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Aunt Margaret

Born 1910 – Died 1998

 

It’s a fashionable thing nowadays to have a crazy uncle.  I can claim only a crazy aunt, but the uniqueness of her radiant life is more than enough to claim her place in my heart.  She, as I, was required to live in the shadow of Kelsey Martin.  She had four years, from 1910 to 1914, to be the star.  Then her brother took center stage.  Of course, he was the boy, the son, the apple of his father’s eye.

 

She was a cutie, but was only a girl.  She made good grades but not the straight A’s to match her storied brothers’.  They lived two miles, as the crow flies, from the town of Azle, where they attended public school.  The established roadway measured nearer to three, and convenience dictated a creative solution.  When Kelsey lost his two front teeth at six and started to school, they began cutting through trees, bushes, brambles and prickly pears to the Jacksboro highway and a straight shot to the schoolhouse.  They carried knives and a machete for opening the path that years later became, and still is, a dedicated county road.

 

Margaret was odd.  There’s no denying that.  Her unique physiognomy was a one-off.  She looked for-all-the-world like an upside-down pear.  Like all the Martin clan she had no butt, the result of sitting and reading rather than running, climbing, fighting, and jumping the schoolyard rope.  She did have a sumptuous bosom which completed the visual of a top with no bottom.  Did her behavior echo the imbalance of her physique?  Pretty likely.

 

Grandpa tells of times when, in a fit of pique at schoolmates, Margaret threw herself on the ground and beat the sod with her rage.  She needed to express her considerable feelings and did it with a flourish.  She had never learned how to verbally declare emotion, so she proceeded to act it out to dramatic effect.  I personally saw her chase a carpenter off her land with a hatchet because he installed a roof over the back door to her house that she did not request.

 

Once when a business partner of my Dad was up to considerable skullduggery, Margaret splashed white shoe polish all over his car.  She, with her considerable intuition, sensed his evil intent and set about encouraging him to leave.  It turns out, she was right.  Later the scum-bag took out a contract on my father’s life and absconded with the entire company cash account.

 

Later, when a live-in sweetie was rolling in my Dad’s deep credit accounts while sneaking off to trysts with a waiter from the Green Oaks Inn, Margaret knew what was what.  Just knew.  She tapped the white shoe polish yet again, this time up and down the hallways of my Dad’s house.  When sweetie-pie took off with the waiter to South Carolina, stopping along the way to max out credit cards, my Dad’s history with the Parker County Sherriff came through.  She was nabbed in the act of unauthorized purchase.  The card was cut in half before her eyes and all accounts were frozen.  “All’s well that ends well” sounds good, but don’t believe it.  Loss of pride and self-confidence ensued from this fiasco.  It was Margaret, not my dad, who had understood and dared to act.

 

In her defense, she was always careful to choose safe props for her playacting.  The shoe polish was the washable variety used for summer whites.  Nail polish could have done terrible things to an auto’s finish or interior woodwork.  Hers was always the kinder choice.  She waved the hatchet but was careful not to strike.  In all my life I never knew her to actually hurt anyone or anything.  When she beat the ground with her rage, did she get any points for not beating her brother?

 

Margaret did have a big heart.  She loved me with a fierceness that was part of the undercarriage of my little life.  Unlike most grownups, she played with me.  We competed at cards, read books, and went for long walks, until I tired and begged for rest.  She told me stories of the pioneers who settled the land and held it to honor that sacred homestead contract, protecting their children’s lives and my future against the “trepidations of the savages.”  She showed me the sandstone steps cut from the banks of the spring that was rumored never to go dry.  The steps were still there, hidden under moss and cat-tail stalks, waiting to share their story.  We sat under the old bridge that crossed the creek in front of the house, listening to the frogs while she regaled me with tales of courage and derring-do.  Thanks to Margaret, I knew we were special, a delight I was to learn that I shared with every person I would ever encounter on God’s earth.  Margaret breathed that world and its people into scintillating life.

 

Thanks to Margaret, I learned to crochet.  It was her quiet patience that guided me through the intricacies of single crochet, double crochet, and shell.  We made lace doilies, a lovely decoration to what was a spare existence on the farm just west of Azle, the town that held for her so many remembered frustrations.

 

She had worked as a book-keeper for the REA (Rural Electrification Association), but left to fill a job as chocolate dipper at a Ft. Worth candy factory.  For a while her employee discount made fine chocolate affordable.  Then nothing.  No explanation.  One day an itinerate window-washer blew into town.  Margaret traded her “Martin” for his “Anderson.”  He stayed awhile and then was gone.  One day Margaret got a call that Jim had fallen off a skyscraper.  Suddenly a widow, Margaret began collecting Social Security based on his account.  In the benevolent order of things, life improved.

 

Margaret began attending a local fire and brimstone church.  When registering her irritation with all and sundry relations, Margaret began threatening to leave her considerable landed estate to the church.  She never did, but the threat served her well.

 

My dad, having learned that he could not be trusted with assets, willed his entire estate to Margaret, to safeguard it from “women.”  Grandma willed her own estate to Margaret for the same reason, given her son’s checkered history with the ladies.  Margaret in her turn left everything to me.  I spent the residual after her death on establishing an architectural design business.  In my own turn, I enjoyed the creative commerce until it fell to the cheating lies of a “friend.”  What is it about the acorn and the tree?

 

As Margaret aged, she became even more interesting.  She inherited Grandma’s inner ear problems. Soon, deaf as a stone, she worked at becoming blind as a bat.  Daddy built her a little house on her property.  She wanted only the basics and defended that concept with considerable insistence.  Having sent the carpenter packing when he dared to add the frippery of overhang to her back entrance, she defended any intrusion of “other.”

