I drove on this weekend morning to catch-up on an oil change that is two months and one thousand miles past due. Recent events warn me not to belabor how much I love the rain, but these soft October rains paint the streets and sidewalks with a reflective first coat. The skies lied: I should have been grabbing for insulated raincoats, but it was unseasonably warm, matching the warmth of golden leaves. The autumn colors glistened above and below. It has been no secret how much I love the rain – the sound upon roof or a tent’s canvas; the sparkle it brings to harsh, dull concrete and asphalt.
About October 2017.
And in Wisconsin, October rains are nature’s natural to-do list. A warm rain this time of year reminds of winter to come. Puddles that a few short months ago invited bare feet to splash in now call out a reminder of ‘where are your boots?’
I drove past familiar sights – small town gas stations and businesses – thinking how lucky I was to still love the rain because I knew nothing of the tragedy of ‘too much’. I do not know what flood waters are nor do I know what hurricanes are. I do not know about coastline surges.
Too much rain. Too much storm. Too much. Such beautiful happenings turn…horrific.
I do not know what it is like, to attend an event….a beautiful event. Then to have it turn..
I do not know.
I do know that with catastrophes, I am fortunate to not know. I have been through many upheavals, assaults and witnessed a bucket load of horrible things but that is in itself the blessing. I can write the words “I made it through.” I am lucky. I get to reduce them to ‘instances’.
The day following last week’s tragic event, I finally made arrangements to attend a concert. It seems to be a habit of mine and one I can imagine carrying the rest of my life that one or two times in a year, I need a live performance of some kind: a concert in any genre, or live performances of symphony orchestras or operas or ballets. Maybe it is the preparations or the travel. The day after last Sunday’s tragedies… I ordered my ticket.
I listened to the remix of this, my Wisconsin woods, in October. A gentle wind flutters the turning leaves – one more breeze for nature’s laundry on the line. Birds blissfully chirp perhaps in a small talk of their own, gathering stories dependent upon time of day and the weather. And from rooms away I hear teenage sounds of the computer.
Instances. I am blessed with instances.
You know, I am the happiest I have ever been in my whole life. I used to wonder a lot about the bad that has happened. There are surely worse possibilities. Again the trump of all trumps – that I even have a life is miraculous biology.
We could hear them, muffled and muddled, their tongues slurping blindly in fervor; their voices rumbling in undercurrents. The woman and the rest and the beast were practiced in their low choirs of insults; a quiet hymn they could hum just loud enough for their prey but soft enough to appear saintly. Although she thought otherwise, the woman’s siren song no longer called to Es but to the beast; their words tethered themselves lowly now not to the ears of innocents but to a beast of which they did not know. The more they chanted, the more the beast swirled. The more the beast swirled, the more they sang. In a storm their own dirt swallowed them both.
We were hypnotized by the sight of dirt, woman and the rest and the beast, now an entire entity of itself. Es did not watch it, but I did. Once I saw an outline of the woman, a darkened shadow against the cloud which she had created. The rest were indistinguishable in her cloud, their figures blended together. For a moment my heart ached for her. Her command of the rest meant she alone must be distinguishable. And it was true. I sadly looked at her darkened outline again. The swirling entity growled. Her features snapped harshly as she turned.
We should have been running away but we stood. Our egos could not let go that we were so easily dismissed. It almost hurt our feelings.
We began to walk away not in victory, not in fear, rather in the resignation of a fight we no longer needed to battle. Plus, we had somewhere we needed to be. The snarls dimmed and the dirt storm calmed as we just walked away. The air was getting lighter. The wind changed direction and we both heard the song which filtered through.
We paused at the first notes. I stood confused at what I was hearing – a melody so out of place. Es looked at me with horror. “She hummed Mendelssohn. It is the same song! She hummed and grinned as I cried.” They had attacked her while the woman hummed the ‘Wedding March’ to Es.
I did not have the heart to tell her it was actually “The Bridal Processional” by Richard Wagner which the woman and the rest had used as their battle cry. Seems to me that either selection was cruel given what had happened to Es.
The winds direction changed again and the air grew lighter still. The dirt and dust cleared a bit more. The blessed fragrance of nothingness. Not a flower nor grass nor dirt nor iron blood. Just air.
As Es turned to look at me, I was afraid to meet her gaze. I was frightened to see in her eyes that life had robbed them of their shine, like sandpapering a glass tabletop. I kept walking but I did not have the stomach to look at her eyes.
She looked at me. I had not looked her in the eyes since she told me of the wedding song which had been hummed to hurt her. Her eyes answered without words.
She had seen it too.
“Yes.” She finally replied.
Over Es’s shoulder it galloped in the field, its black shadow riding through wildflowers. Its darkened, crisp outline gave away the identity. It had stayed hidden when it was beast individual from the woman and the rest. The entity now called upon itself. It could never hide. Anywhere. Its shadows had imprisoned itself with the barbs it had once flung upon the world. If it hummed the bridal processional I could no longer hear it. For some reason I think it did but that would be my imagination rather than reality.
Forgiveness. Es had told me long ago she prayed forgiveness for them, even for the woman who mocked her with the bridal song. She would actually correct herself. “In my heart of hearts, forgiveness was never a problem. What I really wished for, was that G~d would never know what they did to me.”
Somehow I could not imagine a worse karma than that of a shadow-being who only remembered playing one song, one melody meant for an announcement of love but a melody that had been turned into daggers of mockery.
I watched over Es’s shoulder as we walked. The entity, the shadow, slid among the wild flowers and grasses. It never came any nearer. The shadow was a reminder, that the past was not to be forgotten. It would be allowed to become a shadow cloud among the wildflowers. Whether it sang or not, we did not know.
Es turned back to me. I saw there then, in her eyes the score for the Bridal Processional written in the deepest black blue ink irises upon white linen. It was there in that twinkle where there should no longer be one.
In mockery it was given to her, to hurt her. And her soul held onto their laughter. And her eyes? Her eyes deepened with the darkness of their shadows. They had given her their exclusions. They had called her names. They had bullied her for months.
In their darkness they gave her the twinkle of what was supposed to be – not as a sad reminder of Es’s own silent denial, but as a reminder of what should have been but was not. A shadow was now imprisoned. With its own barbs.
Among the wildflowers.
That was Es’s power. The love that was supposed to have been.
