Our Breath is the Wind of Dreams

Dreams by Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Covered with snow.

To Breathe a Dream by Linda Doughty

Taped to my desk and handwritten on a torn scrap of paper, Langston Hughes’s “Dreams” reminded me each day to hold fast. I was a paraprofessional, working at the Chatham College Library. I would earn $10,050 a year, with scant benefits. My title was Technical Services Assistant. We worked in the back of the library, processing and cataloging books and other library materials. I discovered the wonders of OCLC*, stumbled over countless other acronyms, F-keyed my way through WordStar, found joy in mail sorting, quashed my disbelief at the bureaucratic snarl of invoice processing and budget review, and supervised docile undergraduate students. I also learned how to find thin books to stow in the middle drawer of my desk so that I could read. Assigning fund lines for payments glazed my eyes over and there were days when I couldn’t take one more call from a vendor. My peripheral vision was good and I was adept at pushing the drawer back in with my belly. I read “The Old Man and the Sea” this way.

I was demoralized. I was holding fast to my dream of becoming a professional flute player. I’d recently completed my Master’s degree in Flute Performance at Carnegie Mellon University but had no money nor confidence. A conducting student had attached himself to me and it took years to shake him loose. He wanted me to “put my life on hold” and support his career. I made excuses for him. He was from Argentina. He was Jewish. His ancestry was Eastern European. He had childhood trauma. Surely he would understand my desire for a more egalitarian relationship and overcome all these obstacles to understanding me. Love would provide clarity in due course, of this I was confident.

I decided that he should get his doctoral degree in orchestral conducting, in large part due to a series of unfortunate circumstances that resulted in him losing his questionably appointed job at Carnegie Mellon. Basically, his mother had an affair with the new Music Department Head, who hired her son, misappropriated university funds, and lost his job in less than a year. Since I worked in a library I had access to the materials that allowed me to research our next step. The University of Arizona had both a doctoral conducting program and a library school. It seemed sensible for me to pursue a degree in library science. Tucson looked to be an active arts community. I thought we would have many more opportunities in a smaller, western city than in old-monied Pittsburgh. He applied and got into their conducting program. Then I applied and got in as a doctoral student in flute performance. We would both be graduate teaching assistants. This was my dream. He asked me, “When are you ever going to start acting right?”

I dreamed my way into a successful playing career. I burned through a couple of marriages then dreamed my way into a better life. I dreamed a son, I dreamed a family, I dreamed a life with pets. I dreamed horses back into my life.

I dreamed of retirement. I dreamed of quiet, of still, of peace, of time filled with cloud shows, of butterflies on blooms. Covid-19 opened that space. I grasped the doorknob. I let go and opened my hands. I stepped through the door with gratitude and horror.

I’ve burned. I’ve smoldered. I’ve erupted. Not proud of that part.

Dreams don’t die. Dreams drift like clouds. Breath has a warmth to melt the snow. Brokenness heals and healing breaks us open. Our breath is the wind of dreams.

“I think,” Tehanu said in her soft, strange voice, “that when I die, I can breathe back the breath that made me live. I can give back to the world all that I didn’t do. All that I might have been and couldn’t be. All the choices I didn’t make. All the things I lost and spent and wasted. I can give them back to the world. To the lives that haven’t been lived yet. That will be my gift back to the world that gave me the life I did live, the love I loved, the breath I breathed.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Other Wind

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OCLC

Cowboy Church

I watched my left knee bouncing up and down. My toes were on the ground and my heel was jiggling. I wondered if the movement was becoming automatic and beyond my control. I had lost interest in the Sunday school lesson at my grandmother’s Methodist church. The teacher had proclaimed that animals “do not go to heaven.”  She said something else to me that I noticed but didn’t hear. When my parents came to pick me up after the service the teacher pulled them aside. I wasn’t quite out of earshot but I kept my indignation to myself.

