PHILIP EUGENE TIMM
Stories, Essays, and Poems
STORIES, ESSAYS, AND POEMS
My Writing Journey
I have been telling myself stories all my life, now I am writing them down and sharing them. I am oftentimes taken aback by the difference in writing and sharing a story as opposed to the story just rumbling around in my head. It's fun and therapeutic to write them out and I truly enjoy the observations and comments from those who read them and are kind enough to comment.
I have written poems all my life but have never shared them before. I guess it's time to be more vulnerable and let them fly.
As I work at the crafts of living, farming, and writing, some efforts lead to fruition and some die on the vine. I hope you enjoy these postings and I welcome your observations, comments and suggestions.
Death is certain for anyone born, and birth is certain for the dead; since the cycle is inevitable, you have no cause to grieve! The proper concern is the action of duty not the fruits of the action.
Cast then away all desire and fear for the fruits, and perform your duty. Perform actions, firm in discipline, relinquishing attachment; be impartial to failure and success.
The Bhagavad Gita
December 18, 2021
The world is not made of atoms, it is made of stories.
There are stories we have heard or read, stories we tell ourselves, and stories we live. Some are the choicest of relics and others are consigned to the flames.
I have been telling myself a story about how to live for quite a while. It’s time to revisit the story line to see if I may be missing something. That is why I am traveling to the village of Introd, in the Aosta Valley of Italy. To live up to our promises we must tend to them. They should not be broken, especially those we make to ourselves. Even if my promises are silly, meaningless, or costly, I work hard to keep them. It’s an illness of sorts. Some call it a well-meaning stupidity; others call it obstinacy; I call it a foolish integrity. Whatever it’s called, I am going to be where I said I would be and, for me, that is never a small achievement.
I need to get away. One might call it a vacation but I do not. Vacations are a way to change the scenery without changing the players. But the context of a problem is the only context available to the person with the problem. The scenery doesn’t matter. I am seeking contextual change, a new way of engaging reality, not a change in scenery. Like a bolt of lightning that levels differences in potential, I am looking to adjust the delicate balance between separateness and connectedness. I am looking for lightning.
When I am embedded in the context of my life, I have no contrasting frame of reference other than close friends who are obligated, by the closeness of our relationship, to tell me what they see/think. Without such input, a life lived alone leaves one at the mercy of doubts, fears, and confusion. Such isolation is what likely contributed to Ted Kaczynski becoming the Unabomber. Solitude without community can be fatal. But even another’s perspective is sometimes insufficient. There are times when it is prudent to remove myself from the context of my life, stand back, and examine it as an outsider. To see myself as perhaps others see me. To clarify the intent of my life.
But what exactly is the contextual problem I am looking to solve/understand? My primary context is a life lived alone. I find few companions better than solitude. Like an old bear, I prefer the company of trees and believe that a taste for the beautiful is best cultivated out of doors. It works, but it has limitations, particularly the travails associated with fancied self-sufficiency. I fear I have placed too much weight on the side of separateness and my connectedness is beginning to fray. In a world rich with possibilities for connectedness, I suspect I may be missing something. Specifically, I wonder if my life would be enhanced by being in a “romantic” (surely there are better words) relationship, that perhaps there’s something “unnatural” or “wrong” with generally preferring to be alone.
Most people enjoy being matched in a partnership and work to establish and maintain these relationships. No one would suggest that it’s easy. Others, such as I, prefer solitude and being on their own. Likewise, I believe that not one of us would suggest that it’s easy. It’s impossible to ascertain which life has a higher degree of difficulty or provides more enjoyment, although my sense is that it’s like an embattled fortress, where everyone on the inside wants out and everyone on the outside wants in.
Living alone, one forgoes the “vaunted intimacy” of sharing life with another person (sounds a tad jaded, n'est-ce pas?). The idea that sharing one’s life with another is the pinnacle of human achievement has led many a man and woman to the altar and there’s much to be said, and has been said, about the joy that way of life brings. I am often envious. A cousin of mine and his lovely wife just celebrated 50 years of marriage. It’s inspiring to know this. Being in a long-term relationship is a rich challenge and, to me, it makes climbing the Matterhorn look like child’s play.