Over her shoulder I could faintly see the shadow pause. Es paused too. She pointed to the long open field in front of us.
Es leaned to me, whispering with the deepest of smiles and even deeper twinkle and a bit of a giggle to boot.
Lots and loads of love (because it’s not pie, you know?)
She escaped. Es, unaware of her placement in the shadows of cross hairs of crossfires, dove into the clay; its chocolaty thickness reminiscent of her Jewish grandmas old-school malteds. Clamping her lips tighter and tighter she nuzzled into the nether regions of the earth.
Each of the warring sides believed in the justification of their snares. Es had not even seen it coming, the battle to ensue. They were two distinct entities, each with their own placement in her life like alternating cans of corn and sweet peas upon grocery store shelves.
I had yelled for her to stop. “Es, please don’t. Es. Es!” But she had already known. She had ducked, then dove.
Es had been readying herself for the battle. She was determined not necessarily to defeat but to weaken so that no harm would ever come to another from their hands.
Weeks have passed. Call it ‘writer’s block’. I would not call it that, but the phrase sounds intelligent enough. Weeks have passed in which I have felt I could not get anything right. It is an over exaggeration and really among the possible worries one could have, I decided to latch myself to the ‘not getting it right’ boat. But to remain purposely in its safety seemed to block my own current. As the saying goes, “do not forget how much you love to swim.”
After months of court battles, city battles, financial concerns, and inner life questioning, any extra time to latch seemed justifiable. That may not have been the wisest notion I have ever had but I realize this time gave me a peace I had never known in my whole life. It is a peace to savor, a peace to live in, a peace upon which to build and mostly, a peace to share.
(Peace, like love, is not like pie. There is not a finite number of slices. Hmm. I had some learning to do.)
I saved for the dress – for a dress, really.
The owl dress is beautiful with a silky soft georgette overlay upon a similar printed nylon shell. Oh, I know ‘nylon’ is not the attractive word, but it is what it is. And it is fabulous fabric, hugging ones skin underneath while the filmy overlay catches even the slightest body movement and slightest wind. Upon the fabric is dyed midnight colors of owl feathers and softened, swirled owl faces.
I walked through my routine, unplugging lights and examining walls, realizing that one day I will trade my overalls at the Matthias Building for my dresses. There would always be days of work jeans but I knew for the first time I could let those days go. I could really replace those days with the days to come, with days I had only imagined but not felt, days like this one, wearing a midnight owl dress, dyed with the colors of deep ink feathers and clothing a body who, herself, had been carved from the haunts of nighttime.
We had been walking along, pleasantly breathing in the valley air. So thick the air with smells of green growth one could imagine it always smelling this way and could not imagine it ever smelling any differently.
I begged Es to stop. “Please Es, I need to sit.” She smiled, pointing at a granite ledge poking through the grasses of the hillside. Odd that the stone should be there but for once I would not analyze its peculiarity. I just wanted to sit.
Es waved then continued her study of hilltops, birds flying and clouds passing. How old was she? I chuckled to myself. As I sat I realized our walk had paused in a bowl formed by hills of granite exposed by wind and hidden slightly from ones first glance by waving tall grasses.
The warmth of the sun baked through my thighs as I sat. I closed my eyes to raise my face to the sky. My hair blew gently, tickling my neck pleasantly. Peace. I could still hear Es, her giggles at whatever discovery she was making. Peace.
I think I opened my eyes when I heard her gasp. My ears would have ignored a jet engine but not her frightened gasp. I looked at her and she at me. I saw the beast before she had; her body had frozen as one is trained to do when you feel the eyes of a grizzly or a mountain cat upon your skin. “Stand still. Don’t move. It is your movement which attracts the hunter.”
Es had not even seen her predator. But she knew she was in its cross hairs.
“Es.” I trembled. “Es.” I stood. “Es! Es!” I bellowed for both of their attentions. But the beast was a beast of many and would not be distracted.
Es had forgiven them years ago. It was all she had which itself was perfection. The only way to learn of the faith of forgiveness is in the state of forgiveness. Unconditional forgiveness is the foundation of ones faith, not to be bartered or sullied or especially not to be expected or advertised. And the cost of forgiveness is within oneself not to words or beings. At the time, forgiveness was all Es had.
For years she fought the memory of those few months which turned decades of her life upside down. She reasoned with invisible justifications like shadow boxing in rounds that never heard the bell nor felt the slam of a knockout.
Over and over, for years she would wonder why they had done it to her. She could only imagine what they had said among themselves, to each other as those telephone calls or care to her would never come. She would never hear explanations because there were none.
When Es fell the first time, the blow caught her off guard. She expected it to be some joke and looked back at the face who had dealt the first hit. Her face outlined mockery in thick, no-nonsense coloring book style lines. That face, that body, that heart had known how to hurt. The seasoned mixture of her glee at my shocked expression showed years of practice. This was no accident, Es realized. This woman joked meanly for pleasure.
I wished for Es to stand up, take a swing at her.
But I knew better. I watched as tears filled her eyes. She would rather take that blow than return in kind. Partially because Es knew she could not match the veil. No, Es was not that kind of fighter. Nor was I. Still, as I watched, I wished for both of us that she would have swung.
Es rose with tears in her eyes, puddles gathered on lower lids that could easily yet be explained away for anyone close enough to notice. Of course her attacker knew she would never strike back. She had known Es would never return fire. It took us both years to understand that the woman had known that fact. Es was the one person she could attack with full knowledge she herself would be safe. Safe from Es and safe from any question from anyone else. This woman was given the trump card of cards. She would never be questioned and never be accused.
No matter what she did.
Es was horrified at this realization. Later she would hear it, in the voice of mockery at Es’s family heritage. And the joining of laughter of those around her.
Es remained silent. She never cried out for help. Not once. I watched as they turned away from her. At one point during the fight, Es lay in the mud. The woman and those around her ate their lunch. They stopped the fight. Never offered her a morsel, a crumb to eat. No water to drink. They seemed amused that although to the world they called her comrade, now they made sure she did not and could not eat with them.
She had been hungry. They had refused her. She had been alone in the mud. They mocked her. And when she was fallen,
she kicked at Es once more.
The one friend who could have helped her, came to her. She too had watched the fight but when she hovered over Es, she asked Es
“Do you know how weird you are?”
