Tag Archives: family stories

Sweet Mystery of Life: the scent of possibility, naming, responsibility & choice

Essay by Janet Grace Riehl

This is the 75th post for Creative Catalyst.

The Power of Possibility Photo by Janet Grace Riehl

The Power of Possibility
Photo by Janet Grace Riehl

“If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible… what wine is so sparkling, so fragrant, so intoxicating, as possibility!” ~Søren Kierkegaard, Diapsalmata

 As the holiday season recedes, a time devoted to reveling segues to a time of resolutions. As we know resolutions for a new year or at any time require resolution.  I want to write about that.

Where do we find this resolution in the reaches of our being? How do we greet the New Year with courage and vulnerability? I want to write about that.

But then, I also want to write about:

The power of possibility. It would be so easy to write a tips article: 15 Possibilities for the New Year. What are yours?

I also want to write about:

  • The power of naming. It would be so easy to write an article challenging you to investigate how the power of naming holds you back and propels you forward—both in your work and in your life.

It would be so easy.  But sorting through this list of possible themes—and so many others—is not so easy. Possibility confers power, yes, but to harness that power requires responsibility. The pull of putting possibility into form requires choice. Oh, goodness, how can we possibly resist the pull of the plethora of possibilities that beckon? It would be so easy to write a tips article: 15 Possibilities for the New Year. What are yours? What choices will you make?

But, I don’t what to write a tips article. Is it possible to write something thoughtful and insightful that brings together:

  • Possibility
  • Naming
  • Resolution
  • Choice

I don’t know. Let’s see. I’ll do my best. That’s all I can promise.

Oh, wait! I also want to write a review of “Birdman” which I saw last night and continues to reverberate within me. So many layers! So many themes: art, identity, reality, social culture, sanity…that’s a Master’s thesis for literature, philosophy, sociology. This is just a column. Isn’t that asking a lot of a column? But, that would definitely bring together possibility, naming, resolution, and choice.

Heck, that’s beyond me. I want to write about my father. That’s always a crowd pleaser. I could tell the story of how my father views my smart phone.

1) A thing that finds out what you don’t know when you don’t know what that thing is;

2) A jukebox

3) A mystery

4) A magical something that does things impossible to understand, but grants wishes.

Before our New Year’s family brunch he sat in his lazy boy recliner with his eyes closed. Is he asleep? Is he dreaming? Is he ruminating? These days it’s hard to tell because he can barely see. Then, he eyes opened, and he said, “Janet, have you ever heard the song ‘Louisiana Purchase?” It’s from the light opera ‘Naughty Marietta.’ I haven’t heard that in years.”

I hauled out my smartphone and inserted a quarter into its jukebox app. I found the song he wanted and held the phone up to his ear. His face relaxed; its lines of character and strength softened and purred.

I could also look up it history on this piece of equipment that grants his wishes.

  • The operetta opened on Broadway in 1910
  • Which led to the classic 1935 MCM film version that first paired Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Never heard of them? Look it up on the time machine, and listen to their fine duettes.
  • I could find out its plot and the history it was based on as reported by that invaluable tool “Wikipedia.” (Don’t forget to donate!)

 Set in New Orleans in 1780, it tells how Captain Richard Warrington is commissioned to unmask and capture a notorious French pirate calling himself “Bras Priqué” – and how he is helped and hindered by a high-spirited runaway, Contessa Marietta. The score includes many well-known songs, including “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life”.

  • I could find out if “Naughty Marietta” continues to be taught, performed, and sung today. It does! It’s a staple of light opera workshops even today.
  • I could look up the lyrics of “Sweet Mystery of Life” one of the best known songs from “Naughty Marietta.”Ah, sweet mystery of life
    At last I’ve found thee
    Ah, I know at last the secret of it all
    All the longing, seeking, striving, waiting, yearning
    The burning hopes, the joy and idle tears that fall
    For ’tis love and love alone, the world is seeking
    And ’tis love and love alone that can repay
    ‘Tis the answer, ’tis the end and all of living
    For it is love alone that rules for aye
    Love and love alone, the world is seeking
    For ’tis love and love alone that can repay
    ‘Tis the answer, ’tis the end and all of living

    For it is love alone that rules for aye.–Music and lyrics by Victor Herbert

 Now I think that’s all I have to say for now about the power of possibility, naming, resolution and choice.


