Welcome to my village: the power of small gestures

By Janet Grace Riehl green handEssay and image copyright 2014

Mine is a life composed of small gestures.  The days of sweeping projects are gone, or at least on pause. If I’m not dreaming big, and thinking big.     If I’m not out there Being Somebody and changing the world, is that okay?

 

Back on our home place on the bluffs of the Mississippi I kneel at my father’s feet to take off his socks, roll up the legs of his pants, and bring the warm bucket of water to soak his feet. We have known each other all our lives. My brother is the only person still alive who has. Now 65 years in I watch him fade towards death. He is so fragile, and so smart that he knows just how fragile he is. I am his youngest and will always be so. Will he leave us before his 99th birthday next November? It hardly seems possible that he can. And, it hardly seems possible that he won’t. I’m happy with the small gestures in caring for my father: the jokes and hugs amongst the rounds of medicine, breathing treatments, meals, and putting on those damn compression socks after we soak his feet.

 But, Pop! Why can’t you be happy with a life of small gestures? With so many books published and so many significant things accomplished, could we cool it with the projects already? Just leave me in my land of small gestures.

Back in the city I roam a neighborhood that has become my village. Villages value small gestures. Public space becomes intimate place when the world becomes your village. I live in one of the most beautiful places in St. Louis—the Central West End. It’s near Forest Park (the site of the 1904 World’s Fair) and the Chase Park Plaza, an icon of elegance built in the 1920s. Historic houses and tree-lined streets. Lots of places to spend your money.  I keep my money in my pocket while soaking it all in.

I greet everyone who looks as if they want to be greeted. In villages all over the world, we do that. I believe that greeting—a nod of the head, a smile, a ‘morning, a casual pleasantry or banter in passing, even a brief conversation about that cute little dog straining on the leash—makes for a safe neighborhood as much as a watch group.

A village is a place where we affirm our oneness and acknowledge our differences. A village is a place where we exchange the generous impulse to share ourselves with others—to connect. Public space yields up its intimacy as I greet the street sweepers and they reply, “Keep on rockin’ that hat!” “It’s spring!” I say. And they agree, “Yes!” The hat in question is a “Janet Special” bought from a thrift shop, and then trimmed with a hot pink velvet ribbon held together with a gold paperclip posing as a buckle.

At the side door of the Chase Park Plaza the doorman gives me a hand jive lesson (we’ve invented some of our own).  I pass the flower arrangement in the middle of the black and white marble floor to greet the concierge from Barcelona in Spanish. Then down the stairs to my health club where the receptionist—a young man who coaches a soccer team—greets me.

“Good morning, Miss Janet.”

“Good morning, Mr. A. J. Did you win last night? Are you up to ten, now?”

Later at the upstairs coffee lounge I meet the executive pastry chef who hails from Nigeria. He imparts a surprise benediction on my day as he shares his wisdom to me, his newfound friend, who he may never see again.

The lilt of West Africa wafts over me. “We must give thanks everyday to God—or whatever we believe in. It’s good for our souls.” He understands about village, and his words stay with me.

Yes, my life is composed of small gestures that earn my keep in the world. By turns I’m an honorary auntie, a mentor in passing, a tour guide, a teacher, a problem-solver, a friend. I pour tea and break out my really good chocolate before drawing mind maps on newsprint spread over the floor. I listen to my friend and bring all my consulting experience to bear. The stuff I used to get paid big bucks for I now give freely. It’s no less valuable for it. In the midst of a family heavily populated with super-high achievers (a world class physicist, a nationally influential lawyer in mortgage lending) it’s hard not to compare.

Yet, I relax into my world of small gestures knowing that out of these I’ve created a life worth living. Out of these I’ve become a woman in my prime with time to just be.

Art fun

I love Wednesday. It’s my museum day. Yes, I go to look and appreciate, but I do more. I share.

I’m a docent with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Once a week, sometimes more often I share the glory of art through the ages—with third and fourth graders. Always I assure them that they are going to have fun, fun, FUN. And they do—so do I.

A museum docent shares her joy in art with Houston third graders and their chaperones

A museum docent shares her joy in art with Houston third graders and their chaperons

For some, it’s a return visit. They do have fun, see new things they can share with their families on the next visit. But for many in this most diverse city in the nation, it’s a brand new experience. Now there’s the real fun! For them, and for their docents. I hear gasps, I see eyes open wide. Best is the laughter! The fun.

Part of the fun is learning. Learning how art—and I’m talking all forms here—can help us learn in other subjects from math (Who sees the triangle?) to science to literature. That’s what makes this booklover have extra fun.