Es said nothing. Her friend did not reach out to help her stand. Es watched as they ate. In the dark of night Es heard their steps approach nearer to her. Now they came, all at once. It was a remarkable sight, the many against the one. Es was weakened, assaulted in every way a woman could have been. She lay in the mud. I watched as they came back, their bellies full of feasting but wishing more.
“Es!” I cried out. “Es, please!”
On and on. Es would not stop. She would get up, swing with varying degrees of strength, missing most of the time, once in awhile landing a strike square on. But they would nip at her. Her feet were bloodied as they bit and lashed. Es was unreasonable. We could have walked away, but no. She chose to fight.
She never answered me. But I waited. And I prayed for her safety. I had never seen anything like it in my whole life. Fruitless fighting for the beast of decorated righteousness. But it was more than that.
Not one. Not one saw anything wrong with their attack upon her. Not one. Not one reached out. Not one.
The woman and the others….changed. I saw them look at her a bit differently, softer maybe. Es saw it too. The drying blood of her wounds crusted on her skin. The attacks had ceased. Es stood in her mud, a body length away from the woman and the rest. I froze at the sight, my mind racing forward with imagination wondering at what would happen. They would not expect her to reawaken the battle and she would. They would not expect her to remember the unforgettables which they had already forgotten.
As Es brushed off the dried blood. Her wounds, I saw were not completely healed. New blood trickled upon her skin. The woman and the rest smelled her perfume, a delicate iron protein signal for vulnerability.
As quickly as was the brush of dried blood, the trickling of new blood and the awakening of the woman and the rest, was as quickly as the moment the earth seemed to turn. Behind the rocks stalked a beast larger than the woman and the rest.
Sometimes I would wonder at Es’s collection of memories. Es knew the beast and the beast knew her. As quickly as I recognized the possibility that she had summoned a compatriot, as quickly as my body sighed in relief for the first time in ages, was as quickly as I became aware that this was no compatriot of Es’s.
“Es!” This time I screamed. “Es!” For the beast was coming for her, the smell of her blood awakening both the beast and the woman with the rest.
The beast with the fury of truly, I do not know of what, came, outstretched arms, clasping into its own dust storm for Es’s flesh. The woman and the rest, greedily clawed at the same air, not wishing to share the prized prey they had beaten, dirtied and outnumbered. But in the storm of dust and rubble and in the sounds of too many noises of greed and territorial roaring, Es dove.
As quietly as she had fought and as quietly as she ever was, in the middle of the greed and revenge, in the middle of misjudgment, lies and false righteousness, she escaped.
Es, unaware of her placement in the shadows of cross hairs of crossfires, dove into the clay; its chocolaty thickness reminiscent of her Jewish grandmas homemade old-school malteds. Clamping her lips tighter and tighter she nuzzled into the nether regions of the earth.
I stood dumbly. “Es,” I whispered in silent prayer. “Es.”
We left them there, the beast and the woman with the rest. They stood fighting over mud in the middle of dirt and noises of greed. They never realized we had left. What they had prized all along had simply and quietly…
Es looked like hell. And I never ever say that word but there was none other to describe. After all this time it had taken another monster, a bigger beast, with a hunger as equal to the woman and the rest, to free Es.
“Come on,” she finally said. “No Es, we cannot get back to the tree this way.”
I was writing numbers for research on a piece of paper at work with computers all around me. “Careful. Careful, Steph,” I kept reminding myself. I printed careful numbers. I checkmarked then cautiously proceeded through a list. After a lifetime of years and only a few years of realization that I was being careful. Cautious. With the simplest parts of jobs, procedures and life, I was desperately cautious.
That’s when it hit me.
“I think I could look stupid. There is no reason for this, Steph. This task does not require it. You are plodding, Steph.” I was slow, methodical and extremely accurate. I could have cried had I the time. “I think this makes me look stupid. This is stupid Steph. Quit. Quit it. Quit this. Stop it. Quit.”
Go, Steph. Go faster. Go on.
Now sometimes it is the most trivial of tasks which are welcome cognitive warm-ups. But in my case that is an excuse. The only reason I kept my brain cautious was out of fright. I would like to say that I never knew that before today. That may or may not be true. Even if it is, the bigger truth is that never before today had I ever made myself feel safe enough to do something about that nauseating and unnecessary habit. Not until I was writing numbers, feeling perfectly safe.
In the past weeks my buildings and my lessons tangoed with each other in the most wicked and telling sort of dance.
I returned to court for the third time to resolve a tenancy issue in one of the buildings. A person may be nice, beautiful, kind, smart and all those lovely gooey adjectives – it means nothing in a court room. You might say I have been learning new lessons. First an appreciation for law, the detail of our legal system and the resultant strengths upheld by such a system. I think every halfway intelligent person goes through a period of time when they imagine being a lawyer and those wonderful movie-moment speeches they would give – the summations and the stunning cross examinations they would unleash.
Guilty, your Honor.
The reality is much different. And in all the court cases in the world this one, mine, is known, at least in the state of Wisconsin, as being one of the nitziest – nasty, detailed and not exceptionally high on meaningfulness or on legal desirability. It is like the sewer of legal matters.
Ongoing. Dirty. Unglamorous. And no way around it except through. And I better learn it.
Esther, to me, was always the ballet madame. She has taught me with the harshest, swiftest lessons. Here we went again. No way to go except through. So I kept going.
Since the end of April this situation has overwhelmed my life. I let it. I did this to myself – allowing my life and my business to be compromised and to be dirtied a bit. During the course of the steps along the way, I had to serve people with papers. Turns out there are certain ways to do it – certain ways which are acceptable and legally meaningful. Nice does not matter. Besides the fact that a person can write the papers themselves – there is specific language which must be used and online resources.., but there are ways to serve papers. Certified mail. What is the true definition of ‘certified’? Certified means someone must sign for the mail upon receipt. Registered mail means that the mail is ‘under lock and key’ the whole time in transit, in delivery. And then there are the legal definitions of ‘posting notice.’ What does it mean to ‘post notice’? A person may be able to post the paperwork. The surest of ways is the hiring people to serve the papers – process servers and law enforcement.
Then I learned that people do not always come to the door when they see a uniformed individual. I learned who is defined as able to accept papers. Did you know, for example, that the law defines it acceptable that anyone over 14 years old may accept the papers? Did you also know that there exist people who will state that they will send their nine year old daughter to the door rather than accepting the papers themselves?
