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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?

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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.

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She stood, eyes accusing, arms relaxed in a gentle hug of her matronly form, dumpy printed three-quarter sleeved housedress shrouding a body that abdicated any claim to sexual suggestion.  She was there to monitor me, to make sure that I was as androgynous as she.  It was a standard office accommodation, though no desks were evident, only a pit in the floor where a monumental cut crystal shaft suspended from a steel cable descended, impaling the earth and then withdrawing.  Up and down, up and down it reciprocated — up to be delighted in, down to be deplored.  Matron wasn’t required to actuate any switch, had only to visualize vectored motion, and the massive twinkling hulk moved up or down acknowledging the caprice of her will.

She called me into what seemed to be her office and demanded an accounting.  I hemmed and hawed, a stupid obfuscation.  Why did she ask?  She knew.  Suddenly it occurred to me to leave—out the door, across the lawn, to the edge of the property where a fence stood, unsure of itself.  It was made of stone, but claimed a structure akin to wood, with granite posts that supported concrete slabs secured in between each pair of uprights.  I clambered onto the confused fence, straddling a slab, and slid to the ground.  Dragging skin across the rough concrete hurt, leaving a trail of blood and gravel, but it was a relief connecting to a trustworthy earth.

Safe on solid ground, I paced along the stone fence around to the back of the building where fence shaped slabs lay flat in a tidy row across the expanse.  The closest one resisted my prying but finally succumbed, with a complaining release of suction between its flat under-surface, married to the clay of damp soil.  I inspected the area beneath the slab, and satisfied no entity sheltered there waiting to do me harm, I blessed the silent square of dark earth and lowered the stone back to its rightful place.  So far, so good!  Next I moved to the second in the ordered cohort of rectangles.  It, too, must be raised and inspected to make sure it was just a stone shape and hid nothing fearsome.

I levered up and looked underneath every slab, even though by the time most had been raised, it was obvious that no offending entity would be found.  What persona could lurk to threaten from such an unlikely refuge?  But is that any more whimsical than trolls residing under a bridge, and they have earned a place in our culture?  These questions suggested that each slab might represent an abstract concept that needed to be investigated.  Length versus width is all that’s needed to postulate a slice of reality.  It defines a surface or a rectilinear plane.  Thickness, as third dimension assumed by the concrete, suggests a heft that is dense and weighty, something worthy of being reckoned with.

Dreams could save time just bypassing metaphor, but perhaps they enjoy the game of stashing concept in the belly of a metaphor and watching us struggle with making meaning out of the meal.  Perhaps our brains delight in keeping us entertained during the wee hours trying to figure out what our nighttime selves want to say to our daytime ones.  It would be so much more expeditious to simply complain that my disarticulated understanding of dear old mom would be improved by inspecting some of my ill-founded conceptualizations.  It’s disappointing that in spite of looking underneath each and every stone, nothing was found but an earthworm and a few of Darwin’s ubiquitous beetles.  If my subconscious were more creative, it might have conjectured something truly terrifying.  I might as well just accept being passably sane.

But, not so fast!  What if the weird fence in front of the office were an allusion to the sentences I like to scribe using components that are unnecessarily weighty?  The aquamarine shape oscillating into and out of the solidity of earth, might be setting the rhythm of prosody as it alternatively accepts then rejects precious truth, as mother earth puzzles whether she is being loved or raped.  That, too, fits the shape of this metaphor.

Words matter.  We know they do.  One of my early attempts at publication was a commentary on the Joy of Fishing that I submitted to my local Pennsboro, West Virginia weekly rag.  I had referenced “a worm wriggling on a barb of steel.”  The local editor, in his superior wisdom, changed it to “wiggling.”  His correction changed “the torture of agony” into “a mindless twitching.”  I have never forgiven that desecration of my poesy, nor have I forgotten.  I will carry the dignity of that wriggling nematode to my very grave, defending his cachet, and mine, to the very end.  Perhaps there are multiple layers of metaphor that the subconscious tinkers with as part of this game: Perhaps the androgynous dream female is a mother figure, and maybe she is also a personification of literary criticism, the kind that wants words to be pedestrian so as to convey just the facts, Ma’am—just the facts.  And then she just might be I, my very self, admitting that I just don’t understand.

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Solipsism As Epiphany

This isn’t real.  What I think is a universe full of stars and planets and seas and skies and people is just something I have dreamed and reveled in, but it’s nothing special.  Others have realized that before me.  I am just now catching up to what is true.  Always I am a bit slow to catch on, refusing to wear fashions until they have survived at least two years in the popular culture.  Before that they seem just too weird.  There is even a name for this style of perception; it is called solipsism.  But that name withholds the grandeur of the reality as if it were an aberration.  But how can it be aberrant if everybody’s doing it?  I have my solipsism and you have yours.  I postulate that all of life conjures a unique perception of what is, and that creates separate worlds, perhaps individual string universes, wherein all live their existence marveling at what their “is” is.