 

Years passed.  Blind and deaf, she attracted many well-meaning helpers to her door.  Local dignitaries concerned, my dad and I answered their call to assist and flew from our remove in California to her aid.  She wasn’t having any.

 

We couldn’t just leave.  She was wrapped in a dangerous isolation, no way to get food unless somebody thought to bring her some, and morsels dropped on the floor stayed there forever since she couldn’t see to pick them up.  We couldn’t just leave her there.  We loaded her into the car, flailing, kicking, and inveighing against our intervention.  I had no idea Margaret was so strong.  With the child-safe door lock mechanism engaged, we drove to the airport and sat her in a wheelchair.  I had forgotten about her strange vocal signature until we began to push her through DFW to our departure concourse.  Margaret was born with an unusual pneumo-pharyngeal arrangement that resulted in augmented vocalization.  From out of her RBG physiognomy issued a Wagnerian projection.  I inherited only a touch of this which I occasionally experience when I work up a super high resonance cough response to whatever irritant is my current problem.  It turns heads and raises eyebrows.  At DFW it turned heads, raised eyebrows, cranked open eyes, and stilled the room to silence.  As we moved through the giant space, Margaret’s voice filled it.

 

“Help!” she boomed.  “I’m being kidnapped!”

 

There was no recourse.  She couldn’t hear our entreaties to silence.

 

“Help!  These people are taking me from my home and are going to sell it!”

 

It would have been no big deal given garden variety ululation, but the booming diatribe rattled the terminal.  My dad and I cringed, worried that we might at any moment be accosted by airport security.  But nothing happened.  It must have been obvious that this was a well-meaning intervention.  We made it into the plane where Margaret spat on the attendant when assisted with her seatbelt while I pretended to not know her.

 

She settled in, working up a litany of “Help! Help! Help!” until my Dad lost his famous “cool” and got in her face with a “SIT THERE AND SHUT UP.”  She heard him, not with her ears, but with whatever always came through to her understanding of what’s what.  The remainder of Margaret’s very first flight in an airplane was uneventful.  She was docile until, when arriving at the assisted living facility in Los Angeles, she bit the nurse.

 

Our long friendship came through a rough time, and though I never was able to acquiesce to her demand that I return her to her Texas home, we were friends until many years later she decided to stop eating.  Soon it was all over.  Teaching always by example, she showed me how to stop the world and get off while the getting‘s good.  Next time around, she may have an easier ride, but she’ll never have a more interesting one.

More

I had a dream last night.
When I woke, it stayed behind.
I lay with it, sang with it,
rocked it, ruminated on its truth,
netted in the hammock
of its subtle implication.
It snared me in a knot of gnosis,
knitted stitch by stitch
cast about my eye of mind,
an irony of blinding sight
wanting just to hide from light.

Dream is surely a cousin to other styles of perception, both sensory and extra-sensory.  Night-time dreams are more an every-man experience, not easy to deny, while perception beyond what is sensed is more likely to face questions of veracity.  ESP was once a big deal, but seems to have run its course as a popular phoneme.  Culture with its millennial sophistication is quick to off-load concept that smacks of superstition.  Claiming to just know doesn’t carry a great deal of weight.  How to give muscle to such assertions is still an open question.

I contend that humans are species adept at pushing sensory boundaries.  But given our tendency to self limit whole realms of knowing, we declare ourselves not musical, not mathematical, face blind, or possessed of two left feet.  We are oh-so-good at denying our mundane sensory apparatus; it’s amazing we give any credence at all to ESP.  Opening to possibility of capacity often facilitates exactly that.  For example, being born into a family that accepts prayer as more than superstition can open the door to spirit.  If prayer, why not extra-sentience?  On the other hand, a grim sterility of sense is sure to squelch woo-woo chit-chat.

This concern first appeared on my radar in the winter of 1960.  My daughter Melanie and son Dale shared a quiet respite in their playpen while I brushed my hair in the next room.  Always long and tangled, it needed daily brushing.  The odd quiet moment lulled me into a reverie as I watched the brush reciprocate in the bedroom mirror.

Suddenly I just knew a horrific truth.  Melanie was not to be long with me.  I gasped, dropped the brush, and dashed into the living room.  I  peered down into the playpen and denied the possibility of such a thing.  I sagged to the floor and sobbed, rubbing eyes and praying that it not be true.  I took baby Melanie up into my arms and prayed like never ever before.  It was three years before that prayer was answered.  The answer was “no.”

After that frightful comeuppance, ESP faded into a one time life experience until one day in 1968 Richardson when I crossed the street to pick up a jug of milk at our neighborhood Seven/Eleven.  A flicker of green registered at the outside corner of my left eye as I stepped off the curb.  Hanging on to both sons, I hurried on across the highway, passing between autos head-in parked in front of the store.  Suddenly I knew that I needed to look beneath the vehicle to my left.  I shooed the boys up onto the sidewalk and knelt on the hot pavement.  Under the car, two twenty-dollar bills shivered in the hot Texas zephyr.  I grabbed them both and with a smug smile scrambled to my feet.  But no—this wasn’t over.   On my knees again, I inspected further beneath the dark undercarriage.  A third twenty lay further back deep in umbra.  This reach netted me a total of three crisp twenties, and a surety that something weird was afoot.  Then it was into the store and treats for every kid in sight.  Fun!