I have lived alone for almost 40 years. I have been married twice, the first, at age 20 for 5 years and, after an interval of 11 years, a second marriage of 9 years. I was fortunate to have been loved by two extraordinary and beautiful women. I suspect my selfishness and childhood development contributed largely to the failure of both unions. I learned early in life that I do not need anyone, I can and must do this by myself. Sad, but workable.
Kind of. Sort of. But is it still viable? Was it ever?
There is a trite cruelty in the logic of certainties that I subscribe to and use to comfort myself. There seems to be at the bottom of my life something like moaning, or is that desire? Am I, as some friends have suggested, just kidding myself about being content? They assure me that life is “better” lived in tandem, that even on the ark, they had to go two-by-two.
I will ask Marci what she thinks. She would know.
Whenever Marci looks at me, she tilts her head like a dare. She is stunningly beautiful and sings like a diva. I am in love with Marci and she dares me to tell her. I am not in love with her beauty or her voice. I love her because she is damaged and doesn’t wish to be fixed. She loves her wounds and licks them as if they were candy. Like Levon, she wears her wounds like a crown. We are forever exhorted to become “better”, to improve ourselves, but Marci loves herself as she is.
I do not love the beautiful and well-made as I love the wounded. I am a wabi sabi lover. The wounded inspire me. They teach me. They are kinfolk.
We are shaped by love and injury but often consider love the better artist. It isn’t always so. Trees that grow along the tree line, in poor soil and ravaged by wind, are often bent and twisted into grotesque shapes that are beautiful because of the damage. So, it is with us. We are bent and shaped by the soil in which we were planted and the storms that visit our lives. Our advantage is that we can walk. We can, and often do, seek new soil and shelter from the storm so as to continue to grow. Italy is new soil, different winds, and a chance for lightning.
I believe we can be more beautiful because of our injuries. We do not need to seek them out, rest assured; injuries will come. Many lovers seek to undo or fix the damage they see in another but deep love does not. Love’s blindness more often sees what is not there than what is. Deep love is based on the acceptance of imperfection and the transient nature of all experience.
I have known Marci for 23 years. Because synchronizing our lives has never been easy, we meet at long intervals that tend to increase are value to each other. Sometimes a year or more goes by without a meeting. With each reunion, we act the part of a young couple meeting on a train platform in some 1940’s movie. She sees me, tilts her head in recognition, and runs to me. I catch her, lift her up and we kiss like the lovers we are. When we part, we enact a different scene, like old friends, we politely hug and shake hands. We cherish somber goodbyes that carefully avoid the pain of too much tenderness when parting.
Marci was married but got divorced shortly after we first met. I was not the cause. We met in Washington, DC when I was working for American PCS. She was almost the perfect age to be my mistress. I was 50 and she was 31. The French have a saying, or it has been attributed to them, that a mistress should be half your age plus seven years. We both agreed that we were close enough. It made it more acceptable for us to have a mathematical basis supporting our relationship.
I am aware that the concept of “a mistress” may now be considered passé and that some may think it sinful or sexist. Some may well object to the logic behind the age calculation. But, what if you knew that we were happy, even if momentarily? Would you still object or just assume that we were fooling ourselves? Somehow you surmise we can’t be happy, that such relationships simply cannot work. You are wrong. We are quite happy but our happiness is carefully circumscribed to moments realized during infrequent liaisons. These moments become jewels, treasured against the “sometimes pain” of living alone. We have always maintained our relationship in a cloak of secrecy as it adds to the romance and saves us from unwanted commentary and unnecessary explanations.
At our last rendezvous, years ago, Marci asked that I take her picture. I took a dozen shots with my phone and she reviewed them. “That one”, she says and “this one”. “Delete the others, I do not like them.” Marci does not use contractions, it’s always “do not” rather than don’t, I will not rather than “I won’t”. It’s part of her attractiveness.
She asked me to get large prints made so that she could hang them in the bedroom. When the prints were ready, we hung one over the bed and one on the wall across from it. Marci wants to see herself as she wakes up and as she goes to bed. She is vain, but not in a disturbing kind of way. When she looks at the pictures she sees her wounds. This reminds her that she is her wounds and that the wounds are not simply a part of her. She knows where her beauty comes from and doesn’t pretend otherwise.
