This is the story of the man who rearranged his life.

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IMG_20170723_223216_485Once upon a time there was a man who kept the whole of his life in separate compartments.  It was his daily task to inspect the compartments, bringing order to elements which had become disarrayed, inspecting, mending, arranging and rearranging as required.

 

It had been a gradual realization to this man that his life was compartmentalized.  Now, recognizing the extent of the compartmentalization of his life, he started each day with the recitation of a personal litany that had also developed gradually, the which he used to recall each of the steps in progression that led to the present situation of compartmentalization. He traced the beginnings to a time in his life when a current interest became so important to him that he could allow nothing else to take greater precedence. Very quickly, more and more of his mental energy was required to shut out other interests until, being the creative and methodical person that he was and not willing to totally abandon all interests in favor of the pursuit of just one, he began constructing the compartments. They were thoughtfully and carefully made and, although he had fully intended to use them only on a temporary basis, they were sturdy enough to withstand the test of time. And so they did.

 

In the beginning there were only three compartments of varying sizes–one each for Past, Present, and Future Interests. Not much later he tried to fit certain Long-Term Interests into each of these compartments only to find that there was not enough room or that they were too dissimilar to be kept in combination. Because incompatibilities create conflicts and because he was a man who preferred order and harmony, he felt compelled to separate dissimilar interests. So, he began constructing more and more compartments until the compartments were of greater consequence to him than the interests contained in them, and they required his constant vigilance.

 

Now, this man was not a complainer, nor was he inclined to scheme a way out of his responsibilities. He had always been one to accept and deal with things as they happened and he was perfectly willing to accept the consequences of his compartmentalized life.

 

Each morning, as he was not one to waste time, the man’s day began early. With great efficiency he strapped on his tool belt. He wore it like the habit of a holy order. It was part of his uniform and an outward reminder that his life was compartmentalized and that he embraced his indebtedness to the construction and maintenance of every compartment. Only a few compartments were locked and so only a few keys hung from his belt. Even so, he was constantly aware of the clumsiness and weight of the gadgets and instruments that he carried; and, thus encumbered, it was an effort to remain balanced.

 

There was quite an array of equipment arranged on his belt in specific places by category for ease of finding. These he had collected for Repairing and Mending; Measuring, Calculating, and Weighing; Moving, Arranging, and Taking Inventory, to name a few. There were also compartment-specific items that had exclusively designated use and application only for certain compartments. All these tools were a necessary element of the compartmentalization of his life and so they required a level of maintenance of their own. Logs and schedules for this activity were kept in a separate compartment. Now, as he relied upon them so often and needed quick access to them, Imagination, Reason, Emotion, and Hope were kept in compartments which he ingeniously figured out how to hang from his belt! Desire was not a tool, neither was Responsibility; but these were the right and left gloves of his uniform. He wore a plaid shirt woven of Creativity and Curiosity, pants made of Caution and Courage, and his feet were shod with Swiftness and Determination. Only his head was bare, making him vulnerable. But, he did create a visor with blinders on either side, which he wore when at his tasks to shield his eyes from the strain of concentration, and to help him focus solely on the task before him.

 

At home, as elsewhere, he moved strictly by self-imposed protocol from compartment to compartment. Sometimes, he noticed that he had inadvertently carried something with him that actually belonged shut up elsewhere. Even though he was a man who accepted things as they came, he found himself alarmed and distracted from his routine by such accidents. The dis-ease of impending doom nagged at him, creating great anxiety until the next day when on his daily rounds he was able to return the item to its proper place. So, against the happenstance of such a  repeated mistake, he developed a strategic tool to convert, through a sophisticated program of computer analyses, all the elements of such a mistake. The output was a series of timed reminders that enabled him to take all the necessary steps, in their proper order, to return the item to its rightful place within an acceptable period of time and with minimal exertion.

 

Without variation, his daily routine called for the newest compartments to be checked first, followed by the largest ones. There had come a point in time when he realized just how complex his system of compartments was becoming. That was when he developed C.L.E.A.R., the “Compartment Life Expectancy Assessment Register,” which enabled him to chart the moving of current interests in and out of higher priority compartments. This only made sense, anyway, he reasoned, since interests that declined in importance ranking should by rights be stored in smaller, less conspicuous compartments, making room for newer and more important interests. These smaller compartments he did not inspect on a daily basis, but with lesser and lesser frequency until one of three things happened. (1) The compartment could be designated for “Compartment Custodial Care”–whereby interior inspection was no longer required (only superficial, exterior maintenance). This was a cumbersome and tedious process of paperwork and forms that he preferred not to spend a lot of time on, contributing to the bloated inventory of compartments at any point in time.  (2) If a new (even unrelated) interest surfaced in his life that required a compartment of its own, he could enact “Compartment Automatic Retirement Plan”–whereby all contents would be removed from a compartment in Custodial Care and discarded in favor of the new interest. This process involved strict recycling policies that were kept in newer, eco-friendly compartments. It was a drastic measure and one he liked to believe he used more often than he did. (3) The third option had only been taken on rare occasions but, nonetheless he did have a system in place named “Compartment Revitalization And Prioritization” –whereby, due to renewed interest, more frequent visits were reinstated and the compartment moved back up to a higher priority section on his inspection list.

 

Inside each compartment was an “Inventory Checklist;” “Interest Assessment and Priority Evaluation;” the log where he recorded dates and times of inspection; and, the “Social Acceptance Measurement” and an actuary chart.  One thing he never used was a map because regardless of how complicated and complex the network of compartments grew to be, he always knew where everything was. It was instinctive.