How could I know the money was hidden under the car?  I couldn’t.  Not until I knelt and bent down, near nose to ground, could I spy those bills.  How from across the road could I see any glimmer of green as a flash of left peripheral vision when the car was directly in front?  I couldn’t.  Any normal visual would have been straight ahead.  I didn’t know what to make of my sudden windfall, but enjoyed it and tucked the whole adventure away for future musing.

~~~~~~

My next attack of ESP occurs on the old home place near Azle in Parker County, Texas.  Two ancient cedar trees had grown together, meeting over the front porch steps of the old house.  I part the branches just enough to climb through.  The concrete steps look good as new.  The porch floor is iffy, many of the boards rotting, some even having crumbled and fallen through tangles of spider webs into the dark mystery.  Who knows what waits there?  Copperheads?  Black-widows?  It’s safer keeping to the periphery where weight is supported by the much overbuilt footings.  Grandpa had fashioned them out of his collection of geological finds appropriated on his travels.

The front door stands ajar.  Local rowdies have long ago broken in and helped themselves to all the old furniture.  Even Grandma’s rocking chair, worth nothing on the local ‘we buy junk; we sell antiques’ market, has been carted off to who knows what oblivion.  It would have at best been good for kindling, but I would love to have it just to remember her sitting and rocking, rubbing swollen knuckles on her old hurting hands, and murmuring “I wish I had ever-thin’ done”.  One arm of the rocker, broken beyond aesthetic repair, had been salvaged with a bolt, a quarter-twenty flat washer, and a length of baler wire.

The ancient bed, where several generations of Reynolds and then Martins had been conceived and ultimately delivered, is gone, leaving a large unworn rectangle in the corner.  Even the old wood stove is conspicuous in its absence, leaving only a gaping maw of blackened stovepipe protruding from the wall.  Nothing holds my interest in the stripped front bedroom but memories, so I head for the door that leads to the parlor.

It resists my pressure, hip shoves, and even a hard kick, but finally I’m in.  Stacked up beyond are crates and boxes of electronics journals, as well as piles of individual issues that have been dumped out by the scalawags in their joyous creation of this mess.  My Dad, who never discarded an electronics reference source, had long before he died stored his precious stash of information in the old parlor.  Now his once neatly packed and stacked boxes are a metaphor for chaos.  My stomach sinks.  I am glad, so very glad, that he didn’t have to witness this desecration of what he had deemed precious.

I want to find something of personal meaning to keep and treasure.  But how?  Where?  I’ll never be able to sort through it all.  Discouraged, I pick my way across the room to the fireplace and sit on the raised hearth.  Closing eyes and retreating to a place of no thought, just being.  Suddenly I’m up, slip-sliding through slick shiny magazine covers and staggering to a spot that seems to be calling to me.  I kneel and begin to dig, tossing aside volume after volume of out-of-date material that had once been state-of-art.  I dig all the way down to linoleum, uncovering a small red box.  It’s a standard package for top-tear bank checks.  I reach for it with both hands, smile, and yank off the lid.

It’s mine, left from years ago when my Dad and I had collaborated on a new concept wound suction pump, and I was tinkering with an improved mammary implant combining silicone gel with Emerson & Cuming Eco-Spheres (microscopic glass bubbles).  Sweet memories come flooding back.  Inside the box is a Polaroid snapshot of one of my engineering drawings speckled with red sticky dots.  Each crimson circle had called attention to a small change that was needed before the drawing could be declared finalized, ready to publish.  Under the photo is a head of matured wheat that my sister, Leslie, had tucked behind my favorite piece of wall art.  The painting had given me the pleasure of beauty while working at my desk, creating side by side with Daddy, thinking up wild and wacky widgets, a lifetime dream on its way to fulfillment.  The wheat reminds me of a future harvest, wished for and hoped for, a gift from Leslie, the little sister I loved but hadn’t yet tried to know, the one who was very much afraid of spiders.  I wonder if she continues to fear them.

There is no need to look further.  I slip out the back door clutching my box and wondering how it was that I could have been drawn almost magically through a roomful of detritus to that small buried box of memories and dreams.  There is surely more to living in a physical world than can be explained by fact alone.

~~~~~~~

More.  Much more.  There was the California day I moved from Irvine to Diamond Bar, closer to work.  The van was cleaned out, the furniture unloaded.  Vehicle doors were locked, everything moved inside the new apartment and accounted for.  A big job!  But not quite done.  Not a single box was yet unpacked.

Only Kurt, my youngest, was present and still dwelling under my roof.  Dale had moved to West Virginia to keep his promise to his grandpa.  He would till the Taylor family farm, and Ray Rex would name him testee in his will.  Kurt and I curled up on bare mattresses and gave ourselves over to sleep.

But then I awoke with a scream.  OMIGOD!  I dreamed that Dale was in trouble.  Heat and flames everywhere.  What to do?  I had to find out, call the farm, and verify his safety.  The new phones weren’t turned on yet.  Nobody those days had an i-phone, much less a cellular.  It was hard wire or nothing.  So Kurt and I jumped in the car and at 2AM went on the hunt of a pay phone.  Finally I spied a booth in front of what was to be my new Ralph’s Market.  With the phone change always stashed in the car, I managed to raise the Taylor farm.  After a good many rings it was a sleepy Grandma who answered.

“Hello?” She wheezed, stopping to hack hawk and spit.

“Hi!” I shouted, making sure my voice carried all the way to West Virginia.  “I need to talk to Dale.  Is he alright?”

“He’s asleep.  Want me to go git ‘im?”

“No, that’s OK.  Just tell him I called.  Are you sure he’s safe?”

“Oh yeah.  He’s fine.  The big barn burned down tonight, and he had to move all the equipment away from the building.  We lost everything inside, but all the tractors and the harvester are safe.  He was plumb tuckered and had to go to bed a’fore he dropped.”

“Thanks,” I choked, hung up and gave in to a mother’s tears.

