Zen Meets a Boojum with Snark

Alan Watts tells a story about translating Zen texts into English and the selecting of those books. He consulted a Zen master who found the translation idea pretty preposterous, particularly the selection of certain books. After all, any and every book is Zen, be it Alice in Wonderland, the Bible, or a dictionary for “the sound of rain needs no translation” is what the Zen master had to say on the matter.

There is no separating Zen from being alive.

The first time I came across the Alan Watts story was some years ago, when I was on my own quest for anything Zen, wanting to capture and analyze Zen so I could keep it as a constant companion, completely oblivious to the fact that everywhere I went, there I was, in the eternal presence of Zen.

For everyone there is a way but there is no one way for everyone. I get that now.

But then, I explored quotations and Zen memes to suit any occasion, read books about Zen, and listened in rapt attention to Pema Chodron offer Zen just as it is as. And from her lips to my ears, the sound of rain needed no translation but only when she whispered it.

So, still translating with no Zen of my own or so I thought.

It may have been in the fall or spring. In Florida it is the color of the leaves that distinguishes those two seasons, so similar in temperature. It was raining with a constancy and clarity I have come to know of early morning rain, steel rod straight without wind.

It was just an hour or so into the light of day, and I was in the middle of monkey mind meditation. I have long forgot the pressing issue of that day—so important it was—or it may have been the frustration of yet another monkey mind day of meditation. Agitation has such an array of possibilities.

And then I was one with the rain. Just like that.

I don’t know when it started. All I know is that once I realized what was happening, it stopped, and I was back watching the rain with an awareness, an evenness of mind, that would stay with me for at least a few hours. I was completely present to each task but soon my mind started wandering and trying to explain that which does not translate.

I have had this happen to me three times in the years I have been meditating and it is much the same each time. I am aware of returning but not where I have been—that is a complete blank. And for the next few hours in the day, there is a heightened awareness, which I do my best to make stay, but I think too much about what was and not what is.

The moment is all I have and I don’t let it be enough.

Twice this meditative state has involved nature and once it involved what I can only describe as a feeling of knowing I was going somewhere. I was particularly tired that morning and quite low on energy yet I remember thinking “Oh, this will be good.”

And it was.

It was the longest time I have been “gone”—two to three hours—the heightened sense of awareness stayed with me for some days afterward and has never completely left. I turn to it when I find myself moving away from the moment I have. There is nothing back there and everything right here.

I questioned whether I had simply fallen asleep and maybe I did. It was some time before I told a friend, and she said Eckhardt Tolle had described a very similar experience and wondered the same thing about falling asleep. We always know when a moment changes us. And that is enough. The sound of the rain needs no translation.

There is no way to analyze or translate what is beyond our knowledge of the physical dimension. And considering human limitations, not the least of which is our penchant for labels, I have no doubt we deny what we know to be true. We have words but they are not always what they once were.

Consider the Snark in Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark.” The poem might be about the unanswerable theological or philosophical questions or simply nonsense, without meaning at all. (However, the idea makes a very interesting episode of Inspector Lewis [Series 5, Episode 1]).

In the poem, there are nine tradesmen and one beaver who go in search of the Snark—and if this reminds you of a snipe hunt—when they find the Snark, it “gently and softly vanish[es] away [to] never be met with again.” And to this end, the episode of Inspector Lewis offers an interesting twist.

Detective Constable Hathaway tells an anecdote from the late 1870s about a young girl who writes to Carroll, wanting to know why he didn’t explain the Snark to which Carroll responds, “Are you able to explain things you can’t yourself understand?” It works well with the script but I can find no tell of such tale.

Reverend Dodgson, an early Carroll biographer, writes in 1876 of a young girl who loves the poem so much that she recites it at will, whether or not she has an appreciative audience. Her favorite venue, it seems, was the carriage ride. She knew a captive audience when she had one.

Lewis Carroll, writing to an American friend about the Snark says “I’m very much afraid I didn’t mean anything but nonsense. Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them” (The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, 1899).

The last line of the poem is “for the Snark was a boojum, you see,” an animal of the imagination and in 1922, Godfrey Sykes would name the Boojum tree found in the Baja Peninsula for it is like no other. Even in physics, there is a geometric pattern on the surface of helium known as a boojum. At the moment, there is a brewing company in the Carolinas with the name of Boojum Brewing.

It seems to me that once again, everywhere we go, there we are, in the eternal present defying definition. All we have is awareness, preferably heightened.

And somewhat tangentially related is a “what would you choose” scenario of two choices: a.) $1 million in cash, free of any taxation burden; b.) returning to my 40s, knowing everything I know now, as I approach 70.

Even if this were a multiple guess question my answer would be immediate and the same. (In full disclosure, forced into either or, I chose returning to my 40s but life is neither this nor that. It is on its very good days, a Boojum).

Money has never been an attraction, much to the chagrin of those who love me. I am not good with money because I just don’t care about having more than enough to meet my needs, and only this has been true in the last act of my life. For most of it, I followed the magical thinking form of finance, of which the worry was harder than maintaining a monthly spreadsheet.

And I have to admit that I enjoyed my 40s but mostly, I became comfortable with each decade as it revealed itself, a series of leit motifs in the overarching experience of life, not that revelation is always pleasant. Each decade has required adjustment but I have no wish to return to any time, even the past nanosecond. Been there, experienced that.

Only the eternal present offers what is new under the sun.

Sex and the Throw Pillows: A Good Soul Story

Part I: Sometimes Elegant, Other Times Not

In the moment before any story there is an image and then the translation of that thought into words, directing the actions of our lives. Of course, this is not always a good thing nor even a bad thing but it is how we roll.