Frankly, I wanted to barf at the suggestion of adults sending children to the door to accept legal papers in order to avoid implicating themselves. (Please forgive the language.)
Yep. It has been a lesson.
I finished work Tuesday at nineteen hundred hours. I needed to check on the buildings then run one errand. Earlier in the morning the court granted the formal eviction. In my true life’s fashion the process took twice in the same morning. I arrived at the courthouse, checked in unnecessarily at the clerk’s office then walked in to the courtroom with my plastic container of four copies each of billing statements, leases, Five day Cure notices, and Fourteen Day Termination of Tenancy notices. I nervously chatted with the deputy who arrived behind me as I had grown a bit paranoid that each time I was in a courtroom, the officer seemed to appear. ‘No,’ he assured me.
The judge and clerks entered the room, but no tenants, the respondents or defendants in this case. I was declared the court eviction, damages awarded and twenty one days to amend the damage claim. My plastic container and I treaded softly out the courtroom, grateful. Relief. I made it out the door, into the hallway and at most, ten steps into the womens restroom which was tucked into the northern most corner of the building before I sobbed. I cared not about my tears but tried to keep a lid on the sound. It was over.
I still needed to work. I had to get to work. I straightened myself up, checked my make-up, then opened the door to step into the hallway just outside of the first floor rotunda. My eye caught a figure pacing alongside the railing of the second story rotunda. A distinguishable figure, my tenant had mistakenly waited at the wrong courtroom.
I walked back into the first floor courtroom, still emptied of any respondents, plaintiffs, defendants and petitioners. The court staff and judge and deputy waited for any representatives in any of the cases on their docket to appear. The sight of me was not on their schedule.
“Excuse me.” As soon as the words left my mouth, my brain was already in court with my soul. “Why is it, we are always in these situations? Who else does this?” The soul inevitably responds, “Yep, this is how you earn it. It’s the only way. You don’t look back. You do it as right as you can.”
“Excuse me. I believe my tenant had gone to the incorrect courtroom. He is upstairs.” If there was disbelief in the whole scenario I would not have been wise enough to know it. I had no clue what I was doing. In the months which had past I had not known what I was doing, but I knew I wanted to learn. I knew I needed to read those state statutes and understand them as best as I could.
The judge sent the deputy upstairs to escort my tenant to the courtroom. And we began again.
There were moments in the past three months with the court actions, filings and paperwork when I would read the counter claims of my tenants. They would barrage me with text messages from family ‘representatives’ and family members. Ridiculous statements but they admittedly frightened me. Their words and claims caused me to retrace my leases and communications. Months. Days. Repeatedly.
“Wait. Wait.” A tiny voice in my head. “This makes no sense. But they said it. They stated it. They wrote it. People do not just state things about another person. People do not do that without reason. Oh, I must have done something.”
And I retraced again. Steph. Stephanie. Steph. Stop. What are the facts? Stephanie, what are the facts? I was not going to run to someone for advice. I wanted to figure this out.
Stephanie. It is not true. Look. You have your paperwork in front of you. Here are the facts supported by external sources. Besides, Stephanie, you know you.
My tenant seemed opposed to the necessity of a court eviction. I insisted upon it. The judge granted it. Now it was truly over. Face to face, fair and square.
Before I ran that errand, I needed kettlecorn. The darkening clouds should have been foreboding but instead seemed welcoming. I have had some aspects of my life always wired such as the availability of my favorite slightly sweet popcorn at the local drugstore, always at its special ‘two for’ price. Even so, I wrestled with the necessity of stopping when all I wanted to do was check on property then get home. The darkened clouds now tumbled overhead. I would not have to think as I grabbed my kettlecorn and favorite sparkling water (also, by the way, always at a ‘two for’ price). Grab, pay, run.
I walked across the parking lot with the nudging of light raindrops to hurry my shopping. But upon entering the drugstore I saw the drugstore clerk with the best shade of red lipstick. Now I know there are better shades – I have tried them. But this one I knew would look acceptable on me and I would actually wear it.
I was running back to the Jeep in a cloud unleashing downpour. I laughed but mused at why on earth I felt it necessary to succumb to my popcorn urgings. Mmm, I sat in the Jeep, warm and drying myself with my old sweatshirt as the rain pelted the roof. I laughed as I experimented with my new red lipstick. As I approved myself in the mirror I saw why I sat there. I cried at the sight of the courthouse across the street. Almost a half day ago I had learned. I had earned a legal declaration. I had learned.
About me, woman.
The lollipop fetish has now transferred to gum chewing and popcorn eating. The weight gain has thankfully stopped. I have come face to face with my lack of self-care on many fronts.
In the midst of all the legal work I also came face to face with a memory of December 2014. I had perched myself on a bench alongside the courthouse rotunda. I was fairly certain I had every lease, every receipt, and every letter I had sent to my tenants in my plastic container. I had given up on briefcases, rolling suitcases and chic totes. I just wanted to be prepared and I could never be certain that I was prepared enough. I had even begun to transcribe the text messages I had received. I had completed papers for a restraining order. I was in the middle of hell. Again.
I had gone through months of hell – my marriage was broken, the distress of home life was unraveling and going through the necessary blowing apart. The violent honesty..
In the fall of 2014 I was also going through a certain kind of hell where I was working. At the same time, my marriage was broken and my home life was in the midst of the violent honesty necessary to blow apart. Two and half years later as I sat on the courthouse rotunda bench I put together a piece from that time – an event that had never quite made sense but the trauma blinded comprehension. The guilt of divorce and shame of failure had clouded it further. Ironic for the memory now, in this past week.
Funny how a memory can change you. It changed everything. I had sought, praying for the reasons why people did what they did to me and reasons why I let them. This one detail washed that need away.
With red lipsticked lips, I sat, crying in the rain, under the seemingly proud face of a certain courthouse building.
Remember, Stephanie. This was your lesson. Stephanie, you knew the facts. Stephanie, you knew your head, you knew your heart. You stopped the intrusions. You stopped the assaults on your being – physical and otherwise. You did not ask for any of it, but you did allow it.
I sat in the rain, smiling with tears at memories.
Five hundred years ago people used lavender to scent the air, perhaps only masking the odors of plagues and dark sicknesses of soul and body. Five hundred years ago mankind not only wrestled mindfully of good and evil, not only waded through it all,…no, five hundred years ago it was a world of thought and change in which the worlds best minds dove into the sewers of humanity.
