Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Walk On

When I moved to Oakley and decided it was time to get old, senescence ensued in a hurry.  Suddenly I couldn’t walk very far, and when I did walk it was a shuffle.  With legs stiff and unbending, feet advanced apologetically.  They hurt.  Feet always hurt, whether used or miss-used, but should that make walking a dilemma?  Surely not.  Why foot misery when I was spending most of my time watching TV?  Good question.

I sought out a physical therapist.  With professional assistance this situation could surely be remedied.  She prescribed new shoes from a place called Fleet Feet.  This store serviced elite runners, so putting feet into Fleet Feet shoes would surely achieve the wished for gait. However I learned that Fleet Feet shoes can slog along as miserably as those from a discount store.  I enjoyed the high-tech laser measurement of my very own stockinged appendages, but the resulting fit seemed no better than other less scientifically ascertained equivalents.

As I visited a variety of medics, voicing a range of somatic complaints, this became an ugly pattern.  After dropping in on my orthopedic surgeon, sure that his ten-year-old spinal stenosis surgery had gone wrong and needed revisiting, he assured me that his handiwork was holding firm due to good bones and Citrical, not to mention his expert surgical skill. “Then why does my back hurt?” I whined. He pulled a sad face—a try at empathy— but at least he didn’t shrug his shoulders.

I dragged home and succumbed to the call of my recliner, always there to console and to comfort, just waiting for me to fit my ageing body into its compassionate embrace.  Lazy Boy and I were surely an item.  No matter where I went or what I did to make my back misbehave, he remained faithful and true to form.  When I returned, lowered aching bones onto his padding and leaned back, he surrounded and consoled my entirety. The pain went away until I got up and gave perambulation another try.

This worked well until one day I realized that when I arose, putting feet to floor, I proceeded to move around while vertebrae maintained the curve set by my chair.  A sideways glance at the hallway mirror showed me shuffling about my domicile shaped like my furniture—a moveable hairy question-mark.  Next time I arose, I stopped and straightened closer to runway posture—an improvement, reminiscent of what every intelligent dog achieves on arising.  He puts front paws together, pulls a big stretch, and only then proceeds to trot across the floor.  If humans are supposed to be so smart, how come every dog knows this and I don’t?

After that I began arching my back into a big stretch every time I left my chair.  It helped.  That made me curious about how people move all their many parts, especially as they morph into being codgers.  I have long held a suspicion that we become whatever our inner vision decrees.  These problems started back when I decided to get old.  The Devil made me do it.

It seemed a useful thing to simply pay attention.  After a month and more doing a doggie stretch every time I stood up, it got to be easier and felt more natural.  One day when low back was particularly painful, I stood up and did a monster stretch.  Then I called on my entire body to help.  That meant subtly flexing arms, legs, shoulders and butt, all at once, sort of declaring an all-around connection.  Then I felt the angle of my pelvis subtly tilt, and the pain evaporate.  Slowly, tentatively, I walked across the room.  Anguish was left lolling in the chair, an old thing that nobody really wanted anyway.

That day’s learning suggested that maybe it would be a good thing to spend less time lounging in my Lazy-Boy.  I had given up taking walks last year since shuffling along the sidewalk had seemed a non-starter.  After having memorized all the cracks in my local sidewalks, as well as the various weeds that grew therefrom, it seemed a boring proposition to undertake that same walk yet again.  So last month I moved to new digs where I can walk to dozens of interesting destinations.  For me Heaven is being able to walk to the library.  Now living at the center of Blue Ash, Ohio, I can stroll to the public library.  This morning I pocketed phone and credit card, tied on my sunbonnet, and took off for the local Starbucks.  Could I make it?

Slouching along the sidewalk seemed a sad reminder of being an old person resigned to somehow keeping fit.  But engaging arms and shoulders worked just like it did in my living room, leaving my pain rollling along with dry leaves dancing in the gutter.  I envisioned being at Starbucks, ordering a tall decaf cappuccino, and my step quickened.  It was reminiscent of my dad telling me to keep my eyes on the horizon when driving, so as to see everything there was to see, not just focusing on the rear end of the car directly ahead. Such short sight causes a jittery correction of aim and can be seen as weaving along the roadway.  Eyes hooked on the far horizon smooth the process of steering as the vehicle is guided toward a sure destination.  It works with walking as well as with driving.  Thinking about where I’m headed makes me stop obsessing about aches and pains in favor of coffee and company.

My last time to stop for morning brew at Starbucks was pre-Covid, and things had changed.  No raw sugar and Half-‘n-Half at-the-ready.  They had to be requested from a barista. Prices had taken advantage of the crisis.  Who could have assumed otherwise? But in every respect it was doable, even for a superannuated hiker.  I had walked all the way to Starbucks!

Heading back after enjoying my cup of Joe at a table secured by legal tender, and time spent using my IPhone to spin flitting thoughts into coherent prose, I wondered if I would have enough energy to get back home.  My PT had agreed with my arms-moving-along-with-gait thesis citing the fact that Parkinson’s patients can’t swing their arms.  Also people who must move their hands in order to speak illustrate this idea, Nancy Pelosi being a case in point. It must be a neuron thing. 

As I zapped my various elder parts with power of mind, they united around a sense of energized purpose, arms swinging, matching stride with pumping legs, collecting my whole self into a dynamo of getting-there.  When arms move with verve, body responds with vigor.  I made it back home with oomph to spare, looking forward to tomorrow’s hike to the Quiet Bee Café where who knows what may turn up and commence buzzing?  Enough with getting old!  There’s too much to do to waste time with anticipatory anxiety.  Anticipatory glee is better. 

Next week—the library.  Walk on!

Returning from town to my cabin in the woods, I surprised Espresso, my trusty black pussycat, holding court on a tree stump by the cabin door.  I killed the engine and watched.  He appeared to be communing with a fox lounging in the grass, just two or three fox leaps away.

I had slowed the car, stopped, set the brake, and slipped out, determined to reconnoiter the duo.  They waited and watched, sharing a quiet interest in my arrival.  Espresso typically would have come running, tail aloft, meowing a plaintive hello, but today he just drew himself up like some Egyptian cat god and watched, first me, then the fox.  Back and forth his round-eyed gaze panned with only an intermittent whisker twitch.

Mr. Fox appeared robust, sleek and healthy.  He had a full brush, tipped with white cream, and a thick, rich, coppery coat.  He displayed no fear, only a regal curiosity, but seemed to appreciate that I, in some strange two-footed way, belonged to the cat. 

