: if I just run out there and jump in with Dae and we go out a few freezing feet, get all wet, and then turn back and come in–maybe I will shock myself out of this phobia. Dae will not let me drown, he will swim with me. I can run back in, take a long hot shower and later when Rissa comes by she’ll find how strong I actually am, that I’ve conquered it.

Dae whined at her pleadingly, tail all a-wag, so she got up and opened the slider to let him out. He turned to look back at her, head cocked. She stepped through. The two of them padded down the deck steps, into the grass now greenly growing again after a hard winter. The big dog dashed on, zigzagging across the long yard and to the lake.

Sophia hung back, arms crossed over her soft, high bosom, stood with feet apart. Her heart raced and then steadied as she walked closer to Ring Lake. She felt an edgy gust of wind, a chill left over from Canada’s colder store of air. There would be no swimming today, of that she was certain.

“Sophia? Hi there!”

She pivoted, hands hovering before her. Dae barked feverishly as he made a hard dash for the person walking onto their territory. And came to a halt, the bark a mere squeal as he was soothed by a man who had entered her domain.

*****

Cal roughed up Dae’s ears and petted his back and head lavishly.

“I thought to leave you a note first but since I was in town to do an errand for my sister Kirsten, I decided I may as well see if you were around. I hope that isn’t too rude a thing to do. I mean, to presume you might be here and then see me…”

Sophia tightened her lips into what she hoped passed for a decent smile. It unnerved her she hadn’t heard him, that she might not register a person coming up behind her. He must have heard Daedalus barking earlier, looked past the driveway and down to the lake. But Cal Rutgers was okay. She thought he was, at least, and Will and Clarissa had assured her he had grown up at the camp and the village in summers, was a good guy. A little bit famous. Well, fame didn’t mean a  thing to her. She had had a good bit of fame with her dance troupe before Thomas moved them to northern Michigan from Boston. Before he died, Thomas Swanson was well established in the fame department, a research scientist, author, lecturer. A highly regarded biologist who specialized in limnology, the study of inland waters. She had many bad thoughts about water and the ironic nature of his death, as well as about fame.

But he was congenial and smart and he looked pretty good to her despite her desire to not look at him at all. She looked up, smiled more naturally, and his eyes crinkled back at her.

He studied the lake as he came down the easy slope to stand beside her. “It seems we’ve run into each other a few times at Rissa’s Bluestone Cafe or at the newspaper office or once at the library. I hoped you would show me around your peninsula.” She spread his hands out to include the entire scenario or lake and land. “I love it so much  here, you know… I had to come back to see if it had changed into something more plastic. And it hasn’t.”

She nodded her head to the side and back, in the direction of the chapel-house.

“Ah, well. Yes, my minister great-grandfather’s, then minister grandfather’s chapel. A beautiful little historic chapel. It’s true that I wasn’t happy with you and your husband buying it. But it’s done and it looks okay–from out here.”

Cal did not want to see the inside and he was relieved she didn’t offer to take him there with another head nod. He wasn’t ready to see it made an ordinary house. But he did like to revisit the peninsula, so they were walking  along it’s shore and he fell silent. But then she stopped him and put her hands together as in prayer, as in a plea for forgiveness or at least some genuine acceptance. Her eyes, somewhat almond-shaped and hazel, revealed emotion reflecting a true regret. He was taken aback.

There had been such good times here. The simple services, the feasts, the sort of games boys and girls played–tag, capture the flag, dodge ball–after church services. Grandfather Rutgers passed when he was  in his late teens. Cal hadn’t seen the chapel more then two or three times since then and now, it was a house. He set aside mixed feelings of regret, nostalgia and disappointment, even some anger. He just gave her raised eyebrows paired with a vague smile, the sort that says, maybe, but okay for now… Cal hoped she caught it; he didn’t have much more to say about it yet.

He noted a passing urge to tuck back a stray strand of her length of sandy hair. Her face was unadorned, free of pretense. They walked on the length of the peninsula and back again, then found a nice spot at the edge of a stand of pines.

It must have been a good fifteen or twenty minutes that they sat under the trees watching nothing and everything. Suddenly Sophia took his arm, tugged at it and then, embarrassed by the somewhat intimate gesture, let go. They moved toward the water. The waves slapped rhythmically against rocky beach, carried away the tension in their bodies, shook free their minds of worry. The clouds had moved on and sunshine was like a scarf, light and soft as silk, lain over their frames. Sophia took a step and then another. Dae, seeing her move into the lake bounded over, splashing them both.