 

Almost as gradually as he had realized the compartments’ domination of his life, one day a new thought began to germinate and that was this: that what had begun as a plan to bring order and clarity to his life had developed some rather negative side effects. He was sure the compartments had created a different sort of chaos as well as a sort of insidious complacency, for keeping things in their proper compartments took up far too much of his time. He was more and more preoccupied with the movement of interests, people, possessions, ideas, emotions, memories, and plans in and out of compartments. He was occasionally overwhelmed with the knowledge that at any moment some compartments were empty, some of them needed to be combined, others needed to be sub-divided and re-sub-divided. He was having second thoughts about classifying Questions and Doubts–both of which required far more space than any other compartments. Those Ideas he had subdivided into Good and Bad had seemingly taken on a life of their own, requiring constant reevaluation and resorting. Originally for his eyes only, he regretted sharing, in a moment of compromise, the contents of certain compartments, and he was having difficulty developing Standards & Practices to guide future decisions on when or if and how, how often, and how much of the compartments to share. He tried to remember what it was like before he began to compartmentalize. He prided himself on the judicious decision-making critical to the successful compartmentalization of his life. But, more and more he heard people complaining openly about his Judgementalism. Sometimes he heard himself dissecting and summing up the parts of conversations and wondered if perhaps they were right, or if he should just store away those thoughts for later inspection.

 

He was distracted and becoming less careful with his routines. Daydreams and Nightmares had been squeezed into the smallest of his compartments with Dreams. These were fragile and prone to wander, and he had so few of them that, for the sake of convenience, he kept them on the table by his bed. At the end of a particularly confusing day, he placed his dream of no more compartments back into its compartment. He viewed the walls that constructed this compartment – all of them – as just walls, barriers, obstructions, the tall hedges of a maze that kept him constantly on the run, searching for the way out. The extent of his isolation was so disorienting to him that he wasn’t sure he knew what was beyond the walls of that Dream Compartment, anymore. What happened that night he could not explain, but he recalled later that as he lay down to sleep, from somewhere, he recalled a line from a bedtime story he heard once when he was a child:  “You can find happiness in your Dreams.” He sat up beside his pillow and opened the Dream Compartment beside his bed. And then, seized by a sudden impulse, he took out all the dreams by handfuls and scattered them across his bedroom like a sower broadcasting seeds across an open field.

 

They flew in all directions across the room like caged birds set free. He watched them beautifully shimmer for just a moment, catching the moonlight from his window as they floated through the air. And just as quickly, they dropped to the floor in the still silence of the night, with a sound that reminded him of that barely audible soft falling snow sound he used to love to hear, back when he had time for such things. He sat motionless, witnessing the scene before him, watching his dreams vanish before his eyes.

 

“O, now what have I done!” he moaned out loud as he sat on the edge of his bed with his head in his hands. “The night is young and all of my dreams are gone,” he sighed. He had not the courage to face the night without the comfort of a single dream. Like a drowning man grasping for a rope, he rolled out of bed, knelt upon the floor, and stretched out his hands in the darkness until he touched the opened Dream Compartment on the floor. Gently, he felt inside to find out if even one dream remained. Far in the back, his fingers sensed something. Carefully, he coaxed the last remaining dream out of the Compartment. He had not seen it for so long that he barely recognized it, but even in the darkness of night, he knew it, and he fully appreciated the importance of this one last dream. O, that this dream should have survived all of his foolishness! He did not pause, did not consult the protocols, did not take the time to check his options before he brought the dream to his lips and swallowed it. He felt the warmth of it filling him up and renewed strength coursing through his veins. The man laughed. Had it been this easy all along, and yet he had not known it? He stood up unshackled, unchained, unencumbered, unleashed, unrestrained, uninhibited, uncontained, uncontrolled, unashamed, unapologetic, unquestioning, understanding. Not a hammer had been lifted, not a hinge undone, yet down came the walls of all the compartments of his life and, that very night, his dream came true.

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This is the story of the man who had to sleep

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There was once a young man who knew he was uniquely beautiful. In fact, he was so beautiful that each day the Sun stopped as it climbed the morning sky just to peek into his bedroom window and catch a glimpse of his sweet countenance. Doing so, the Sun would blow in a kiss which landed on the young man’s cheek in the form of a sunbeam. If the young man woke with a smile, the Sun would shine forth brightly all day long. But, if not, the Sun would pull a cloud over its face to hide behind and cry.

 

At night, the Moon roamed the evening sky with all the stars tagging along behind, hoping to catch a glimpse of this beautiful young man. Occasionally it was too dark  even for as brilliant a celestial body as the Moon to find the young man walking in the shadows of nighttime. So, on such a night, the Moon might throw a star across the sky to cast light into the darkness and help to reveal the young man’s whereabouts. If the Moon found the young man, it would swell with pride and happiness and grow to twice its normal size: as round as a pumpkin and as large and bright as a thousand stars altogether. But, if the young man could not be found, the sad Moon would shrivel up to a mere sliver of its normal size, and vanish into the blackness for a time.

 

Now, this young man made a place for himself as the prized fixture of a magical garden. The garden was the playground and infrequent retreat of a beautiful and benevolent Mistress, who left the young man in charge while she was away taking care of things. Wherever he walked, moss grew on the ground before him to cushion his feet and the Wind reached its fingers out to sweep his fine hair from his eyes while he worked. The garden did not require much tending, so there wasn’t much to occupy him of that sort of work; just the complimentary attendance of his presence and the inspiration of his visage. And so, his primary occupation was just this: to be himself. And, in this way, his days were spent sharing his beauty with everything around him. Occasionally he made up songs for the birds to sing or corrected the length of shadows. Sometimes he arranged the flowers and always he encouraged the trees to be strong.

 

Day after day he lived in the garden and was quite satisfied with his place there. As he walked in the peaceful serenity of natural beauty he frequently paused here or there and posed so that if by chance a passing stranger might happen to take notice of his whereabouts, he would surely be compelled to stop in wonder at the sight of the young man even more beautiful than his surroundings. Daily, he practiced just the right bend of his knee, just the right tilt of his head so that his face would catch the sunlight at just the proper angle to reveal his greatest assets.