When Espresso finally jumped down and meandered toward me, the fox rose, yawned, stretched, and began his own measured approach.  That did it!  Composure be damned!  Aplomb sacrificed to the suspense of these slow speed machinations, I snatched up the cat and tossed him into the car.  The door’s slam broke the spell.  Mr. Fox glared at me, disappointed that I had questioned his intentions or had deprived him of lunch—I’m not sure which.  I apologized and assured him that I knew him to be a fine fox but was nevertheless committed to my pussycat.  He paused to taste the air in several directions and finally moved on, slowly picking his way through the low brush and weeds, several over-the-shoulder appraisals punctuating a dignified retreat into a pine thicket.  I was sad to see him leave.  He was beautiful, and his trust rare—a benediction.

One of the many wonders of my sojourn in the Appalachian woodlands has been the willingness of the wildlife to accept me.  The deer, rabbits, snakes, birds and squirrels seem to understand that I have no interest in them excepting the wonder of our sharing this natural aesthetic.  One afternoon, my mind otherwise occupied, I stepped out the cabin door straight into the muscled black loops of a snake sunning himself on the deck.  A quick apperception assessed no danger since his coloring and head shape contraindicated the local poisonous varieties.  So I waited, one foot still in the cabin, one planted on the deck, while the snake, warm and equable, uncoiled his smooth scaly length from about my ankle and glided peaceably across the warm boards.  He chose a likely gap between the planks and slid headfirst into the abyss.  It would have been a simple exodus, excepting a small bulge, probably a recent rodent snack, which brought his progress to an embarrassing halt.

Back out and find another route?  No way!  He demonstrated his confidence in choice of exit strategies by elevating the entire following half of his person and doing an upside down hula dance until the rest of him finally slipped through.  There was no hurry.  We had agreed that he was an appreciated reptile and would be given all the time and space necessary to do his thing, however curious.  For many months Mr. Snake and I shared our quiet forest clearing as the best of friends.  Later as snowflakes fell and wood-smoke rising curled away, we kept the silent peace.

The cabin I had rented for a year of writing belonged to a Feminist Land Trust called Susan B. Anthony Memorial Unrest Home.  I had thought to enjoy a time away from the ever-puzzling testosterone dilemma—can’t live with ‘em; can’t live without ‘em.  It turned out, however, to be annoying to abide with the strict no-man enforcement.  Moving into the cabin took more than the one evening of unloading, so it seemed reasonable to let the two careful, quick, and kind Beacon-men-equivalents curl up in the loft until morning.  They were hot and sweaty, but not wanting to offer them the run of my private ladies room, I sent them to the pond, which I found out later was for nude woman bathing only.  It’s a good thing the femme Nazis never found out about that indiscretion since they would have renamed it a desecration. 

So ardent was Subamuh enforcement that I began to take glee in inviting my manly sons to drop by with loads of split firewood and stay awhile for a meal at Mom’s table.  Imagine the delight I took in stopping for a Silver Fox neighbor in tight jeans and tank top, overloaded with fresh picked and packed blackberries and headed into town to peddle his wares.  It was a good decision to offer him a ride.  For the remainder of my time in Ohio’s eastern woodlands, I enjoyed his company as yet another of the indigenous friendly fauna.  The resident man-haters were fauna as well, but not nearly such good neighbors.

Clambering about on the trails of Subamuh put me into a gentle space of introspection.  The leased cabin was a refuge for writing but it was not a cage.  As a legitimate renter, those many acres were available to me to explore, but putting one foot before the other doesn’t occupy a lively mind, and it was left to cavort at will.  The hiking became a walking meditation inspiring new insights.  Inhabiting a cabin at a Lesbian enclave made even the most hetero of personalities begin to self-analyze, snooping down any number of shady corridors.  I am no different, my three husbands being an exercise in brand identification, but not necessarily consummated self-knowledge.

I learned a smattering of feminist theory while eavesdropping at the back of Subamuh gatherings, one of their favorite topics being the butch-femme dynamic:  A butch woman has affirmed her power.  That’s what’s so compelling about her.  She demands and gets respect.  A femme woman worships that power and, like the moon, reflects its beauty.  A butch can see her own radiance only in the eyes of her lover.  It’s probably the most profound of loves, envied by the breeders, attracting their disdain and resentment.  The butch employee is typically better paid since the assertive personality attracts a richer share of the world’s commerce.  Everybody admires a strong confident demeanor and work style. 

Such overheard quandaries meandered through my mind as boots parted grass, still wet from the last night’s dewfall.  It’s fortunate they are prepared for their job with the serious boot wax I scored at Tractor Supply Store.  I didn’t want to appear sissified to all those rough-hewn ladies.  But then, why would I worry about such things?  They were, after all, my boots.  I wanted them to last, impervious to soggy aggress.  Also, why did I care what a convocation of lesbians thought?

Memories of resisting assault took me back to my first Subamuh confrontation.  Crissa, the ultra-femmie office manager, confused me.  Was she a lesbo or what?  She must have been a femme—a strong one.  A strong femme is greedy; she wants it all.  If she is acting out a lesbian paradox, she wants to have the butch and be her as well.  I shook my head.  Too complicated!  I have always dithered over choosing between family and career, but this is more complex.  I had questioned Crissa about sharing part of the creative work at Subamuh, offering to write for the newsletter.  I recoiled at her freak-out.  She stands there in memory, summoning a scowl from me all these years later. 

She explains why the job is, and will remain, all hers.  In her youthful exuberance, she gets carried away with herself, coyly bragging about how much fun it is making out with Molly, her sweetie.  That kind of crass ostentation offends everyone enduring singlehood, not just me, but it’s not my job to express community outrage.  I’m just a renter.  Time and group dynamic are sure to sort the thing out.  Her attitudes and behavior are not related to me personally.  I can relax and just smirk at Crissa’s narcissistic posturing, no worse than my own.  When I feel inadequate, it’s so easy to erect a safe intellectualism and dare an intruder to assault my tower.  Ravish me, God!  Open me, Holy Spirit!  Sweet Jesus, let truth be your rapier.  Fascinating, isn’t it, how such flights of mythic enthusiasm morph inexorably into sexual and religious fervor?  This train of thought isn’t only something I read.  It’s what I have long meditated about, bubbling up from murky mire.  It’s interesting how, if insights are scripted, mythical references float up.  Each of us is on a hero’s quest, a sojourner in our own epic.  I wonder if this concept is a distillation of Joseph Campbell and all the myth and psychobabble I’ve waded through, their facts stored as meta data in a tangle of neurons? 

Climbing to the property’s highest point is a treat for the eyes.  I admire the view as I focus far away and remember earlier days.  As a child, one of my earliest insights was that I can’t learn everything.  Memory can only accommodate so much and must be conserved.  I saw no purpose in memorizing arithmetic facts and rejected that task a priori.  My third child, Kurt the artist/philosopher, did the same but never gave in to store a bunch of left brain twaddle like I finally did as remedy to my lack.  It is only in this informed millennium that we can verify the reality of cognitive self-limitation.  At five Kurt, determined to be a race car driver, swore off arithmetic.  Good for him.  He got to actually become an artist.