We have no pictures of us together. I keep but a single picture of her and she has one picture of me. Each time we meet, we tear up the old photo and make a new one. We do not want our history to become our gravity. As we are infrequent lovers, we wish to recognize only what we are now, not what we have been. Some photos are funny, or sexy, or posed but each has us smiling broadly. I sometimes lay my photo on top of hers and remark how well we fit, she playfully suggests that it’s better than when we are in bed.
Not having a photo of us together makes keeping our secret easier. Three can keep a secret if one of them is dead. Our aversion to keeping photographs is also partly borne out of the experience of Eadweard Muybridge who, in 1871, when he was 41-years-old, married 21-year-old divorcee Flora Shallcross Stone. Flora became romantically involved with Harry Larkyns, a friend of theirs. Muybridge found a photo of his child with "Harry" written on the back in Flora's handwriting, suggesting that she believed the child to be Larkyns’. Muybridge tracked down Larkyns and upon finding him, shot him point-blank. Muybridge was acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide. An innocent photo, a name on the back, then a dead man.
I was hoping to see Marci once again, perhaps in Introd, as it was a place she had suggested we visit shortly after we first met. She is the one woman I know who seemed to enjoy being alone as much as I and never sought to apologize for her life. She loved our infrequent liaisons and was clear that nothing more would ever come of it.
Then lightning struck. Some months ago, I received a letter postmarked from Washington, DC. In the envelope was a sheet of Crane’s Kid Finish 100% Cotton Fiber paper and a photo. The paper held a pencil sketch of her eyes. The photo was of me, the last one I had given Marci. On the back she wrote, “We loved each other, remember only that”. The brevity of the message was hallmark Marci as was her complete and devastating sincerity. She had found an answer to the murmuring in her life and, in doing so, perhaps answered the question I was hoping to ask her. There will be no further contact, of that I am certain. I am off to Italy next year.
I learned a new word today,
“insouciant” – blithely indifferent, carefree.
I will use it in a sentence.
I wish to have insouciant feelings about us.
November 12, 2021
I don’t want to do this anymore. I am so done with this.
How did I ever get to think this is what I was meant to do with my life?
I am selling my home, property and what possessions I can shed for a price. The rest I will give away or abandon. I will find a home for the bees and animals. I first called them “my” bees and animals but they were never really mine. As for continuing prayer and meditation, I am undecided. It doesn’t seem to “do” anything anymore. I do not want to talk about this. I am simply going to leave.
I am moving to a small village in the Aosta Valley, in Italy. I will be able to see the Matterhorn from my window. No matter that I don’t speak Italian. Immersion is the best way to learn a language. In preparation, I am watching Italian movies with English subtitles. My current favorite is Martin Eden. In Italy, I will not be posting photos and do not expect to entertain visitors. I will walk and wonder. I will fix simple meals. I will find a new source of strength to begin again. If this Italian experiment should turn to naught, so be it, life is experimentation if it is anything at all.
An accident triggered this malaise, this train of thought. Sheep needing deworming and a hawk killing the chickens increased the inflammation. Again, I am finished. No kidding. Outta’ here. Vamoose. Gone like the wind.
It was another glorious morning, and I was out in the cool air inspecting the hives in the back field orchard. There are two hives and one had a new package of bees that I had installed earlier in the year. The other hive, which had survived a rather cold and snowy winter, was still going strong.
Although I call myself a beekeeper and a farmer (among a host of other names, good and bad), there are days when I am not filled with joy at all the work that’s required. It’s a lot for an ‘old man’ to keep up with; bees, chickens, geese, ducks, fruit and nut trees, sheep, a pond stocked with bass and bluegills, and the ongoing maintenance required on any small farm. It’s not so much a complaint (it is a bit) as a statement of how things sometimes weigh on me. Most days, my life flows with a quiet fullness that satiates both body and soul. On other days, it’s just work.
