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Archive for December, 2017

Immortal

Seven point six billion humans presently inhabit this planet. That makes the specific aggregation of living cells comprising my personal human form far less than cosmically significant. Whether I live to fight another day doesn’t much matter. What does matter a great deal is that Homo-sapiens-sapiens continues to live and love and evolve, to more beautifully and consistently express the Divine nature. That is important to me and to all of life on God’s green earth. As a species we have a ways to go.

Once I was immortal, or thought I was. In 1950, when I was twelve, I would go fishing with my Aunt Judy. We were members of the Mineola Fishing Club. She would pack her Cadillac Deville with sportswear and fishing tackle, and we would take off for Mineola, Texas and some days of quietude. I adored the time with Judy all to myself. She was a legend at the club with her unique method for always catching more bass, crappie, and catfish than anyone else. Enthroned at the motor end of her boat, she would bait and set four lines on each side. That made her an octagonal spectacle with more than a suggestion of “spider.” She was kidded a lot about her multi-lined approach to catching fish, by more than just me, but she didn’t mind a bit. I went out on the lake with her the first day of every trip, but I couldn’t bear to sit still for long, not making even a squeak that might scare the fish. She was a serious fisherwoman, using minnows as bait, but I was partial to worms. Brem were easy. I could catch them off the dock. They didn’t scare easily, and I liked watching the red and white cork dance when a fish was nibbling my hook. There’s nothing like the excitement of feeling a fish tugging your line and the happy high of landing it. But I didn’t, and still don’t, have the patience for sitting all day in Judy’s boat.

I spent my time hiking the grounds and stalking the clubhouse halls while she was out on the lake. Cook made from-scratch biscuits for breakfast every morning and filled the dining hall with the smell of yeast rolls rising in anticipation of every bountiful supper. A visit to the kitchen often netted me a handout of whatever sweet and spicy was in the works. There was lots of time for thinking. It was at Mineola that I first chewed that worrisome nut “how long I might live.” I puzzled about the ages of all the people in my family and the ages at death of those who had already departed, dear and not-so-dear. I decided that “old” was seventy, but I didn’t have to worry about being seventy since that was so far away I couldn’t imagine ever getting there. Time stretched out in my twelve year old mind to forever.

I was wrong. I did get there and am now seeing it recede in the rear view mirror. It’s a strange thing but widely accepted that time contracts the older a person becomes. Days are now zipping past in a quotidian blur. It’ll be spring before we know it, with winter redefined as having been only a minor inconvenience. We’ll get through it or literally die trying. Not a problem.

One of the delights of being an old person is having the time to remember lovely things, like hiking up to the hatchery above the lake and lying on my belly watching the giant breeder fish hovering in clean clear pools below, rays of sunlight filtering through sycamore leaves and dappling the water’s skin with gold. It was a time of silent contentment, of long hours passing slowly and sweetly in the company of fellow creatures, both flora and fauna.  I was happy then; I’m happy now, visiting the memory. The sun was Texas hot, mellowed to warm in the shade of the great sycamores, and a cool breeze kissed my skin as I lay in good company, sharing my pool of happiness__ just being.

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Timing

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…”

Timing is everything. I learned that by changing schools again, and again, and again. Between Miss Chater’s Newtonville, Massachusetts first grade and Westport, Connecticut’s, Staples High School graduation ceremony, where I collected my diploma, I attended twenty-one different schools. Most problematic was being whip-sawed back and forth between northeast and southwest, time after time after time after time.

Most obvious was always being the new girl, the one that others stared at but didn’t engage. I learned it oh so well. The school cafeteria was the main battleground. Entering that dreaded galley, I headed for the nearest empty table and staked my claim. I ate fast, hoping to escape before anyone might notice that no one was joining me. Too often, I skipped the cafeteria line entire, using my lunch money for ice cream or candy to munch while I hid in a good book.

Even more basic than the social obfuscation of being ever on the move, was learning to speak at the correct speed. Texans take their time expressing themselves, snuggling down into the full possibilities inherent in the diphthong, drawing phrases out and up, often ending as a question where none is asked nor inferred. A Texan owns his time. He feels safe settling into it and getting comfortable. In the Lone Star State children are taught to be polite and not interrupt while another is speaking. In a discussion, all will wait until the speaker has completed his thought, and allow a full beat to elapse before jumping in to interject their own opinion.

In New England and especially New York, the opposite applies: In a discussion, a speaker is surrounded by hungry adversaries who pace, salivating, surrounding the teller’s tale, alert for any hint of an incipient pause, wherein they might dart, snatch a word, and supplant their own coo-coo-bird opinion in its place. New Yorkers talk fast. Everybody knows that. I learned it again and again at gut level. There is an art to interruption, and I have yet to master it. It can be done seamlessly incurring little offence, but as a born Texan, that perfect act of timing is beyond me. If I interrupt, I draw scowls of derision, even accusations of being impolitic. My timing is just… off.

An apposite example of Yankee parlance could be any Woody Allen movie. There are no pauses. Each speaker is an island unto himself. No one listens, but everyone natters in an uninterrupted arc of verbal vomitus, every response a non-sequitur, non-responsive since no one has listened to anyone else. I cannot bear to sit through a Woody Allen movie. It creates a temporary insanity that lasts until I can go home and hide until my heart settles down to a normal southern sinus rhythm.

In MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Mika Brezinski fights this battle of timing as competition with her male guests and most passionately with Joe Scarborough. He wants to talk. He doesn’t want Mika to usurp any of his power, and he guards it with snarling, hackle-raised passion. He is the boss. The show bears his name, and it was he who invited her to join his 6:00 AM news program. But she has overstripped his generosity and has become powerful in her own right. Not good! She is uniquely qualified, having grown up in the Zbignew Brezinski household, to moderate and even ameliorate the daily AM fracas, but Joe is having none of it. He will not allow her to interrupt his rants. After many months of urging him to play fair, she has begun simply talking over him, and it works. I can’t believe that my ears can follow his verbal barrage, while with satisfying facility, assimilating her overlaid commentary. My Texas self is offended, but I admire Mika’s bravery. She’s a champ!

I tried to moderate my writer’s group once, but was precipitously fired because one of our New York members interpreted my pause for the requisite beat as proof that I didn’t know what to say. I acquiesced, not wanting to moderate anyway. Others were better suited to that chore…some really great.

The timing of speech patterns does bring up a vital question: Are fast speakers smarter than slow? I suspect they are. Like playing challenging video games, speaking fast must urge people to think in like manner. I saw this played out in my school-girl musical chairs/schools. Dallas, Sherman, and Irving were always a year behind Waltham, Watertown, and Newton. At each move, I had to run to catch up, or settle for a snooze, depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon Line I had landed. I made good grades, but never the straight A’s to which I aspired, and my checkered performance assured me that whatever I did, no matter how slow or how fast I did it, I would never be good enough.

One saving grace in this comedy of ill-timing, netting off-putting performance, has been my curious gift of creativity. No matter where I found myself, I was ever alert and aware, paying attention, and noticing. As I traded school-days for paid work, imagination bridged any gap, whether real or hypothetical. Rote memory has never been my strength, (bo…ring) but a new breaking concept could often save the day. I trained myself to forget the details of a previous job after settling into the next. Why devote cognitive real estate to the past? Even the Buddha extolls beginner’s mind. I have come to accept myself as a Yellow Rose of Texas, retarded in my speech, possibly even in my intellect, but definitely a noticer, appreciator, and cultivator of wild hares.

Once while living and working on the farm, my family’s homestead west of Ft. Worth, I named the new street to my new home “Jackrabbit Track” to honor the flow of new ideas popping up in remembered conversations with my Grandfather as we enjoyed evening walks, scaring up the occasional jackrabbit, opossum, or armadillo. The local postmistress informed me that the US Postal Service does not recognize “Track” even if it is made by Texas jackrabbits. They renamed my street “Jackrabbit Trail,” but I proceeded to use “Jackrabbit Track” as my return address until I moved to Sherman for a better paying job at Johnson & Johnson. Bureaucrats drive me nuts. Maybe it’s a timing issue, as in marching to a different drummer…or dreamer. The truth is that jackrabbits don’t create trails, those roadways laid down by mindless following, nose to tail, the rabbit ahead to wherever some rabbit somewhere up front might be heading. A jackrabbit zig-zags back and forth, dodging obstacles, anticipating twenty leaps ahead, leaving pursuers behind and befuddled. Bunnies make trails; Jackrabbits make tracks.

***

As a pre-teen, I visited for two weeks every summer with my grandparents on that familiar home place. In the pasture beyond the fenced front yard there was an ancient oak tree with several generations of farming detritus strewn about its roots. There were wagon wheels, rims, chain, wire, lanterns, gears, pails, and innumerable miscellany. Most were rusty, but all were full of imaginative possibility. It was my special Skunkworks.

With these junk components I conglomerated numerous marvels of invention. I made a bicycle with wheels that turned in place but didn’t go anywhere. There was a rocket ship, a loom, and an escalator. There was even a horse and buggy, but you had to imagine the horse. I filled the hours in between Grandma’s meals with my serious “work.”

A scrawny child but growing aggressively, I never lost track of the possibilities of breakfast, (eggs, sausage, steaming buttermilk biscuits with fresh churned butter, pear preserves and red-eye gravy), high noon farm hand dinners spread on the dining room table, the old oilcloth clean but sticky, and quiet evening suppers, retrospective warm-ups of the noontide feast. Those meals must have been inspired by memories of men, strong, hot and dripping sweat, just in from the hayfield and powerful hungry.

The hours under my tree were peopled with those laborer’s ghosts and empowered by their implements laid aside just in case someday they might prove useful to the work at hand. Fortified with Grandma’s cooking, I toiled. Grasshoppers buzzed. Dragonflies chased and caught each other, then lit all-coupled on the quiet creek skim, celebrating the marvels of surface tension. Cicadas shrilled a solid wall of scream. I had all I needed to complete my task.

Each object had a right place where it fit; each necessary to the whole. All the parts went together, mechanisms incarnate. They lived. Wheels turned. Bearings screeched. Rims rolled. Chains pulled. Pails frothed with warm buttery milk. Old harness became pliant and slick with horse and sweat. Square nails and rusty rings married dreams, as once they had bonded boards and leather strapping. Time shrank while I embodied happiness.

One evening Grandpa came to visit me under my tree. I showed him my wondrous creations, demonstrating how each one worked. We spoke of future projects. I confided my worry that since everything had already been thought of there would be nothing left for me to invent. He assured me there were marvels yet to come, and said to keep an open mind for “wild hares” passing. As light faded to the west and early stars blinked on, we walked together toward the house and rest. I slipped my hand into his. “Grandpa,” I asked, “you know, don’t you, that I don’t really believe my machines are real? They are “just pretend” like the mud-pies Grandma and I made when I was little.”

He looked down at me, eyes twinkling but with a face full of serious. “Sure,” he said. “I know. But you can never tell with those jackrabbits.”

***

That was a different time, a different place, a different perception of self and what propels today’s reality. Timing, whatever iteration of reality, will always be part of the equation.

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