I needed to walk outside. The normal office work days of nine hours grew long in the late afternoon. As long as I can get outside, I walk outside. The annuals of the manicured gardens are at their summer’s fullest. Rarely are there lawn clippings or branches left on the grounds. It is not perfect grounds in which a person feels ill at ease among perfection but a welcoming comfort of care. I walked among the smells of sun warmed sidewalk concrete and the warming sugars of pine sap. That is when I saw the perfect pine cone. I picked it up, remembering.
Es had a budget, like the other teachers, of near to nothing. That is almost a rule of thumb in public schools and doubly so in parochial schools. “That’s okay,” was her mantra. “There are plenty of scraps to make do with. Art. Math. Literature. Computers. We have plenty.”
Es waited, but she realized the project would really be up to her. The end of October was nearing. You cannot celebrate Halloween in a parochial school, at least of this denomination. That’s okay too, she figured. Once in a while she missed a good old-fashioned frankenstein or a witch or superheros, but she had her fill of hatchet bearing zombies with syrupy faux blood. Still, why should her students miss the celebrations of October, especially since one of the most famous and vibrant celebrations of their particular church was on October 31?
Es planned her teaching unit on Reformation, surprised that no one joined her. From the beginning of the school year to the end of October, Es finally realized that no matter how many letters home to parents requesting sacks of scraps of fabrics or pine cones, she would need to provide the supplies. That’s okay too. Es was a parent. She knew the stresses. At first she thought it was her failure, a testimony to her personality which had never been known to be strict, cruel or harsh. She only expected good behavior out of her students. She expected what she gave them and they returned as such. No she would would just announce the project, a celebration of Reformation. If her seventh and eighth grade students wished, they could dress up in a period costume.
Admittedly Es was smug on the whole idea. Faith? Pfft. “We are not just going to sit around and learn about faith. Nope, we are going to live it. We are going to make it come alive, love it as it does and oh yeah…have fun learning about it too.” Plus, no one under her charge would miss all of the hoopla of the end of October. She could describe ‘Hallow’s Eve’ until she was blue in the face. Or, she could have a Reformation Party.
They were going to have Reformation with Es. G~d would smile upon them, carrying on about reformation. Now a person might wonder about how much could one do and how can one teacher engage the minds of seventh and eighth grade students with a religious holiday.
“Hmm. You didn’t know Es, now did you?”
They made lavender sachets of purple and ivory fabric scraps tied with ribbons of lilac, filling them with lavender scented carpet powder. Oh, there were the standard stations of church window coloring and readings. (She had to have some calming stations too.) They made dirt cake worm cups (crushed Oreo cookies with gummy worms) to symbolize The Edict of Worms. Es tread carefully on the line of religious teaching. Formal Bible study was not her strength nor was it her job. She aligned her subject matter to compliment and weave with the children’s religious studies.
Only one student showed up in costume. That’s okay. But not one lavender sachet became a projectile or pseudo-hacky sack.
Es laughed and carried on with them as they listened to music from five hundred years ago, eating worms and smelling of lavender. She also noticed that their hallway of seventh and eighth grade lockers never smelled better.
Smiling, I picked up the pinecone, naturally beautiful but still imagining how precious it would have been three years ago as part of a Christmas art project. I rather enjoy it now, placed among photos and collections and computers at my work desk.
I think I am going to always remember. That’s okay. I am safe now to remember.
But I also I think I am going to teach myself to move faster.
Let’s see. I have not wished you happy Memorial Day, Happy Summer Solstice, Happy Ramadan, Happy Fourth of July or Happy celebration of Saint Thomas (I had to throw that one in the list… he was the doubter, most likely the ‘pain in the derriere-type disciple. you know the type always asking questions and needing proof, lots and lots of proof.) Hmm. No comment on any of the aforementioned except that on a tangent, please check out the painting by Caravaggio, ‘The Incredulity of Saint Thomas’.
But I can wish you happy summer and not be late in my sentiments. Despite marketing ploys pushing the school preparations earlier and earlier, we have yet to reach the midpoint of ‘summer proper’. The heavy rains fed the forest as I have never seen with the most ample spectrum of green. Spruce green has been blued from the abundant washes of the sky. Forest ferns plump their feathers in emerald plume blankets. The oaks and maples adorn themselves in their finest greenest of green tuxedos that they themselves forgot were stored away for such a summer.
Not a touch of red or yellow. Green. Mother Earth herself has served up a special recipe salad upon which our eyes may feast.
In this abundance I have found myself at a very daunting phase of life. Sounds a bit like hooey, yes? It is hooey. Nonsense, to put it gently. But it is my hooey and my own unique way and path and I am going to learn my lessons if it takes me the rest of my life to do so although I pray everyday that that is not the case because I have other things to do and I would really like to evolve as a human being, keep educating myself and I have goals plus i would really like to have some fun and mischief in such pursuits with meaning. There. If I am going to do one run-on horrible sentence denying that I was ever a Language Arts teacher, I might as well make it a very very good run-on sentence.
Seriously though, in this daunting phase of my life, I am really not so daunted except that the life I am making for myself, the life I need and desire is far different than I ever imagined. There are no magic doors to go from yesterday to today, from heartbreak to nirvana. I paused for months, exhausted at the years of turmoil. Until I realized I needed to change. Then I got tired again. And more life happened.
And then I finally did grab the hands of those women I had been…
I own two buildings. The Esther building has taught me realities of property ownership – some lessons I like, some I do not, but all of the lessons were desperately needed. I am – unfortunately and fortunately learning this summer about the legal system, small claims court and state statutes (Chapter 704 ‘Landlord and Tenant’ in the Wisconsin state statutes). That part of this summer still unfolds to a story best left for another day.
The Matthias Building is its own source of magic. Such romanticizing would probably not be recommended in business school, but it is sure required for the long haul of renovating the building from ‘saving it’ from demolition to opening the doors to the public as a business. The process seems now like the most natural in the world to me. Slowly and deliberately I pay attention to the building and to what it, me and my business are becoming. I always thought it would be faster as it seems to be for so many. I imagined going from near-demolition to grand opening in a matter of months. That was three years ago in my imagination and in my early plans.
I do not know what I would have done, had the path gone faster. I am grateful for the agonizing slow deliberation of ‘becoming’. There are moments to savor. There are the sweetest little routines – my kissing of the support beams each day and my dreams of flipping off light switches in the future.