The next time we drove to Colorado Springs to visit my grandmother she said that she had a surprise for me. She ushered my family into her small, two-bedroom apartment through the back door. Her housedress was light green with a busy floral pattern. She bent toward me, preceded by the aroma of Emeraude and Newports. “Give me a kiss!” she implored while shoving her cheek into my face. I held my breath and marveled at the softness of her skin under its fine veil of powder. “You girls sit here at the table while I talk to your mom and dad. I’ve put out a couple of carrots for you and here are the swords.” She carried a plastic container from the windowsill and placed it on the Formica table. “See how many you can get in there!” I hoped that this wasn’t my surprise.

It was kind of fun to pierce the carrots with the colorful cocktail swords. My sister and I kept it up for a few minutes but ran out of swords. We scooted off our chairs and walked into the living room. “Linda Sue, will you promise to put flowers on my grave?” My blood ran cold. I imagined myself in a frilly pastel dress, ankle socks, and church gloves. I carried a bouquet of white flowers. Shadows flitted over the casket, there to bid my grandma farewell. I couldn’t think of anything more frightening. I was eight years old and unfamiliar with the tradition of placing flowers on graves. My great grandfather’s funeral the previous year was open casket, but no one made me do anything. When we visited him at the nursing home he had spoken to me in a way that was not frightening. Seeing him dead was much less frightening than imagining grandmother dead.

I blushed and fell silent. My mother admonished me with a raised eyebrow and a hiss. I replied, “Yes. Will Margo have to do it, too?” There was some muttering about the baby sister and how she was too young. I resigned myself to the responsibility while hoping that when the time came I’d be old enough not to be afraid. My grandmother smiled and asked me if I was ready for my surprise. I nodded my head and hoped I wouldn’t have to do anything else on her grave. “Tomorrow morning we are going to get up early and go to the Cowboy Church at the drive-in movie theater. You’ll like that, won’t you? The cowboys will be riding horses and you can put the offering in the hat when they come around.” I heard the word “horses.”

*


The raspy words of Cowboy God did not impress me any more than the Sunday school teacher’s admonitions had. Granted, words had to battle to emerge from the drive-in movie speaker. The speaker clung to the rolled-down window of grandma’s new Chevy Nova. When the horses came around I strained to see. I watched the haunches of the yellow horse stop by the driver’s window. Dad placed the offering in the hat because I couldn’t reach from the backseat. The inverted Stetson obscured my view of the faces of both horse and rider.

“Oh, that was special!” I thought grandma’s exclamation was unwarranted. “We’re going to go to Furr’s now.” Furr’s was a buffet-style restaurant. I was a picky eater. There was a lot to choose from, but not much choice. In a whisper, I asked mom if Furr’s was a restaurant for old people.

Mother helped Margo and me through the buffet line. When we got to the end, the checkout lady said, “That little girl’s eyes are bigger than her stomach.” I looked at the sad beans on my tray. Mother replied, “It’s okay, she can eat what she wants.” Margo’s tray was laden with fried chicken and desserts. I then realized that the lady wasn’t talking about me. I watched the red Jell-O on my tray quiver and I wondered if it had taken on a life of its own.

Singed

When you first step out into the desert heat from an air-conditioned and overly cooled room, the heat envelopes you like a warm welcome. It feels good, like a dry sauna, soothing your aches, convincing you that maybe it’s not so bad. Then 30 seconds pass and you scurry back indoors, that is if you have half the sense you might have been born with instinctually reverting to the basics of self-preservation. Longing for the warmth can lead us astray, especially those of us unaccustomed to an environment waiting to pounce, poke, stick, bite or desiccate you at every turn.  With surprisingly little effort you learn that the Sonoran Desert is also waiting to once again feed you, protect you, shelter you and even provide you with plentiful water, but you have to make the effort to listen.

***

My husband and I had traveled to Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand in 2013 a few months before I began horseback riding again. Between jet lag, my short legs and a ridiculous need to prove that I could keep up with my long-legged husband, I went sprawling while stepping onto a ferry boat from Devonport to Auckland, badly spraining my ankle. The boat was crowded with afternoon commuters. Someone quickly helped me back up to my feet and someone else magically produced an ice pack. After we returned home I limped around for months, but I thought I was mostly healed by the time I started riding. I attributed the stabbing pain in my groin and tailbone to my recent fall and the fact that I hadn’t ridden horses regularly for over 30 years. Eventually, the pain lessened as I continued riding, but driving became more and more painful. I bought donut pillows to sit on. I swallowed ibuprofen, wondering whether I’d ever be able to take an overseas flight again because the pain was so debilitating.