But for me, the corollary to cognitive limitation followed swiftly, informed by culture.  I learned that females simply cannot learn certain things: “Girls are poor at arithmetic.”  It follows that I, a girl, must be maladroit concerning numbers.  Mommy said so.  She said I was just like Daddy and smart like him, but being a girl I could never do his kind of work.  When presented with a task in sums or differences, I would squander my first magical milliseconds mulling about how I can’t do this.  Then, so disarmed, I would attempt to solve the problem—unsuccessfully.  Maybe I really was number challenged? 

Every week I checked out the 6-book limit at my elementary school library and enjoyed hauling them home, consoled by their mass, feeling surrounded by words, learning early-on the satisfaction of cohabitating with a library.  I was no different from early cultures that scribed their understandings and used them for companionship.  Alexander and I were surely soulmates.  Consider the Torah treasured in its ark.  How could God not have been understood as word?

Even before word, God was before all else number.  Mathematicians acknowledge that any and all civilizations, throughout each and every universe, must hold in common the understandings of number science.  That reality existed long before primitive humans began to numerate fingers and toes.  My child brain quickly correlated integers with things Daddy could do, things Daddy could know, things Daddy could be, over and against things possible to Dotty.  It was all because I was made to be a flawed version of Daddy.  In all things visible I was like Daddy save at the fork where all important things converge and contend.  Daddy had a special tool for peeing that was superior in function to my own, which allowed fluid to dribble stupidly down legs and fill shoes.  No matter how smart I might become, everyone would know my squishy secret: Daddy was better.  Even as an adult bringing the principles of design to invention, I am haunted by how evolution left women holding the short end of the proverbial prick.  Gynecology is so patterned like a simple cell employing a contractile vacuole to facilitate removal of metabolic detritus.  Our only superiority over the male model seems to be having evolved beyond utilizing a plenum to evacuate urine and cum.  But then—there are the babies.  Even Daddy couldn’t make a child without a woman as co-conspirator.

I didn’t realize how poignantly held was such painful mis-belief until my daughter was born.  Her genitals were angry and red from having been bathed in my own rich endocrine brew.  My first vision of her opened diaper reminded me of my own tragic wound.  It filled me with love and pity for her and for what she could not become.  While hot tears of rage and compassion coursed down my cheeks, I blessed the small swollen mound—a mother’s kiss.

How sick is such belief?  How universal may it be—this lie?  Do I have this in common with other sensitive analytical women?  Is this why I obsess over much?  In high school I was called the nose since I appeared to be trying way-too-hard to please teachers.  Classmates didn’t understand that it was the lie that must be pleased.  I was the consummate overachiever that delighted teachers, but their praises were immaterial.  Those kids were so, so wrong.  It was my idea of Daddy that I was trying to please, not even the man himself.  Teachers were not a function of my equation.  I never spoke in defense of my behavior since I didn’t understand it myself, fearing only that I must embody some evil truth, hidden even from myself.  Mommy had constantly chided my behavior, telling me “Be nice, Dottie.  Be nice.”  That was the last thing I wanted.  Nice girls were stupid cows.  I didn’t want to be nice

It was good to return to the cabin, greet my trusty pussycat, and shed the boots, heavy with muck and mire.  It feels like I have shed more than foot-coverings returning from these lonely rambles.  I didn’t hesitate taking a writer’s cabin.  It was the right move at the right time.  My year of introspection completed, I realized that I had stayed long enough in the presence of the unspeakable. 

It was time to rejoin my tribe.  I had forgotten how afraid we are of standing in the presence, most especially our own.  I had expected the long silence to demolish my lie, but was amazed at how thoroughly it fell away.  As I swished through wet grass and weeds along the trail, no thought was worth speaking to the quiet air but absolute Truth.  I had learned long ago how dangerous that can be.  Truth is a double-edged sword meant for good but capable of bad.  Even so, who can argue with my Truth?  Whatever it is, it is mine. 

Perhaps it’s time to start being nice.  In 2021 Cincinnati, I am in the presence of people too smart and strong to believe lies.  I don’t have to defend any secret.  Others can affirm my path for me even though they may have chosen a different one for themselves.  I keep begging for rules and approved vocabulary, wanting to be given the keys to the kingdom, not understanding that I am the key as well as the kingdom.  It will take a long time, perhaps forever, to forget the machismo suffered in Daddy’s world—tech types gathering, comparing resumes, boasting prior accomplishments, utilizing jargon to flush out the uninitiated, and only then getting down to the real business of ego defense.  In 1957 at CIT, freshmen compared slide rule lengths.  I was the only one with enough gumption to spin a round rule, twice as fast but not the least bit phallic.  How beautifully the metaphor holds: the one woman plying a round rule, vanquishing an army of long stiff sliders.  In my cedar keepsake chest I have nestled my round rule beside my father’s straight one, a family paradox.  They both speak and compute God’s truth.  My Truth is mine to calculate.

People are blithering idiots about sex.  I can remember my Mother and Father arguing about it as I watched and listened.  Daddy had a business he incorporated as Precision Electronics in Cambridge, Mass.  The fledgling enterprise was intermittent, and he filled in the time between real work by inventing toys.  He had some success, even getting one of his designs assigned the moniker “Nippy Pup” and included in the 1947 Neiman Marcus Christmas Catalogue.  It took a son of the Lone Star State to harken back to Neiman’s for an advertising gimmick when surrounded by East Coast savoir faire.

The toy dog was made of real lamb’s wool.  It featured a moveable neck made of a hyperextended compression spring and a cold black magnetic nose.  The dog’s “toy bone” was a sandwiched injection molding presenting a magnet at one end.  Nippy sported a plaid ribbon about his neck that shrouded his wobbly cervical apparatus.  Daddy was energized about offering an up-to-date canine that demonstrated the marvels of magnetism.  I thought it was ridiculous, but kept my opinion to myself, so as not to hurt Daddy’s feelings.  He had had a difficult year since the war was finally over, and the Manhattan project was disbanded, along with his creative involvement in its altimeter.

One day he brought home a new toy design.  It was also a dog, this one a small wooden one about four inches tall with articulated joints, floppy ears, and a sappy grin.  It was to be pulled with a string, sliding past a fire plug.  As it moved past the vertical hydrant, it raised its leg and pretend-sprayed it.  Daddy glowed with considerable pride and explained to Mommy and me, “When fire departments were new, they often had to break into a water main and take water to fight a fire.  When the day was finally saved, the hoses all rolled and stowed, the firemen would install a “fire plug” into the break, allowing for access to city water pressure to fight future fires.” He cleared his throat and continued.  “Precision Electronics is going to design a line of toys that demonstrates technology interfacing with living things.  Isn’t it a delightful irony that this little dog is squirting the water main rather than visa-versa?”  Daddy stood a bit taller as he offered a final summation, “This toy plays with the magic of magnetic attraction like Nippy Pup did.  It’s downright poetic.”