About those lessons.
Alone on Main Street I peeled the protective sheets off the brand new four by eight foot windows. I liked to think of the process as nearly ceremonial as the smashing of champagne bottles on a ship’s bow during launch. Fifty to sixty-three windows, the count dependent upon if you are a contractor who is looking at openings in the brick or window manufacturer who considered the number of framed units.
I savored the removal of the film unsure why the world always seemed to hurry through celebratory moments or what I would consider modern feats of construction. These windows were installed in a ninety year old building in below zero December wind chills under deadline. They are, New York Saks Fifth Avenue type windows, they truly are. I would have kept the protection on the windows had it not been for the urging of the manufacturer that to keep the film on the windows any longer might make the eventual removal more difficult.
So I peeled. And through the days which followed, I was joined by people who thought the same of peeling of plastic. And that the peeling was joyously worth their time. And they helped me. They gave me their time.
Back to my story of this particular day.
I was removing the plastic protective sheeting a brand new window on a colder than normal summer day when he walked over to me. In a small town people know one another or so they think. Mostly we ‘know of each other’. He is a nameless individual to me although I know him by sight and rarely if ever do three consecutive days pass when i do not see him. I had heard he is someone to be wary of, but I discard those notions with no proof of my own and especially because I am very well aware of rumors about me although I have never heard exactly what they are.
So when a man and especially this man crosses the street aiming toward my direction, I took notice. He complimented me on my work, on my building and how wonderful it looks. He congratulated me on saving the building. For the second time in as many weeks I replied with words I had not used in as many years.
“The building saved me.”
We spoke a bit longer, not stretching that unspoken etiquette of conversation length among strangers nor violating any boundaries of tradition between man and woman. In fact he was oddly cool with even cooler of parting wisdom. “You must guard against fear. Against doubt. Against wondering.” I know I squinted my eyes in disbelief. He caught the expression. “You must stay focused on your dream. Wondering will not help you focus. You must not fear. You must not doubt.”
I stood there in disbelief, unguarded and undisguised in the nakedness of this new truth. (A bit of sudden uncomfortable revelation on Main Street, if you know what I mean.) I stood stunned with plastic wrap in my hands. Although he seemed as curious about me as I him, he did not wait for any responses I may have had for his inquiries of my plans for the building. No, he had come to deliver that message. In his satisfaction he strode off, determination in his wave and backward glance.
In the weeks since I have twisted with my own breaking that addiction to wondering. I had wondered what a new relationship would be like. What would it be like, to have someone desire to hold my hand? I would wonder at the why’s. What have I faced the times I have faced?
Sound goofy, but if the horrifying experiences were not enough I found that I was using the posing of questions and my curiosity not solely for increasing my understanding. No, I was lying. I had been using the continual conversation to search and rescue my past so much so that I could block out my present. I nifty little mind trick, if I say so myself. I could torture myself over and over with the past and the wishes and dreams which were its fruits so that I would not have to think or especially, I would not have to let go. I would not have to let go of pieces of myself chained and locked by the misdeeds of others in a time, place and reason of their own choices.
I was confronted with a new opportunity for faith. I gave up wondering and wishing. I replaced them with action. I replaced that agony with effort to give myself a patience and silence I have never known of myself to my own self. And I battled it every day to finally arrive at a day when I can once again write.
(Please insert long, drawn out ‘ahhhh’ here.)
About me, woman.
Now that is a bit of caveman title. Oh well.
Many years ago I smoked cigarettes. Loved it. Not proud of that fact but it’s true. The passing of my father five years ago hit me hard. I resorted not to cigarettes but to the polite substitute in nicotine lozenges. More expensive in the short term but fairly acceptable socially as long as I did not run out of them. I had a little addiction problem going on.
Finally my sense of economics and disgust in myself pushed me to give them up. I felt the removal of the lozenges was a fitting physical manifestation of the removal of wondering and wishing. The whole process caused a replacement of wondering with action and a replacement of nicotine with gum and lollipops. I was exhausted with uncertainty and an extra twenty-five pounds. Daily I struggled with myself, weaning myself from habits of comfort. But if a fight was necessary than a fight – even with myself – it was. I could feel my body relaxing without the constant zap of succumbing to the wave of chemical addiction. Still, my muscles and brain need to stimulate themselves without it for the first time in five years.
I have written daily almost my entire life, but never had I so frequently as my life from 2011 to 2016. I wrote in conversations with people I had hoped to talk to, to people I had imagined and to people I had hoped would care enough to listen. The only person I found to whom I was not honest was myself.
I look at those daily entries. No, that is not true. There are some yet which I cannot yet read. With caution I have begun writing the story of Es, the undertaking of my bucket list item: the writing of a novel. I began with a simple narrative weeks ago after writing in my head. As a treat I started one of the character developments only to fixate so much on her name I have changed it a half dozen times. I write. I wrote. I declare it all awful.
And then I start again. I have learned to love the process of recycling effort and learning. (That’s a fancy schmancy way of saying I fail a lot but I do not give up!)
Swimming in the Rain.
All I wanted to do was swim. I had worked over ten hours. Twice this summer I did not even care enough about a swim suit. Shorts and t-shirt. River.
In the rain.
In the sunset.
I remembered how much I loved to swim.
Thank you continuing the journey with me. I do not know why but I have become accustomed to my own process of retrograde. I have found little comfort in the process which is comparable to the drawing back of the bow. The drawback feels like failure yet it is never failure.
“Mmm.” Giggled. “Mmm..” I giggled again, muffling my noises into the crevices of tree roots which I called ‘home’. No mornings shocked me awake. No mornings kicked at me or startled me or threatened me. No, the morning sky teased my eyes to open with the softest morning lullaby of its own; a prayer as soft as the turning of woolen summer blankets, turning from deepest to softest light.
I rolled my hips over, to pull my body away from its nuzzling safety. My lips needed their morning kiss of sunrise warmth. I scooted in the dirt to prop my shoulders between the arms of the rooted tree. My face I could lay and my cheek I could rest upon the scratchy hide of bark, between trunk and root, those toughened spots which were the tree’s since its sapling days, those spots which stood through winds and barricaded against the banking of winters’ snows.