I have always been suspicious about living at this absolute apogee of human achievement where differentiating the curve would declare the slope to be zero.  How could I have been so fortuitously positioned in my little life?  It would have had to have been a creator God who chose my parents, selected to precisely carry over traits of creativity, sensitivity, and eccentricity into an incarnation that grants access to a world in disarray that could use a bit of mothering from a female primate.  But a Creator God is not what Darwin and I have ascertained to be reasonable.  Here I am in the greatest country ever to have flown a flag, watching that banner shredded and burned on an altar of greed and selfish abandon, where all that has made that country great is poised on a precipice of cataclysm. 

Given all that, it would seem necessary that I rise to my unique occasion and do something.  But I don’t.  I’m too busy dying.  And what does that mean?  Every crossroad requiring a decision is equivocated by dithering about whether I will still be alive to enjoy the fruit of that choice.  Why buy the extra-large money-saving size when I will surely die before it is used up?  Living a life quibbling over such adjudication is a bore.  I am determined to stop it.  So what shall I do?

I puzzle about the age of Robert Louis Stevenson when he wrote, “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”  He was right.  I am surrounded by wonders, even in things that give me pause, set me to grumbling, and turn me to despair.  Wherever I look, amazements abound.  The bathroom in my much disabused apartment is full of surprises.  It was constructed at a time when small accommodations were built right into the surround.  In the tiling of the bathtub, for instance, one tile is supplanted by a square ceramic handle that sits there all day every day just waiting to help me get into and out of a slippery situation without breaking bones.  How considerate.  And though I have utilized its assistance at every bathing  for three years and counting, I just yesterday realized that on arising with its aid,  it is more efficient to turn clockwise rather than counterclockwise, the better to wedge feet into the grooves of sides-meeting-tub-bottom and avoid a fall.  That possibility was there all along, lurking in the shadows of understanding, just wanting to be found and appreciated.  Well, this morning I give it its due, long overdue.

The longer I stay in my little rented abode, the more I appreciate its willingness to snuggle down into my solipsism and make everything a home.  It greets me every morning offering the comfort of familiar as I enter my kitchen corner and reach for the levers of water power filling plastic vessels, hot as I can stand, one for soap, one for rinse, all conjured to make implements of sustenance clean and shiny to my touch.  I have learned to just turn the handles, not stand and growl at the unfairness of a world that makes me wash dishes when I would so much rather sit and write.  Turning the handles gives me good Cincinnati water that makes my kitchen sparkle.  The hot fluid warms my hands and assures me that these frothy bubbles float impurities away, reducing yesterday’s detritus to a flotilla of filth, gone, gone away.

You say that such spigots are part of your own solipsism and are nothing special.  I ask why you refuse to see the wonder in your own.  Your place is like none other because it is yours.  You are important and wonderful to me.  Turn your kitchen taps and be thankful for the technology developed over centuries of sapient experimentation that brought clear bright water to your very fingertips.  It celebrates every morning how powerful and important you are in a world of sentient beings.  And then go sit and write, and read what you have written to a group of scribbling primates.  We want to hear what you have thought and set to verse and knitted into prose.  We can celebrate together, agree and disagree, as tides of opinion ebb and flow.  As each and all of us ages and one by one falls off the roster of scribes, we can take joy in each special presence, present, and yes, even past.

Some delights are ordinary; some are spectacular.  All are life affirming.  Yesterday I fielded a comment on my blog that introduced a gentleman who knew what Acronymania* is all about.  He was able to bring me up to date about my work at TRW on NBCRS, having also worked with my old bosses, Bill King and Jack Cherne.  Last week I discovered that the savvy old guy in my bible study group, who shares my love for Robert Alter as Old Testament translator, is none other than Gordon Christenson, Dean Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of the University of Cincinnati College of Law.  No wonder he speaks with eloquence and informed good sense.  Such discoveries make my head spin and my heart thunder.

Things keep happening to remind me of serendipitous truthiness.  Last fall my phone went bad like it always does when I venture into West Virginia.  When I returned to Ohio, it did its best but couldn’t engage its GPS, so I chose to duck into my son’s house and borrow his WIFI to urge my iPhone back into sentient service.  It worked.  Then I left and stupidly abandoned my purse on his living room couch.  My phone is so much smarter than I.

