"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Monday, May 26, 2008

Fresh Towels

"Before I never would have used a towel twice. I wouldn't even have considered it."

A conversation in a laundry room. A curved red laundry basket sitting on the washer between us, full of one man's week's worth of laundry. Jeans. Shirts. Underwear. Socks. Two thin grayish towels. All to be thrown in together. Washed together. Dried together.

The towels bother me. Remind me of childhood towels I vowed never to be subject to again. I'm thrown that this man of all people is using these towels.

"Do you need towels?"

My tone is friendly, neutral - I hope. I'm trying not to sound big-sisterly or pushy or critical.

"No, I have new ones in my car. But these are perfectly good. No sense in getting the new ones out while these still work."

I think about this man's life before. The one in which he could take daily fresh towels for granted. I think about his life now. The one in which he can't quite yet allow himself the luxury of thick, bright new towels - let alone fresh towels daily. 

The towels I've provided him for this visit are new, white and fluffy. They came from our mother's things. I didn't want them, but couldn't resist the snowy folds and inviting plushness. Glad to have new towels that would be used only for company. My habit as a host has been to provide one set of clean towels (bath, hand and washcloth) and the expectation that they would be used for the entire visit. 

It's what I do with my own towels. One clean set a week. Washed every Saturday along with my sheets. Hung out to dry on my clothesline when the weather allows. Replaced as soon as the selvage begins to fray. My version of responsible luxury. 

I feel rich stepping out of the shower into the purple folds of the biggest, lushest towels I can buy at Sears. I love burying my face in the sun-soaked loops of terry which in turn gently wick away the drops of water clinging there. These enfolding cotton wings help keep at bay the memories of thin gray towels that barely soaked enough moisture to dry an eight-year-old body. Limp pieces of mildew-smelling cloth that were shared among four kids and washed only when a trip to the laundromat allowed. 

I wonder if this man standing next to me needed daily fresh towels for the same reason I need new towels. I don't ask. I do hate that at this point in his life he lives with the same towels from the childhood that cost us both so much.

Somewhere in the middle of this conversation, I become aware of how small and controlling my generosity has been. The small luxury of daily fresh towels is a simple easy gift to give. The absence of judgement and expectation, a much larger and more difficult gift to release. 

I want to drape this man in clean, new layers of absorbent Egyptian cotton. Towels that will absorb the losses that have brought him to this point. Towels that will cushion him from a world that will not see the man I see, but will only see his labels. I want to be a person who can love him - who can love period - with a heart that can give freely. Whether it's giving towels or time or trust. 

Sunday, May 18, 2008


The fragrance is sweeter than lavender, cleaner than gardenia, bursting with  the not quite filled promise of summer. Summer mornings saturated with the scent of  lilacs growing on the edge of a wild expanse of lawn provided respite from a childhood where days were nightmares and nights were dreams. The dew on the grass, the sun birthing into the sky over jagged distant hills, and the wild glory of that smell promised life and hope and the possibility of something other. These magical flowers made Mommy smile. They gave us something to love together when it was impossible to love each other.

The summer I was pregnant with Kathleen, alone and frightened in Spokane - the Lilac City - I walked the neighborhoods to escape the hellfire heat of my attic studio apartment. I walked to escape my life. I walked to escape the approaching day when I would no longer be pregnant and someone else would be my daughter's mother. 

For two months I walked. Most of that time I was kept company by the ancient lilacs lining the picket fences lining the sidewalks surrounding beautiful old homes. The bushes would offer me their blossoms over the fences and I would bury my face in the sweet purple heads. I breathed in all of that promised summer joy, and offered it to my unborn daughter. Often I would find myself walking away with a flower still in my hand, not quite aware of having broken it off. I would spend the rest of my walk inhaling the early summer air through its perfume.  