 

Fully aware of the astonishing greatness of his own beauty, the young man practiced the appearance of nonchalance so as not to frighten off his admirers; and, he practiced modesty, although he had to admit he simply could not master this. Mostly, he concerned himself — year after year after year — with preserving his own beauty.

 

The practice of being himself necessitated maintaining his youthful form, so as the years passed he had to adjust his habits to carry off the illusion of his youth. The young man spent many hours every day by a deep, clear reflecting pool in order to examine his appearance, his carriage, and to monitor the poses that he worked at so diligently. Unfortunately, because he could only see himself in the reflecting pool by bending over, this had the regrettable effect of creating many poses in his repertoire which required of him a bent-over posture. The young man justified this outcome by imagining how effortlessly agile he must appear when after assuming one of these positions he then gracefully straightened himself upright. But, over the years, the result of spending so much time leaning over the pool had more of an effect of altering his youthful appearance than anything else, and he gradually developed a slightly hunched-over shape — of which he was completely unaware, since he could only see himself while leaning over the pool.

 

The years passed and the constant work of maintaining himself became exhausting to the young man. His muscles ached from the poses and his knees creaked every time he bent over the reflecting pool. It was an increasingly difficult chore to be himself, and that was only relieved by falling asleep. And so, he developed the practice of appearing here and there with his dazzling smile, every lock of hair in place, posing in case anyone should see him, by refreshing himself with brief naps that he stole throughout the day. He would suddenly materialize as if out of nowhere, practice being himself, and then, as quickly as turning off a light, he would disappear into the shadows of a nearby glen for a nap.

 

On a certain day, the Mistress came for the enjoyment of the garden. How distressing it was to him to know that at any moment he might see a look of disappointment on her face–not for some lack of beauty within the garden or himself, but because she might witness him grow tired and mistake that tiredness for disinterest or boredom or weakness. What would happen then? Might he become acquainted with her anger? Might she banish him from the garden forever?

 

Up and down the lanes they walked together that day, taking in all the beautiful sights and sounds and smells. As was his custom, the young man stopped along the way to present another aspect of his charm to the Mistress of the garden, and she did not withhold her delight. But, as the young man had feared might happen, fatigue overcame him so that he had no choice but to lie down for a moment and let sleep take him from her company. Frightful dreams plagued his unconsciousness. But, when he roused himself, his head was cradled in the Mistress’s lap, whose face shone with amusement.

 

“Is being yourself so tiresome,” she asked, “that it puts you to sleep?” The young man looked away, fearing an awful judgment. “Oh, give me a smile,” she laughed. The young man summoned every ounce of his energy, determined to give her a smile that she would never forget. Then, before his very eyes he saw her transform into the Sun and the Moon and the Stars altogether. A great swirling cosmic Wind swept her up into the clouds, and in his good ear she whispered, “So sleep!” A shower of silver stardust and golden sunbeams fell over the young man and the Wind gently rocked him into a deep and sound and peaceful sleep. And he is sleeping to this very day.

Gross Anatomy

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The first thing any judge or prosecutor should ask a prospective panel of jurors is not what they typically ask. I found this out today fulfilling my biennial trip to the Circuit Courts building. After nearly 20 years, this every-other-year pilgrimage has become a tradition for me. I receive the colorful summons by mail, return the requisite information, and avoid arrest by showing up on the appointed morning for what might be one, two, three days, or even several weeks of jury service – if selected. It’s like a lottery drawing: you never know what you might win until the day of the event. Pepper in a healthy sprinkling of summonses received for Federal Court jury duty and it can seem as if jury duty happens in St. Louis every year, unlike other cities where one can live a lifetime without ever seeing the inside of a courtroom. Our jury supervisor explained the high demand for jury service among City residents when she told us today that the City of St. Louis starts each week of the year with an average of 250 cases on the docket. This number exceeds Kansas City and St. Louis County combined. Given its lower population, the stress on City residents is understandably greater.

The system is remarkably well run, all things considered. Still, after being asked individually and as a group no less than five times the same qualifying questions (are you a US citizen, are you over the age of 21, do you reside in St. Louis), it seemed to me at least one of those times someone would have switched up and asked something more pertinent, such as: Would you be able to serve on a murder trial?

Especially after the prosecutor’s opening remarks in voir dire, in which he disclosed the nature of the charges being tried, I kept waiting for the question to be put to us. It never was. And as the hours droned by, the questions become more and more discomforting to me because there is a well of painful memories just below the surface that were waking up, warning me not to go deeper unless I was prepared to pay an emotional price. I had already raised my hand in response to so many questions that the prosecutor, the judge, and the defense lawyer were obviously scrutinizing me, yet still not asking the right question. So, once again I raised my hand and asked if I might speak to the judge at the bench. “Yes,” the prosecutor replied, “we will do that later.”