I watched the sun stretch its light into the sky with the boldness of duty and assurance of necessity, but not of its own design or decision. It was the sun. Each day and every day. With each stretch of the sun’s light, my cheeks would flush and sweat would gather on the nape of my neck. Yet I never moved. I flung my thigh over the tree’s exposed root to share the morning’s heat. And in the toughest, weathered trunk spot, in the spot where roots hold unto the body, there I lay in sweated heat of morning and the safety of nature’s most immovable.
I slept through the morning, into midday when the songs of birds intensified from the welcoming of daylight and first feedings of the day to the confrontations of territories and chattering of flirtations.
My body urged me to stand, to stretch, to feel its own weight. The stiffness of sleeping muscles begged now to be woken.
I could barely face the reality of what I was going through. I could not write the words I needed to see nor the words I needed to use. I would write in my mind because I could not write it, not truthfully. Many weeks of many days passed into the dedicated simplicity of months into years. Those minutes were dreaded, I am ashamed to admit. How precious each moment alive really is, but I fought each moment of sameness, of nothingness.
The nothingness wrote into a journal all its own. I realized it did not matter to the world, whether I slept or not. It did not matter and I did not matter. And the more I did not matter the more I wished not too. Loneliness evolved into a blessed aloneness.
I don’t know about any of that except that to follow my gut instincts meant something quite different than I ever imagined, if I was to seriously pursue my life. I became aware that even with the paths of those I admired, I still could not borrow their path. At best, their experiences were references and their existence were promises all their own. But to find my path meant finding my own.
It meant my acceptance and my ownership of who I was, who I imagine myself to be and who I am.
Psst…(That is all a bit of ‘poppycock’. )
I realized I had been given a gift….I have been given my life.
When the rains came, I tucked myself beneath the tree’s roots, into the sand warmed by the growth it held. I dreamed of tropical currents scooping me into whirlpools of lighted warmth as I drifted further from all I had known. Within those currents my mind would float, safe and soft among the birth of lapping waves.
No matter the weather I would walk each day not admitting to myself that I was searching for reasons or yearning to find a path which I could follow. I had ventured this far and still I was looking. The minutes of not finding grew into hours of not finding which grew into months.
I grew grateful for time and failure. I finally listened to time’s lesson. I finally stopped looking. I no longer poked at my memories of the forest’s deceptions and the open savagery of the field.
I started wandering. I found pieces of paths from travelers – portions of journeys which were marked by breathtaking views of the river or the bubbling of springs which fed the river.
I stopped pitying myself over what others had done to me.
I started to appreciate what I had overcome.
I walked hours to the river, to a spot hidden on its banks but marked only by the slight smoothing of paths woven into the surrounding brush. I would lie upon the polished river boulders to smell summer sun opening blossoms and heating sands and rocks. I reached my fingers to feel the water, interrupting the gentle swirls of current.
I was finger to finger with the water and face to face with someone I had not looked at for months.
Startled we stared with equal curiosity. Her deep blue eyes reached out with a kindly sadness not wishing to be interrupted, but smiled nonetheless. Not stern and not wild, but with a character flaw which wished for dosages of both.
I smiled to her as she to me.
“Es.” We both jumped back at the sound of our forgotten voice.
I sit now on another of the tree’s roots. The trees stature and the girth of its hardwood trunk testified to its age. It stood straight, its perfect fingered branches reaching in all directions to the skies. It marred the ground cover with hints of the network of roots which had battled every inch of ground cover, itself a sustainable enough depth, but the uproots and the cliff I had just climbed were reminders of a deeper layer of granite, beneath this cradle of fertile soil. Those main roots grew, year upon year, searching for necessary elements, then planting each year’s growth firmly, strongly, always preparing for the following year’s journey; a journey which might be inches far below sunshine so that the tree it supported could grow a foot.
I sit now on such a root. My journey ended. My journey ended! I knew it as soon as I sat upon the root, there, under my tree. Oh, I know, my mind played with all the wisdoms of the past few years particularly the one which states that every ending marks a beginning. The truth of wise words seem to escape me. All my imagination and faith may have prepared me for the journey but nothing seems to adequately describe the feeling of sitting upon the root, under my tree with full knowledge that I was at my journey’s end.
I had imagined myself bathed in glowing angelic pomp and circumstance with strains of majestic symphonies. My tree deserved it. My journey deserved it. I am unsure if I do or not. But my arrival was anything but majestic. Days before I had caught the sight of myself in a puddle. My hair was amiss and my skin dirtied from too long without a decent bath. I am taking great comfort that there is no one to see my current state given what my appearance was days ago. No, I am a mess. Here I sit, throned under my tree. No gown. No crown. I am a mess.
So much has happened so quickly, so much change, so much good. These changes are meaningless to the world in which I see and operate within, yet they are so significant to me. I have grown used to, my overemphasis on things and moments which are scattered among the many of such moments on the world. Why would they mean anything to anyone else?
The biggest change is a return to what I had felt many years ago, but through the journey I really have traveled had caused me to both set aside my loftiness for survival and to grind away at them further. There had been no happy medium. At the time I did not realize it, but I had been surviving. And I had truly made it through an incredible amount of danger.
Last Friday I celebrated my company’s third anniversary. There was no party and I could barely celebrate it at all. I had been sick with influenza. In this particular season that meant exhaustion, a sore throat and nagging bodily aches. But I did celebrate. In the evening, my son and I set up soft lights at my Matthias Building. We walked around, talking, as a mom and teenage son would if they could. There is a bit of unreal surrealism to it all, as though there is so much life in a moment that a person’s mind fights with its own perceptions. Snippets of jokes, hums of tunes, bits of half-conversations we continue from weeks ago, a blessing we have always shared between us, discoveries of the world and our own particular twists of newly gained knowledge. Sometimes we just ‘B.S.’.
The mystery of the building did not dull with the new windows. No, it shines now just as the diffused street lights reveal more of the inside of the building – more than has been since it was first built ninety years ago. My son and I stood within the bricked comfort in full awareness of a ninety year old mystery, an unknown relative that one could not imagine not ever not knowing. The softened street lights, so near were we to the street yet just as far away, we talked and celebrated. We lit and rearranged the canisters as my son sang Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.” All that I had felt passionately about, my dream, my journey, my son: A three year journey. A lifetime.