That senior moment required that I meet Lane and his sweetie the next day and retrieve the purse that contained all my credit cards, cash, and personal ID.  Lane set a time and place to meet: The Starbucks close to Northgate Mall.  When approaching the mall, I asked SIRI to find it for me, but all she would do was search, and search, and search…  The intersection of Colerain and US Route 275 is interesting enough, but how many times can you negotiate it before you begin to feel more than a bit foolish?

Finally I just gave up.  I rolled into an available parking lot and meandered about, turning the steering wheel wherever inspiration dictated.  I kept an eye out for the little green Starbucks Siren, but it was nowhere.  Finally, one set of turns put me into a parking area close to Colerain Avenue.  I hesitated, looked straight ahead, and there at eye level in six foot high green letters was STARBUCKS.  Not only that, but my peeling Highlander was lined up with the premiere parking space right at the front door.  It was empty and beckoning.  “Come hither,” it said.  “Park.”

Was that the serendipity that I love to blather about?  It keeps happening, assuring everything stays on track, toward what I don’t know.  But I’m glad it does.  Like deja vu, whenever it happens I assume I must be on my right path.  I pulled in to the space, locked the car, entered the coffee store, and ordered a decaf cappuccino.  No sooner had I sat down to wait than a dearly familiar male voice behind me said, “Mom?”

What I’m daring to suggest is that we, all of us, create our own realities out of where we find ourselves as physical manifestations.  There is considerable physics to support this wild possibility.  String theory talks about multiple universes that overlay and interlace each other.  Maybe they are created by you and by me as we swim in special realities, yours and mine and ours.

I continue to marvel at the somewhat agreed-upon stories shared among family members.  Everyone, it seems, has a slightly different remembrance of things past.  Trial lawyers and accident investigators speak of how differently various witnesses attest to what happened.  According to them, that is just an aspect of human nature.  What if it isn’t just faulty memory, but different lived experience?  What if in my universe things play out just a wee bit differently from what they do in yours?

Nothing just happens.  Is it some kind of cosmic happenstance that caused you and me to be living at this precise juncture in the construct of universal reality?  How was it that we came to be living beings at this nexus of what is?  If we could have chosen the most important century to inhabit, in the most influential polity on this third planet, given the most fascinating technological amazements ever to be achieved in the history of history, how could we have chosen better than here and now?  It’s a good time to be alive—as is every time— it seems.  There’s always a good reason to get out of bed.  We just have to be looking for it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

(*)  Morethanenoughtruth.com/acronymania

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Having read yet another chapter of Peter Strzok’s tell-all story of the Russia investigation, I was warming to the over-filled hot water bottle at my feet and relaxing into the nights version of flannel pajamas snuggling legs as they sought consolation of warmth against what was becoming a chill gathering of winter.  I fumbled for the switch that would put out the reading lamp, found it at last, and turned it with a satisfying click.  Dark.  Lovely darkness congealed to comfort after a long day of sorting light from multitudinous sources that must be parsed and resolved.  It was a war—a lovely war— but one that must be fought in honor of the light and the radiant seeing of it.  I smiled, closed my eyes, and resigned myself to the sleep of the innocent.

That was ten of the clock.  At eleven-thirty eyelids popped up—nothing to see—but much to hear.  There it was—that scrabbling rasp of claw on crisp something-or-other.  It had been a feature of the deep night since October had brought cold with encroaching winter and had sent woodland critters searching for warmer berths.  One must have chosen my kitchen and had eluded my attempts at entrapment.  A trip to Ace Hardware notwithstanding, my persistent unwelcome guest continued to ravage my larder.  It ignored mousetraps armed with succulent cheddar and went on to bigger and better possibilities.  In spite of my warm cocoon, shivers raced down my spine.  Time for action!

I slid from under covers, slithered into slippers, and tiptoed into kitchen where moonlight illuminated a yawning trash receptacle that was shuddering, and not with delight.  It was under attack by some unidentified life form.  Reaching back through my genetic inheritance to my time as hunter-gatherer, I acted.  In two bold leaps I slammed the lid shut.  What luck that it had begun the night ajar, an inadvertent open enticement for possible marauders!  Something thrashed about inside the enclosure, slamming against the lid as I held it closed, reaching for something heavy to keep it shut.  The weightiest thing I could find with only one free hand was Robert Alter’s translation of the first five books of Moses with commentary.  It worked fine.  Adding two more tomes just in case, I stood back and wondered, now what

There will be no sleep this night, I mused.  The trashcan/book-stack shook as an unidentified body crashed, leaped, thrust, and thundered in what must be described as wrath.  How could I sleep with all that going on in the adjoining room?  The thing to do was to remove the problem.  I bundled into my trusty barn coat, the one I had used many times before to hustle horses into their proper behavior and placement, if not attitude.