After that exchange, I was glad that they stopped returning to me and settled in to wait for the opportunity to explain that I was getting more and more anxious by the minute. My thoughts were not clear. My memories were pulling me into a very dark place. Finally, we broke for a short lunch and were dismissed. I walked outside and realized I was seeing the world breaking up into pieces of shattered glass, like a kaleidoscope: I was having an ocular migraine. After lunch, we reassembled and the defense lawyer began his line of questioning. From these questions, I learned interesting things about the group. Over 50% of this eclectic cross section of men and women had been arrested at least once in their lives for offenses ranging from DUIs to not showing up for jury duty. Yes, that’s an offense punishable by arrest! At least one-third had a relative or friend with a serious drug addiction and most of those were heroin. Then, starting at the far end of the room, he asked each prospective juror the same questions: Are you a native St. Louisan? If not, from where did you move here and why? Where do or did you work and what do or did you do at your job? This was going to take a long time, and at one point about halfway around the room, the judge asked the lawyer to speed things up. In our group of 60, there was a surprising number of transplants. If the person moved from Illinois, they never specified what city, just answered, “Illinois;” if from another state, they gave the name of the city without the state. The most prevalent job occupation was some form of IT, followed by various medical occupations. As I listened to the questions and answers, I was still waiting for the opportunity to speak to the judge about my unsuitability to serve on this case when a man sitting in front of me rose to his feet to take his turn answering the three questions. The court reporter could not hear him and so he repeated over and over that he was a retired professor who had taught gross anatomy. Gross Anatomy. GROSS ANATOMY. In desperation, he extended both of his arms outward and shouted G R O S S A N A T O M Y. When he did this, I instantly visualized DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man. In a flash, my imagination connected this image back to a previous question asked earlier in the morning by the prosecutor:

“We have the police report, but we can’t show it to you. We will quote the police report, but we can’t show it to you. Are you okay not seeing the police report?” Over and over, all around the room, the question was asked of each person, “Do you need to see the police report?”

For some reason, this police report made me very uncomfortable. Even though I was not asked the question, every time it was asked, I answered internally, “I don’t want to see the police report!” Now, as I listened to the retired professor, and when his physical representation caused the Vitruvian Man to flash into my thoughts, I saw another graphic depiction. It was the outline of a man’s body in a police report from 1986. It has been over 30 years since I saw that image and today was the first time in all those years that I remembered it. Arms and legs spread outward on the page, both front and back of the body were marked where wounds had been inflicted; so many, in fact, that the report indicated wounds within wounds. It was a savage killing and an image that I have, understandably, suppressed, along with so many other things that I saw and heard and witnessed during the horrifying days surrounding that death, not the least of which was the police report.

Suddenly, not being picked for this jury was taking a back seat to a more important goal: just getting through this day.

Which I did. And, gratefully, I neither had to explain myself to the judge or legal teams, nor was I picked to serve on the jury.

It felt good to walk the half mile back to the parking garage, rather than take the shuttle bus. I let the cold wind whip around my face. I whispered his name and allowed a tear to roll down my face. The gift of 30 years passage of time was that I found more than a small measure of self-confidence to face this moment alone, with nothing but my own internal resources to rely on for strength. As I walked, I remembered that image in the police report and understood the deeper reality – that it was a map of my own emotional wounds, still there whenever I look; never too far out of mind even if I never do. I can trace every broken place in my life, every emotional scar, every loss, every failure, every regret. Some are wounds within wounds. They are all there, below the surface, because they were once a part of my life. Some of them still hurt. But, not one or all singly or in total makes up the entirety of who I am.

Perhaps we never completely heal, but we are not static beings; we do learn and grow, and I believe our wounds help shape who we are and become, for better or worse. We can use them to ignite a desire to offer a hand to someone who might need it; to help prevent something horrible from happening by showing a different way, showing that we care; to not just hear – but to listen to what someone might be saying; to tell the people we love that we love them. This is the process of living. Trust the process.vitruvian woman

Snow Will Fall

A woman was following her own path on the Journey Of Life when, in the middle of a confusing day, she passed the reflection pool of an Oracle. It was full of ancient light rising from the depths of a source so deep and primordial that if you could trace it, you would find yourself somewhere before the origins of time. When the woman paused to look into it, the water was disturbed and she was unhappy, for here she had hoped to find answers to her questions. Fear seized her and she dreaded what might happen next. The woman wrapped herself tighter in her fear, for it was the cloak that she wore when she felt threatened.

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Moving back from the pool, she sank onto the broad surface of a massive rock nearby and, as she sat in silence, anxious about all the terrible things that could happen, she heard the soft tinkling of wind chimes in the distance. A gentle Breeze blew across her face and whispered in her ear. “Why are you afraid?” This made the woman even more fearful. She felt her fists clench, her jaw tighten, her heart beat faster, and she became suddenly aware of many dark and threatening noises coming from shadows above and around her. She distrusted the rock upon which she sat. She distrusted her own perceptions.

Then, the voice of the Oracle whispered again, “Look into the water.”

“I can’t,” the woman stuttered. “I looked before and it was too rough for me to see anything clearly.”

“Of course. Then, set aside your fear and look now,” the Oracle persisted.

So, the woman cautiously removed her cloak of fear, set it down upon the rock, and walked over to the reflection pool. She looked into it and, behold! The water was calm and clear as glass. In fact, the woman could see herself quite vividly, huddled over into a fearful, misshapen image that she barely recognized. She blinked her eyes to make sure of what she was seeing behind her. There appeared a verdant forest of lush trees and brilliantly colored flowers, stars and planets and rainbows and fantastic cloud formations in a vast sky, colorful birds, and even the Oracle, standing there smiling, beaming love and acceptance.  The woman could actually see the Breeze glittering in the air like a sprite, playing with her hair and teasing the birds to race with it through the trees. The woman was shocked and wondered why she had seen none of this before.

She turned to look around her and sure enough, it was all there as she had just seen it in the calm water of the reflection pool. Now, her feeling of fear changed to excitement. She was anxious to continue her journey and see what might happen next. But, before she could move, the Oracle spoke again.

“Your habitual reaction of fear comes from a place of self-protection that is good. But, there is no need to be afraid here or over there, or even over there. The next time you feel afraid, if you know you are in no danger, then just tell yourself that what you feel is excitement. Set aside your cloak of fear and open your heart to the possibilities of each new place and person on your Journey Of Life so that you can enjoy it more, and with less fear.”