She got up with Cal and to hid surprise, they walked into the water, the dog prancing about them. She was nearly as tall as was he–over six feet. He paused briefly over her desire enter water yet infused with a mild wintry chill, and how odd it was to take a virtual acquaintance along but he said, “Is this going to be okay? It’s cold!” and she nodded as shallow wavelets passed through her pants, slid onto skin and rose up each leg, every small advancement a growing internal agony. Then: all the way to her knees. And she stopped, clutching Cal’s arm despite her usual need for reserve.

Her face was charged with and transformed by the electricity of fear. He knew this look well. Cal understood the murky meanings of those white-rimmed eyes, the mouth agape, so he grasped her shoulders and held her gently in place. But Sophia was not going to be held back. She shook him off, thinking like a mantra why not why not why not now I will be brave fear cannot take my life water will not kill me why not now I so loved all water once… and walked alone until the creeping water soaked the pants above her knees, halfway up her still muscular, pale thighs.

She took a small step again and gritted her teeth, stilled her limbs with arms crossed tightly about her chest, face turned up to sky, her long braid dangling just above slapping waves of spring’s lake water. It was terrifying and amazing to command the stay of her body within voluminous, amorphous liquid. A great body encompassing her own trembling body. Alone. She felt as if she might pass out or lift off the murky lake bottom or sink into dreamy depths where a minuscule hope lived amid potent fears–into the subterranean life that she’d led so long.

But when Sophia turned back to the shore, face was open and close to beaming. When she reached him she even laughed, hands held to her mouth, then splashing earthy-fragranced water everywhere, all over him. He could see she was laughing hard, shoulders shaking–but there was no definable sound from her. Nothing was heard but waves and wind upon them and his own small chortle. And some spot  in his heart just blew open, it was a mere pinhole of an exit and entrance but he embraced the sweep of beauty. Sun threw its light about them, water was a glinting, blue-green glorious expanse and all those trees stood proudly beaming fresh new greenness. Dae barked with an envious thrill from shore as they rushed clumsily out of the lake, all the way up the grassy hill. Back home, Sophia seemed to suggest when she glanced at him. Cal flashed a quizzical look.

But she knew what she could offer: the old/new chapel-house comforts and two thick towels, strong cups of coffee served with slices of almond cinnamon cake. It was enough. And perhaps a glimpse of her ways of silence, which might not continue to hide or hurt her as they had for too long.

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

(Hello, kind readers: This is another trial chapter (here made into a short story) in an ongoing revision of my unpublished novel, Other Than Words. One published excerpt was nominated for a Pushcart Prize years ago but it remains a work in need of more work! It may take more time and effort than I have, though I remain intrigued by the characters and themes. Thus, I have written other posts about these two and others; searching my site for “Snake Creek” may bring you to them. If not, let me know. I will post links. Thanks for reading this one!)

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: The Charge of Mercy

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

It may be that making room
for mercy, letting it take hold
of you, does so only at a price.
You may never again see yourself
or another without feeling
a deep release of tenderness,
an upsurge in benevolence
like a music unfurled by light.

Many suffer, pass by day or night and
you will recognize a hoard of hurts
and consolation will spill unbidden,
even in your smile or nod of your head,
a flash meeting of your eyes and another’s.
Charity rises from the soul’s wellspring,
and fills you. It will long to act.

Even if what is returned is
disconsolate anger, even if a
ruinous emptiness
you will offer a gentling of more mercy.
And when someone pains you,
compassion and forbearance
will take charge in spite
of unjust, fearful jarrings.
You can endure much in mercy.

Who knows what being merciful can bring?
Perhaps a revolution of wholeness: begin.
Who said our human lives will be a lark?
Can we be generous if we are lazy, only smart?
Can we be kind and be selfish, then hope to heal?
We learn to be humble, then wings can grow.

You alone know your true reflection
in the mirrored passages of time,
if you answered yes when
someone needed forgiveness,
if you answered no when revenge
bellowed your name.

Either way, mercy lives on

best when you claim it, free it, use it.
It moves in the power of opening hands,
in reverberations of simple, decent care.
Some may welcome it and perhaps even you.
Many will not ever notice.
You are the one
who will be
changed by mercy
reigniting your valiant life

We are Hearts Among Others

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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.