In her iconic essay, “Why I Write” (NYT December 1976), Joan Didion says “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.”  The essay title, Didion acknowledges right away, is borrowed from James Orwell, and that’s how it is with all words—borrowed—from a common culture to communicate, sometimes elegantly and other times, not so much.

I cannot say I had Joan Didion in mind when I received Celeste’s text about throw pillows. Rather, sex was on my mind as I was trying to write a scene about a health and sexuality podcast in a small town buried by time (think Girl Boner Radio meets Brigadoon).

“You really need some color on your loveseat and throw pillows look great. Which ones do you like?” 😊

“I’m not big on throw pillows. I don’t like them.” I believe this will suffice but like sex in a small town, the story becomes much more than any actual act.

I then receive three images of throw pillows in different shapes: a green and white check square, a green and orange circle, an oblong red and green Scottish plaid. I don’t like throw pillows; have never owned any. I don’t think I ever had a thought about a throw pillow until I met Celeste, truly a good soul.

My use of the term, “good soul,” is not complimentary but refers to people who are “just trying to help,” meaning they help their way and only their way, as if they were born with a vision better than the rest of us mere mortals. Dorothy Parker, elegant as ever, described good souls this way:

“There is simply no keeping them down–back they come, with their little gifts, and their little words of advice, and their little endeavors to be of service, always anxious for more.”

All of this is to say that I would soon find myself in H-E double toothpicks yet again.

Part II: The Curmudgeon and the Good Soul

Celeste is determined to make me like other people, believing that deep in my soul it is what I desperately seek. In other words, mine is the façade of a curmudgeon desiring to fit finely into another fold. Thankfully, every time I’ve attempted to be like everyone else, I found myself instead.

She and I would never have met if it were not for my recent relocation to an efficiency apartment of 17 ½’ x 12 ½’ with half galley kitchen (including a granite countertop just big enough for a small microwave) and bathroom. These measurements are important, dear reader, and not extraneous text.

Celeste is the daughter-in-law of a former neighbor, my dear Sibyl. As is befitting her name, Sibyl is wise and has seen almost all of the 20th century during her 93 years. Sibyl loves Celeste deeply but she also knows her as the kind of person who loves a cause and one who “will take over if you let her.”

And so it was that Celeste was looking for household items—”just about anything, really”—for some migrant families who moved into our area of the Florida Panhandle. After asking me, Sibyl sent her along. In truth, I was delighted!

It was less than 36 hours before I would move, and I still had more “stuff” than I knew what to do with and although I would not admit it, I was increasingly hampered by both spinal cord and autoimmune disease. I don’t know why I thought I could be anything more than the person who wrote the check for the move.

So, it wasn’t as if I could just box up/bag up items and take them to Goodwill or any other donation center. Literally, I did not have the physical wherewithal. Also, I don’t believe that Goodwill or any agency taking donations are dumping grounds for anything that isn’t dust.

In hindsight, I cannot imagine a poorer plan for moving household but hindsight is like that, a pair of eyes I rarely seek, perhaps at my own peril. What might have been is not the best view of the past so meh, I say.

Enter my good soul, Celeste, surveying my mismatched wares in size and color: plates and glassware, flatware, and utensils; towels, a yellow fitted sheet, a green sheet, a brown mustard colored pillowcase; knickknacks of absolutely no worth (or meaning to me) stored in bins for eleven years. Yet, Celeste seemed to find good in all but very little and that we shoved into black plastic bags for flinging into the dumpster. It was a hard day’s work.

Without Celeste at this juncture in the move, both my wallet and my body would be even worse for wear. I was and remain grateful, although that may not always be evident.

When there was less than 12 hours left, I had overworked my body into such an inflammatory state that my tissues were leaking freely and every joint was supersized while my moisture glands were as dry as the Sahara. Chronic illness is nothing if not contradictory.

I had been eating nitrate and nitrite free turkey hotdogs stuffed into quinoa tortillas with vegan cheese and a bit of spinach for the last 10 days. I will die a comfort food eater always with one eye to the healthy. Oh, and apples, always lots of apples and blueberries.

And that is how Celeste found me that final day, sitting in the middle of my living room floor facing a wall of filled boxes, shoving food fast. We had discussed my new efficiency apartment and she had mentioned a degree in design. Yes, I encouraged her and once again, I was ever grateful.

Patiently, she explained the floor plan of my new efficiency apartment was not what it seemed so she drew, to scale, a floor plan five feet shorter in length, which meant my loveseat would not fit.

With most of my food swallowed, I reply, “I guess I didn’t mention that I was actually in an apartment similar to the one I’ll be renting. We measured it and my 12-foot tape measure ran out with about five feet to go.” But such is not the mind of a good soul who knows all.

She is unmoved and only has eyes for her floor plan. “You really can’t tell about these floor plans,” she says and shakes her head. “See this closet? More than likely they are including it in the 17 feet.”

“But I was there. In the room. With my tape measure. With five feet to the closet door.”

More head shaking on her part and then she looks directly into my eyes and says what I have been thinking but have been unable to consider, “You won’t have room for the loveseat.”

I am not in love with the loveseat and originally considered selling it but I am now down to less than 10 hours before the movers arrive and bereft of bandwidth for Facebook Marketplace, as lucrative as it proved to be. Even Celeste’s church will not help.

For reasons I will never understand, I waste another two hours trying to convince Celeste she is wrong but methodically and calmly, she continues to explain that closets are hidden in floor plans. And the longer we go on, she becomes convinced the bathroom may also be included. “I will be shocked,” she says, “if that room is longer than 12 feet.”