It was at the witching hour that I rolled my accommodating little trash container out the front door, yet book bedecked, and set it still aquiver on my front porch, there to await the dawning.  Mr. Sun cleared the horizon right on time, but I missed his glorious arrival, so sound asleep was I after having spent all my adrenaline the night before.  At nine o’clock I jumped out of the bed, dressed for cold, and headed out the front door, not having even polished teeth.  By then the wild thing must surely have been dead as a proverbial doornail, I chuckled with anticipatory glee and gathered Moses’ books and the other fat tomes that had shared the lonely night with Alter.  The container sat still and silent.  No movement hinted at life having survived the frigid hours that presaged the icy dawn.  I lifted the lid and peeked in.  Nothing stirred.  There was just a wrinkly lump of shredded white polyethylene garbage bag at the bottom. Nudging the container resuscitated a ball of fur and claws and whipping tail, lurching from under the plastic and looking to attack whosoever had given it so inhospitable a berth.  But I, too, was up for the fight.  I slammed the lid shut, restacked the books, and went inside to telephone Maintenance.

A previous era would have presented The Lone Ranger astride his trusty horse Silver, but in 2020 it was Dan the Maintenance Man who came to the rescue soon after my frantic call for backup.  Satisfying himself that what we had was indeed a rat, he went to find a bucket—a big one.  He asked to fill it from my bathtub faucet, a spot that required he pass by my illegal installation of a bidet.  My unauthorized plumbing had rendered even friendly Dan an adversary.  I held my breath, but he didn’t seem to notice.  Then with almost three gallons of water we proceeded to do what must be done, but I hesitated.  Consider the rat.  It too was a mammal, a cousin of my own lineage.  It might even be a she rat, with babes awaiting her return.  It wasn’t her fault that she was born a rodent.  Even a rat must eat and keep warm.

But empathy aside I assured myself, we must exterminate this rat.  They carry disease.  We already have Coronavirus, and don’t need Plague to keep it company.  Dan the Man was good, but he had only two hands.  He needed four.  One held the can still while he jousted, keeping the creature at bay inside the container.  It fell to me, with my eighty-two year old arms and shoulders to lift and pour the water into the vessel.  Dan kept the critter pinned and submerged while we held a respectful silence.  Even a rat deserves a prayerful leave-taking.

A hole in the bottom, where the clever mechanism’s rod passed through plastic to allow a foot to raise lid for incoming discards, allowed water level to gradually recede like a dam’s lock that slowly lowers everything to proper level.  In unison we breathed relieved sighs as all our four eyes peered into the evacuated vessel.  There at the bottom, in a peaceful sleep of repose, lay the rat.  It had been all about attitude.  Without the furious mood elevation of rage, he was like any napping child, full of gentility and sweetness.  While last night’s fear had enlarged my perception of the creature to terrifying proportions, this altered reality presented nothing but a small furry body at peace.  I breathed a silent prayer: Please forgive me.  If we meet again in some future life, I’ll be the rat—you be the avenger.

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There’s only so much room in a human brain, or any other confabulation of neurons.  It is, after all, only a tangle of wily cells that convene and collude.  They pass along information out of joy.  Why else would beats of energy course down paths they have already pulsed, and to what avail?  No wonder it hurts to think about being old, with so much to remember.  How many books have I read?  How many idle hours spent gawking at pixelated depictions of other people’s thoughts?  All of that I hope to remember and never ever forget.  And we don’t forget—completely.

Grab a book you might have read but can’t be sure.  Open it and start traipsing across lines of letters.  Familiarity raises its silly head and mocks your attempt to make new acquaintances out of lexicon.  “I’ve read this before,” it chortles.  You might ignore it and continue to peruse.  What, after all, is the resolution of all this texty perturbation?  Can you reach into the mire of memory and pluck out the final denouement?  Probably not, but if you determine to read it anyway, it will open itself like a love-sick girl begging you to enter her very core.  And you don’t stop.  You read anyway and take a stupid pleasure in piling remembrances on top of amazements as if this were something new, after all is read and done.  Such dilemmas pose their plight anew each line and wait for you to throw the tome aside and seek another.  It’s a virgin read you want, one that tempts with mysterium of never-read-before, where every line is pristine to your ravenous intent to know what you have never known, and did not of yourself invent. 

There is a purpose to my rave.  I am out to prove that we do remember all we read, perhaps not with precision, but with predictable fidelity and honest intuition of the somehow familiar.  If that is the case, can memory press on into some undefinable future?  Is brain a bottomless pit of wanting to know?  Surely there are only so many ways to ply the axons of cranial maze, and we will run out of space and acronyms of purposeful complexity.  What happens then?  Might we have evolved some cunning ploy to conserve, a judicious perspicacity to set aside a request for mnemonic retrieval and then wait a bit for information to rise unbidden on its own.  The senior moment seems to describe just such a ploy.  Accepting this shenanigan as a normal healthy activity of an ageing brain might lower anxiety and allow to work whatever will.