I've planted a variety of lilacs in the sprawling yard of this home I've lived in for sixteen years. There is an historical lilac garden not far from us - one of my favorite spring outings. Every time I visit, a baby comes home with me. Often these plants are twigs with only a few leaves - truly infants - but they come from heirloom stock. The variety is breathtaking. Every shade of purple possible. Pinks. Whites. Two-toned. Fragrances ranging from heavy perfume to light spritz. I always seek out the ones whose aromatic songs take me directly to the lilacs of my childhood summers.

I planted one of the bushes in a flower bed on the front of the house, thinking it was just until it was big enough to put somewhere more suitable. I wanted to keep an eye on it, and not lose it in the wilds of my on-a-whim planting areas. That was five years ago. The bush loved that spot, and last year gave me a handful of lush, deeply fragrant light lavender flowers. This year it exploded in purple glory.  And gave me this gift:

The first very hot night of the year. Unseasonably hot. I've gone to bed with the windows wide open, the sky still light. I lie propped against my pillows, lightly covered by a store-bought quilt that I don't mind sharing with three of my four cats. A breeze tiptoes into the room as I bask in the perfection of the moment, carrying with it a perfumed message from the lilac bush just outside. 

Summer will always come. Even in the midst of pain, uncertainty, a dangerously shifting landscape, summer will come. I promise.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Swimming Lessons

Toby swam for the first time a little more than a week ago. He's six months old. As a Golden Retriever, he's supposed to love the water. And he does. He's chosen how and when.

 He's splashed along the edges of the river since our first walk to its rocky banks a couple of months ago. The banks are constantly changing as the level of the river shifts according to whatever the forces of this spring mandate. He seemed to always know how far in he could go and still be in control of all four feet on the shifting bed of the river. 

I would toss rocks in, trying to entice him to go deeper into the river. Toby loves rocks and would always get excited about the splash and the possibility of a dive to retrieve whatever I threw. But if the rock went too far out, he would either stand and wait for me to throw one closer in, or he would take off in search of more entertaining games elsewhere. He was not going in to deep water, no matter what.

One Sunday, our first walk to the park where Toby could meet other dogs and people, we saw a family with a very small dachshund. The same river he plays in every day runs through this park - a couple of miles downstream from our rocky beach. He was tearing in and out of a great shallow eddy, having the time of his life. While keeping one eye on him, I watched the family next to me with the dachsie. The dad repeatedly picked her up, tossed her into the water, waited for her to swim back to him. She was shivering with cold and fear, her short black coat plastered to her tiny body. Yet he kept tossing her back in. She was a strong swimmer. I was horrified to the point of tears.

How many times in my childhood was I thrown into deep water and told to swim - or sink - on my own? How many times in my young adulthood did I fling my own tender self into waters way over my head and assume that the only way out was under my own power? At what point did I come to believe that the only way to learn to swim is to fight swift currents of frigid raging rapids from which I can find no footing? Alone.

Toby swam for the first time at six months. He was splashing in a shallow calm pool by the side of the river that we play in every day. The river races by us just outside the protected nook of our eddy pond. We'd graduated from rocks to sticks. His favorite game was to grab the stick I threw and bound out of the water and away from me as fast as the rocks would allow. 

I retrieved the stick and threw it again. This time my aim was off, and the stick went farther into the pool than Toby had been before. He tore into the water with all the power and abandon of a grizzly going after salmon. By the time he got to the stick, his feet no longer touched bottom.

And he swam. No fuss. No fear. Just like he'd been doing it for generations. Every time I threw the stick after that first time, he swam. Even if the water was shallow enough to stand up in. He swam and swam and swam.

This weekend I took him to the park again, to a place in the river where the current is stronger. He swam for sticks as though there was no current. Strong. Confident. Happy. He would have gone to the middle of the river to get that stick. My fear of both the river and his puppy-ness kept me from letting him go. This time.

My six month old puppy knows what he can do, and doesn't concern himself to do more before he's ready. He swims because he can and because it gives him great joy. He swims because it's fun. He swims like birds fly - he was born to it.