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.

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.

Stupid Does Have a Darker Side

Some of my days begin with refrains of songs and sometimes the refrain stays the day.

The wood is old

The wood is tired

If the weather holds

We’ll make it fine.

But if the weather holds

We’ll have missed the point

That’s where I need to go. (From “The Wood Song,” Indigo Girls)

The weather cannot hold if we are to become better than we were, different, do more with the life we have rather than wishing our lives away for the perfect day, which will neither come nor stay. We can no longer miss the point, which has been our history.

We have one more chance to make good. Some version of this idea comes through my morning meditation almost daily now but none quite take me where I need to go.

I guess I could meditate for the rest of my life to feel better.

The thing about stupidity is determining whether people are just so dumb they don’t know better or they do, and they are just that evil.

If it no longer bothers me to appear in public with a tampon up my nose, I’m beyond blushing about any of my behavior.

It’s this last thought that doesn’t leave my mind too many places to go, so I jump off in this time of viruses jumping species. This is the world we created, in our own image as it were, and it’s not such a great place, yet here we are.

Our resoundingly resilient planet has pronounced, “Time out!” offering us a moment to consider another way of being, a chance to demonstrate we are better than we appear. Most of us are not evil but a lot of us are easily misguided. There is no longer time to ignore the point.

Which is not expressed in positive platitudes and memes of generality, none of which are about being alive and learning to live, which is messy and full of mistakes, painful but valuable in its daily experience. I eschew the word positive as it has become a way to spin whatever the weather is as–all will be well when it won’t.

I prefer to face the weather as it arrives, leaving the spin to those who brand life with one label or another, a constant commentary about absolutely nothing, utterly feckless (by design). Stupid really does have a darker side.

For me, mindfulness separates the wheat from the chaff, as long as I do the work, which I don’t always. I’m as susceptible to branding as the next person. Some days I want the weather to just hold so I don’t have to do my part (just for a little while) but I’m not alive not to live, not to experience. That’s the point.

During these days of distance from people, I look into the woods outside my window, so many worlds within worlds, where sometimes, too, chaos reigns. Viruses are known to all species but it is also true that some are of our own making. Maybe the world is setting itself right, whether or not we stay in it.

Time is a construct of our creation, meaningless to all of existence except to us. It isn’t that we cannot have routines in which we work and play but we will not pigeonhole the planet. The weather will not always hold. Sounds like a conspiracy theory, I suppose, but regardless, it is mine (with a nod to The Indigo Girls).

We are witnessing the fall of all we believed. We thought it would always hold. Turns out, it was unsustainable, the stuff of branding. It doesn’t mean we will not do better. It means we must.

I could meditate for the rest of my life and probably feel better but one day, the world would come knocking and I would be found wanting. Been there, done that. I’m not missing the point again.