A case in point is my encountering a Jodi Picoult book vulnerable to my acquisition, just perched on the shelf at Oakley Library.  It was unusual to find it so disarmed, so available, with no need to work my IT demands that it be where I want it to be.  It just slid it right off the shelf into my hands.  A new one not read before?  Surely not.  I have, after all, read all of them by now.  I wagged it home, heavy in my book bag, prickling with possibility of being a pristine read, a virgin.  Eschewing foreplay and irradiated Lean Cuisine, I took it straight to bed, lit with bedside lamp, hot-water-bottle cooked to toe-warming bliss, and snuggled down for a read.

I smoothed the slick library cover, taking in the blue, a nebulous coloration that gives away nothing, just suggests a gentle aura of sadness.  Even the title, Leaving Time, gives away nothing, simply titillating at-the-ready synapses.  The book is about a girl whose mother, an over-educated scientific pachyderm whisperer, suddenly disappears.  This leave-taking sets the stage for a young girl’s entire lifetime of sleuthing.  Where did Mommy go, and why?

I know after a few paragraphs that I have read this book before, but what happened?  How did it end?  As I scan each line there is the sweet reminiscence of having been this way before, but since I can’t place the terminus, it might be useful to fill some time with revisiting those pleasant hours.  Picoult is always a good read, maybe even good enough to read again, given the beauty of her language and how she tinkers with the words while I watch her poetry unfurl, my fixation a veritable verbal voyeur.  Is it a waste of time and alliteration, or shall I read at least until I remember how it all unwinds?  As senility works its will, perhaps there is some consolation in the possibility of meeting minds anew, that we have erstwhile loved and lost.  We do not, after all, apologize for cherishing melodies that have graced listening ears a thousand times before.  It’s their very familiarity that measures how we love them.  I would gladly hear La Traviata sung again and yet again as long as ears parse sounds and lips shape smiles.

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All In Favor Signify

One of the most terrifying features of any Zoom meeting is its facility for supporting instant elections.  Most recently, when I offered an easy fix for an electronic defugalty, our moderator directed the assembly to agree or disagree with my bright idea by raising hands.  Only two hands joined mine, and I mercifully can’t remember whose they were.  Of course my lizard brain regressed into a defensive crouch.  I had been there many times before.  Recently and probably most painfully, my dearly beloved bible study group could only accommodate one translation of the week’s scripture on our virtual link.  Pastor reasonably asked for a show of hands.  If the New Revised Standard Version won, he would read the text himself; if the Robert Alter Version were chosen, taking my turn as designated Alter reader, I would be the one to intone the poetic phraseology.  I voted for Alter; everybody else voted for the NRSV.  They didn’t want me to read.  It was clear.  It hurt too much to bear, and I faded out of biblical exegesis entirely.

Whether authentic or delusional, memories haunt and hurt.  Attending twenty-six schools over my twelve years of public and private education, zig-zagging back and forth across Mason-Dixon line, I was ever the new girl—always different—speaking Texas twang in Massachusetts—the next year irritating my Texas homeland with Yankee acquired r-dropping.  I was a stranger in whatever strange land, no matter where I made my bed.

In the fourth grade I learned how to give a name to this miserable syndrome.  The classroom teacher directed every person to write on a piece of paper the name of the classmate they liked best of all.  She collected the sheets and assembled a chart placing a name in every circle.  Vectors drawn from each person to the one they preferred depicted strands of affiliation as arrows.  Partnerships and mutual crushes chose each other.  Popularity kings and queens fairly jumped off the page, impaled by a crush of arrows.  Only one circle stood alone, having been chosen by no one.  That circle was me.  So proud was teacher of her achievement that she provided a copy of the chart for every person to take home.  “The one identified as not worthy of choice by any person is called a social isolate,” she explained as she smiled and distributed her artwork.  That’s when everybody turned around and looked at me.

Down through the years I lived in fear of group dynamics, circles of affiliation floating behind my eyes, and threatening to make of truth a bludgeon.  Never was I voted into any classroom office.  No matter how hard I worked to excel, it was only the teacher who valued my efforts.  In high school the boys called me the nose, a commentary on my pursuit of high marks, assuming it was an obsession to please the instructors.  It was a relief when my high school yearbook did not report that slur in its featured list of unofficial titles.  I did have a snip of revenge at the annual Staples High School awards ceremony.  Trying to ignore my spiteful classmates as they poked me and yanked my braids, I heard my name called and climbed onstage to accept the Bausch & Lomb Honorary Science Award and then the PTA science scholarship.  I didn’t return to my seat but found and claimed a more congenial one.  Of course they hated me.