I pried the lid open on the hive with the new package of bees and worked my way to the bottom deep focused on the task at hand, looking to find the new queen, marked with a white dot on her back, so as to make finding her a bit easier. My eyesight hasn’t gotten better with age and I rarely wear my glasses under the veil when checking the bees.
I still had the hive tool in my hand, which was not customary. I usually laid it aside after opening the hive but the frames were sticky and I was using it to pry loose the frames and lift them out. Two frames in, I found my queen. She looked healthy and happy, as only a beekeeper can see, and her minions, acknowledging their appreciation for her existence, were building honeycomb. It appeared that we were well on our way to a solid honey harvest.
Sliding the frame back in, the hive tool slipped from my hand and in some bizarre “Act of God” (for lack of something else to blame), it struck the frame right where the queen was and knocked her to the bottom board. She was mortally wounded. I had little choice other than to squish her and finish her off.
The walls that keep my life from falling apart are brittle. It doesn’t take much to open a crack in my enclosure. With the death of this tiny bee, a wave of anger, nausea, and deep regret came rushing over me. I moved away from the hive and sat on the ground, still in my bee suit and started to cry. I had failed yet again. I was lost.
I got up, and considered just leaving the hive open to the elements. I no longer cared about the bees. I slammed the lid back on anyway and dragged myself back to the barn and tossed my outfit and the tools on the floor. I was filled with a sense of frustration and anger that would not let me be. I stewed in a pot of self-pity and resentment.
The death of this bee was followed by a hawk killing four chickens on four separate days, leaving the bloody carcasses for me to deal with. I took measures to “scare” the hawk away, to no avail. I moved a posse of geese into the orchard to serve as an early warning system but, ignoring the geese, the hawk flew in and almost caught “Big Silver”. She’s at the top of the pecking order and was fast enough to escape the attack. The hawk remains a threat. Shooting the hawk crosses my mind but it’s illegal without a federal permit and the hawk is “just” doing what hawks do. Still, I am upset.
Dead queen bee, hawk killing chickens, and now the two sheep, Woolbur and Fudge, have scours which is another word for diarrhea. I am in the front paddock, working alone. There is sheep shit on my pants, boots, and gloves. The smell is as you might expect. I am cleaning their tails, their back legs, and their butts to prevent flystrike. Sheep are particularly susceptible to this condition because their thick wool, if sufficiently contaminated with urine and fecal material, provides a breeding ground for maggots. After hatching, the maggots bury themselves in the sheep's wool and eventually under the sheep's skin, feeding off their flesh. It’s is a slow and painful way to die.
Docking their tails (cutting them off), is often used as a preventative measure to lessen the chance of flystrike, but docking brings its own set of problems and is becoming less of a formal practice. Sheep have tails for a reason, one of them being to spread fecal matter by swinging their tails as they defecate. In any event, cleaning the sheep was not an enjoyable experience. Why do I keep thinking this life is always supposed to be enjoyable? Why do I continue? Again, I ask, is this what I was meant to do with my life?
I am having an attack of acedia. It’s a deadly “sin”.
Acedia comes from the Greek word akedia meaning “lack of care”. It’s a profound weariness with one’s present reality. I repeat, a profound weariness. This weariness manifests as discouragement, irritability, and disgust with everything. Acedia tempts me to consider escape, to secure a respite from the perceived painful reality of where I am, to find renewal in Italy. It thwarts my ability to choose the good and robs me of what had been a source of great joy.
Acedia arises in response to the commitments we have made to ourselves, to others, and our vocations. It calls forth the question as to why we ever entered into these arrangements. What was I thinking when I thought it a good idea to become a farmer? a lawyer? a mechanic? Did I have even a clue when I signed up for this? Why should I keep going on? Why did I ever get married? Why am I still working here? Living here? Everything feels small and suffocating. Positivity is a burden and release seems imperative.
Acedia constantly reminds us of how we messed up. Filled with shame about the past or anxiety about the future, we look to escape. The escape takes many forms: technology, Netflix binges, travel to Italy, social media, pornography, alcohol, drugs, work, and laziness. We seek to medicate our wounds and mitigate our lack of self-worth. But these distractions don’t work for long. After a brief respite, we are left empty as the questions we try to avoid pop back up. Avoiding the questions can leave one trapped in this mindset for years never really progressing in life. We tell ourselves that we are fine just as we are, there is no need to revisit our commitments or the angst they generate. I’m fine. I will get through this. All this is just a whistling in the dark.