I usually tote around at least one book, sometimes more, so that we can find how reading makes us appreciate learning about art. Maybe it’s a ferocious picture about the Hercules myth or a poem about “The Winding Road.” Most appropriate since books and art are, indeed, the road to learning.

Youngster or grownups--a great way to learn about art.

Youngster or grownups–a great way to learn about art.

My scholars are not the only ones having fun and learning. I am. Anyone who took a look at my Amazon shipping records would know that, or think that I have a house full of third graders. I’m enjoying the art picture books so much I want them in my own library. These books are more than just for kids. It’s a great way to explore art for grownups. The fun book When Pigasso met Mootisse taught me more about the competition between this duo than many a learned lecture.  And speaking of Pigasso, I mean Picasso, Cave Paintings to Picasso: the Inside Scoop on 50 Art Masterpieces gave this art history novice enough knowledge that I could follow along in another learned lecture.

If you want to learn lots about art—go volunteer at your art museum. Talk about having fun. Yes, let’s talk about having fun, fun with picture books. Fun with kids. Fun with art. Fun, fun, fun!

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What's your favorite? Some students love the glorious Turrell Tunnel of Light, others perfer the escalator!

What’s your favorite? Some students love the glorious Turrell Tunnel of Light, others prefer the escalator!

 

( This entry also appears at http://trillap.blogspot.com/ )

Navigating the Desert

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The photo above certainly does not depict me–I won’t even try this rocky section which my friend Rosemary attacks with ease.

Having grown up as I did with very little bicycling experience, I pretty much started from scratch a bit over a decade ago.  As a kid I spent much more time riding a horse than riding a bike.

An early incident when I was about five years old was not an auspicious beginning to my biking career.  Somehow I thought it would be a good idea to see what happened if I touched my front tire to the rear tire of my older brother’s bike as we pedaled along the caliche ranch road.   Trust me–not a good idea.

And I’ve had to overcome some serious fears related to clipping my biking shoe cleats into the pedals.  It just isn’t intuitive to unclip first and brake second.  And it isn’t pretty if you brake first.  (If you’re old enough to remember, just picture Arte Johnson riding the tricycle on television’s Laugh-In and you’ll get the idea.)

My friends have taught me important basics about riding sandy singletrack trails through the desert of Baja California Sur, lined with spiny cactus and agave plants.

the cardon corridor

The best advice seems to apply to life as well:

Look ahead.

Look where you want to go, not at the obstacles. (As my friend Julie says, “Look past the icky stuff.”)

Keep light hands on the handlebars.  Don’t oversteer.

Continue pedaling and keep your chin up.

These simple tips all sound so easy in theory, don’t they?

But out on the trail, on the journey, on our separate paths, they’re sometimes hard to remember.

cholla chant

And new trails, as shown below in the Sonoran desert of Arizona, sometimes bring new obstacles:

rattlesnake on trail

But our friends there have shared secret glories with us as well.

McDowell yellow poppies

single hedge hog bloom

Along biking trails and along life’s journeys, the views, especially when seen with friends, often renew, strengthen, and inspire us.

McDowell trail

How could we not be thankful?

Writing Practice:

What obstacles is it better to look past?

What tips do you have for navigating the deserts in our lives?

For quite a few years, Chris Bradley taught English and creative writing to high school students in the Texas hill country. She now has time to travel, garden, ride horses, and mountain bike, but she still misses those discussions with students and continues to be thankful for all the lessons which they taught her.  Chris blogs at www.practicingwonder.com
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Photos by Chris Bradley.

Second-time Serendipity

(This blog entry is an undated version of a column that appears in Story Circle Journal, March, 2014)

“You can’t read all day unless you start in the morning,” a friend recently advised. Many a day that’s advice I follow happily. I’m not a reader who takes a book and reads from start to finish before looking at another. No, what I’m reading depends on the time of day, my mood and even the weather.

I read across the spectrum. I may escape in some light detective fiction just before bedtime, but daytime hours are likely to find me deep in biography, travel or serious fiction. Although I enjoy them all, I do have a favorite genre—memoir. That’s why I was more excited than usual a few weeks ago when a book package appeared by the front door. A new memoir to review for Story Circle Book Review! Saturday morning I braved the rain to head for the Black Hole Coffee House to sip a latte while I read The Secrets of the Notebook: A Woman’s Quest to Uncover Her Royal Family Secret by Eva Haas. Actually, it was three lattes. The book demanded to be read straight through.  Check at  http://www.storycirclebookreviews.org/reviews/secretsofthenotebook.shtml and see what I think.