It wasn’t until my late twenties in Dallas that I joined an Adult Singles Sunday School class at Highland Park Methodist Church.  This huge congregation supported equally sizeable “small” groups, our class alone numbering over 200.  Soon I was acting out my nascent leadership.  Elected as Social Chairman, I planned wildly creative monthly events that swelled our number to unwieldy proportions.  We soon were pulling in the unchurched with zeal and were accused of too much success, perhaps even fomenting a “meat-market.”  Soon we earned a new sponsor whose quiet agenda was to quell the spirit in the interest of propriety, but I have never forgotten those lovely Methodists who elected me to an office.  It’s too bad that senior church management, when confronted with Christian love, could attribute it only to body heat. 

Later when settling in as a West Virginia farm wife, I began attending Ritchie County Farm Women’s Club’s monthly meetings.  Elected to office, I served as president for three years.  It looked like a coup, so finally I stepped down to encourage somebody else to take a turn.  It felt good to be part of a group, and I continued to reach for affiliation, as down through the years the pain of rejection was always worth the possibility of belonging.

Too much truth can assault the soul.  In 2011 I made a blog and named it morethanenoughtruth.com.  My site and I set out to have the last word.  If I speak my truth first, perhaps it won’t hurt so much.  As I settle into my eighty-second year, it is distressing to report that even now those early memories rise up and state their bitter case.  Just the suggestion that a minor dispute might be settled by vote is enough to throw me back into that frightening time, and suddenly a too-emotional response appears inappropriate to all who experienced growing up as something pleasantly normal.

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I woke up screaming.  That’s the way it seems to be these nights.  Squatting there on my bed, right in the middle, as if he had a proprietary interest in the location, perched a black wolf.  He sat upright and alert, haunches gathered under his rump, forelegs straight and frontal, nose directing all his attention to me and my unseemly response to his presence.  While he faced me he evidenced little interest in my own actual being-ness.  It wasn’t lost on me that he manifested as black—a luxuriant ebony coat that cloaked him in all the warmth a canid could ever imagine and divulge to the workings of my primate psyche—the same aspect of beauty at play as when I chose to raise purebred black Andalusian horses, eschewing all other equine possibilities.  Black is always most beautiful when it incarnates as living creature.

Wolf sat silent, naught to say—no howl curling in his gut gathering to ply the night air.  He merely captured my gaze and pirouetted in place lifting alternating front paws in a lithe little dance, eloquent in expression.   “I am beauty,” he suggested.  “thanking you for taking note of all that I am and was and might ever have become.”  Then like all waking dreams he absorbed into that overwhelming darkness that makes of reality a soft blanket.

“Larry is dead,” my lips formed the words but let them hang unuttered.  His son and mine, Kurt had been dreading the leave-taking of his sort-of-estranged father for a while.  His last report from bedside Seattle, a sharing from his sister Ruth, described a paternal gathering to depart.  A morphine drip mercifully soothed the transition, but it was sure to come—and soon.  A good son, he had been reaching for his dad every way that such things are possible.  Always Larry vowed to do better, to write, phone, text, all the ways intelligent technology ameliorates saying to beloved persons the things that need to be said—and soon.  But those things failed to morph from promises to completions.  “Whose fault?”  The question ruffled like cirrus clouds riding the air between Cascades and Shenandoas—never asked; never answered.

I pulled covers over head and dived back into sleep, only to surface again after 9:00, teeth clenched, determined to face the day.  Sure enough, iPhone declared that a text from Kurt waited:  “Dad passed away last night,” was the core of a text that spoke from the pit of his grief, that demon who drops in for a friendly visit to suggest that not enough was ever done—and now never can be—and whose fault is that anyway?  “I can’t talk,” Kurt’s letters spell, “just need some time alone.”

Kurt, short for Conrad, is very much an authentic American male.  He shares all the agony of sons who lose fathers and wonder how life will proceed without them being there even a continent away.  Responding to what he must be suffering, I text:

Take solace in your silence.  It is yours alone.  But be consoled by knowing that as long as you walk the fragrant earth, he breathes.  Half of you is him.  Move nobly into your days.  They are gifts from those who braved their own fraught journeys to tear open a path to guide your steps.  This you will do as the noble counselor that you are.  When you wonder if you disappointed him, know that the last question falling from his lips was, “Did he disappoint you?”