A characteristic of wisdom is not to do desperate things. When consumed with acedia, it’s prudent to stop and take stock. There are no simple answers and in this condition, anything becomes permissible as long as I call it by the wrong name. When I call my commitments “burdens”, I no longer see them as noble, inspiring, or life enhancing. They become an albatross around my neck and I can sanction any measure to be free from the life I have chosen.
Yes, I chose this life as you have chosen yours. I am never contained except that I made the prison. If I wish to break out, I must first confess to being in prison. And perhaps, it’s not a prison at all. I need to remind myself of this. There’s no convenient villain to blame and no one has assigned me this life. Even believing that this life is God’s will for me doesn’t take away from the fact that I must choose every day how I will live and to what purpose. I call things by the wrong name to enable me to pull away from what I have given myself to. I pretend I never agreed to this. I was trapped or tricked. Bamboozled. It’s not my fault.
But I can never truly leave the present moment no matter what name I give it. Ultimately, my commitment to my small farm, this sacred dwelling place, the creatures, the trees, and to the people who are part of my life, all of whom seem to be the very cause of my acedia, is the very path out of this malaise. The way out was everywhere I looked but nowhere in focus. The love I have for this place was asleep.
Yes, I get like this and perhaps you do as well. It’s not attractive nor pleasant, but I believe it is necessary and quite refreshing. It’s good, at times, to want to run from myself and my world and perhaps travel to Italy. It’s therapeutic in a “funny” kind of way. It can also be debilitating if not caught in time. I find it a profitable line of inquiry to revisit the commitments I made and rekindle the spark that gave rise to them. Things get dusty, memories fade, life gets hard, I forget why I embarked on the road under my feet. I fail to love what is present and seek to love what is possible instead.
If, while accepting the current moment, I look back hard enough, I see in the distance a young fellow with a bright smile, a twinkle in his eye and a bounce in his step who jumped on this path. He would never have known then the work, trials, and mad frustrations, that were down this road. And had he guessed, he most assuredly would not have concerned himself with them. He thinks; I can do this. It’s what I want to do. It’s what my life is meant to be.
A moment passes and this youthful self comes bounding along, catching up with his old man self and, laughing, knocks him to the ground. Get up you old fool! Stop your complaining! Remember me? Of course, you do! Come on let’s get back to work. We haven’t all day you know.
Arm in arm they go, skipping and whistling like nothing will ever stop them and there’s not a care in the world. Healed once again.
SAUNTERING WITH PHIL
June 24, 2021
“I don't like either the word [hike] or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains - not 'hike!' Do you know the origin of that word saunter? It's a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, 'A la sainte terre', 'To the Holy Land.' And so, they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not 'hike' through them.” – John Muir
My friend Phil has a long stride. He speaks in short sentences.
I enjoy walking and hiking with Phil. Although I find the exercise exhilarating, the conversation is pitiful as perhaps it ought to be while hiking. Phil believes his legs and lungs are his greatest physical trait supporting his lifetime love of walking alone in the woods. But he speaks in short sentences if he speaks at all.
Weaving through thorny tangles with his shotgun in hand and following his beloved setter, Hawthorn, we punch through river currents in a favored trout stream. In winter, we glide over snowy corridors on cross country skis. But most days, alone, he simply hikes unpeopled mountain trails, walking staff in hand for the sheer joy of inhabiting his animal body. Rhythmic breathing and repetitive footsteps enable entry to this animal body and when he is safely back inside, his emotional pain is muted. Absorbed by the beauty of the natural world, his losses and sorrows are driven to the background. It’s called peace.