I have always had a psychic connection with my firstborn.  Before, I had suspected; now I know.

~~~~~~

The famous analyst Carl Jung was fascinated by the possibilities of synchronicity.  I share his excitement when things seem to line up just perfectly, out of all rationality, to make way for something wonderful.  One day, because Hyde Park’s Remke’s was out of my Fage Yogurt the night before, I had to stop at Kroger to replenish my supply.  It was a bit of dust that had stuck in my i-phone’s on/off switch that caused me to miss all incoming calls the day before and took me past Kroger on the way to the Verizon store to address the problem.  In the Nature aisle I met a friend.  If we had chatted much longer, or even a mite less, I would have missed the most exciting announcement I had ever heard on Public Radio:

“The discovery of gravity as a waveform,
emitting from the collision of two black holes.”

That byte of knowledge had won the Pulitzer!  It would become the basis of thought experiments, fodder for human’s creative imagination for the rest of our lives.  Learning that gave me joy!

What can we do with gravity, now that we know it to be a wave?  Have I finally found my illusive anti-gravity?  My point, however chimeric, is that if Remke’s had filled their stock of Fage yogurt, I would have missed out on a life altering tidbit of science, and I wouldn’t be blathering about pairs of colliding black holes, offset or in opposition, causing perturbations of gravity in the universe.  Is that synchronicity?  Perhaps.

Synchronicity, as the gravitas of a single piece of dust, is interesting but hardly provable.  It’s only when it happens again and again, advancing some identifiable agenda, that we are tempted to ask, “How weird is this?”

~~~~~~

Not as weird as this:  One morning in 2008 Virginia I jumped in my car and headed for work.  The driveway from my apartment went down a sizable hill to a signal controlled intersection.  At the top of the hill, I had another strange encounter with ESP.  Time stopped.  The car hesitated in a time out of mind while I had a quiet discussion with amazement.  Far off to the left I glimpsed a tiny flash of red.  My inner voice proposed a strange scenario, to wit:

“If two rectangles,
one red and one white,
occupy the same space,
the red would rub off
on the white.”

“So?”  I shrugged my mental shoulders and rolled on down the hill, eager to get to work.  It was Saturday and I wanted to set out some bedding plants at the To Life! medical office.  An Einsteinian observer watching me would have noticed nothing out of the ordinary.  The car moved on down the hill.  A lovely green light said, “Go,” and I was delighted to see that I wouldn’t have to stop for a red.  No hesitation at the top, no slowing at the bottom.  I rolled out into the intersection and was T-boned from the left by a speeding red Jeep.  The front grille of the snarling vehicle looked like it was climbing right into the driver’s seat with me.

My beautiful new Acura TL did its thing.  Its famous inside-front-door stiffener bar stayed firmly in between me and that red monster.  The door held.  I was plastered against its inside, spine deforming against the shape of the arm-rest, and the pain defied description.  I screamed—started and couldn’t stop—finally howling a duet with the approaching siren.  But I lived.