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The best thing of all is to be alone.  Just add up the fantasies: Farley Mowat hied himself to the Arctic, there to subsist by eating only mice, all to prove that wolves are benevolent creatures not begging lupicide.  What’s better than a tree house where a person is free to think and be whatever?  Ask any squirrel.  When there is no other to circumscribe reality, a being can be all that it truly wants to be.  My poet’s year in the Appalachian woodlands said it all for me.  As long as I could remain cabin-secure, steering clear of other humanity, the local fauna and I celebrated a gentle peace.  Whenever human society overstepped its bounds, and intruded on soul serenity, I ran.  I went to where there were no others so close to me as to assume I should be like them, think like them, define beauty like them—that was the place to be.

My Side of the Mountain is elegantly described in the book of that title: A young naturalist runs away from home and goes to live in a hollow tree with his raccoon.  He climbs a cliff, steals and trains a peregrine falcon fledgling so as a team they can hunt for food.  It’s the best of fantasies until it isn’t.   Like COVID19 which makes of every person an insular recluse, anything that drives a person to hide wrapped only in the solace of his own company is a problem: When my Uncle Wesson, chewing on his unlit cigar, undertook to find me, where was I?  Hiding under a bush of course—a good place where adult and frightful discussions might not be overheard.  When sent away to boarding school and Sister Rose Marie recoiled from my aggressive cuddling, where did I go to hide?  The attic of the convent was the perfect refuge, wrapped only in quiet cobwebs that cushioned consternation.  When my husband, Larry, and I wanted a respite from stupid corporate politics, it was waiting in a winter’s campground, where there were no bugs and no tourists.  There we found only silence and a place to remember why we had found each other in the first place.

Now with COVID running things, Larry has died a continent away in Washington State.  The surgery that would have placed a stent and might have saved him was held hostage by the logistics of the virus.  It fell under the definition of elective surgery, and as such, could not compete with others too stupid to get a vaccination and attempting to die that very day of the virus.  He finally got his surgery—too late—and departed my world.  I try to remember the things he did that made me crazy so I cannot miss him as much as I do, but it’s the delightful memories that arise, not the irritations and distractions. 

His tenor blended so sweetly with my soprano that it was pure happiness to make harmony together.  I can remember a Sunday service where we performed a duet, and I was terrified—like I always was—to be singing in front of a bunch of people.  We shared one piece of paper music, and as my hand shook, the music conjured a shimmy of its own.  That scared me even more, and I considered a dash out of the room trailing tears.  But Larry saved us.  His hand reached under mine to steady the music so that we could finish as a success.  There were tears, but they were in the congregation. They had shared our little drama, sharing our happiness.  The title of our song had been You’ll Never Walk Alone.  I didn’t—not that day.

Remembering happy times, I keep to my senior apartment, collecting comestibles once a calendar week from masked grocers and visiting a library that has re-awakened and is again lending books.  Without the food and the books I, too, would surely have given up.  The library’s new rules don’t charge for overdue returns, so I can borrow and return with equanimity.  I am like the near-sighted bibliophile in the Twilight Zone, who wakes to a world where all of humanity, save he, has succumbed.  He is left alone—triumphant—mounting a grand march up the front steps of his town library, he shouts, throws up his arms in giddy glee, and knocks off his glasses.  They tumble to the concrete and shatter.

Larry and I, matched introverts, adored our solitude, even with respect to each other.  It is a cruel and petty irony that we suffered a continent apart, in our separate sterile spaces, waiting for the virus to give up its collective tiny ghosts and leave us in relative health.  We too—separate and alone—waited to die.  Now it is I who must wait my turn to die alone.  Those friendly coronaviruses would gladly keep me company, but no thanks.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder is a wise old saying.  It knows all about Larry and me.  The same truth holds for all three of my long-suffering husbands.  I loved them all-the-better for having left them, all the more perfectly now that they are dead and gone.  Memories of shared happy times gather to remind me to value their sweet friendship and affection.

My present apartment allows pets, but only with a two hundred dollar bribe called a deposit.  Too cheap for that, I have taken up with a family of grey squirrels who populate the giant maple tree outside my balcony.  They don’t love me, but they are distinctly enamored of the plates of goodies I set out to entice them.  The landlady specifically cautioned me not to hang bird feeders, but she didn’t mention squirrel buffets.  It provides me hours of Katznjammer entertainment watching the squirrel family members compete for my offerings along with a Cardinal couple who also are asserting their rights to the feast.  Their antics remind me of my own lively kin.

The best lesson of COVID and its variants is specially designed for those of us who idealize solitude.  It is better wished for and ideated.  Experienced it leaves much to be desired.  My favorite wall art displays a ceramic oval that says simply, “PEACE.”  In this dead quiet space, un-jarred by any voice but the empty nattering of TV and Alexa, I haven’t been inspired to hang that lovely plaque advertising the romance of quietude.  Best it should hide behind my couch on the floor, where it cowers in the dark.  It should leave me to my fantasies of rambunctious family gatherings, along with memories of cringing under bed pillows, cushioning ear-drums from shrieking progeny who gallop as an intemperate horde down pristine hallways, an unruly mob of adored small persons.  These days I am left to fantasizing a furry coated cat to warm cold feet and purr away the bittersweet stillness of alone.