With that, the Oracle actually laughed and, knowing how much the woman loved the still beauty of snow, told the woman this story:

One winter was especially cold and rough. Freezing winds, ice and heavy snow lasted for weeks and weeks. Then, in the middle of that harsh winter, a day dawned brightly. The storm clouds rolled away, the sun reappeared in the sky, and it felt just like spring. Thick mounds of iced-over snow melted and evaporated in the heat of the warm sun. All living things seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. They turned their faces up to the sky and enjoyed the day. But, the next morning, winter returned with a vengeance. Blown across the sky by a razor-sharp wind, it filled the air with thick, wet puffs of snow that piled up fast and deep.

There will always be winter and spring and there will always be warm days in winter that remind us of spring, that look like spring; but, they are not spring. Even so, those warm days are not to be feared and neither is the snow.

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Snow will fall on some who put out their buds the day before, thinking that spring was already here. They may have already flowered. Their reaction to the unanticipated wet blanket of snow will be suffocation. The cold snap will stunt their growth and it will be a long time before they have the opportunity to flower and bloom again.

 

 

 

20180217_092327Snow will fall on some who have sent their green shoots just above the surface, getting ready for the next stage in their cycle of life. Their response to the snow will be to find the good in it. The snow will nourish them and when the time is right, they will manifest their growth by flowering and reaching full fruition.

 

 

Snow will fall on some who do not react at all. They stand tall and strong and wait for the right time to bud and blossom and bloom. They will barely notice the snow, but others will admire them and take inspiration for the way they take everything in stride and for weathering the storm so beautifully.

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Space

Space

Sitting in a metal patio chair at an outdoor table. This is my personal space. I am early enough that there are miles and miles of empty space between me and the next coffee drinker at this neighborhood café. The table has uneven legs and see-saws back and forth every time I pick up or replace my coffee cup. A minor annoyance. I am relaxed, absorbing the fresh air, the morning, the space.

Awning

A heavy rain fell early this morning, but stopped by the time I began my half-mile trek to this space. Water no longer pours from low-hung storm clouds but continues to drip from every single summer leaf overhead and from the wooden plank awning that is the only obstacle between me and the big, blue July sky. Between the slats of the awning I hear thunder rolling off in the distance. Goodbye, thunderstorm, like an unhappy child being sent to her room, noisily complaining as she stomps her feet, loudly marching on her way eastward through Illinois. Who is she? Where did she come from? What is her name?

Dogsdawg

This café is a petting zoo of companion animals of the dog variety who accompany their owners to their favorite neighborhood hang-out. Near enough to their homes, by daily coming here, dog owners can get their morning dose of coffee while their dogs get a little exercise.  I’m a cat person, but I get it. The rising sun has burned off the last of the clouds and the air is damp, humid, warming up fast. The odor of wet dog hair permeates every breath I take.

Owners

I imagine these are mostly single guys, older, in their 60s and upward judging from the looks that I am not always competent to analyse. They are the first wave of patrons to arrive. They walk past the row of tables beneath the awning, stop at the entrance of the café, tie up and leave their dogs at the door, and disappear inside after promising their dogs they will return, which they do –cup in hand. They untie their dogs and mosey along the length of the wooden plank awning, past mostly empty tables, out to the sidewalk and back home. There’s a distracted quality to their demeanor; they hardly seem to notice the animal attached to the end of the leash they hold. But, familiarity works both ways, and their dogs walk along, nonchalant, unconcerned about that man on the other end of the slack line. They know each other. The shine has worn off. They get along.

Next comes a wave of younger guys with younger dogs and younger women with laptops. The owners and their dogs are more energetic. One seeing-eye dog, a Shih Tzu mix, a Labradoodle, a Schnauzer, a 6-month old Golden Lab, three Chihuahuas prancing in sync with each other as if professionally choreographed, a Great Dane, a Bulldog, a Beagle, a Yorkie, a 3-legged Pomeranian, 2 Cocker Spaniels, and a frisky Greyhound. The dogs are one by one reined in and presented to the coffee drinkers now settled in their seats at the patio tables. “Would you mind?” “I’ll just be a minute.” “Could you please?” Incomplete sentences but fully understood meanings: I’m going to leave my animal(s) unattended over here right next to you because there’s an empty table and I don’t want to lose it while I go inside to get my coffee because, you know, dogs are not allowed inside. I want you to guard my laptop/knap sack/book and also keep an eye on him/her and take responsibility for making sure that he/she does not attack the other dogs in the parade as they pass by and are left with other non-owners in the safe-keeping of other strangers, perhaps even you. The standard reply: a nod of the head, assenting to the unspoken request.

Occasionally, a beautiful young ingénue with makeup and hair beautifully done – far too perfect for this time of morning, dressed to kill in a form-fitting body stocking type of running suit, will chirp and coo and ask about the dog: its name, sex, pedigree, age, food allergies, favorite color, favorite toy, favorite treat, litter mates, zodiac sign, place of birth, training, etc. The communal water bowl is refilled, the cooing and chirping ceases while the owner is gone. But, when the dog owners return with their coffees in hand, they often end up abandoning the staked-out table in favor of uniting their space with the space of the person who watched their dog while they were inside. Years and years ago, back before Internet dating web sites, I occasionally participated in a Friday night cruise through the aisles of what was known as “The Pick-up Schnucks” – a grocery store, in the heart of an affluent neighborhood, that developed an interesting reputation as a place to shop for companionship as well as canned artichokes and wine. Maybe this neighborhood coffee shop has taken up the mantel of that long-gone enterprise.

“Are you Karen?”