These past two Saturdays I grocery shopped where no one knew me. After years of financial worry, with my new careful freedom, I shopped. I cried both times as I enjoyed the feeling of gathering foods for health. Both Saturdays I cooked, filling my home with smells of garlic and meat and starches and vegetables. Okay, now the truth is last week I overcooked chicken breasts and this week I overcooked asparagus, but I fill my home. Carefully. It is divine. Just as years ago I could not understand how in the world I had forgotten how much I loved looking at the stars which filled the skies outside my home; last Saturday I was overwhelmed with the scent of cooking. I always cook for holidays, but there is something just as grand as cooking for my son and I. No visitors, no calendar-marked special occasion other than the sharing of a meal between he and I. And the wafting, fresh smell of an kitchen coming alive.
I work in the customer service area of the claims department for a health insurance company. Or it could technically be the claims area of the customer service department. (I am never really sure.) I talk to people from all over the world, really, but I also adjust claims. It is a sidelight to the job which I adore. This past Saturday I learned something which I do not know when the last time I did it. I taught myself. It was a moment that, again raised my inner ‘bawl-baby’. Tears. Luckily the placement of my desk area is such that no one can see me. Through the years, I have learned a great deal of my life lessons and even my passionate pursuits in a rather ‘under the gun’ style of learning. I then repeat. Over and over. In my years as a teacher and even as a parent, I am the patient one. I am known as gentle and kind. Funny how that never translates to oneself. Saturday I was patient with myself, splitting efforts between teaching and learning, guiding myself, step by step, line by line. Reasoning. Correcting. Again. Insert truth here: It is quite possible a gift that no one is near me and I tend to speak softly. I literally talked myself through the problem.
At fifty-one. I taught. I learned. I kept at it until I could reason through it. I kept at it until… I “had” it. I had done something with myself that I had not done. I was kind. I was gentle.
At fifty-one, I learned.
Here I sit. In full bloom as the dirtiest, messiest daisy in the garden, my tree and I. My journey ended, but the story just beginning.
The Wind gently reminded me, “You learned. You learned.”
Thank you! A kiss for your journey, and love for your days...
The root’s hunched back betrayed the nursing of the ground from which it sprang. It had not grayed from exposure. The rain and sun had varnished it to the softened, worn polish of tanned leather cowboy boots. It could have been part of a grand piece of furniture had it been properly stained, but like those boots, it was made to live wildly on the side of this cliff. I could not trace where among stones above my head it arose nor could I estimate how far it tunneled beneath the slope, now at a tapping point six feet behind me and equally distant below me. I studied it, wondering the time a tree artery could actually be living in such a state. It had not died, but withstood the constant tugs of winds and weather and animals which surely must have rested under its umbrella arm. The gap between root and ground was wide enough for me to wiggle through, but not without scratches.
I looked up the slope, (the cliff, Steph, it is a cliff), imagining it covered in snow with perfect moguls of fluff and grooves for speed. Terrifying fun on skis. My eyes tracked up and down, tracing and retracing what it would have been like, tearing down, with the unpracticed grace and daredevil only possible with the skied legs of youth.
I looked up again at the patience of my tree, waiting, after all this time, for what, I did not know. For me? I did not think so, but I imagined so. For birds? Well, that is what trees do. They flower leaves of green and they grow. And then they sleep. They wait. They stand. I wondered how old the tree was, as I laid my hand upon its rooted arm. The grain of its wood, like veins from an exercised arm, flowed from where it popped out of the ground, under my fingers, past me, then returned into the ground. I wondered if its fingertips ran to the orchard trees, the soldiered scrub oaks with whose tops I was now at eye level.
All around me, there was so much to feel, so much to take in, so much. I moved my hand away from the dirt, away from the ground, to lay it upon the root. I realized I did not need to crawl in the mud, although I could and I did not mind it. I did not need to claw or grasp tightly or cling. Somehow the fact that I could stand on a cliff-like slope full of stones and edges and mudslicks seemed rather confusing, challenging my simpleton understanding of physics, laws of gravity and elementary common sense. I tested the ground for firmness by gently tapping my toes until I was hopping in an unceasing crescendo. I was the ‘Fool on the Hill.” But the slope never gave way. Somehow I could not get over that I was indeed standing upright, glancing up the slope then down, up to the sky then back to the grounded oaks. I focused back and forth, distance across the field grasses then up to the tree like a child waiting for the parental nod of approval.
But there I was, standing, hand over hand, walking, foot after foot, up the side. I smiled up at where I was going, then looked back at where I had been. I was now slightly above the trees, at an even level with the top of the bank of the other side. The field grasses waved. The forest was only an outline of black between those grasses and the blue sky.
It was quite ordinary and plain, yet full and stunning like crispness of fresh green beans, the taste of sun and the odor of water and fresh air. And yet there was not a touch of green anywhere.
Then the Wind came.
I love the Wind, the spirit of the earth’s own device in the wind of seasons and change, the lullabies of air pressure and clouds and earth – the reminder of forces and energies..
But at this moment I did not want to feel wind. I had enough to contend with, I thought. I was grateful for my balance. I was grateful for being ‘right here, right now’. I was grateful for feeling gratitude. But that is the beauty of Wind. It comes because it comes, not because I want or do not want. It comes because it must in a duty only it knows, according to dictated orders only it can hear. The spirit of wind..
The sun was the marvelous sun of warmth, of spring’s promise. And this Wind was the reminder of cold. If there had been snow it would have been a blizzard. But there was no snow, no rain, but the sun kept shining. I could have ducked into the side of the cliff, between the tree’s arm and the ground. I could have tucked myself out of the Wind. But I only guarded my eyes. I had crawled through field grasses and navigated through the terrors of the woods. If I could stand, even if it was on the face of a cliff, why would I not stand?
I could either keep walking or I could duck away. I would be colder walking. I would be warmer if I stopped.
I looked to see the orchard trees to see if this Wind would tear them apart. No, they were protected, only slightly twisting and only their fingers rattling slightly. It was then that I realized they had been planted; they had been an orchard. They had been part of a garden that I could only get an idea of. It was all that had remained. The idea of the garden. Someone had once tended to them.
It was nice looking back, looking at the trees and how we had danced. I placed my left hand further up the root. I side stepped, not believing yet I could possibly walk up the cliff. After all my mini-calculations and the most bizarre set of tests, I still did not just walk. I still doubted.
The Wind kept on with the force of winter, stinging and biting at my face. But I did not turn away.
I smiled, turned to face the cliff, placed my right hand upon the root and took my fourth step up.