I rode many miles of trails, traversing the desert on wonderful horses. The daily pain lessened but returned to wake me at night. Visits to my chiropractor and massage therapist brought fleeting relief, which turned out to be short-lived when I promptly injured my lower back during a yoga class in which the instructor tried to guide my body into a position it didn’t agree with. No pain, no gain, right?

I stopped riding when my mare died and my gelding was retired in 2021. I no longer wake up with pain in my back and hips. Or in my shoulders or hands.

Covid-19 caused many performing arts organizations around the country to cancel their seasons. As a professional orchestra musician, the pandemic effectively put an end to my career as a flutist, which turned out to be a blessing of sorts. Tendinitis had become an ongoing issue. By the time I retired, I could not come close to making a fist with my right hand. I can now. I still have to be careful with my hands, but so far, I can type.

***

Southern Arizona is hot again, searing Tucson in triple-digit heat. Every time I step outside, the desert lures me with promises of a warm embrace that can turn painful memories into dust faster than you can recount them. I long for the saddle and my chair in the orchestra. Sometimes I drift into self-pity: Woe is me! I’ve given up everything I love most! Then I remember how I used to feel and I am happy to be rid of the constant pain. I rest on this comfortable moment, listening.

Canter

By the way
strides fall in threes
marking their way,
four hooves

leave the way;
I recall hoofbeats.

I can hear: words prance

on heat spirals,
circling upwards. I hesitate to

say it. Each movement
begins anew and repeats
an earworm: horses

sing the chorus. Memory
a strangling anchor
I grasp: static
white noise, spilling over
the basin’s edge – urgency
swells, moves ribs
heels and hooves
tucks tail
Don’t force. The deafness is sounding.
What is sung: we are cruel
to be kind – we are wasted
on the horses, lost
in their thrall
sweaty backs melt into blue jeans
melded, unfixed wildness
up and through, both
unfound and flowing momentum
hearing the sound
ears forward
cupping the wind,
time and bodies are broken together
my kindness carries no song.

Pink

Makes you think

to consider pink.

Slime.

Blood on a tissue.

Baby blanket.

Hollyhocks.

Nauseating peeps.

Pink balloons float

against blue sky.

You’d think we could do better.

Yellow

Yellow is exuberance loosed

from green to bloom,

bucking in warmth.


Yellow is light,

bitter spice,

surprise, then delight.


Yellow is inhale or exhale,

spring or fall,

first or last.


Yellow is small sunbursts

penetrating eyelids,

I walk on life in process. 


Yellow is straining light

towards light.

I give up.


Yellow.

Blooming Palo Verde tree

On Strike

I’m on strike. I don’t belong to the Musicians Union anymore. Since Covid-19 slammed us in 2020 I have been fully retired from performing or teaching the flute. Even so, I consider myself to be on strike.

It’s been an ongoing annoyance to me when the name of a performing musician is not credited. I cheer when I see a televised opera production or broadcast concert that lists the instrumentalists’ names, and not only those of the conductor and the production staff. I have written letters to the editor when the name of a reviewed musician has been omitted, or credit has been given to the wrong performer. Open the program! And herein lies the problem.

I bought a partial subscription to the Tucson Symphony’s Classic series this season, now that we are slowly returning to in-person concerts. While my husband and I enjoyed the four concerts, the programs did not contain the names of the harpists, the extra musicians, or the substitute musicians. This practice began while I was still playing with the TSO. I was never a contracted player but I was a regular substitute and first-call substitute for most of those 30-plus years. My name would be listed because the program was printed for each concert, with an accurate listing of performers. I was paid at the same rate as the contracted players. I was doing the same work, after all!