Moving day proves me (and my floor plan) right and her wrong.  I’m so angry about the added stress, the lost sleep and the unflappability that is Celeste so I wait a day before I text her: “It’s 17 1/2′.”

We go text silent for a week.

(Paulie Jenkins Photo)

Part III Only Her Kind of Love to Give

And now, dear reader, we return to the throw pillow texts or from whence this post began.

“To be clear, I don’t want throw pillows.” I think about adding 🙏 but I think better of it.

“OK. Sibyl and I would like to gift you these pillows. It’s really uncomfortable sitting on your loveseat and throw pillows would help.” 😊

I am reminded of a saying about people having only their kind of love to give. In Celeste’s case, it includes using my friendship with Sibyl. There really is no keeping a good soul down.

“Well, buy them, then! I certainly can’t have that!!? 🙄 By now, I have stopped writing the sex-in-a-small town podcast scene. Sexuality cannot hold a candle to a throw pillow in the hands of a good soul. I wish it were not so. But before Celeste can respond, I text:

“When you are not here, I’ll throw them in the closet. I don’t like throw pillows and I won’t make myself look at them.”  In a room of 17′, EVERYTHING is in view, including a fleck from a taco shell. And yes, I’m being a bit childish. 😬

“But you have so little space!”

“Exactly.”

We go text silent for the day but I wake up to:

“Good morning! I’m wondering how you feel about the throw pillows today.” 😊

“Same as yesterday! But you already bought them so????” 😣 Ah, perhaps she did not purchase the pillows. I am reminded of Leonard Cohen’s “there is a crack in everything; it’s how the light gets in.”

“Who doesn’t like throw pillows?” 🤔

“I don’t. I told you I don’t. I’m not like other people.”

“But this means Sibyl and I will have to bring our own throw pillows when we come to visit.” 😕

As much as I love Sibyl I’m not living with throw pillows, which I suspect the prophetess has known all along. I offer her good soul daughter-in-law an out:

“It seems to me that most of our visits will take place in Sibyl’s apartment.” 😊

“That’s a good point.” 😊

There is some silence before Celeste texts:

“Sibyl would be really upset, I mean really upset, if she knew about this exchange.” 😳

“I have no intention of telling her.” I know I won’t have to because Celeste will, and Sibyl knows (and loves) both of us, who we are and as we are.

There have been no visits to either apartment but Sibyl and I converse on the phone regularly, as we have done for all the years of our friendship—we’re phone friends—she in her rocker with her throw pillow and I on my loveseat in restorative recline.

 

When Zero Was Not a Number

In the woods outside my window, it seems like nothing will stop this growing of green and the flurry of flashy red cardinals as they prepare their nests with their olive brown mates, who blend beautifully with the firebush, sparkleberry, and mesh of the passionflower vine. 

In spring, every day is endless.

I am not immune to all this wonder of squirrels munching on the tender leaves of a wax myrtle, a treat seemingly worth the trek from the hole in the leaning Live Oak across the longleaf pine and down the passionflower vine.

Frankly, it makes the human world pale in comparison but then, nature usually does. 

Here at the Apartments in the Woods, we have replaced watching the murderer among us with having to deal with mandatory online rent payment. Checks are no longer accepted. Not amazingly, emotions run high as if life itself, again, was threatened. 

Quite the welcome for a new manager who had been assured the online payment system for our 55+ community of 144 apartments was in effect, one of many untruths she will discover for truth is not always what it appears.

I don’t know the percentage of people who pay rent online but I imagine the majority of residents use the convenience, which was not true just a few years ago when the majority cohort was more like 75+ but no one lives forever. Nonetheless, their numbers are still sizable, including my 93-year-old neighbor, Sybil, who somehow still maintains her flip phone, despite threats from everywhere and everyone that it can’t be done. 

Although we have been neighbors (sharing a common wall) for 11 years, and true friends for the last five, I often forget Sybil is Sicilian and have to be reminded, which she does with pride. Round faced with a slight rosacea on her high cheekbones, Sybil is a clear-eyed beauty with flowing white hair, agile yet fragile as her petite body begins to fail her. 

Sybil is prone to one point of view on any subject (until she’s done with it), no matter the cost. She traces this to the island existence of her Sicilian ancestors who were faced with one invasion after another. Hers is a kind of reticence, which some have called stoicism, and with this visage, she faces all weathers.

Something like 30 or 40 years ago, Sybil decided the Internet was a passing phase and only last month did she admit that had “probably been a mistake.” 

To their credit, Sybil’s family is proceeding at her pace, in their completion of the online payment process, relying on the information Sybil provides, such as the documentation sent out by Apartments in the Woods Enterprises (AWE) for the online payment portal. 

AWE is to be commended for a streamlined and simple process. Residents who had never made any kind of online payment completed the process in about a quarter of an hour. It feels rather worldy, this being on the web, writing electronic checks for rent. 

Sybil is not so sure, although some days she sees its truth, yet when it comes time for her son, Paul, to complete the process, Sybil lies awake at night worrying about hackers, for she is well read and has an amazingly accurate understanding of the World Wide Web for someone who has only looked upon but never browsed or received an email. 

“It seems that there is still a problem with the rent,” Sybil tells me. “Paul is exhausted by all this.”

“There is no problem with the system, Sybil.” The words are out of my mouth before I can stop myself, clipped and cold. I’m tired of the conversation before it begins yet again, but I do better with “what’s the problem Paul is having.” 

“There is no place to put the routing or account number,” Sybil pronounces this as fact. “I don’t want Apartments in the Woods to have access to my checking account.” 