Mommy scowled and grumped, “Take that stupid thing back to your lab.  “It’s a dirty dog doing a dirty deed.  Kelsey. Your daughter is listening.  You shouldn’t expose a child to such filth.”

“Mary, do relax a little,” he admonished.  “Nice bit of alliteration by the way.  This little dog doing his earthy business is the kind of thing that makes the world go ‘round.  It’s life!  Life is beautiful.”

“Seems prurient to me,”

“Hmmm.  There’s an idea,” Daddy chortled.  “I could even make a dog jump up onto a bitch, like making puppies, all with magnets.”  But he was talking to a receding backside.  Mommy had left the room, muttering about men being lascivious.

I didn’t think much of Daddy’s toys, but not because they were salacious.  They just seemed kind of silly, but I wish Mommy didn’t always hurt his feelings.  The toy dog that raised its leg to pee went away, not to be heard from again.  I had loved Nippy Pup because Nippy was Daddy’s, and he was proud of it, even if it was kind of dumb.  Even an eight-year-old could see that something about people and animals was nasty and shameful.  It was something people just didn’t talk about if they could help it.

When I was twelve and living with Mommy’s sister Aunt Judy, she arranged at considerable inconvenience to have my twenty year old cousin Jeanne come and officially talk to me about sex while Judy and Wesson made dishwashing noises in the kitchen.  That was weird, not scary like Mommy and Daddy arguing over improper canine urination, but distinctly weird.

Jeanne made much of getting seated right next to me on the living room couch, pencil and paper at- the-ready.  The first page showed a man and woman dressed in modest sleeping attire.  Then there was the second page…  After a flurry of nasty diagrams, she told me that babies get made when the daddy puts his “thing” inside the mommy.  Nine months later a baby comes out.  I was embarrassed, not about the making of babies, but about everybody thinking I didn’t know.  I knew, but I didn’t want them to know I knew.  Piqued, I played their silly game, acting dumb but in actuality only merging my discomfiture with their own.  When she asked if I had any questions, I demanded to know how his “thing” got through the mommy’s nightgown.  Jeanne blushed and whispered furtively, “I guess she can pull it up.”

Judy must have been listening, because at that point she charged out of the kitchen to the rescue.  With a smile that was way too wide, she asked, “How’s it going?  Y’all ready for some fresh lemonade?”

“Gotta do my homework” I mumbled, mostly toward my feet, shilly-shallying toward my room, shaking my head.  Why did Judy go to so much trouble to feed me information about babies, and why didn’t she just tell me herself?  I already had guessed that stuff Jeanne told me, just knew, from visits to Grandpa’s farm.  Kids at school made jokes I didn’t understand, but I hadn’t made any girlfriends yet that I could ask.

So much for “the big lesson.”  Jeanne piled into Uncle C.J.’s Buick and began the tedious drive all the way from Oak Cliff’s Kessler Park, through downtown Dallas, past the old school-book depository, then on to Highland Park.  I was left to wonder, but not dare to ask, what this was all about.

I knew about the yucky pink thing that Wesson dangled below his shorts while he made morning coffee.  It made me feel nauseous, not that it had anything whatsoever to do with me, but that he knew I saw it and wanted me to see it.  Everything Wesson did expressed some evil intent.  He despised me because Judy envisioned me as the daughter she had always wanted, a pure affection that Wesson could never emulate, nor did he try.  His kind of lovemaking with Judy must surely have been selfish, crude, and hurtful.  Inexplicable to my childish understanding, Judy enjoyed Wesson’s attentions. 

She would put on a slinky ruffled teddy, pottering about the house on weekends, affecting a “little woman” domesticity while Wesson mowed the lawn, trimmed hedges, and made much ado of his manly chores.  He would come in occasionally to get a fresh beer and snuggle up against Judy’s backside while she peeled veggies.  He would slip his hand inside the loose silk while Judy giggled and shrugged him away.  Judy was not the giggling type; she better expressed her statuesque elegant nature dressed for a day of professional commerce in an exquisitely tailored suit, silk blouse, leather shoulder bag and suave up-do.

This remembered scene of Judy costumed for the boudoir, a grotesquerie of enticement, had a watercolor quality to it, a Monet camouflaged in its own reticulated light, a softening of truth to something remotely safe to envision.  Even in memory, I cringe.  She would shoo him out of the kitchen, clucking, “Don’t do that in front of the child,” the child being me.  Didn’t she know it was I, watching, seeing, feeling?  She surely felt the same as I did inside, where the tight pull of belly strings told me all I needed to know about womanliness.  Wesson was showing off for me, bragging wordlessly about what I was missing, what I would never enjoy no matter how much Judy loved my sweet little girl self.  His favorite diatribe when he could catch me alone always began, “Mommy’s sweet little thing.  You think you’re so special.  Your crazy mother is the only one who thinks you’re worth anything.”

If Judy didn’t want him to do that to her, she wouldn’t have dressed in swishy ruffles.  She did want his hand inside the silk, touching her skin, making her smile.  Why could she want his affection, when she knew sometime soon he would again break bones and make ugly bruises on that same tender skin?  I was awash with questions never to be asked lest they be answered and replace ignorance with fear and maybe even terror.

Soon I was fifteen and spent weekends helping my voice teacher’s lazy daughter complete her last year of high school as payment for singing lessons.  Sexual feelings continued to be something that I didn’t talk about.  My teacher lived in Darien, Connecticut.  She was well situated to host week-end parties inviting musical young people from the area for salon performance and socializing.  I typically got paired up with Alvin, a pretty decent violinist, nice and good-looking to boot.  He was sixteen, with an old jalopy and a new driver’s license.  We rode around or went to the movies or the Soda Shoppe and then returned to the teacher’s house before my curfew.  Before escorting me inside, Alvin always kissed me goodnight.  It was something I looked forward to all evening.  I didn’t care all that much about the movie or the sodas or the pizza; I just wanted to go back to the house and feel his soft lips pressed against mine.

Finally, requisite social group activity completed, we headed home.  Outside, we cuddled while the car idled, holding back the winter chill.  Then he pulled me close and gently covered my mouth with the soft warmth of his lips.  Hesitant, my tongue traced their meeting.  The center of my belly lurched.  The world dropped, and I hung weightless.  Then I slapped him and ran for the house.

This inexplicable pattern of behavior repeated itself several times, until one day Alvin finally asked me, “Why the slaps?”

I gulped, and began; “I saw a movie with Claudette Colbert and Jimmie Stewart.  That’s what she did when he kissed her.  Wouldn’t you think I’m fast if I liked it?”

“But you do like it?” he asked, taking my hand, his violin sensitive fingers tracing its outline, softly circling my palm.

I dropped my eyes and whispered, “Yes.”