I read all sorts of memoirs, not just for reviewing but for pleasure and learning.   I’ve just finished taking a personal writing class; we are used a book of essays (Book of Days) by Emily Fox Gordon as a source for our writing prompts. I became intrigued by the author’s style and bought one of her earlier books, Are You Happy? It addresses memories of her early childhood. I stepped right into her Mary Janes. Or mine. For as I read about her life in Williamstown, Massachusetts, I remembered the little girl in Amarillo, Texas half a continent away.

While reading, I started a list of those suddenly-surfacing memories, a patchwork of little Trilla’s life. And, no surprise, the earliest memory I have is about a book. My sister is in the brown chair reading from an orange story book. I’m tucked between her and the arm of the overstuffed chair. I look at the pictures and wish I could read too. She starts to read the story about a chicken to me, but she’s only in the second grade; she gets tired of stumbling on the big words. Mother promises she’ll read it to both of us as soon as the ironing is finished and supper started.  I know she’ll keep her word, but I want to be able to read it to myself right now.

A few days after I enjoyed this memory, serendipity struck. When I’m not reading or writing, I often spend some time trying to simplify our lives. Part of this involves going through boxes unopened for, sometimes, many years deciding what we can live without. That day I opened yet another box marked “miscellaneous papers” to find not papers but old books.  Near the top was a bright orange, well-worn book, The All About Story Book. The book! What was it doing here? When I’d remembered it, I assumed it was long gone, now I held it in my hands. I turned crumbly pages until I got to 37 and found “All About Miss Fluffy Chick.” I sank down to the concrete floor and read it.

Later, I went to the computer and did some detective work and found an affordable copy. Guess what my sister can look forward to for her birthday? If I can wait that long. She knows she’ll likely be getting a book, she almost always does, but this one will be a real surprise.

Now we’ll see if she reads my blog. Nan, give me a call and you won’t have to wait ‘til your birthday to get your All About Story Book!

 

PS–Sorry no pictures. I have a new computer and haven’t mastered that part yet. I’ll add them when I learn. Ah! Life’s little challenges.

Daddy Care: He labors in the grove of service

 

Janet and Pop

 

Pop leans back in his green lazy boy, a spoon of oatmeal balanced on the blue
Wedgwood bowl. His eyes drift to the cardinals flitting around the feeder slung from the Magnolia tree. The world is covered with ice.

“What the weather like today?” he asks.

“We didn’t get the deluge of snow they predicted but no one will be able to get up our hill. I’ve cancelled Hospice and your caregivers for the next two days. We should get a good melt by Wednesday.”

His face softens, and his head drops. Air puffs from his lips, and the oxygen hums.

“Don’t go to sleep on me, now.” I lean forward to place my hand on his knee.

He starts awake, and looks down at his oatmeal.

“What are thinking about?”

“A time I tried to help someone and it all went wrong.”

“Ah. Yes, I can think of a few of those times, too. You’ve dedicated your life to service anyway you cut it. The army is called the service. You served your family. You kept expanding the definition of your extended family. Anything we do a lot is bound to have some real humdingers.”

I go to the front room to fetch my book “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary”  from the shelves filled with family books. Grandma Annie’s “On the Heights.” Great Uncle Frank’s “Runes of the Red Race” and “Poems of the Piasa.” Bunches of books Pop wrote.

I go back to the table and I open the book to the poem “Treasure Chest” in the section about my father. 

 He labors in the grove of service.

Remembers flat tires, repaired.

Loans proffered for crises.

Then his somber face glows

with the light of a thousand-watt angel.

I look up at him to say, “That’s my father.”

 Memories of good turns returned

is a treasure he counts with care.

His treasure chest

of good deed stories is a full one.

 Bureaucratic stupidity

circumvented to better humanity.

If there is a fetching young woman

in the story charmed

with his wit, courtesy, and good sense,

why then, all the better.

“That’s my father,” I tell him.

 War stories as WWII platoon sergeant

overflow a section of his treasure chest.

Sure, my father earned a Silver Star for heroism in battle.

A Purple Heart commemorates his war wounds.

But memories of gratitude

from men he trained mean most to him.

 His eyes, slightly filmy from cataracts, mist over

as he tells battlefield stories not shown in movies.

Lying in a base hospital bed,

recuperating from shrapnel wounds and gangrene,

Pop met a man he trained.

“Sergeant Thompson,

I’m alive today

because of the things you made me learn.”

A buddy shivered next to my Dad in a foxhole.

“Tiger,

when I’m in a foxhole with you,

I feel safe.”

“You’re crazy!”

But, Christ! That’s really saying something.

Shells whizzing over-head and grenades exploding.

How could anyone possibly feel safe?

 Men in the barracks

brought in a local French girl to have some fun.

She needed money and food for her family.