One of the ways symphony orchestras appear to have decided they could save money was by printing programs at the beginning of the season and with more than one concert per program. The list contains only the names of contracted orchestra members.

Appeal to the union, right? That does no good if one is a substitute musician. Even though Arizona is a right-to-work state, I spent several years as a dues-paying union member because I wanted to support my fellow musicians. However, there was absolutely no benefit to me. If you are curious, there is pertinent information in these two linked articles.  

Appeal to my colleagues? I tried. One orchestra committee member told me point-blank that they had more important issues to address.

To be clear, I never was anything close to a “scab.” I was frequently called in to substitute and, quite frankly, cover the asses of colleagues who wanted to take a better gig, had a conflict with other work or felt they weren’t quite up to the task of performing certain repertoire.

I loved my work, but I’m old enough and wise enough now to love myself more. We won’t be spending our money or our time on many future Tucson Symphony concerts until credit is given where credit is due. While it may not make any difference within the organization, it will make a difference to me. Consider me an audience member, on strike.

Sand Rocks

If I heard “The Strawberry Roan” one more time I thought I might pull a hank of hair out of my own head. I absent-mindedly picked at the yellow crust of dried milk fat adhering to the spout of the beige Tupperware pitcher, stood up, and sighed. Teddi had told me that I didn’t need to put the milk back in the fridge since it was fresh, but I had wondered. She’d said they would have more tomorrow.

Milly was down for her afternoon nap, clean and sweet in a fresh cloth diaper. I’d gotten skilled at diapering a baby, and prided myself at never sticking them. I’d keep my fingers between their soft warm bellies and the diaper. If anyone got stuck it would be me. The diaper pins with the colorful plastic animals on the ends amused me. Milly’s had little yellow ducks on them.

“Hey, Skeeter! Are there any other songs that you like?” I asked, keeping my tone friendly, but cringing as he gently placed the needle on the 78 rpm disc that was spinning on the small, portable turntable. He was crouched over the record player in the middle of the living room on a spotted hide. His blond hair spilled over his brow and he tugged at the tooled leather belt holding up his slightly too large jeans. I plopped down on the pine log couch.  “Nah,” he said. “I like this one.” “What’s on the other side?” I asked, hoping to at least hear something else. “It’s not any good.” Skeeter looked up at me, concerned. “I like this song.” “Do you want to play a game or something?” I threw out one last gambit. I didn’t much like playing cards or board games, but even those appealed to me more than that strawberry roan. “Nah. I like listening to this.” I gave in, mostly. “I’m going to read my book. Do you mind taking your record player into your room?” I felt a little guilty asking. He reluctantly got up and glared at me over his shoulder, his little record player balanced against his belly, the power cord dragging. His bedroom was just off the living room. Asking him to close the door might be pushing things too far. After helping him plug the record player into an outlet in his room, I returned to the couch and opened to my bookmark in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The strawberry roan started bucking, again.

Before I could get engrossed enough in my story to tune out the renegade bronc, I heard the kitchen door bang against the wooden frame and boots heavy with spurs clank across the floor. “Hey!” Ron called from the kitchen. I got up to see what was going on. I hadn’t expected anyone at the ranch house. Teddi had told me that she would be back at 3:00. “Hi,” I greeted Ron, “how are things going?” Ron poured himself a glass of milk and then placed the pitcher in the fridge. “I’m just stopping in for a minute to grab a bite to eat.” Ron pulled Wonder Bread and some kind of meat and mayo from the fridge. “I need to head back out. We’re still riding fences.” “Oh, okay. And sorry. Teddi told me it was okay to leave the milk out.” I felt the need to apologize. “That’s okay, she don’t like her milk cold, but I do.” Ron smiled, picked up his hastily made sandwich in his wind-roughed hand, and opened the screen door with the other. “Thanks for watching the kids.” He held the screen door open with his foot as he grabbed his Stetson off the coat rack near the door and adjusted it on his head. “You are welcome,” I replied, a little envious, entertained by the more inviting thought of helping mend the fence line instead of listening to “The Strawberry Roan,” again.