The next month after being released from the hospital, I drove my replacement car to the spot where time had stopped that morning while I philosophized with the bug in my brain.  It makes no sense.  Some part of me must have known a red object would be impacting my silvery white vehicle.  The red did rub off onto the white.  An inspection at the vehicle impound yard verified that fact.  Beyond that, nothing was elucidated except that there is more, much more, than we can ever hope to explain.

~~~~~~

I woke up one morning in 2012 Cincinnati, pregnant with a question:  “Who is that person who speaks in a clear strong voice during my dreams?”  The voice is female.  It displays none of the subtle cues alluding to self-doubt that characterize every other human voice, speaking always conditionally, surrounded with the frippery of adjectives and adverbs.  Whoever she is, she simply knows.  I decided to name her Knowa.

This must be how evolving humanity conceptualized God.  I’m not special; everybody must have their own Knowa or Knower.  It is interesting that the strong center of my being is gender defined.  I should think something so basic would be androgynous.  Perhaps the true essence of sexuality is defined by much more than genitalia.  Maybe it really is all about the Yin and the Yang.

Thinking back to past dream encounters, I remember Knowa instructing me in her clear resonant voice to coat every joint with synovial fluid before subjecting them to my body’s weight.  Ever since, I do my morning ballet horizontally, warm under the covers, placing my structural components in every position I can imagine.  It never fails to allow me to move through the day with more fluidity and less pain.  At last I throw off the covers, stand and do my morning belly-dance, undulating to the zither in my head.  My inner Catholic does the obligatory spectacles, testicles, watch, and wallet, as a final blessing on the morning ritual.  I smooth my hands over all my curves.  Yes, all of me is accounted for.

It’s comforting to muse about Knowa.  It was she who warned me of my father’s transition in a dream, even as he lay dying.  Asleep in a Virginia motel room, I envisioned the deathbed agony as a concurrent California happening.  Then in her clear unmistakable resonance Knowa spoke my name and intoned in a voice that covered the horror of the scene like a soft blanket, “Dorothy, we are showing you this because otherwise you would be much too upset.”  She was right.  If I had found, with no forewarning, that note from the Columbus Police Department posted on my front door, explaining what had happened in my absence, I would surely have died on the spot.  As it was, there was all the guilt associated with being unreachable when my father needed me to tell him one last time that I love him, but the pain was cushioned by the beautiful knowledge that dream really can express the actual.  This was my proof that there is surely more than what we can ever know, and that even though I can in no way explain the workings of the Infinite, I know it exists.  It knows my name.  It cares about how I feel.  What greater gift could my father leave me as his last goodbye?

All these way-out-of-the-realm-of-sensation experiences have led me to believe there is more than what we can see, hear, touch, taste or smell.  More.  Ever-so-much-more.  They demand that I leave the door ajar to the possibility of what might be, must surely be, a universe of spirit.

Child Mind

Jesus said: “Verily I say unto you. Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

 

What does that mean?  What is it at core that sets the mind of a child apart from our own?  Children are first of all vulnerable.  They are open to any skullduggery, and are helpless to affect any change.  They perceive their position in the universe as children of gods.  Here they are, due to no fault of their own.  They didn’t get a vote.

 

Beginning at this rock bottom disadvantage, they must climb up and out.  The humility of lying turtle-like on their backs awaiting milk and dry diapers points toward sainthood.  But even a child can’t maintain that posture for long.  In the benevolent order of things, diapers give way to training pants, and the dark of the night is for sleep.*  Healthy child narcissism struggles with innate helplessness to presage the future adult.  Somewhere in there a turning point lurks.  An intact adult ego is hopefully the result.

 

Depending on upbringing, children are likely to be optimistic.  With most of life’s abuse still ahead of them, they have little memory of evil.  They expect more of the good stuff.

 

The Buddha made much of beginner’s mind.  A clean slate is universally revered.  A mind that is overrun with pre-conceptions is not likely to see the new with any clarity.  It is an everyone amazement that a clean white sheet of paper speaks to the soul.  All hearts leap up when thoughts of September school supplies cross the mind.  A shiny new pencil, a pristine yet to be opened pack of notebook paper, or a brand new book engenders an inner smile recognized by any and all.  A child’s mind waits for incipient amazements yet a-birth.  It visions possibility.

 

Children are unlikely to have caused harm.  They are happily free of guilt.  The adults in their lives quickly disabuse them of that mindset.  The minions of guilt hang dripping from every tree and bush.  Soon even the most gentle and pious of children learn to shoulder their load of self-retribution and loathing.

 

Children tend toward honesty.  This doesn’t mean they will starve before they steal an apple; it means they are willing to own their own hunger.  Like any home-grown Texan, they tell it like it is.  They start with a nascent veracity and proceed.  You know where that ends.  It’s not likely to be pretty.  What is more honest than the first cry of a newborn?  Waaaaaaaaaaaaah!

 

Vulnerable, humble, optimistic, guiltless, honest.  It’s easy to see why Jesus admired kids.  He did speak to the possibility of conversion—change for the better.  Find friends who help you be a better person.  If they fail that basic test, dump them.  Aging with its gathering second childhood may be a blessing in disguise.

 

*Dr. Spock, First Edition

 

My two most riveting memories of passing from child to teen were Aunt Judy’s debilitating illness and my own chagrin at being sent away to boarding school, resentful that my exile pleased Dear Uncle Wesson.  It was a private Catholic school ninety miles north of Dallas where, then thirteen and exhibiting a penchant for questioning authority, I was sure to encounter corrective discipline.  But at St. Joseph’s Academy I found only a firm constancy quickly recognized as love.

 

The nuns, identical black and white starched penguins, patiently endured my exchange of salt and sugar in their private refectory, and affected a studied silence when I unrolled the toilet tissue from Mother Superior’s lavatory, down the hall and through the high school classrooms.  They even withheld comment on my dragging the bubble gum machine from its place in the courtyard and installing it in the nuns’ chapel beside the altar, next to the votive light dispenser.  I finally ran out of energy for pranks and settled into a pleasant and well-ordered life as boarding school student.

 