Fingertip lifting my chin, he looked me straight in the eyes and pronounced, “Good.”  That bit of truth negotiated, we puckered up for a real kiss, actualized, enjoyed, and discussed in the immediacy of the present.  We laughed, cranked open the sun-roof, and headed for the movies.

Alvin and I had an understanding, maybe even a gentle friendship.  We enjoyed our occasional date smooches until I took off for Carnegie Tech to study physics, where my virginity remained resolutely intact.  I was singularly unimpressed by engineering freshmen, whose idea of scholarly competition was to compare whose slide-rule was the longest.  I was out of the running, having chosen a round rule which is quicker and arguably more accurate.

I only slapped one of those silly boys, only a single time, and that was when he pinched my bottom in General Chemistry lab while I was setting up a distillation.  My instincts were pure, completely bypassing interval reaction time.  He pinched; I slapped.  The cavernous room rang with the impact.  I didn’t miss a beat, continuing with my procedure while the other students grinned and whispered behind their hands.

Later, while settling into the pleasurable realities of marriage, I still retained my reticence about kissing and telling.  I insisted, for instance, to my mother-in-law, that nothing had “happened” between James and me, until a swelling belly proved otherwise.  I hadn’t sworn James to secrecy, so it still isn’t clear why, when he was presented with the fact of his impending paternity, he declared it must have been somebody else’s doing, swearing he had done nothing—absolutely nothing.

Why are humans so caught up in approach/avoidance about sex?  Why did it take Freud so long to realize he was onto something big, and for the rest of us to appreciate his insight?  What could possibly cause an otherwise stable fellow writer to assert that such concepts as herein elucidated should not be put to print, citing the “obvious fact” of the author’s having been molested in childhood? My questions stand, begging some quiet, thoughtful, informed answers.

Calling a complete stranger and striking up a conversation is a scary thing to do, but that’s exactly what I must do if I am to stay on the good side of Elisa, my physical therapist at the JCC (Jewish Community Center).  Working out kinks in the musculature of my ageing body leads to a superb level of understanding.  Elisa and I have a meeting of minds.  There is mutuality, but I suspect the depth of wisdom is mostly on her side of the discussion.  She has decided that I am surely a dear friend of her mother-in-law, Nancy Travis, who lives with her husband of many years in New York City and who simply adores opera.

It was at New York’s Metropolitan that I saw my first opera, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.  It was the beginning of a love affair that was to last a lifetime and bring joy to an otherwise tangled web of motherhood, livelihood, marriage, and religion.  As a sixteen-year-old wannabe coloratura doing housework to pay for voice lessons, opera represented the epitome of a life of singing that began as a toddler occupying the various laps of my mother’s Glad Girl’s Glee Club.

As soon as I could stand on a stage, Mother had me soloing for whosoever would listen, typically her Baptist Sunday School.  Year after year choral singing was as natural as breathing, and it lead to classical vocal repertoire and eventually to opera.  Opera is a spectacle for the well-heeled, and I was typically on my own to afford—or not to afford— enjoyment of such beauty.  The result is that I am not really an expert.  I just like to sing opera, and typically request that Alexa play Italian Opera, such as Verdi, or Puccini to keep me company in my little-old-lady Senior apartment.  Classical Baroque is a nice change, but I always return to first loves.  Like Vivian hearing Violetta’s Aria for the first time in Pretty Woman, it never fails to make me cry.

Given this kind of love for drama set to music, Elisa is surely right about Nancy Travis and Dorothy Martin having things worth discussing, but picking up the phone is another story.  What if we can’t think of anything to say?  I always ask myself that question.  Blabbing on the phone has never come naturally to me.  Even as a farm wife on an isolated West Virginia farmstead, where getting chores done so as to enjoy party-line palaver with other isolated wives was what energized the day’s work, I just couldn’t pick up that phone.  Mostly the talk was about weather or kid’s problems, or how was the garden growing, or what was for dinner, and what would go well with those new green beans.   Even if I could join in, there was the surety that up and down the line, other people were tuned in.  That’s what folks did before there was TV and Days of Our Lives.  We had to generate our own soap operas.

My life tended toward drama, and I had no need to enjoy others vicariously.  But that was then.  This is now.  Most of what I wanted to do is done.  It’s mostly over, but that’s OK.  At eighty-two, I don’t need a day filled with challenge.  I just would like to visit peacefully with age mates about things that pique mutual interests.  My rooms are quiet, a welcome change, but not lonely.  It would be nice to have some company, but a cat must be fed, medications administered, litterbox attended.  There is much to be paid for the benefit of a purring compatriot that greets arrivals with meows and body-swipes against legs in anticipation of the grinding crank of one more can being opened. 

There is always the possibility of yet another husband, but they snore.  They might hold forth on interesting subjects, but will they listen?  Not likely.  The household income might benefit, but the ratio of person to person power might become irrevocably imbalanced.  Would I have any say at all?  Elisa has a good idea.  What could possibly be more delightful than chatting up an old lady who likes opera?

Homeless

When it becomes dangerous to live in your own home it’s time to leave, and leave I did, taking with me my cat, my Collie dog, and my Sig Sauer P239.  Yes, I had a permit to carry, so I was legal in case it might have become an issue.  It was early October in Roanoke, Virginia.  The weather was seasonably delightful, and my green tent blended well with the autumn color at the local campground nestled in the foliage alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I should have left years before, but had nowhere else to go.  I had no savings since my retirement income always got sucked away into the expense of running house and horse farm.  The bruises got worse.  I was fed up with being slammed against walls, brutalized in ways that cringe at even the prospect of description.  That hurts in every way there is to hurt.

My ’89 Acura Legend had a capacious trunk with a small seat-back door that folded down to allow access to the main interior.  It was designed to provide for carrying 2×4’s home from Lowe’s,  but I used it as a cat door for Espresso, my black Domestic Shorthair, so he could visit his litter box in the trunk.  He loved to ride shotgun with his front paws on the dashboard so he could see with those lovely golden globes where we were going.  Maggie, his canine counterpart, preferred lounging in the back seat on top of all the pillows, blankets, clothing, camping gear, food, and water jugs.  She had a twelve hour bladder, so I only needed to walk her morning and evening.  We managed.

My YMCA membership provided exercise, a hot shower every day, and a place to change clothes, which I kept clean at a Franklin Road laundromat.  It should have been doable, but things kept happening.  First somebody stole my tent while I was on my daily errands.  At least I had the foresight to empty it every day, stowing sleeping bag and other gear in the car.  That theft forced me to sleep in the vehicle, not nearly so comfortable but doable, tucked into my sleeping bag, a hefty Slumberjack.  My long-ago-husband and I had always enjoyed winter camping (no tourists, no bugs) so my sleeping bag was certified down to zero degrees Fahrenheit.