My space is invaded with the question that lands on my ears like the scratching of fingernails on a blackboard. I look up and scan the personage standing in front of me. “Are you Karen?” she inquires again. Only now do I realize that I’ve sunk so deep, deep into my personal space that it takes effort and a few seconds to swim up to the top and process those three words repeated for clarity. I look around to get my bearings and recall that I am still alone at my table so maybe I am Karen. But, no, I am not.  “Excuse me, are you Karen?” she asks again. There is a dog attached to her hand by means of a red, retractable leash.  Still not yet completely emerged from my bubble of solitude, I shake my head ‘no’.

“Are you sure?” she asks.

“No, I’m not Karen,” I answer.

Unconvinced, she looks me over from top to bottom and I have the feeling that I’ve been sniffed. She is jealously eyeing the 3 empty chairs around my table. I get it: there are no more empty tables underneath this wooden awning and she is looking for a place to sit or to tie her dog. It’s early, and I haven’t yet accessed sufficient verbal communication skills to offer her a place to sit with me, so it probably seems to her that I have been tied up to this table to wait for someone. But I have not.  If only I could prove to her that I am not Karen. If only I had some form of ID with me, a tag engraved with my name and phone number.

At last I gain control of the language center of my brain and put together the words she is waiting to hear. I offer her a chair at my table. Great! She says, and turns her back to me, signaling 3 other women and their dogs, who are waiting at the far end of the awning, to come and join her at this table. A quick count around the table and they are openly disappointed to find that they still require one more chair. Every eye is on me, every dog is on me. The third wave has arrived. I’m a cat person. Okay, it is time for me to go, but could I wait until they get back with their coffee?blur

 

 

 

 

Birds Of A Feather

100_0712.jpgBIRDS OF A FEATHER

 

If you didn’t mind listening to her snore, or breathing the heavy air that hung like a dense fog in the cozy nest that was her bedroom, you could perch quietly in the corner by Mariel’s bed every day of the week, Monday through Friday, and watch the same scene performed over and over with only occasional, minor variations.  At 6 o’clock every morning, Mariel’s alarm clock signaled the workday with a cacophony of pre-programmed noise.  In exactly three seconds, Mariel blindly reached over to silence it, swung her legs over the side of her bed, sat up, rubbed her eyes, and stumbled into the bathroom, all in one seamless arc of motion.  Her morning ablutions and preparations to leave for work had become so ritualized over half a lifetime of repetition that they required no thought on her part – not so much perfected as practiced, streamlined by the necessity of efficiency required that early in the morning at a time of day well before clear thinking informs action.  And, like any habitual occupation, Mariel adhered to the formula even though the original intent had long been mislaid somewhere back in the cobwebs of a cold dark morning without electricity or when an extended holiday or a bout with the flu interrupted the normal flow of activity.  Change occurred subtly over the course of decades, but it did happen, and often it was so gradual that Mariel was not aware of it.

 

Lest you should mistakenly assume that she was just not a thinking person, on the contrary.  Mariel was a very active thinker with a lively imagination.  And so while she went through the motions of getting ready for work each day, for all appearances incapable of logical deliberation, you’ll just have to grant her this:  that after a night full of vivid dreams after a day of constant intellectual exertion, these first hour of acting by rote rather than by intention gave her mind just enough space to rest and relax before meeting the many challenges of the day ahead.

 

Promptly at 7 o’clock, Mariel was standing at her front door going over her mental checklist for the last time, ticking off all of the things she needed to have in hand before locking up.  At this point, her thoughts were just starting to organize, but not enough to prevent the occasional lapses of memory such as forgetting the hot coffee thermos or bagged lunch on her kitchen counter, her ring of office keys, or the checks she needed to drop in the mail.  As if on auto-pilot, she soon found herself behind the wheel of her car and, like a fish swimming in and out of its school along the eddies and currents flowing around islands of commerce, Mariel joined the formation of cars traveling to their workplaces.  By the time she was parking her car, walking into her office building, unlocking her office door – doing all of the very same things that she did every single day of her work week – her critical thinking was in full gear.  For the rest of the day, she would occupy space in two parallel universes:  one that relied  solely upon the instinctive muscle memory of decades of repetitive work and the other that required her to think about completely unrelated things, evaluating and anticipating this or that or something else that had happened or was about to happen.  “Triage,” she liked to call it, taking care of putting out the brushfires that required quick thinking while she simultaneously continued to carry out the other functions of her job, like a memory-resident program that is constantly running in the background.

 

There was a lot of consistency in Mariel’s day from week to week, month to month, even year to year that caused a certain degree of complacency.  But, because she was a thinker, even this observation set up an interesting question for her to be bothered by for quite some time.  The question was:  which part of her repetitive day was the most important?  To frame the question, Mariel parsed the hours of each workday into clearly defined blocks of time.  Once this was done, she likened her day to a liturgical celebration, with the separate blocks of time representing rites within that liturgy.  To what other image could she better compare the work of living than something sacred, something that held in one place all of the richness of symbol and belief and sensation?  Mariel came up with the following list of the order:  Rite 1:  INTRODUCTORY RITE – Rising and going to work.  Rite 2:  PENETENTIAL RITE – The procession to work, work, and the recessional home after work.  Rite 3:  EUCHARISTIC RITE – Discretionary time after work/before bed . . . because she was oh so thankful for this time of her day!  And, lastly, Rite 4: FINAL BLESSING AND DISMISSAL – sleep, obviously!

 

Each of the rites or sections of time took on more or less significance at any given time, depending on the circumstances of her life, at times outranking the rest, at other times receding back to lesser emphasis on her scale of importance.  But, Mariel wanted to know which section in particular was overall the fundamental and most important in the grand scheme of all things.  Could they be isolated one from each other in order to determine which was the most important, or were they simply inseparable?  For most of her adult life Mariel had considered Rite 2 to be the greatest in importance because without the successful accomplishment of a day at work, there would be no paycheck to fund her existence, no place to rest her head at night.  Rite 1 sometimes advanced in her esteem, but usually remained as a close second behind Rite 2.  Mariel reasoned that without getting to work on time and sufficiently prepared for the day, the impact upon Rite 2 could be unavoidable and devastating.  Rite 3 took on increased importance in her life during the times when she was involved in a romance or taking a class after work or working on a project or doing volunteer work.  But, only recently had Rite 4 emerged in her ideas as being perhaps the most important part of her day.