The women became individual friends and mentors, their own distinct personalities overcoming the anonymity of the veil.  I loved my seventh grade teacher, Sr. Rose Marie, doing my very best to please her.  She commented favorably on my mature vocabulary, so I bought a pocket notebook in which to record new and even more resplendent words, which I used conspicuously at every opportunity.  She was a favorite of many of the students.  At recess we clustered about her like puppies, vying for a place beside her on the big opposing seat swinging glider.  One beautiful spring day, happily occupying one of the favored spots on either side of her, I hugged her deliciously fat arm, burrowing my face into its warmth, as we all swung and sang with the Hit Parade.  Suddenly she jumped up, shook her arm free and barked, “Leave me alone!  Let go of me!”  She ran sobbing into the building, black veil floating in her wake.

 

I was mortally embarrassed, sure I must have done something heinous to have so upset her.  I hid the rest of the day in the attic of the convent, my refuge discovered finally by Mother Superior.  “Don’t be afraid, my dear, ” she consoled, proffering her smile, which never failed to light up her crinkled face.  “I’m so glad to have found you.  We have looked simply everywhere.  Sister told me what happened, and it wasn’t your fault.  She was just feeling sad because she will never be able to have a daughter of her own.  She does love you, you know.”

 

I wept then, both sad and happy, for Sr. Rose Marie’s loneliness, and for the gift of Mother Superior’s kindness.  I observed the world to be a fearsome place, tenderness rare and exceeding precious.  Mother Superior took my hand, gave it a squeeze, and retracing her steps through the shadowy, spider web draped loft, she led me out to join the others.

 

It was Sr. Rose Marie who cemented my love for words learned first at the knee of my poet mother, later from the beauty of the words themselves.  Words as parcels of thought carried a mystical truth, endemic to their meaning.  In my mind’s eye, they flit from person to person, out of and perhaps into the very heart of God.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  How could–how can–I not love words?

 

“The Book Thief,” one of my favorite movies is a classic film-long jou de mot.  Markus Zusak penned the historical novel that inspired the movie.  His young heroine Liesel Menninger hoards her trove of word-finds chalked on the walls of the family basement, where they secrete a lone Jew during the Nazi atrocity.  He sleeps under the stairs, wrapped in blankets, coming out only during an air raid, when all good Gentiles are hiding underground.  It’s a rare time to marvel at the glory of God shimmering across the night sky, a numinous bloom of twinkling stars.  He entertains Liesel with tales of Semitic beginnings, featuring God as Word and then blossoming into the imaginative possibilities of writing as art, where words may flit and float anywhere, anywhere at all.

 

Zusak enjoyed playing with words in Book Thief, but nobody much enjoys my own love affair with lexicon.  Too often my prosody slithers about–a thesaurus on steroids, waving way too many legs.  Our Monday Morning Writer’s Group balks at having to reach for the dictionary just to wade through one of my self-indulgent monographs.  Even Pauletta Hensel’s Art of Personal Writing assemblage digs in their collective heels when I stoke up a giddy head of prose.  Surely personal writing can accommodate an honest case of lexophilia.  No?  What’s to be done?

 

Word lovers adore using words—the bigger the better, but those words had better get something accomplished.  When push comes to shove, there are words that push all day, but nothing much happens.  A shove, on the other hand, is where a push actually creates motion.  That’s why throwaway crutch words weaken what we write.  They only push–pathetically.  Often it’s the shortest word that ignites the dynamite.  Our choices need to be great, not gleefully gargantuan.

 

Some admonitions are devoutly to be remembered.  I must try.  Elegant word choice lies not in length but in precision.  Length is encumbrance; precision is denouement.  Like sex, long is good only if it works.  Utilizing an excess of fifty-cent words doesn’t qualify anybody as a lexicographer.  Word choice must be the best, the all-time-most-perfect selection to deliver certain intent.  Longer is never better if it’s shorter that draws the blood.  A muddy mire of multi-syllabic muck is nobody’s idea of good prose.  Keep-it-simple-stupid so Sr. Rose Marie can be proud.

 

My name is Dorothy Jeanette Martin.  I am a recovering word addict.  It has been seventeen seconds since last I used.  Please pray for me.  The Good Lord has given up.  Is it hopeless?

Body of Opinion

After Redeemer’s new organist completed his first Sunday service of the new church year, I bounced up to the organ dais and declared, “I like your snappy style.  Those hymns bounced right along—no slouching to Jerusalem here!”  I wasn’t alone.  Several others of the choir had rushed the organ after sitting transfixed through the Bach postlude.  It had been a game-changer.

 

But I hedged the awkwardness of the moment, speaking to my stature as an ancient song-bag hanging on for dear life.  I surveyed the crowd and offered, “Sure, he really needed to hear that from me.  Actually, he needs to hear that from everybody!

 

“Hear.  Hear,” the group agreed–a jovial concession to elder wisdom.  What’s going on here?  Hmmmm.  I understand that it is jarring for young people to be presented with the spectacle of an old person, much less an old woman, flitting about dispensing compliments right and left.

 

The problem seems to be a readiness to give opinions where none is solicited.  Who asked me?  Nobody–but I have nourished a style of supplying compliments where, though none is required, I am nevertheless sowing in bounty.  At my age it is satisfying to count your many blessings.  One of the most delightful of those blessings is a constant parade of wonderful things and people doing their very best.  It seems most reasonable to report their accomplishments.  “The world is so full of a number of things; I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”

 

I haven’t always been generous with adulation.  When I was five, my father off to war and military hardware a big deal, I wore tiny B-17 bombers on my pigtails.  One day while lunching with my mother and her friend, the woman’s daughter began giving me a hard time about having airplanes on my braids where everybody knew ribbons were the required adornment.  I let the fatuity fly by undaunted.  Addressing the mother I sniffed, “Your daughter is a mighty big girl to have such a small mind.”  I might have addressed my complaint to the girl, but she was hardly worth addressing.

 

I don’t, you see, offer tribute where none is due.  Seventy-five years later, I provided a pat-on-the-back to Redeemer’s new basso profundo section leader.  His is an arresting vocal apparatus that reminds me of Henry Kissinger.  What a voice!  He’s a marvel!  Why shouldn’t I tell him how his performance speaks to my soul?  Why?  Perhaps because others don’t spread compliments willy-nilly.  Others are more circumspect—more collected.  Others are more balanced in their adulation.  No wonder my mother’s all-time-favorite question of me was, “What will people think?”  What, indeed?  They might think I am claiming some superior knowledge—that I know better—that driven by some perceived surety of understanding I am weaponizing truth to my will.  Are they correct?  I hope not.

 

A 1970’s book, “What Others Think of Me Is None of My Business,” by Terri Cole Whittaker was a hallmark in sounding depths. or shallows, of people’s cognitive gymnastics.  I took its admonition as a cautionary injunction and let the chips fall as they chose–weighted to the side of self-expression and pride-of-species.  It makes me feel good to speak of excellence; don’t ask me to defend that.  I am happy to be a human animal.  Homo sapiens sapiens is indeed the crown of creation, whether evolved or—if you wish—a body formed by God’s own true hands.

 