As growing things on my farm nurtures my soul, walking, hunting, and fishing does the same for Phil. Like me, he enjoys a solitary life. The pleasures of lying next to someone and companionship are forgone in a trade for a quiet walk in the woods. Although longings for intimacy persist, this life works, or so we keep telling ourselves like a mantra. Having tried the "deep meaningful relationship" path that is wide enough for two to walk abreast, we find narrow trails and the absence of people more suited to our nature. Perhaps we are too selfish and too "damaged" to really put out the effort that deep meaningful relationships require. Perhaps we just enjoy our own company. Of course, in the recesses of desire, we remain hopeful.
I say "damaged" but not in some extraordinary psychological way. It’s like a tree, bent in its formative years, that forever leans that way kind of damage. It’s not painful and won’t kill you but it makes you reach for the sun in a different way than most. Some might say in a twisted way. But we don’t care and neither do the trees. We grew and are growing. We have “headed off” the bad growth and found new ways to see the sky.
People who are deeply wounded speak in short sentences. Every breath is carefully metered out as it may well be the last. Phil speaks in short sentences like “Send in the Clowns”. That’s the way people speak when someone falls from the trapeze. That’s how people speak when broken and lying on the ground, or all alone in bed wondering how it all went so wrong. That’s the way you speak when you have to learn to walk again.
A near fatal auto accident almost ended Phil’s hiking ability. Trailing a boxy regulator inflating his collapsed lung, he walked the hospital halls on his third day of admittance. There are no grouse to be found in the hospital hallways but the legs must be tested and built. A sage adage amongst grouse hunters is that “legs harvest grouse”. Upon discharge, he began walking a mile daily, seeking restoration of both body and spirit.
Phil was soon scouring topo maps and taking quiet early morning walks prospecting for new grouse coverts. These days, the cupboards are mostly bare. As grouse numbers grow progressively thinner, the miles between flushes increase. Shots at birds are counted on one hand each season. Numbers are so reduced that sometimes a year or two passes between a dropped grouse. Nevertheless, his love of being in the woods with one of his setters has never diminished. The prize of bagging a grouse is almost incidental to the pleasure derived from walking and beautiful landscapes.
Grouse coverts are typically found along transition areas between habitat types, places like mature forest and young forest, swamp and mature forest, old fields and young forest. These transition areas for hunting are not much different from the rock-strewn river where he fishes. Good legs are needed for both.
On the occasions when I hike with Phil, this is when he speaks the most. He eagerly points out grouse coverts and other telltale signs of animal activity. It is fascinating to listen to him and watch him point at one thing, then another. His encyclopedic knowledge of woodlands, developed over the years, is parsed out slowly but with great clarity. He points to a Thornapple bush, and reminds me his setter is named after this favored grouse food, also known as Hawthorn. Again, he points, those are hemlocks, a favorite grouse shelter tree. His speech and animation are love made visible.
Although we have been good friends for many years, we really know few details of each other’s lives. One might marvel at two good friends who know so little of each other. But it’s in the not knowing, and more importantly, the not asking that our friendship is wrapped. We know we are wounded. We find no need to talk about our wounds. The therapy for our injuries in found in the earth. Phil by walking on it and me, by digging in it.
A restless dry fly fisherman, Phil often wades a mile or so of river in a day. With the strong currents and an unstable river bed, a good fatigue awaits him at the end of the day. I do not join him on these trips. Having tried my hand at fly fishing in the famous Yellow Breeches Creek in Central Pennsylvania, I felt I could club the trout swimming around my feet faster than lure them with a fly. I haven’t the patience for the sport.
While gunning woodcock in early November we stop to wonder at the swirl of spawning brook trout along a mountain stream. Phil bemoans the lack of his fishing gear while I just stare at the circling fish. Woodcock is the lauded king of game birds, greater even than canvasback duck. Its flavor is strong, gamey-in-a-good-way like nothing else. The earth moves when you bite into one that has been perfectly cooked, or so they say.
By design and temperament, Phil hikes obscure trails to enjoy the solitude. For that reason, he eschews the Appalachian Trail but enjoys a brief chat with the thru hikers he encounters. His conversation, as always, is guarded and brief. In summer, with the trails infested with ticks and the rattlesnakes active, he hikes a specific ridge along a dirt road. It affords good aerobic exercise and a better than even chance to chat with a local woman who hikes these early morning roads year-round. Phil assures me that these conversations are amiable and short as she values her solitude as much as he. When he tells me this, I do wonder why the extra effort along this specific ridge. I remain unconvinced that the aerobic exercise is the primary motive!