 

Apart from remembering her dreams the next day or waking up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason, Mariel realized that the hours when she was asleep were the most mysterious part of her day.  It was nearly inconceivable to her that such a long period of time went completely unobserved by her.  It was unseen and unknown.  How could she measure the importance of this vital part of her day?  And, without the ability to think and reason while asleep, what was she doing all that time which required nothing more than animalistic instincts?  Even in her Rite 1 pre-thinking daze, at the very least, intuition or some innate sense would startle her into recognizing the centipede crawling in her bathtub before she stepped into her morning shower.  But, once she closed her eyes at night, what happened remained completely shrouded in the secrecy of sleep.  It could be very well that this total loss of consciousness, this complete separation of mind from body, left her not only in her most vulnerable state, but perhaps also in her most valued state.  How could she know?

 

Mariel was thinking about all of this one day when she left her office for a little fresh air and exercise.  She loved to walk around the office campus each morning just before all of the shops opened and the sidewalks filled with the hustle and bustle of other people’s daily activity.  Every morning at 9:00, rain or shine, she took 15 minutes to treat her day to this little diversion.  She crossed the parking lot and followed a path that ran behind the parking garage.  The shady path was lined on either side with tall pine trees and sugar maples filled in the spaces between them.  The pines gave an aromatic scent to the air and the maples provided indicators of the seasons with their changing foliage:  the pale green new leaves of spring yielded to the deeper green, denser canopies of summer.  In the autumn, the path was carpeted with layers of deep red, dusty orange, and sunny yellow leaves.  By the time winter made the scene, bare branches and twigs entwined overhead forming a lacy black pattern against a frosty, grey sky.

 

Once Mariel was in the trees and out of sight from the windows of her office building, she transformed into a bird.  It happened every day.  One minute she was the well-dressed woman, professional in appearance and decorum; the next minute she was a bird.  To look at her, you might wonder if she was some rare breed of fowl.  She seemed terrestrial, was low to the ground, and silent.  She had wings, but these were always folded at her sides, and she had never attempted to fly.  She continued walking on two spindly, birdlike legs and feet, strutting along the path, cocking her head from side to side, listening for insects on the ground and using her eyes to their fullest advantage, facing outward instead of forward.  Mariel was outfitted with brilliantly colored plumage and a lovely crest on top of her head.  Her feathers were canary yellow and arctic white, long and silky.  Her tail feathers were also yellow but blended out into a soft sage green and the ends were edged in sapphire blue.  She only knew this because occasionally there were cars parked near enough that she could see her reflection in their windows when she hopped up onto the wall of the parking garage.

 

Mariel had no idea why this happened to her, but, like the other recurring events of her day, she just accepted it.  It was but a rubric in the second rite of her daily celebration of her life.  It happened every work day.  It happened every time she took her morning walk.  She did not turn into a bird on the weekends or when she was on holiday.  This daily transformation was not borne out of volition or will except perhaps for the fact that Mariel did keep up her daily walks.  She couldn’t remember when this had first started and she couldn’t remember ever missing becoming a bird on any workday.  It was just something that took over her, it happened without thought or consideration on her part.  As Mariel pondered the questions that occupied her mind – about what happened when she was sleeping – she did think for just one brief moment of the possibility that maybe she turned into a bird while asleep, too.  What a silly idea!  She chided herself for even entertaining such a thought – as if someone could turn into a bird when they were asleep!

 

There were enough things in her life that did not feel good or that just left her feeling numb that made Mariel relish being a bird for a short time every day.  Being a bird counterbalanced these things, it released something positive that was pent up in Mariel, and it made her feel good.  It felt as natural as not being a bird.  It fulfilled some inner longings that Mariel didn’t recognize until she was a bird.  And, it made her feel complete – as if she were seeing something rare and beautiful about herself that was usually hidden, something that no one else could possibly know about her and that she was fortunate to know about herself.

 

As Mariel continued her walk –sometimes hopping up on the parking garage wall, sometimes walking up the side of a tree, she became steadier on her feet.  The shady path ended at the side of a lake with a lovely fleur-de-lis fountain far out in the middle.  Mariel was still a bird at the lake and she sometimes hopped onto the water’s clear surface and paddled out to the middle, feeling the mist from the fountain spray over her.  It was refreshing, especially on hot mornings.  She felt the air ruffling her feathers and, being so much lighter as a bird, a strong breeze sometimes blew her across the water.  Mariel enjoyed this and when it happened she felt like laughing out loud, although she did not.  It was a great treat to be so freed from the constraints of her predictable life.

 

Once Mariel had traced her steps back along the same tree-lined path, she emerged in full view of her office restored to her human shape, looking exactly as she had when she first left her house that morning.  She resumed her day as she had yesterday and as she would tomorrow.  Things and days came and went as they had for years with no indication of dramatic alteration of any kind.

 

So, it can be of no wonder why Mariel looked at birds differently than, say, you or I or anyone else who does not daily find themselves transformed from a human being into a bird.  She was especially kind to all birds, not knowing if this might be a person she worked with or a relative or even her best childhood friend.  Who could say?  Mariel was a strong advocate for birds and left birdseed, suet, and dishes of clean water wherever she had the opportunity to do so.  Always mindful of the kindness shown to her while in bird form, Mariel felt it was her duty to be as fair as possible to the birds that she came in contact with.