That doesn’t lead necessarily to pride of person.  At Redeemer Episcopal Church, I am surrounded by parishioners of superior intellect, more resplendent bono fides, and better connections.  In the face of such a daunting surround, I continue to offer my opinion as if it mattered.  Am I oblivious?  No.  It does matter.  One of our choir altos is a graduate of Harvard’s Graduate School of Architectural Engineering.  I am titillated with the thought of picking her brain for building design morsels.  What an opportunity!  My husband and I once made a living in the Sierra Nevada drafting building plans for people wanting elegant cabins and homes in their Mammoth Lakes and June Lake neighborhoods.  We launched High Country Drafting from our less-than-elegant cabin on Mono Lake—legal because we didn’t claim certification as anything at all.  Larry and I filled a need by providing affordable building plans for people who wanted the savings of forgoing an all-bells-and-whistles architect, who would gladly charge by the square foot.  We floated our boat under the sail of “designer,” not “engineer” nor “architect.”  Our plans could be handed to a contractor who would build our brainchild under his own license.  Clients had to choose their own accoutrements.

 

We had one drawing table.  Adjusting it to vertical, he drew on the back; I drew on the front.  We agreed to announce incipient erasures.  We managed–and we had a marvelous time doing it!  We soon expanded to a Lee Vining office across from Niceley’s Restaurant and Bar, equipped with his‘n hers Vemco V-Tracks, where we turned out some memorable flights of creativity.  Does the honest humility of this situation dictate a future of not-good-enough?  I think not.  High Country Drafting did some good work.  We didn’t make a lot of money.  No matter.  I look forward to an exchange of war stories with my choir buddy from Harvard Yard.  Why not?

 

Who am I to render an opinion about anything?  A nobody?  A somebody who cares—who gives a damn!  I have as much right to an opinion as anybody who has eyes to see, ears to hear, and mind to assess.  It’s good to remember that this is an internal dialogue.  Nobody has raised this issue in the range of my hearing ears.  This is a castigation of and by my own devices—my very own Trojan horse.  It is up to me to lead him out, give him a swift kick, and scare him off into the hills where he won’t bother anybody ever again.

 

Our choir director, Dr. Brett Scott, is doing a wonderful job of selecting soloists.  He deserves an Atta boy.  If somebody doesn’t thank him for his good work, I will have to do it myself.  Somebody’s gotta to do it.  Inner dialogue suggests that he gets paid to choose soloists.  I respond, “He is paid to fill employee positions; doing it with panache must be honored in the coin of gratitude.”

 

Making a case for any and everybody’s right to an opinion is a worthy endeavor, not likely to win friends or influence anybody at all.  If I insist on being opinionated, people will just think I am annoying, but I hope they’ll love me anyway.

Cow’s Tale

My son Dale was the first grandchild for Garnet and Ray Rex Taylor.  No wonder everything had to be just right.  As soon as mother’s milk wasn’t enough to keep him tick-full and happy, Garnet began hand milking an especially good Guernsey morning and night and bottling it on-the-spot for his pleasure.  She explained that an infant’s delicate digestion would be less challenged by using a single cow than by mixing an uncontrolled assortment of sources.  The “Perrier” of milks, it was literally  “Bottled-at-the-Source.”  The cow’s name was Nosey.

 

The Taylors cash crop on their three-hundred acre West Virginia farm was keeping a mixed dairy herd of Holstein, Guernsey, and Brown Swiss.  As a newbie with fresh-off-the-sidewalks-of-New-York-and-Connecticut provenance, I enjoyed the crash course in animal husbandry accruing to my position as wife and new mother in that family endeavor.

 

I made it my business to follow Ray Rex around, plying him with questions and getting his take on all things pastoral.  The first thing I had to do was cut my fingernails.  That made it possible for me to learn how best to squeeze a teat without ensuing pain and swift kicks.  There were a never-ending series of new amazements to see and apply to this lovely nepotism.  While the pecuniary emolument was non-existent, its rewards were rich and gratifying.   I arose, dressed, and helped with breakfast every single day without exception, then leaving my lazy husband to his bed, I followed Ray and Garnie to the barn where the cows waited, impatient, tails switching and hooves stamping, registering the urgency of need- to-be-emptied.  A more benevolent evolution would have provided for self-evacuation, but when push came to shove, natural selection must have voted on the side of waiting for the calf to do the job.  There’s no Darwinian advantage to trickle-moisturizing a green grass meadow with fresh cow’s milk.

 

There was no end of things to learn about the animals.  I noticed, for instance, that most bulls are exuberantly bi-sexual, a fact demonstrated daily in the barn lot, along with much swinging back and forth of impressive sacks bulging with fecundity.  Life on a farm does make a girl lusty.  It’s no wonder that when Ray and Garnie disappeared down the road on a well-earned February vacation, the first thing my new husband and I did was to check out the milk cooler.  No.  Not to look in-it, but to jump on-it and make love.  That’s when Dale got his start in life as an October surprise.

 

But I digress.  As Ray Rex’s side-kick, I picked up the occasional veterinary tidbit.  He showed me what to do when a cow gains access to early spring grass.  The first shoots of sprouting new growth are often poisonous to cattle, causing gas to build in one or another of their rumens.  A Vet fixes this with an IV of calcium.  A farmer, lacking access to parenteral solutions, can save the day with a quick knife jab to the swollen stomach.  The pressure relieves, and the animal is saved for another season of profitable breeding and milking.  Where evolution failed to install an escape-valve, the farmer makes one.

 

One lovely spring day Ray Rex brought home a pretty and very pregnant black Jersey from a livestock sale.  He pastured her on our side of the river.  She was a little gem, unique to the farm, since the Taylors specialized in run-of-the-mill breeds typical to commercial dairies.  These provided milk with relatively less butterfat than a Jersey milker.  More volume.  Less richness.  Since we didn’t separate the cream and churn butter, that made a lot of sense.  His idea was to sell her calf and keep her as Dale’s “source” when Nosey went dry.  Even a cow deserves a vacation, and Nosey had done her share.  She would get her three months of rest and cud chewing.

 

One day when Ray Rex headed off to town, I checked on the new black heifer.  She was in labor and was not happy about it.  Why did that have to happen when I was alone on the farm?  I kept an eye on her, and eventually she delivered a lovely fat bull calf but wouldn’t get up to let it nurse.  She lay on the barn floor and panted, her eyes glassy and unfocused.  The calf was up but hadn’t yet bonded with its mother.  Not good.  As the evening wore on I began to assess the problem.  It was complicated by what must have been too much spring grass.  A balloon gathered just forward of the animal’s left haunch and threatened to constrict breath and blood.  I tried to get her to stand, but she was having none of it.  Eventually she was flat on her side and groaning.  I was going to lose this animal.  It was then that I ran to the house and fished out my favorite paring knife.  I didn’t have a handy-dandy Swiss-pocket-tool.

 