We have been having this conversation two or three times a day for the last two weeks, and I know where it’s going, but I also know Sybil vets her ideas with me before she shares them with her family, for reasons understood only by Sybil, but there is a lot of fear, too, always a tough subject, which is to say that I, too, sometimes get the wrong end of the stick. 

“Sybil,” I say, wincing at my tone of voice, not quite terse but close. “If Paul enters your routing and account numbers into the AWE system—

“The WHAT?” Sybil begins to talk over me, thankful for the tangent. “I don’t even know—

“Sybil, stop. Just. Stop. Talking. Over. Me.” And finally, she does. “When you write a check for your rent, isn’t the routing number and the account number on the check? Yes or no.” 

“Yes.” 

“So, Paul is going to enter that same information into the online system. It’s an electronic check rather than a paper one. That’s it. Nothing more.” 

“Okay. I’m fine with that. But we’re going to use a credit card.” 

“You do you, Sybil, but know there will be at least a 3% charge for using your card. That’s about $30.” 

“Paul says five or 10 dollars,” Sybil fires back.

“He’s wrong, just wrong.” 

We are both so over this conversation, but we both know it’s not yet resolved. Sybil is upset at herself, not for the first time, for refusing to have any kind of online presence over all those years. So many missed moments, those, but I’ve made that kind of mistake, too. It hurts.

At 93, both Sybil and her family are doing everything they can to maintain her independence. Increasingly, that means more to do for them and less for her. They love her deeply and do not mind, and Sybil is grateful, but with each task, there is one more thing out of her control. It’s such an uneasy balance for all of them.

Somewhat similarly, my body is far older than my almost 69 years, and I am ever adapting to maintain my independence. So, Sybil and I are each at an age where decisions close a door and not always does another window open.  

My heart is a bit sad that my tone of voice has been firm with Sybil—well, terse at times, if I am honest—Sybil, too, is a bit sad that she can’t write a check to pay her rent as she has always done for the last 17 years. For her generation, loyalty and consistency were just about everything in life. I get it.

As usual, I turn to Pema Chödrön to see if I can find something in her words for my frustration. I don’t want to repress it or reject it. I want to go to its core to see what I can learn from it and maybe help Sybil look at hers. In other times, Sybil has done it for me, in her own way, which is not mine.

Turns out Pema has a friend who talks about this very thing.

“As a way of working with our aggressive tendencies, Dzigar Kongtrül teaches the nonviolent practice of simmering. He says that rather than ‘boil in our aggression like a piece of meat cooking in a soup we simmer in it.’” 
Pema Chödrön

Not exactly the imagery I was seeking but I get the metaphor.

“We allow ourselves to wait, to sit patiently with the urge to act or speak in our usual ways and feel the full force of that urge without turning away or giving in.” 
Pema Chödrön

I am aware of the energy in “edginess,” or what Pema Chödrön refers to as “groundlessness,” and I find it attractive, that unknown. How to manage when I don’t have my feet on the ground, when what I know is not of worth to someone else or is not what they can yet receive, and I must be patient and listen in acceptance. 

“Neither repressing nor rejecting, we stay in the middle, between the two extremes, in the middle between yes and no, right and wrong, true and false.”  
Pema Chödrön

Most of my life I was a “fixer,” offering the obvious solution only to have it rejected because the choice was not mine to make. Not everyone comes to change the same way or at the same pace. Patience in every moment—to sit and simmer—although easier with age, it is no guarantee.

There is only one solution for Sybil no matter how many times we talk through what must happen. What is not an issue for me is a game changer for her but we offer what we have to one another, although it doesn’t feel like it’s what we need. I don’t hear anything about online rent payment until the fifth of the month, the last day before rent is late.

“I was going to have to pay almost $28 if I used my credit card!” Sybil has never been a stranger to umbrage. 

“So, Paul found where to enter the routing and account numbers?” I just have to know, which feels a bit unfair but somehow, it feels important. “He received a receipt by email, correct?”

“Well, if you can call it a receipt. It says, ‘Dear Sybil’ and then gives only my apartment number without which building. There are at least four different apartments with the same last three numbers.”

We talk about unique transaction numbers for a while, which is what is important for a transaction to take place between the two systems.

“But that’s just it. It hasn’t cleared my bank. There is no transaction.”

“Sybil, we just went through the receipt, line by line. You have a transaction number. The receipt says it was sent. That specific transaction was sent.”

“The bank has not received it. I’m going to be late on my rent.” 

“You are not going to be late on your rent because you have a receipt saying you paid it on the 29th.”

“But there is no transaction is what the bank is saying,” Sybil says, with a calm that is surprising.

That is a problem but there also seems to be a solution or maybe she’s been winding me up. I can’t say I might not do the same.

“Paul is working with the AWE manager.” Sybil pauses, pleased with her use of the acronym, and I find myself smiling. She goes on, “The account number was wrong.” 

“Did Paul enter it incorrectly?” 

“No!” Sybil snaps. Her son does not make mistakes. “I didn’t give him the zero.” 

“The what??!!” And for a moment I am as lost, if not moreso, than Sybil was when all this started.

“The zero in front of my account number on my check. I never use it. When I was in school, we were always told that zero isn’t a number. It’s nothing.”

“Let me put it this way, Sybil. Data is made up of nothing but ones and zeros.” I pause before adding, “that’s just probably adding to the confusion.”

“No, it’s not! I understand that. I’m saying that when I was in school zero wasn’t a number.”