Phil is never without one of his hiking staffs and I count myself a most fortunate friend that he bestowed one of his favorites on me. On a recent fishing trip, he lost his most treasured staff, which he had plucked from the top of a beaver dam with signature teeth marks along the top. Of the two remaining, he kept for himself the one found floating barkless on a lake. My gift was cut from a limb of ironwood that he sawed, stripped and applied a coat of finish. Friendship indeed. As indispensable to hikes as good footwear; a hiking staff aids balance, punctuates footsteps, parts foliage and as a third limb, prods the questionable.
In the woods, there are no greens fees or health club dues. No posing, poseurs or special wardrobe required. Whatever personal religion one has developed has migrated from soles to soul. Oftentimes, hiking mountain passes awakens a felt kinship with ancient Buddhist monks. Particularly in the Chungnan Mountains in China, there were those who walked from temple to temple on long pilgrimages. Walking was their Zazen.
Without anger, without speaking
Walk slowly, walk steadily!
- Santoka Taneda
On a recent hike along a lake path in early Spring, we viewed a flock of migrating snow geese on the partially frozen surface. Soon the loons would arrive along with the annual pageant of assorted waterfowl. Each year has its delightful encounters with animals. The albino turkey last summer. A July hike meeting with three coyote pups with the mother milling at a bend in the trail not far away. Two of the pups ran towards us, one plump youngster within twenty feet. Another day, we willingly relinquish the narrow mountain path to a yellow phase rattlesnake, admiring his striking markings and the lovely olive-gold cast to his skin. In late summer, we pluck and eat high bush huckleberries by the handful while keeping an eye out for chanterelles. To walk is to gather treasure.
The longer the hike, the quieter the mind. Within the stillness of the mountains, silence gradually descends, displacing the endless internal chatter. Problems resolve, or lose their importance and are temporarily forgotten. Sudden insights or lines of a forming poem emerge. “Work with no effort” as Lao-tzu would have it. As a lover of words and walking, Phil rightfully claims a spiritual lineage to such beloved writers as Wordsworth, Machado, Thoreau and Jim Harrison. This story is mostly his creation.
For both of us, life has been a long walk from toddler into late age. Our paths crossed many years ago and although his stride can tire me, his softness and serenity heal. Perhaps we shall cross paths again on some mountain trail. More likely, is that we shall die in circumstances unknown and reported to us long after passing. Our communication is limited to once or twice a year at most. As we’ve come to understand, there is nothing much to say.
Our friendship is a meeting at a trail crossing. We cheerfully greet each other as the good friends we are. We hug with hesitation so as to protect our wounded selves. We remark about the glorious day (regardless of the weather), and resume our hike down different trails. Both of us grateful for the moment and the times we hiked together. We have seen and experienced much. There is more to come I know. For my friend, Phil, I wish what I wish for myself, a quiet walk with an expanding awareness that continues until the path trails off on a distant horizon.
May 1, 2021
Billy spits when he talks. All the time.
This is annoying. What’s amazing is that Billy cannot read nor write.
Billy works hard, almost as hard as Adolph. Billy and Adolph are the hardest working guys on the Norfolk and Western Railway section labor gang. A most unlikely pair, Billy is a white guy from just below the Ohio state line in West Virginia and Adolph is a black man from the east side of Cleveland. Adolph also cannot read nor write. Our boss, Leo Bobko, signs their paychecks for them.
After high school I was unsure if college was right for me. After an education at an all-boys Catholic High School, I was more than ready to get on with “living” my life. To test the waters, I enrolled in two classes at Cleveland State University. My grades after one semester? One “F” and one “C”. It appeared that college was not for me. At least it was clear that I should consider pursuing my livelihood elsewhere. Perhaps the beer drinking, partying, and chasing girls had something to do with my poor grades, but that thought never occurred to me. I decide to get a job.