October gave way to November, then December.  The campground closed for the winter, and I was on my own to find a place to park every night for shuteye.  First there was the requisite stop at Mill Mountain Coffee to slip in through the back door and fill my hot water bottle, preventive for ice-cube-feet syndrome.

My State Farm Insurance agent had a back-of-the-office covered carport; I began appropriating it nightly, especially on stormy ones.  One bitter cold evening, after pulling into my spot, I ran across the street to a Seven/Eleven to pick up breakfast makings.  I left the engine running to keep it extra warm to start the night off right.  Of course Maggie had to protest.  She wanted to go, too.  Barking and pawing at the window, she managed to step on the back door lock, which on the Acura automatically locked all four doors.  Now I had a car parked and running with a cat and a dog inside.  What to do?  Again I ran across the street, this time to ask for help.

There are times when I suspect God was watching out for us.  The local emergency squad team had also stopped there to coffee-up, and they came to assist.  One of the team was a young very thin woman who was able to slip an arm through the narrow opening I had left to provide fresh air for Maggie and Espresso.  She reached in, pulled up the slick knob-less locking mechanism, and all was saved.  What luck!

I managed to live through a bout of food poisoning and was feeling pretty puny, having also run out of vitamins.  Christmas was the loneliest ever, and in January the jet stream conspired to send sub-zero weather.  One bitter night, as I lay trying to fall asleep, the Slumberjack bag failed me.  I began to shake, and my teeth commenced chattering.  It was then that my sweet dog Maggie, rose from her accustomed place in the back seat and carefully climbed to the passenger seat where I had been spending my nights with the seat-back fully reclined.  She placed her paws carefully as she crawled forward, careful not to hurt me.  When she was satisfied she had just the right spot, she covered me with her hairy body and remained there the entire night, while slowly I warmed and slept.

Another January morning I awoke locked in the deposit of an ice storm.  We were frozen in all day waiting for the parking lot, where I had parked for the night, to be cleared.  There comes a time to admit when you are beaten.  It was time to go home.  Some beatings are worse than others.  Knowing the difference leans toward wisdom.

In retrospect I realize that was only one of many periods of homelessness.  No wonder it felt like something that could be challenged and overcome.  When in 1949 my Dad departed, family home foreclosed, mother carted off to asylum, that was homelessness of the nth degree.  Being sent away to boarding school where nuns stood in for otherwise occupied mothers and fathers, being sent on countless airplane rides between Dallas and Boston that attempted settlement with a mother who wanted to, tried o-so-hard to, but just couldn’t make a home for a misplaced daughter.  Choosing an ill-advised situation that created a home where all else had disintegrated, with the inevitable sad ending, all presaged that so predictable leave-taking through the Virginia countryside.  Giving up on the possibility of home is the bleakest homelessness of all.

Perhaps it is a blessing that as such days are lived into, there is no way to give attention to what is sure to come.  How then could we manage to place one foot before the other to grace an uncertain future?  But then, isn’t future by definition the very kernel of uncertainty?  That’s what makes the adventure so exciting—the possibility—the hope so satisfying.  Hope is the antidote to homelessness of heart, even through long cold winters of discontent.  Home must be where the heart is, homeless a non-sequitur.

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 benefit.  She explained that an infant’s delicate digestion would be less challenged by milk from 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-Connecticut provenance, I undertook 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 was 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 pasture with fresh cow’s milk.

There was no end of things to learn about the farm 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 climb 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, for instance, what to do when a cow gains access to early spring grass.  The first shoots of sprouting new growth (the dicotyledons) 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 production.  Where evolution failed to install an escape-valve, the farmer makes one.

One lovely spring day Ray Rex brought home from a livestock sale a pretty and very pregnant black Jersey heifer.   He pastured her on our side of the river.  She was a little gem, unique to the farm, since the Taylors specialized in high producing breeds typical to commercial dairies.  They provided milk with relatively less butterfat than a Jersey milker, but with more volume. 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 the cow 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 as Ray Rex headed off to town, I checked on the new black heifer.  She was in labor and was not at all 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, and had ended up in a heap in a corner of the barn.  Not good.  As the evening wore on the problem congealed.  It seemed to be a complication of what must have been too much spring grass.  A balloon gathered just forward of the animal’s right haunch and threatened to constrict flow of breath and blood.  I tried to get her to stand up, but she was having none of it.  Eventually she stretched out flat on her side and commenced 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-knife that all farmers carried in their overalls, and had to make do.

When I returned, the cow’s tongue was hanging out sideways.  She was groaning in shallow pants.  I aimed the knife at the bulge and poked.  It bounced back.  The knife was good for butter, but not much else.  Another run up the hill to the kitchen yielded a serrated steak knife.  It wasn’t much better, but I finally worked my way through, sawing at the tough hairy outer hide.  Then 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 leftward and proceeded to saw open the taut rigid rumen.  As soon as knife achieved puncture the hole erupted, spewing gas and digesting grass all over me.  My eyes swam with green juice and it dripped off my nose, but I didn’t care.  It was so good to have relieved that killer pressure bolus.  Right away she sat up, shook her head, and tried to get up.  She lurched forward, scrabbling with back hooves, trying to find some traction on the wet floor. After a few attempts, she made it.  I collected the calf, gave him an encouraging rub-down, and he began to suck with the-diligence of intense hunger. The Jersey didn’t bother with thank-you, but I sensed a measure of gratitude.

When Ray Rex came home, he congratulated me on my emergency veterinary prowess.  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 Jersey’s flank.  I thought I had failed her, but Ray Rex assured me that everything was fine—just fine.  He said that flies and maggots conspired to provide cleansing for open air wounds as a natural aid to healing. 

The Jersey cow healed;  The calf went to the sale for veal;  Nosey got to retire for the summer; and Garnet began tapping the rich 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 that has ever been his trademark. It wasn’t until I brought home a baby girl swathed in pink beribboned flannel that I truly realized how staunch was his hold on the life I had given him.  Compared to her dainty hands, his had the look of a stevedore’s.  It’s amazing what comparison can do to perception.  The week before, I had envisioned him as my sweet little baby boy.  Suddenly he appeared as a bumptious big brother who would one day put the cat in the freezer to create a “catsicle.”  I would love them both.  I would love them all.  It was I, after all, who had put a board on my duckling and stood on it to make it quack.  Who am I to judge creative persuasion? Performing veterinary surgery without benefit of license is an illegal bit of business, but since luck was along for the adventure, this cow’s tale can end with a wink and a smile.

Imitation

Back in 1982 Johnson & Johnson made interocular lenses under the aegis of Iolab Corporation, to replace the ones removed by cataract surgery.  Those early lenses produced the miracle of restoring sight to the blind on a routine basis, and a lot of work went into perfecting their design.  Such replacements became part of a human eye and needed to be the best of medical grade implants. 