Teddi arrived home promptly at 3, cheerily greeted me, opened the fridge door and put the milk pitcher back on the kitchen table, told Skeeter, who was still listening to “The Strawberry Roan,” to watch his sister for half an hour, gave me a handful of folded dollar bills and said, “Okay, let’s go. I’ll take you home.” I got in on the passenger side of the mustard-colored Chevy. “So how are you liking your new truck?” I asked as Teddi pressed down the accelerator and bounced us over a series of potholes. “I like it fine, but the color reminds me of calf scours. I would have preferred another color, but this was what they had. At least it’s a new truck.” Teddy zoomed over another series of bumps and I clutched at my collarbone. “Oh, does that hurt?” she asked. I replied, “Just a little. It’s almost healed.” I minimized the pain, but it did hurt less than it had. The raw ends of bone no longer grated against each other and were on the mend. “Eh, I just like to take the bumps fast, get over them quicker. I think you bounce less when you go faster, anyways.” “Maybe,” I said, gazing out the window as we whizzed past the sand rocks, blasted by the sun and wind, caressed and curved, pale yellow ochre against the clear blue sky. I thought of sick calves.

Bright Red Windblown Mane

Pale sunlight streams through bright red windblown mane.
A memory attends this pause in time.
My heart, my all soars high on this refrain.

My mind recalls a breeze of childhood pain.
Sharp wind-whipped mane enacts a pantomime.
Pale sunlight streams through bright red windblown mane.

A gallop through that field was near insane.
I feel the rush of that far summertime. 
My heart, my all soars high on this refrain.

She tripped, she fell and on the ground I’d lain.
I got back up and brushed away the grime.
Pale sunlight streams through bright red windblown mane.

It seemed beyond my grasp that she’d ordain,
I let her go and live beyond my crime.
My heart, my all soars high on this refrain.

A second act, I’m older, more humane.
My song continues, cantering in rhyme.
Pale sunlight streams through bright red windblown mane.
My heart, my all soars high on this refrain.

Sweet Al gazing out at his new pasture home in Amado.

A New Year Sestina

December rains called forth a new spring.
This is the way of the Sonoran Desert.
Yesterday, when skies cleared midmorning,
Tom hitched up the horse trailer,
and I brought forth my burnished chestnut horse,
rain-scrubbed and shiny like the proverbial penny.

I have spent many a pretty penny:
on a fancy brush to help remove shedding coats in spring,
on saddles and pads and blankets for the horse,
on supplements to balance the iron-rich hay grown in the desert.
I filled a bag with this hay and hung it in the trailer.
I haltered my horse, luminous in the golden light of midmorning.

It’s time to go now. Our midmorning
plan unfolds, like my checkbook, another spent penny.
Through the aisle of stalls, we promenade, onward to the trailer.
My horse walks with little hesitation, an easy spring
in his stride as we cross the New Year’s Day desert.
I marvel at the grace of this horse.

What is it about a horse?
It’s my good fortune to share another midmorning
in the light of this creature, a copper penny
vision framed by creosote-scented desert.
His hooves touch the rubbery incline, and he’s in the trailer,
reassured by my promise of another spring.

The door closes, held tight by a spring.
Since the days of the Iron Horse,
the Amado Ranch has existed. It’s our destination this midmorning
and the perfect backdrop for a historical movie. The trailer
might dramatize the settling of the American West, a time when each hard-spent penny
bought up land and the means to reshape the unforgiving desert.

But today, we drive south on I-19 through a refreshed desert.
Saguaros are hydrated, stately, and amused, arms embracing spring.
The sky isn’t falling. I’m no hysterical Henny-Penny.
Here is the ranch! Bienvenidos, my lucky horse!
His shaking hindquarters ease from the trailer–
his eye takes in the new horizon, distinct in late midmorning.

Spellbound by this expanse of desert, I see beyond and into my horse.
The confines of the trailer choked the brightness of midmorning.
Here, he fits smoothly and snuggly as a penny in a loafer. Eternal spring.