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Silly Me!

There’s something magic about advanced degrees.  They do confer a credibility of sorts, depending on the status of the outfit doing the conferring.  I was sitting, ruminating at my writer’s group, surrounded by the excessively educated, when it occurred to me that I was lacking.  My BS is a meager substitute.  What kind of crazy am I to think I could speak my meager truth in the presence of such august company?  At one point I collected a barrage of verbal assault by calling them ostentatiously educated.  I made the stupid assumption that a mutual love of writing would seamlessly bridge the chasm, but silly me, it was just a garden variety delusion of grandeur.

One mark of sanity is knowing your place.  People with dark skin in America know all about that.  Race oppression, gender oppression, and age oppression share more commonality than is generally understood.   I have a place at my Monday Morning Writer’s Group.  It is a place given to a crazy old lady who keeps nattering on about how she was once an engineer and inventor, but in spite of that strange preoccupation had no trouble attracting men.  Women aren’t inventors.  Everybody knows that.  Grandmas aren’t sexy.  Old women are sweet, harmless, and taken up with grand-babies, recipes, and stitchery.  They bring covered dishes to church suppers.  They have forgotten what sex is about, but remember, with clear fidelity, the result.  They tend toward the inappropriate in their commentary.  Don’t be surprised if “Don’t forget to wear a condom!” follows you out the door as you make a break for a dignified exit.

To know your place you must understand, not only your place but yourself.  There’s the rub.  We do all this writing to get a grip on who each of us really is; at least that’s why I do it.  The thing I have most feared has always been going crazy like my mother Mary Opal did when her world went off the rails.  But, silly me, that wasn’t to happen.  That isn’t my kind of crazy.  Mine is the kind that spells odd.  My son Lane calls me eccentric.  That works. 

An eccentric mass is fixed at a point some distance from the center of gravity of a rotating system.  When things go round, everything wobbles.  Is it the fault of the system?  Hardly.  It’s the poorly located addition to what was a nicely balanced agreement of coordinated masses that ruined everything.  How out of kilter is the wobble?  That depends on the mass of the object as well as its location.  The more the mass, the more the problem; the farther from center, the worse the effect.  It’s all neatly mathematic.  But going on like this is eccentric, so I’ll shut up.

When at Salem College, sniffing the bouquet of a liberal curriculum, I found out about normal human psychology as in Psych 101.  That was helpful, but even more interesting was Abnormal Psych, where I was sure to explore the tortured mentality of a daughter spawned by a paranoid schizophrenic mother and a bipolar genius father.  Just the thought of the match made me shudder in my sneakers.  As each chapter elucidated a new area of mental aberration, I was newly terrified.  This was surely the information that would give me a diagnosis and the hope of a cure.

I explained the quandary to my professor who suggested I just settle down and enjoy earning what was sure to be my A.  He said that in medical school would-be doctors typically try on each of the described anomalies before they just shrug and go on with their course-work.  I did learn that my tendency to analyze everything to death was called being obsessive.  That’s an accusation that could be leveled at Freud as he convinced the world of the universal need for psychoanalysis.  He too, liked to analyze everything.

Eventually I decided that the medical establishment was obsessive compulsive given their anal-retentive organization of such behavioral imperfections as the Mental Health International Classification of Diseases, otherwise known as ICD10 codes.  That leads me to a very healthy position vis-à-vis my place as a patient in a world of medics who are supposed to know.  If I am no more obsessive than they, why should I worry?

Well, at least I can worry about being anxiety ridden.  The most important thing I do is worry.  When analyzing any situation, the paramount concern is “what can go wrong.”  If anything can go wrong, it will.  That’s Murphy’s Law.  I assume it will, or at least must be anticipated and bulwarked against toward some marvelous, or at least acceptable, future disposition.  As a designer of systems, anxiety seems to be part of my self-definition.  I can’t defend against the accusation.  But anxiety is the least of maladies.  I don’t see things that aren’t there, or plot to attack enemies skulking in the fictive flights of fancy that lurk in my dream-time.  When the sun comes up, it’s time to get real.

Given all that, maybe my therapist is correct.  Maybe I’m not nuts, or not likely to so become.  Maybe I am just getting old and odd.  I can live with that and have a good time doing it.  I can quit worrying about going crazy and accept the fact that I have been a little bit off all along and just thought I was perfectly sane.  Silly me!

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