These GIs could provide both.

They passed her from bunk to bunk

until morning came.

Then these men were stricken

with amnesia and sudden blindness.

She needed to get off the post fast.

My father, not part of the evening’s fun,

escorted her to safety

as if ushering his dance partner

to the edge of the floor

when the music stops.

Quiet sits between us when I finish reading.

“That’s from your poetry book?”

“Yes.”

“It’s a good one.”

“And that’s you, Pop, as close as I can get it.”

“Yup.”

He raises his spoon, and eats his oatmeal.

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Janet Grace Riehl is the author of “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary,” and the audiobook “Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music.”  You can read more stories by and about her family Erwin A. Thompson at her blog Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century. Just use the search box and an amazing archive will pop up to keep you entertained all Sunday afternoon.

Letting Images Do the Talking

In Ron Carlson Writes a Story, the novelist and short fiction writer talks about how he looks into his writing to be sure the images are doing the work and the writer is not overriding that work with summarizing phrases:

Outer story, the physical world, is also its own effect, its own reaction, its own comment. Outer story shows us things, and as the outer story grows and gathers, we can begin to see the constellations of our meanings. There is no need to comment on each facet of a scene. The sunset went from yellow to purple in a moment, and Jonathan took a step back, stunned. (Cut stunned.) The sunset went from yellow to purple in a moment, and I thought it was fabulous. (You know what to cut.) I’ve heard people talk about this by quoting Sergeant Friday:  “Just the facts, ma’am.” This is apt, but there’s more for the writer: this frees us from having to interpret. Our mission is to write the physical scene as closely as we can, knowing that our intentions lie just beyond our knowing. Write, don’t think.

In writing memoir, letting images do the talking is just as important as in writing fiction.  You must recreate how you experienced the places, people and situations of your life experiences through the senses. Where you were and what was happening to you originally came in through your ears, nose, tongue, skin, and eyes. That is what the reader needs, too, to experience your world and draw the conclusions you did.

An exercise I give myself is to look into my drafts for sentences where I’ve summarized. Then I write more to see what happens if I open the sentences up to the senses. Instead of saying, “I was always stiff at Grandmother Sarah’s house,” I would work to provide sense information from the outer world:

I always sat in the red overstuffed mohair sofa, my feet never reaching the floor, my attention on the white lace of my fancy Sunday anklets above the patent leather of my Mary Janes. The pudgy fingers of my left hand crumpled and uncrumpled the lace that covered the sofa arm I sat up against. I always noticed the dirt under my fingernails, black as my shoes, against the white of Grandmother’s lace.

As writers, we must learn to rely on the outer world for the images a situation provides, rather than relying on thoughts and summaries. Sure, those will come into our writing, at times, but using them sparingly, as Ron Carlson says, makes them all the more powerful. Remember a place where you were extremely uncomfortable. Take the time to write a paragraph naming what came in through your senses in that place. When you read what you wrote, you should feel that discomfort rising up from the specifics you’ve included. Then your reader will, too.

I Need Practice

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We get better at what we practice.

I’m not a golfer, but I’m pretty sure you have to practice in order to improve your swing.  You have to do so repeatedly in order to develop muscle memory.

In the same way, I have to practice looking, seeing.  I have to practice writing.  I have to practice noticing the connection between what I observe externally and what is going on inside me.

I tend to pick up the same worries I have recently resolved to release and then place them firmly back on my shoulders.   If that is what I practice, I get better at that; I get better at ignoring the things that calm me, wondrous things.  Over and over and over, every day.

What kind of worries can be displaced by wonder?  What worries do I have?

The same ones you have. The same ones as everyone else.

Why practice wonder instead of worry?

Because it’s possible to walk past the following elephant tree and NOT see a dancing woman.

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Because it’s easier to drive past a Harris hawk and not stop to admire her fierceness.

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Because it’s easier to be upset by a mockingbird waking us at 1 a.m. and singing through the rest of the night than to feel blessed by his visit.

Because it’s possible to see the red shoe someone dangled on the spiny branches of a palo verde tree along a sand road and mentally censure it as litter rather than laugh aloud at its ludicrous placement.

palo verde pump

Because it’s easier to stay in bed than to watch the sunrise.

What does letting go of worries have to do with wonder?  For me, everything.

And I need the practice.

Writing Practice:

What do you practice? 

How do you let go of worry?

For quite a few years, Chris Bradley taught English and creative writing to high school students in the Texas hill country. She now has time to travel, garden, ride horses, and mountain bike, but she still misses those discussions with students and continues to be thankful for all the lessons which they taught her.  Chris blogs at www.practicingwonder.com
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Photos by Chris Bradley.