“Zero is a number and it has value, Sybil. It may look empty but it’s anything but nothing.” We wait for a moment before I ask, “Didn’t you give Paul a voided check so he could enter the numbers?”

“Yes, but he said he didn’t need it because I read the numbers to him.”

“So, Paul had a check but he entered the numbers you read to him.

“Correct.”

“But he has now entered the correct account number into the system????” 

“I don’t know.”

This time I don’t go there. I look at the woods outside my window and tell Sybil I watched a goldfinch singing this very morning, sitting atop a still bare branch of the fire bush, yet another add to my birding life list. 

And Sybil who has taught me so much about the flora and fauna that is the woods outside my window begins to tell me yet another story about spring in some year before the Internet, when you could believe zero was not a number and not be bothered at all.

*Pema Chodron excerpts from Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, page 49.

A Murderer Among Us

A murderer lives in my apartment complex and has for the last eight years.

Marie stomped her 82-year-old mother to death, after throwing her down the stairs. Marie then encircled her mother’s body with all the things they had fought about: the gas money purse, the television set, various foods, mentholated rub. It would take some days to find both mother and daughter.

No one in our apartment complex knew about Marie’s past until recently, when she fell in love, so much so she told her beloved what happened just over 15 years ago. Predictably, he dumped Marie and then told everyone else in the complex that they could find Marie’s story online. He and a new girlfriend moved away.

The story of Marie falling in love with a man who leaves her for another is a repeat scenario, although this time there was no child that had to be given up for adoption, but falling in love seems to be the catalyst for Marie to stop taking her bipolar medication and to begin grasping at whatever story will give her oxygen: she was raped, she wasn’t raped; she’s a danger to others, she’s not a danger to others; she loves everyone, she doesn’t love anyone.

“I’m not a danger to myself or others but I guess I am” is what Marie told the judge at the sentencing hearing for her mother’s murder. Marie is and is not a danger, often simultaneously, a reality whose boundaries only she can perceive. The rest of us draw different lines in the sand that she crosses almost daily.

We call the police, record and video her outbursts and send them to the apartment complex managers but mostly, we wait until she injures herself or somebody else as she systematically destroys her own apartment.

Every day is pretty much the same with Marie. Sometimes the police come, sometimes not, and other times it’s the sheriff, whoever draws the short straw is what it feels like. “I’ll f**cking kill her (or you)” is a favorite rant as Marie asks for money or to borrow a phone that she will never return.

She is being evicted and sometimes she knows this but mostly she just tells us “this is “MY f*cking neighborhood.” We really are all she has but we don’t want her, and she doesn’t want us, either, yet we all need a place to live.

Because she’s leaving, Marie gifts her neighbors with used deodorant, perfume or dead batteries, delicately placed on the tiny shelves beneath the message blackboards outside resident apartment doors. It’s not that she’s not crying for help or that we don’t hear her. A torn window screen hangs from one of the window panels of her second story apartment, like a flag that just can’t catch a breeze.

About every four or five days, she is taken to a mental health facility where she is held for 72 hours and then released. Her own father and his wife, now in their late 80s, are so scared of her they sold their house and moved into an assisted living facility. They don’t want to be beaten to death during a psychotic outburst, and they no longer know how to help her.

With me, Marie keeps her distance. She waves whenever I drive into or out of the parking lot. I suspect she knows that eight years ago I figured out her story, when I was thinking about putting together a writers group. Marie was rather excited about it and told me her psychiatrist was, too. There are many solid reasons I never started that writing group, but it would be a lie to say that Marie was not the major one.

Eight years ago the story of Marie was more prominent on Google with pictures of the family home and sidebar stories about her activist mother. It was a tragedy, the headline read, and it still is but this time—so far—no one has died. We have two weeks until Marie leaves us for nowhere and anywhere. In either direction lies homelessness.

We do the best we can with who we are in any given moment, which doesn’t mean we choose right or wrong, even when either is evident. Life is not that clear cut, and there are always consequences. Choices are not words alone but actions, too; together, the best and worst in us.

UPDATE 4/13/21: Marie was evicted effective April 2 but not before there was a small fire in her apartment, perhaps accidentally started, perhaps not. Nonetheless, that was the last access Marie had to her apartment. In the waning hours of April 1, she sat outside her apartment, leaning against the door of what had been home for eight years. I don’t know how long she stayed, only that she is gone to the streets, maybe jail, possibly the mental health center but she can’t come home anymore.

A Country of Compassion, If We Can Keep It

In what now feels like a year that never was, I drafted a new year’s blog post. But then it wasn’t a new year anymore but more of 2020, albeit a bridge too far. Soon, 2021 overshadowed almost every year of this republic’s history with the attempted overthrow of the government, deliberately deadly and publicly provoked by a president of the United States.

We knew Trump did not lose well but we gave him sense enough not to incite an insurrection. No one had taking hostage/killing members of Congress on their bingo card, all to overturn an election that had been won fairly and soundly, one of the most secure we have had in the U.S.

Shakespeare warned us of such a man: “O, it is excellent to have a giant strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.” But Trump was less a giant and more an orange balloon inflated with lies, flying the skies of the world of alternative facts, where, it turns out, Trump did not have leaving the presidency on his bingo card.

Sequim Bay, Olympic Peninsula (Paulie Jenkins)

Leaving was almost more than he could do that final Wednesday morning. More than once he looked back before boarding Air Force One for the last time, hoping that something, anything, would change but it didn’t. He had lost the presidency. In those last moments reality dawned, and the magnitude of his loss was laid bare. Within 24 hours, The Proud Boys and QAnon denounced him as “flaccid and weak.” Turns out he was not a messianic warrior but just an American citizen who was once a president.