When I returned, the cow’s tongue was hanging out sideways.  She was panting in groans.  I aimed the knife at the bulge and poked.  Nothing happened.  The knife was good for butter, but not much else.  Another trip to the kitchen yielded a serrated steak knife.  It wasn’t much better, but I finally worked my way through sawing at the tough outer skin.  It seemed a reasonable thing to open the internal organ at a spot not lined up with the skin access hole.  So I pulled the outer hole left and proceeded to open the rumen.  As soon as knife hit air, the hole erupted, spewing gas and digesting grass all over me.  I didn’t care.  It was so good to have relieved that killer pressure bolus.  She sat up, shook her head, and began trying to get up.  After a few attempts, she made it.  I collected the calf, which with all due-forgiveness began to suck with all due-diligence.

 

When Ray Rex came home, he congratulated me on my emergency veterinary procedure.  He was proud of me, and I was feeling a wee bit cocky, but as time passed, flies laid their eggs in the wound.  They turned into maggots, which is what fly eggs are wont to do.  When I pulled the skin sideways to peek at the stomach hole, a stream of slime and maggots flowed down he heifer’s flank.  I thought I had failed, but Ray Rex assured me that everything was just fine.  He said that flies and maggots conspired to provide cleansing for open air wounds as a natural aid to healing.  Whew!  What a relief!

 

The heifer healed.  The calf went to the sale for veal.  Nosey got to retire for the summer, and Garnet began tapping the rich Jersey milk of my erstwhile surgery patient.  No wonder Dale grew up so hearty.  He started out with the big feet of a pick-of-the-litter puppy, and lived into them with the integrity he has ever been famous for; It wasn’t until I brought home a baby girl swathed in pink and ruffled lace that I truly realized how staunch was his hold on the life I gave him.  Compared to her dainty hands, his had the look of a stevedore.  It’s amazing what comparison can do to perception.  The week before, I had envisioned him as my sweet little baby boy.  Suddenly he was a bumptious big brother who would put the cat in the freezer to yield a “catsicle.”  I would love them both.  I would love them all.  It was I, after all, who put a board on my duck and stood on it to make it quack.  Who am I to judge creative persuasion?

Fitting In

Yesterday at Sunday service I discovered something earth-shattering—something that caused the heavens to open and the lightning to rend the temple veil.  I do not usually expect such insights from a trip to my local episcopal church, but that was a signal experience.  My personal pattern, long acted out in a gathering of others, has been to dread the awkwardness that ensues with cessation of whatever might have been drawing attention to the front of the room.  At that point, each and all are abandoned to the devices of our own personal social graces—or lack thereof—and all bets are off.

 

I’ve been observing this quandary for nigh onto eighty years and was consistently puzzled about what to do.  At that point, everybody turns to each other and begins talking.  About what?

I don’t know.  Everybody else knows, and they’re not telling.

 

Maybe I was in the wrong place.  That was the most plausible explanation.  A change of place could solve the problem entire.  A new church.  A new town.  A new family.  A new religion.  A new politics.  If I could find the perfect place all would resolve, and I would fit in– or would I?

 

Perhaps a change of marital status would be most right and proper.  A life partner could make the impossible possible.  Someone who shared my own commitment to common bed and board would do the trick.  Yes?  No.  Well OK then.  Divorce was sure to be the answer.  A new and different partner would make the crucial difference.  If number two didn’t do the trick, then number three would herald the final solution, once and for all.  Yes?  No.

 

Maybe I’m not cut out for living-together.  Acceptance of one’s nature is a good thing and must lead to peace vis-à-vis self and others.  But living alone is quiet—too quiet—a jail of solitude.  Lonely.  What about joining?  Being part of some common effort—some sharing of values and ideals.  Just being part of a choir is something I have always done but never understood beyond technology and technique.  A choir is more than an enjoined effort to produce music.  It is people.  I signed up with the choir at Redeemer Episcopal Church, an aggregation of people who share my world view, religious philosophy, and who delight in the same enjoyment of music-making that I had experienced across the entire arc of my existence.  What better situation?

 

What indeed.  Perhaps the worst ever comeuppance was discovering that stopping for a break, for coffee and a bit of socializing, was as much a minefield in this so perfect place as was Miss. Chater’s first grade or Staples High School’s cafeteria.  Here were people who were as smart as me if not smarter, as educated as me if not more so, and who shared my social status, religious beliefs, political leaning, and who shared my love for all things musical.  So what happened?  Whenever the director called a halt, everyone–everyone but I–instantly fell into a mode of conversation.  I, I alone, stood in their midst and stared in disbelief at all these lovely people enjoying each other, while I stood– stark as a totem pole– in their chattering midst.

 

Maybe I am too old.  Maybe I haven’t been a member long enough.  Maybe oral or underarm deodorants have failed.  No?  No.  Enough!  I’m kidding myself.  There’s something else afoot.  I decided to set aside all the mental meanderings that led to some inadequacy on my part.  The problem is certainly not something that I am but something that I am doing.  I can’t change who or what I am, but I can and will modify behavior.  No wonder Rachael Maddow always says to watch, not what they say but, what they do.  Observing has ever been my favorite pastime.  I watched.  What I noticed was that as soon as the break was called everyone but I fell effortlessly into discussion.  They, as if hearing the clap of a starting pistol, turned in toward the center of the room and engaged whoever was close at hand.  These were people who had known each other for years as well as those who were newer to the group than even I.  They were employing a learned skill, something acquired and utilized for entire lifetimes of living in a world of naked and conversational primates.

 

Yesterday morning I awoke and promised myself a change—a change for the better.  After the Redeemer Sunday service, I gathered with others at the Adult Forum and expected to be a part—not an observer.  Rather than importing my considerable resentment at facing a social maze I could not penetrate, I simply determined to find any person and start talking.  OMIGOD.  It worked.

 

Sure, one Sunday won’t correct a lifetime of gawky, but it’s a start.  If I get carried away with the headiness of progress, I will approach a couple of old friends in earnest conversation who just want me to go away.  There’s a middle way to be steered on this path.  I can count on friends and neighbors to keep me heading straight.  You never get to be too old to learn a new thing.