Each lens had a hole drilled in it to provide for handling it during implantation.  That hole must be round, portray an exact diameter, pass through the entire lens, and have extremely smooth edges.  Drilling those holes presented problems both at entry and at exit for the rotating drill bit.  Several considerations affected the aesthetic and function of the rims.  Configuration of the drill bit, such as point angle, rotation speed of the drill head, and speed of advancement through the plastic body all affected appearance of the resulting apertures.  Routinely those holes were rimmed with ragged burrs, and that was patently unacceptable.

That was the state of affairs when I joined Iolab as Manufacturing Engineer in October 1982, and my number one assignment was to clean up those holes.  I organized several studies that involved supervising the drilling of hundreds of holes, varying each parameter in a controlled and documented methodology.  The more experimental holes drilled, the more it became obvious that a major process change would be required.  No matter how the variables varied, the holes remained chaotic and unpredictable.

One day while enjoying a solitary liquid lunch at the local watering hole, I mused about how cool it would be to blast the holes with a laser. Star Wars lens drilling?  Why not?  A laser could melt the holes, but that’s not the only way to liquify holes.  Drill speed increased enough to generate heat could melt through the plastic.  That might leave smooth holes. It would have to be controlled to keep from melting the whole lens, but it could be investigated.  Star Wars’ initial release in 1977 had everybody thinking about zapping things.  I paid the check and headed back to the lab.

I had no internet access at that time and did some tech library research that involved pulling weighty tomes off shelves and flipping through them, squinting until my eyes watered.  Soon all that effort located a company right in LA that did ultra-high-speed drilling.  I visited their factory and compared our disparate applications.  Returning to Iolab, I set up for ultra-high-speed drilling in the engineering lab.  The results were phenomenal.  Rims were consistently smooth, even under the microscope.

I showed my good results to my boss, Ted Wilshire.  He was dispassionate about the idea and seemed not ready to believe the impact of the portended change.  He said to keep it quiet and just write up what I had done and give it to him.  I pulled together all my studies and documented the results, along with the cost impact of the change as a break-even analysis.  I copied only Ted Wilshire and copy-to-file.  It was a dead issue

Ted was new to J&J and had blasted any chance that we might get along by cracking a sexist joke at my expense when he and I were first introduced.  He commented to the whole group that where he came from women belonged in the kitchen.  I didn’t laugh.  Now getting credit for my important process improvement depended on his good will—his alone.

I didn’t hear much from Ted for several weeks.  Then suddenly rumors of a big engineering meeting to announce a new process began making the rounds.  The Iolab president would be there.  Nobody knew what was happening, and we looked forward to finding out.

While waiting my turn at the Xerox machine in the copy room, I noticed a meeting agenda being reproduced by the engineering secretary.  I scored a copy from her and went back to my cubby to read it.  It outlined a new drilling process invented by Ted Wilshire that would markedly improve the profit position of lens production, stating that he would be describing the entire concept at a meeting to be held in the management suite the very next day with all engineers and managers required to attend.

It was a while before I was conscious of taking a breath.  Ted was going to steal my idea.  How could he?  I didn’t have long to ponder the problem because I got a call to report to the office of the engineering group manager, Nacho Munos.  That was just as well.  If he hadn’t called, I would have been calling him, asking for a meeting.  I pulled out my copy of my Profit Improvement Disclosure and headed for Nachos’ office.

I might as well have left it in the file, because on arriving at the Engineering Group office Nacho let me stand while he directed me to gather my personals and leave the building.  My services were no longer needed at Iolab.  I asked Nacho where this came from.  He replied, “Ted Wilshire.”  That’s all I needed to know.  I kept my copy of my original disclosure, but was too devastated to even fight the betrayal. In 2021interocular lenses don’t even require holes.  It’s a good thing that such a great product doesn’t have to carry a feature reminiscent of such rapacious skullduggery.   In retrospect, it was nice to know that Ted thought so much of my idea he had to steal it.  Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery.

My life has been a litany of successful failures and failed successes braided into a series of delightfully tortured complexities.  Whatever the result, it wasn’t boring.

First I wanted to be the best of children, but my mother, were she still alive, would attest to my having been  her one perfect child who all too often embodied the personification of evil.

I wanted to be an exemplary wife, but three divorces document my facility in trashing the male/female bond, seeing it surely as bondage.  It is now only in spousal death that I appreciate how much they were both loveable and loved.

I wanted to be a good mother, but fear my four children—three living—would gladly testify to my inability to do the mother thing with any dexterity.  Their proved successes ultimately disprove this fear.

I wanted to write poetry, but in spite of millions of lovely words frittered away, my poesy—often muddying up even my prose— remains steadfastly unpublished.  I keep writing, not to benefit the New Yorker, but because I love to see how contented the words appear nestled together on the page.  They, too, deserve to be happy.

Trying to be the son my father wanted all along, I refused to acquiesce to the condemnation of co-workers and cohorts.  I forged ahead for year after year, certain that just one more great invention would prove my case.  It never did, but I enjoyed being one of the very first women ignoring the possibility of glass ceilings and bosoming into the male bastion of military aerospace, all before Equal Employment quotas were ever even dreamed of.

Trying to be the songbird my mother envisioned—having named me for Jeanette Macdonald—I practiced countless vocalizes, sang Soprano in a kaleidoscope of choirs, attempted countless pharyngeal contortions, all sure to finally produce the desired mellifluousity.  They failed.  At an age when other singers have retired to gracious listening, I am still trudging up the aisle processing with my choir and struggling to keep my weighty music folder elevated where I can see it even with bifocals.  In spite of eighty years of devoted singing, I’m not a has-been; I’m a never-was.  But since I can still sight-read and match pitch, it’s still the best of fun to make like a bird even with feet on the ground.

Readers of this anguished diatribe will assume that I regret all this wasted effort and wonder why I didn’t just relax and move along with the flow of days.  When failure is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.  That would have been boring.  Far better it is to try and fail, than recall a life as might-have-been.  I had a wild ride and treasure every minute of it.  It’s the titillating triumphs in between the foibles and flops that texture the flow of the river of remembrance.

What I write in this rambunctious memoire will bear this out.  I hope to place a dear honest tome into the hands of each of my progeny, one that gives them something tactile to help them remember how we got through it all.  They will have something with heft to hand to their own children when asked how they managed to become the person they became, a tool that will help even the grands forgive themselves when they fall short of what they wanted to make of their own precious lives.  No, I’m not unique in either my successes nor in my failures.  Nobody’s perfect, but the best features of life are the parts where we get up, dust ourselves off, and keep trying no matter what.

White Boxes

White everywhere and divided into three-dimensional spaces, defined by length, width, and height.  People and things belonged inside, the demarcations appropriate to their certain essences.  My box was where I was permitted to think and feel; I was to simply be what I was—that— no more, no less.