And in this moment, I found an ounce of compassion for him, as he surveyed the waste land of his brand, all of it all his doing. Not one of his last words moved me for they were the same old lies. It was the pain on his face, the realization that he was losing the power of the presidency and the standing in the world it gave him—all that comes with being president—so much of which he never bothered to learn. Maybe that’s why he sounded somewhat presidential; he finally felt the depth of what he was losing. Even thugs have moments of revelation.

On Martin Luther King Day I found these words from a very young Thich Nhat Hanh, re-printed in an article from Parallax Press: “this country is able to produce King but cannot preserve King. You have him, and yet you do not have him.” We are a country that has produced Martin Luther King and Donald John Trump, a divide we have lived for centuries.

We are a cacophony of ideas and beliefs, opposing chasms whose common ground lies buried with truth, deep within a myriad of caverns. We fly hashtags as if they were our flag, hoping the romantic will take root and with the dawn, we will see in each other what we daily deny. These are not easy bridges we must now build. We do not lack the wherewithal but can we keep our compassion?

Living without just a drop of empathy for Trump left me empty, fertile ground for the bitter roots of snark and cynicism—my time in his wasteland—that I left with him on inauguration morning. It is ours to write “…the story that tells ages yet to come that we answered the call of history. We met the moment. That democracy and hope, truth, and justice, did not die on our watch but thrived” (President Joe Biden).

It’s hard to bring the better self to the surface every day but just an ounce of compassion will keep us afloat.

Moments That Change Everything

Perhaps on no other day is the nature of fear and fearlessness more apparent than on the winter solstice, the celebration of dark during a season given to light. Tonight, the quarter moon reveals the yin and yang of life, its phase equally light and dark.

A rather somber opening for a solstice celebration but these days are darkened by a pandemic that kills thousands—incredibly, thousands—every day. No sentence is darker than that. Yet, there is the promise of a vaccine; like the solstice it is the promise of lighter days. The science of stuff gives a glimmer of hope, and the rest is up to us.

Too given to fear, we often stay in the dark much longer than we need, not only at a high cost to ourselves but to the planet. We too soon forget that fearlessness is not being without fear but facing what scares us the most, the light of day, revealing who and what we are. Transformation. The winter solstice marks its beginning.

For over 30 years now, the winter solstice is inextricably intertwined with a quarter moon night, both black and bright, in a southwestern Wyoming town that has become known to me as Fossil. No such place really exists but the land of the fossil fishes does. There, life is in layers with occasional interruptions in the laminae—the moments that change everything—it’s a place I lived and then later it became its own story, and every December, I return to begin anew. Sometimes, I actually do.

Jillian drives west on Interstate 80, searching the brittle, white Wyoming landscape for highway marker 189. Unending waves of prairie snow-crust keep her from locating the lone highway marker, but the broad, green-and-white exit sign that reads “Fossil” is not to be missed. She turns onto a narrow, two-lane highway that looks and drives like a one-way street. This is the high plains desert, 6,900 feet, covered in glistening snow crust that will not melt until June is the last thought she allows herself before arriving at the house on Ruby Street, on the night of the winter solstice quarter moon.

In the clear cold of midnight, Jillian looks at an Independent Realty photograph that had been taken the previous May when burnt orange poppies surrounded the once white clapboard Ruby Street house now covered in a false, red brick front that sags. Nubs of native grasses dotted the wind worn grounds; seven aging cottonwoods bordered the back and sides of the corner lot. Sweeping, broad limbs of a lone blue spruce provided perpetual shade for the front porch. And facing the eastern scallops of Oyster Ridge, with its fumaroles from long abandoned coal mines, was a cherry tree heavy with blossom, magnificent in its breadth.

But this is the winter solstice and there are no blossoms, poppies, or grasses, nubs or no; just the fumarole gas plumes in the moonlight, somewhat like Yellowstone’s geysers, as they start to signal their burst. But this is not the fantasy of Yellowstone. It is life at timberline, a harsh cold beauty for the very few. The fumarole plumes will fade with the night but the gas is ever present if not always seen.

In the -2° crystalline landscape, the snow beneath Jillian’s boot all but shatters with her every step. Everything looks and feels cold enough to break at the touch of her glove so she is careful as she turns the key in the front door of the first house built in Fossil at the turn of the 20th century, the Madam’s home. Standing on its threshold, there seems a sliver of possibility Jillian has found her way home. Maybe it is the magic of the solstice with its yin and yang moon, yet in the stillness of the dark, the light swirls as she lets a life lived end and a life she has not, begin.

“Transformation always involves the falling away of things we have relied on, and we are left with the feeling that the world as we know it is coming to an end because it is” (Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening).

A World Away

Some days I live as a hologram of pure light, weightless life walking white sand trails of ancient, longleaf pine forests to sit at the river’s mouth where pirate ships once anchored.

That is my current hologram moment. I have as many as my mind’s eye can conjure but most days my meditative state is anything but light, without the weight of life and its constant questions, and that is how it should be, full of potential and exhausting. Sometimes, I just need to be a world away.

Nearing the end of my sixth decade I “no longer wander lonely as a cloud” with Wordsworth “when the world is too much with me” but rather, I look to video games and holograms. Never would I have imagined my 19th century romanticism–with all its possibilities–giving way to 2020, the year that may never end, but here I am.

Maybe the future is holograms. It has been said before. And it is attractive in a time of pandemic that is revealing every one of us for what we are not, beings of light. We are not burdened by compassion but by its lack. In the United States we are raw by our history of white people taking from people of color, century after century.