 

But, all of the routines and rituals of her life were about to come to a halt.  For several days, Mariel had increasingly been thinking about the rigid patterns of her life, wondering about sleeping and being a bird.  Things just weren’t adding up for her and finally, one morning, she went for her walk on the tree-lined path behind the parking garage at work, and she decided to see if she could fly.  She wasn’t exactly sure what kind of bird she was, but she knew that she had wings.  She wasn’t even sure if she could make a birdlike sound, but she wanted to try and to hear what her birdcall sounded like.  Mariel waddled down to the end of the path and hopped onto the smooth surface of the lake.  She felt her light body buoyed on the water, bouncing up and down on the crest of a wave pushed along by a chilly autumn breeze.  Suddenly, Mariel exerted muscles in her back and sides.  To her surprise, quite large wings extended on either side and instantly caught the upward draft of the air.  She felt herself being lifted from the water, her wet feet dangling beneath her.

 

“Wow!” she cried out in ecstasy.

 

To her amazement, Mariel herd another voice nearby answer her, “Wow!”

 

Mariel flapped her wings to steady herself midair and, as if born to it, flew higher, spiraling around the lovely fountain below her.

 

“Wow!  Wow Wow Wow!!”

 

“Wow Wow!”

 

“Hey,” she called out to the other bird nearby, “do I know you?”

 

“I don’t know,” she heard the other bird call back to her.  “I work in that building over there.  I sell life insurance.”

 

“Wow!  Wow Wow Wow!!”

 

“Wow Wow!”

 

“Hey, do you want to get out of here and go somewhere?” Mariel asked, surprised at herself for being so forward with a complete stranger.

 

The other bird glided effortlessly nearer to Mariel, circling around her.  From the tilt of his head, Mariel could tell that he was giving her the once-over.  “Yeah,” he said, “let’s get out of here.  By the way, my name’s Bert.”

 

“Cool!” Mariel answered.  “You lead the way.  This is the first time I’ve flown.  My name is Mariel.”

 

“Wow!  Wow Wow Wow!!

 

“Wow Wow!!

 

“Wow!  Wow Wow Wow!!”bull-shoals-lake

The Way We Were

My dad was always called by his middle name, Dale.  Yet, he was known by another name in print and sometimes even in conversation – H. Dale.  I don’t know how many people ever asked him what his first initial H stood for, but one person’s interpretation of it provided the title for one of my favorite cakes and a story from my childhood that I annually revisit by making that cake.

 

Martha, a farmer’s wife, lived back in the hills on a goat farm.  Her face was round and dark brown eyes watched from behind her glasses.  Soft, white hair covered the top of her head and her movements were quick and efficient.  She was strong and self-sufficient and a smile always played around the corners of her mouth.  On occasional Sunday afternoons my dad would accept the invitation to bring his family to join Martha and her husband for Sunday dinner.  By the time we arrived, Martha had fried mountains of freshly cut up chicken, was ready to mash the potatoes, and had just taken out of the oven the cake that always met us on these visits.  From the produce of her own land she put into the cake apples, black walnuts, eggs, and “figs” made from Roma tomatoes grown in her garden and dehydrated on sheets of paper underneath her kitchen sink.  This cake was baked with ground cinnamon, allspice, and cloves – the perfect autumn apple cake.  She made it especially for my dad and developed a moniker to suit the occasion.  She called it Hurry Dale Cake – because she said he was always in a hurry.  Yet, on those sunny afternoons, he was anything but in a hurry; happy might have been a better name for the cake.  Sometimes before the meal I helped by picking and shelling sweet peas from the garden, but we children pretty much were called upon to stay out from under foot of Martha and my mother as they finished preparing the meal.  Afterwards, we each took a wedge of that spicy apple cake and went exploring, following the sounds of the bells tied around the goats’ necks, dipping our feet into the icy creek water that encircled the farm, climbing the rocks and hills like the goats who led us on our merry chase.  When we returned to the house for more cake, or perhaps some of Martha’s home-made horehound candy, we’d see our parents uncharacteristically relaxed, resting in the cool, lengthening shadows inside the house, enjoying the hospitality of their two very special hosts.  No telephone.  No television.  Just the richness of kindhearted generosity spilling out of two very large hearts too small to contain all of the love they shared with each other.

 

I sometimes feel that I live a million light years away from my childhood home.  It’s silly to think that way about a place that is more about a time in my mind than a location on a map.  I can cross the distance that separates me physically from that place within a matter of a few hours, but it is not the same.  Still, I go there to remember the way life should be, the way I thought it was, the way I experienced it, the way I want it to be.  Every year I make a Hurry Dale Cake in the fall and bring to life again the joy of those Sunday afternoons.  That cake is very nearly like the accident of something sacramental that, by the anamnesis of this ritual baking, imparts the same grace bestowed upon me and my family as the sharing of it from the bounty of Martha’s goodness those long years ago.

20160917_163601

HURRY DALE CAKE

Preheat oven to 350

Ingredients—

2 cups peeled and diced apples

1 cup granulated sugar

 

1 and ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon allspice

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon salt

 

1 egg

½ cup cooking oil

 

In a bowl, cover apples with sugar.  Set aside until syrup forms.  In another bowl, sift the dry ingredients.  Blend the egg and cooking oil and add to the apples.  Stir in the dry ingredients until thoroughly blended.  Pour into oiled 8-inch square pan.  Bake for 30 minutes.  Vary by adding nuts, raisins, dates, figs, coconut, etc., to your taste.

 

NOTES:  I use cut up dried figs or when I don’t have them prunes.  I substitute pecans for the walnuts.  I am very generous with the spices and highly recommend Vietnamese cinnamon for a robust flavor.  You may frost this cake, but I find it quite sweet enough without any toppings. I like to make ahead, cut into squares, and individually wrap in plastic wrap to preserve moistness.