Creative Catalyst is written by Janet Grace Riehl. She does her best to choose among the possibilities and impossibilities of her life. Sometimes she can name them. Sometimes she responds to them and chooses. See her blog-magazine Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century  with its mission to create connections through the arts and across cultures.

4.5 Daddy Care: Tending His Creative Fire

By Janet Grace Riehl

The deal is: My father at 96 is a strong spirit in a weakening body. Sight, hearing, hands, heart, lungs…are all giving way. Yet, he carves, sings when it suits him, and…he writes. Here’s a recent conversation.

Photo: Erwin A. Thompson by Janet Riehl


P = Pop

J = Janet

Pop sits slumped over at the dining room table behind his computer desk.

J: You look like you’re in a Brown Study (http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-brown-study.htm)

P: Very. I’ve finished Part Three of “March 1st” I’m at loose ends.

He’s been working on “March First” for a year; it’s about the day the mortgage payments came due during the Great Depression.

J: Grace Madison thinks there’s a Part Four.

P: Yes. Probably. But I don’t know what it is yet.

And so,  I start to think. What can he write on while he’s waiting to know if there is a Part Four and what it is?

 J: You pulled together all the letters, and poems, and stories about your brother Willard. And, we have stories about Uncle Ralph. What if you wrote more about your relationship with Ralph? Especially about how you worked together fixing things? You could start with the family story of “Between me and my brother I know everything in the world.” Then you can compile and expand on stories you’ve already written like how you fixed the furnace on a Sunday by making the part you needed.

P: Maybe, but I feel like I’ve already done that.

J: You have the individual pieces, but you can bring them together into one piece. The way you’ve done with some of your other family portraits like “A Woman Before Her Time” for your Aunt Mim. Or, what if you wrote about your brothers together? I haven’t seen you do that. It would be interesting to see them side by side.

P: Uhh.

J: Uhh.

This, in fact, is the one he goes for first. It takes about a week. It starts out, “It seems to me that I have written this all before, but Janet thought that I needed to put it all together in one place.  I will try.”  Last night he handed me what he had written and asked me what I thought.

J: It’s good. I learned things I didn’t know. As  many years as I’ve heard and read these stories there continue to be little twists and new details that shine a whole new light on the point of the story and how it fits into the family story. But, I think you could do even more with this story of your two brothers.

 P: Like what?

And so we talk about what that might be. Both Willard and Ralph were extremely talented and bright, but lacked opportunities and education due to family circumstances and the Great Depression. There are sad elements in both stories that feel too delicate to put in print. We agree, and talk about what can be comfortably said. My father’s motto is “Let history be kind.”

Now we’ll see which (if any) of my other suggestions he might take up.

1) My father was a pipe-fitter for the gas company. He uses pipe as a building material for a handrail up the back steps, lamps, mother’s African Violet tree.

 J: This could be funny. It’s trendy now to use pipe in art. But, you’ve been doing it for decades. Write about pipe as a character.

  • How did you meet it?
  • Get to know it?
  • Do with it?

2) The Dumbest Ideas I Ever Saw (This is one of his favorite phrases.)

This one hits pay dirt. He begins to tell me a long story which I take notes on. “It doesn’t suit me what I’m going to tell you. There is this thing called progress. Sometimes it isn’t. It started in 1931 when they put in the pipeline to our house. It was Virgin Soil. We never had a leak in our good galvanized pipe from corrosion.” And off he goes to tell me about what a dumb idea it was (in 1965 when he worked for Union Electric) to use anodes to heal up the holes already in the pipe.

3) History of guns on Evergreen Heights (our place) and in the family. For sport, protection, and farm use.  Your Grandpa Riehl, Uncle Frank, you, and Gary.

That’s a pass. We talk about it briefly.

4) “Line Out”

J: Daddy, what’s the origin of the phrase “line out” that we use to mean get organized to work?

P: (thinks) It must be related to the nursery business.  (Evergreen Heights was an innovative working horticultural business.)

5) You’ve put together photo-documentation books and extensively documented E. A. Riehl’s horticultural work here on the place. But, what if you looked at that in an even bigger context? (I draw concentric circles.)

  • Life of the family
  • Neighborhood
  • Community
  • State Nut Growers Society
  • National horticultural world

What about an essay that draws all this together?

And so it goes. Now? Time to take the clothes out of the drier and put some food on the table.


Pose questions about practical creativity; give ideas for future cycle themes; and join in the dialog. Learn more about our audio book “Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music.” Become a Riehlife villager.