Will we finally own our history and tell it all by including everyone who was there so we can learn who we really are? There is no future if we do not own who we have been. The history of humanity is proof of that. History is not about statues being pulled down (or put up), renaming streets/bridges–most symbols have a use by date–slapping on new labels will not bring back the dead or undo the deed. Statues and streets are not history. They mark moments, mostly inaccurately, it seems.

How we live with each other is our history. It is what we pass on to the future, and it has been a heavy load for each generation. There is no reason to pass on a burden. Never has been. Every once in a while, we realize that and decide to do something about it. Once again, we have an opportunity to lighten the load for the future by embracing equality as what defines the social order. There is no justice without it.

I am of that 60s generation that changed so much and failed to do so much more. All I know is it takes generations to change who we are, and it’s worth it to stay the course.

Some days I live like a hologram, light and unfettered, as if I were the outlier branch of a bush, catching the first bit of a breeze–life as it arrives, a current breaking stillness–before it makes its way through every other branch and leaf.

You’d think we make time for such moments, but we are too busy living in the past or the future, ignoring what is possible in the moment we have. We lack the solidarity to wear a mask to keep each other safe. It is not compassion that is the American burden but our exceptional individualism, and it is proving to be a killer.

On Twitter, a woman told me that 28 minutes of sunshine would kill COVID-19. Months long quarantines are the worst thing for the body, she said, so she would be spending her time on the beach, building up her immunity naturally while the rest of us live or die.

I don’t mind wearing a mask and didn’t before I was introduced to the “buff” by my friends at Musa Musala. When I’m not using it as a mask, I wear it as a neck scarf, and in the winter I may wear one as a beanie. On days that I am a hologram sitting by the river, it is my pirate head scarf.

Change offers us a lot to explore when the landscape we knew is no more. We’re given a new life lens for new lands. Life is not as it was. This has been happening to humanity for tens of thousands of years but the world is smaller than ever now and the planet nearly exhausted by life.

I wear a mask because I hope for humanity–still. I may be even more determined than I was in the 60s, not to be in the forefront but to support those who are. This is the time for their ideas for it is their world. I know some of what they feel and why they fight. For me, most of the letting go of life has happened but its image remains, “super realistic” like the hologram, life through light.

Ours to Lose

Robert Browning maintained that art is the “one way possible of speaking truth.” After all, each of us experiences the world through our life lens and no one else’s. It’s how we know what we know. It’s what we believe.

There is no universal truth, only its experience. And for revealing that we have art, a tapestry of truth that reveals each individual experience into one. We all have words but few make art and even fewer avoid artifice.

If you watched any of the impeachment hearings, you heard both art and artifice. Not difficult to distinguish between the two but it’s important that we do. That there is yet life in this ragged republic no thanks to Congress or to the executive branch but to career service diplomats, people like you and me.

Against a backdrop of obstruction, these patriots spoke truth to power with an eloquence that comes only with conviction and courage. As long as there is one patriot, the hope of our republic lives. But hope is not a savior nor has it ever been. It lights the way. You know, the obstacle is the path or the path or is the obstacle. Regardless, our way is through.

As a candidate, the current president bragged that he could shoot someone on fifth Avenue in New York City in broad daylight and “not lose any voters.” So far, he is not wrong, but saying that is not what impeachment is about. We have a president who would be king. Over 240 years ago we fought a revolution against all that is king and later we wrote a constitution spelling out that a president is not a dictator.

Is it the Constitution that hasn’t aged well or is it that we just cannot live up to its possibility? The light of day, the reveal of any art, is the truth of its time, no matter the dust of artifice. Art is the work of mere mortals but truth ever evolves; light reveals the what and who of existence without a moral cast–truth’s tapestry.

Ironically, there is one canvas “both sides” claim–November 8, 2016. The country lost that night, no matter who became president. It was our election to lose and we did; we gave in to divisiveness. Diplomat Fiona Hill made that point during the impeachment hearings: the politics of party over country is the death knell of democracy. Without the diversity of diplomacy, there is no liberty.

It’s the history of humanity that truth never lasts long. It wouldn’t for it is not stagnant. Within each one of us are two wolves, one light and one dark, our “both sides.” It is ours to heed the howl of both; at our peril we deny one over the other.

It is no less true for our country. The hour is ours to hear the wolves, to separate art from artifice, to live up to the possibility of republic. It really is ours to lose.

The Cable Guy Meets Old

It might not have happened if the recycle dumpster had not been overflowing is what I initially told myself. But that day with the cable guy had nothing to do with the dumpster. No proverbial straw stuff. No stacking of excuses.

There are thunderheads darkening the patch of sky over my apartment complex. Everywhere and with just about everyone there is talk of moving, wanting to leave but where to go?

At 67 that’s a completely different decision than it was at 57, when I came to this wooded area of loblolly pine, live oak draped in Spanish moss, the fragrant magnolia among lilacs and dewberries. For my neighbors in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, moving is wishful thinking if they are honest and if not, well, magical then. We moved here to stay.

Two years ago, on-site management changed in this 55+ community of four apartment buildings. It’s affordable housing, allowing the corporation a tax credit, so HUD housing but not section 8. There are more differences than you would think and how it matters to some.

This is a first-time manager job for the director and her leasing agent. It’s been tough on them. They are in the prime of their personal and business lives but the residents are not business as usual. They want more than that.

The only way to know old is to be it. This is not a warning just a fact. There is no way to plan for it, which is true of any time in life, really. The fortunate get to know old, the last act, in which awareness abounds and that can be a harsh light.