Exiting my box and peering to the right I was given a view of my next box neighbor.  A stately Negress, she stood tall, inspecting a mirrored wall up and down, verifying that she was prepared to reflect a positive image.  Her coloration eluded me as immaterial.  It was her regal erect posture that put me in mind of an African queen.  She slipped out of her own box and went her way toward whatever destination.

Outside our boxes a complex manifold offered many choices of exit strategy.  Most interesting was a double sized aperture that accommodated a spread of garden soil.  In its center sprouted a single aloe plant that propagated only a bifurcation of scrawny green branches.  They were not spectacular in their will to survive.  I felt sympathy for the puny planting and slipped by, determined not to add shame to the anguish of the paltry growth, which was doing the best it could.  After a time of being off doing something or other, I returned.  My neighbor was entertaining company and had enlivened her drab costume with a fork of bright Kelly green trousers.  It was a chic habiliment.

That enhancement played many-fold as I passed by again and again and yet again.  Indeed, the most recent sortie from my personal rectangle, and past hers, displayed a veritable, as well as virtual, chorus line of dancers, garbed in kaleidoscopic green and black and white.  They moved in sync, matching time, demonstrating how folk might cooperate and have fun doing it.  Their high kicks and fancy foot work projected an exhilaration that rubbed off onto me as I passed the aperture of their domain.  I smiled in spite of myself and moved on, my step quickening along with the thunder of happy feet—theirs and mine.

Upon revisiting the aloe plant, it had become a different expression of herbage.  Where previously there had been two branches, now there were eight, angular displacements equally divided, their octagonally spaced arches conquering the garden space entire, mimicking a grand herbaceous arachnid.  Noting what it had accomplished made me happy for a plant that had become sovereign of its garden, its purpose to provide healing to any and all passersby.  What must the plant feel, as a visitor breaks off a portion of aloe persona and tucks it away to use against some future pain of rash or abrasion?  That’s what people do to aloe plants.  Given the contract evolved between plant life and animal life, aloe must surely rejoice in having fulfilled its duty to assuage the pain of its opposite kingdom.  If it had a chest, it would take a deep lung inflating breath and be proud.  Perhaps it simply activates its chlorophyll to transform an extra measure of sunlight.  Everything has a way to feel proud and happy.

Other than the aloe plant and the Kelly dancers, I had no sense of what was happening in any of the other spaces, except to know that they were enlivened with purpose-filled entities, every bit as real as my own.  It seemed odd that we could so closely co-exist but not have any real understanding of others’ lives.  While they were making the best of their time in the place of white boxes, I had no sense of any creative achievement in mine.  Perhaps I will visit this place again, and do better next time.  This dream-time reverie smacks suspiciously of Zoom.  Could it be so?

Two hundred thousand years or so ago an isolated group of primates evolved into a species that became aware of itself.  Like a child peering into a looking glass, it was fascinated by what it saw looking back from still water.  “That is me,” it marveled.  “I am.”  It was the discovery of the ages, the beginning of a complexity that is still being unraveled to this very day, gathering together in a special place, performing certain actions together in shared awe and wonderment.

Until that first excursion into fascination with the narcissistic self, our natural animal instincts were directed outward: pure erotic delight in the passionate other; instinctual sacrifice of self as mother (and later claiming authorship of sperm as father), in joined adoration of child; numinous enchantment with perceived beauty expressed as art.  But that primitive discovery of self as prepossessing all other amazements stands as the actual original sin, tales of munching apples in mythical gardens at the instigation of wily serpents notwithstanding.  As homo-sapiens-sapiens, we knew at some deep level that fascination with self was wrong.  It flew in the face of two hundred million years of evolution becoming mammals.  Suckling one’s child creates love, teaches that it is important to value another beyond one’s own needs, even to the death.  Who would not die to preserve one’s child?

Directing love outward, subsuming all-consuming self-involvement, as a purposeful endeavor, created worship.  We gathered together, for in numbers there is strength, and acknowledged our foolish ways.  Does this suggest we invented God?  No.  He was there all along, waiting for us to awaken to Him and accept the love that waited for us as own, His magnum opus.  The magnificent arithmetic, the algorithms of Truth that pre-existed all bangs, big or small, were there waiting for us to name that lovely abstraction “God.”  Our salvation lay in discovery that it is not we, who matter, but God and valuing His creation.

Worship is a together happening; Prayer can be solitary, but in worship we bare our narcissistic selves to each other and to God.  Primitive worship featured song, dance, and visual art.  These summoned spirit, not so much from far, far away, but from within.  Painting on cave walls, the art of the ancients, captured the power of symbol.  Fire leapt as metaphoric embodiment of life and spirit.  Sacrifice, an early attempt to negotiate with the divine, was once part of worship, but now passing the plate replaces ritualistic blood-letting.  Drumming, echoing beat of heart, combined with ululation as celebration of breath, generated excitement, more than any crass modern football competition.

Language, a late arrival, provided elegant tools to express “a love so amazing, so divine, it demands my soul, my life, my all.”  Of all the fruits of carbon based life on this third planet, only we, homo-sapiens-sapiens, define and love God.  In our worship, we honor and celebrate that as miracle.  Methodism, an off-shoot of the Christian trifurcation of God worship, especially honors the place of music in liturgy, thanks to John Wesley its founder.  The world-around, similar religions know God as incarnate.   Methodist hymnody shares that musical art with a great many Christian denominations, describing devotion to a savior-God, not as fact but as Truth.  For example:

      When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died,

      My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.

      Forbid it Lord that I should boast, save in the death of Christ, my Lord;

      All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.

      See from His head, His hands, His feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down;

      Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?

      Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small.

      Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all. 

(Isaac Watts 1674-1748)

Worship as expression of such devotion, away from self, toward God as beloved, is surely an effective antidote to the self-absorption that characterizes narcissism.  An old friend Lydia, a thirty-year Methodist, was a cradle Baptist, a familiar of tent-revivals and altar-calls.  The first time the Holy Spirit spoke to her, it led her down the aisle to fall on her knees, while “Just As I Am” played a tender accompaniment.   Her relationship with God is a personal one.  In these her own words she recalls her first Christmas service as the one responsible for the ritual:  “An altar candle’s wick just wouldn’t light in spite of holding more than enough oil.  Anxiety choked me.   I was terrified, feeling not just a little resentment at being asked to do more than my share.  Then a light went on in my head.  How could I possibly resent doing anything for my Jesus?  I prayed, Get a grip! It’s not about my perfect details.  Just relax and be a joyful servant.  Then the flame caught.”  She had cracked the nut of her wisdom: “Worship is about God, not about me.”

That is such a small story to be lingering in my hippocampus for so many years.  Its longevity speaks to how central, how profound, is the point it makes.  How sweetly it settles into remembrances of things past, a reminder that worship is a together thing.