Change never ages for life is impermanent, always requiring more of us, it seems, but change does not come empty handed. It offers us a different life lens, leaving the adjustment to us. These thunderheads dissipate in their own time.

Many residents have lived here since the complex opened some 15 years ago when the Internet was not quite the lifeline it is now. For many the Internet is an unwanted complexity making their flip phones obsolete. Now, it’s invaded their TV as well–management dropped the package it offered for $45 a month.

The director made the announcement without offering any information about choices residents might have, including programming or who to contact at the cable company. With unwitting transparency, the managers posted a public notice, admitting they didn’t know anything.

Then, residents were informed the cable company needed access to each apartment, whether or not residents wanted the service. New cable was strung for each apartment. It doesn’t sound like such a big deal but many of these apartments are ceiling to floor furniture, wall-to-wall.

My neighbor’s furniture is oak bookcases, bedroom dresser and chest of drawers with full mirror, two rolldown desks, and a magnificent painting of an eastern European forest in winter, stark, the length and breadth of the wall. These six and nine hundred square foot apartments hold what is left of a lifetime. That is not without its weight.

At the only meet, greet, and subscribe meeting with the cable company, residents were assured that if they signed up that day, they could avoid a $70-dollar technician fee. Maybe it was true or was a good intention gone awry, but the previous cable installation had not gone well (it was all but impossible to tell which cable belonged to each apartment), and a technician was required. It was that or no TV.

I am not a cable subscriber so it’s not my circus but it is my neighbors’. Still, I had my moment with the cable guy (I could tell that story here and almost did) but like the dumpster, it’s not the issue. Both the cable guy and I have had better moments. This time I was correct but the next time, it’ll be the cable guy. It’s not about correctness. It’s how we make each other feel, and it wasn’t good.

He started to mansplain, and I stopped him in his tracks. He was surprised, and I was not gracious. He tried to laugh when I described the furniture but I could see he was beginning to understand that people here did not move “every 2 to 3 years” as he had begun to explain. The sign outside our complex reads that we all “live happily ever after.” We don’t, of course, but we are no longer in search of that, either.

Two days later, I saw the cable guy outside my window, exhausted, sweat running down both sides of his face. His counterpart was in my apartment with a walkie-talkie, trying to figure out which cable to label. In frustration, they guessed. I am not a subscriber but by the time I leave, who knows what the technology will be.

Certain springs, owls come to mate and then leave, occasionally red-tailed hawks spend spring, too, but year-round there are the cardinals, resplendent red males and brown velvet females who let them pretend.

This year, more kits became rabbits, it seems, or they just feel better about staying around. The fireflies are fewer (I have to watch for them) as are the swallowtail butterflies but they still come. All this I watch from the window of my six hundred square foot, one-bedroom apartment.

There are many reasons to move but mine offers a window with a view and there are so few places left that do.

 

One with the Wood

Morning mantra…I wanted a way to define the moment for if I could confine it, then I could experience it. Ha! I lost the control and kept the mantra, which is more than I will ever be: to meet each moment with compassion, lovingkindness, joy, and equanimity, a frame for every day. I’m not setting goals just reminding myself to open the door of each day and begin there.

Just waking to some days is easier than others. To meet what happens after that–looking to the heart and not only the face of life–is never easy. Feelings may not be facts but they are powerful, for at their core is pure energy.

Mindfulness–awareness like no other–helps me open that daily door, which is (sometimes) to a forest, rare and rich. Every day is a stroll, indoors or out, but a forest floor with sun shadows is stuff for my memory banks.

It is summertime in the Florida panhandle (although the calendar considers it spring), the humidity almost as high as the 90°+ temperatures, some of my best days for my body.

My walking stick is wood, a live branch now fallen, stripped of bark and varnished clear, its knots remembered. I have added black rubber tips to its top and bottom, one to ground and one to grip, for ease of grasp.

My left side is weaker, so much so my left hand cannot hold the stick with any certainty but my right hand, used to leading, finds the walking stick a useful prop. Sometimes, balance looks lopsided.

I waddle and wobble, a slow stagger sometimes, but an evenness of mind and body down a forest path on a late spring morning just after sunrise is–to me–all that and lots of birdsong.

This greenway is 50 acres of forest and meadow with 12 miles of dusty sand trail but to me it is boundless, yet forests have their limits these days and are now carefully tended not to exceed…what is done is done.

I walk until I tire, reaching a picnic table made of concrete, its bench table tops painted brown for natural reasons I suppose. Still, I am grateful for such tables, as well benches, for there are days I stop briefly at each one but today, it is the second picnic table where I will stay.

Not far along, I know, but in the forest, distance ceases to matter, like time. It’s forgotten. To neither, the forest bends. Rather, it gives its all.

Regular readers of this blog may recognize the above picture of a magnificent live oak split down the middle by lightning some six or seven years ago, not even nanoseconds in its life. See how its heart has sprouted so many new lives.

In the distance, in stark contrast, stands another oak, a sentinel stripped of its bark, possibly by lightning but by life, nonetheless. At the tip of one of its limbs, I notice movement, the shape of a turkey vulture when its head switches to profile, but mostly it is one with the wood.

In awe, I watch as all else disappears.

Not even the heart of the magnificent tree with all its new lives distracts from being one with the wood. No sound nor single thought or emotion, only nothing consumes mind and body. I am neither on the ground nor in the air, only nowhere.

In some moment I return to being alive with the energy that animates everything rather than being one with it. Such soundless moments never repeat in the same way or in the same place. I know. I’ve tried. I no longer search for the silence. It is enough to know it is available in any moment I open the daily door.

Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything” (Gordon Hempton, Ecologist).