My first job was at Republic Steel working in the hot mill. I was a “piler” on the ½ inch line. I love saying that, it sounds like some exotic occupation (it wasn’t). I worked the swing shift, one-week days, next week evenings, next week night shift and then back to days. Being in the hot mill, near glowing red steel, the job had an attractive element of danger. I often worked double shifts (16 hours) and overtime and the pay was great for a kid just out of high school. It was in the mill where I learned the value of steel lunch boxes. Nobody would say anything, but when you showed up that first week with your lunch in a paper bag, you would be sharing your lunch with the mill rats. Lesson learned and laughter from the old-timers.
Laid off after a few months, I went to work on the General Motors assembly line. My first assignment was to place steel bars in the headrests before they were filled with plastic foam. I then moved to stamping out trunk hinges. That job was enough to convince me to go back to college. I sold my 63 Chevy Impala to my sister, Elizabeth, and enrolled in Ohio University where two of my best childhood friends had already been attending for a year.
Enrolled as an architecture student, I made the Dean’s list that first year, a far cry from my performance at Cleveland State. Returning home for the summer, I needed a job and somehow landed one on the Norfolk and Western Railway. I cannot recall how I found out where to apply. Nevertheless, I applied and was given the job. It wasn’t a big interview, basically; Are you willing to work? Can you get here early in the morning? Two other young men also applied and started the same day as I.
That’s where I first met Billy, Adolph, and Leo. Rounding out that section labor gang was Jonsey, the assistant foreman, Tony (call me Anthony), the switch lantern attendant, and Roman, another laborer.
This collection of men provided me an education the likes of which I could never have gotten in college or elsewhere. I was in awe of the work ethic and abilities of both Billy and Adolph and perplexed as to why they couldn’t read nor write. Roman, from Eastern Europe, was a quiet observer and thoughtful worker. He didn’t say much but he was a presence to be acknowledged. Jonesy, a heavy black man, worked when Leo was around and then let us all rest as soon as Leo left. He had a deep laugh and relaxed attitude to life. Very relaxed! Tony was an adjunct to the section labor gang. He didn’t actually work with us but began each day at the workhouse complaining about his back and bragging that he had again woken up with a hard-on. He was in his sixties and this was important to him and a source of amusement to all of us.
My very first day on the job found us repairing a road crossing that led into “the flats” and the steel mills. Adolph is using a jackhammer to break up the concrete. A jackhammer combines a hammer and a chisel and is powered by compressed air. It’s an impressive piece of machinery and way ahead of the old pick and shovel routine. But it is loud, very loud. Anyone who has driven past a road construction site knows how deafening it can be. Adolph is not wearing ear protection or eye protection. He doesn’t “have to”. OSHA didn’t come into existence until a year later in 1970. The average human pain threshold for noise is 110 decibels, jackhammers operate at 130+ decibels. Adolph didn’t seem to notice. He was focused or, in addition to being unable to read or write, he may have been partially deaf.
The end of the hose attached to the jackhammer has a large heavy brass knob. This brass knob also has a safety chain. This chain is to prevent the hose from getting completely disconnected from the jackhammer should the connector fail or otherwise get disconnected. It works, that is if you actually connect it. Adolph didn’t connect it. The other end of the hose is connected to a large compressor that generates a lot of pressure. We’re talking a lot of pressure.
I am standing a bit away from where Adolph is working, scratching at the dirt with my shovel, clearing a spot here and there near the rails. At some point, the hose came loose from the jackhammer and started slithering along the ground, thrashing and popping up now and again like a brass cobra. If that brass connector hits your ankle or leg it is broken. If it hits you anywhere, you’re in a world of hurt! Dust and stones flying everywhere. The poor fellows who were nearby ran for their lives, I was in awe and a bit amused at the show. Leo got to the compressor and the danger passed. First day on the job, chock full of excitement!
Reporting for work the next morning, I learn that the two other young men who had hired on with me quit. I felt a touch of schadenfreude and was glad to be the only new “kid” on the gang. I internalized the event as some sort of railroad fraternity hazing and I was admitted and they were not.
Our Section Labor gang now had only six members; Adolph, Jonesy, Billy, Roman, Leo, and me. Again, Tony worked alone, walking up and down the switching yard filling the switch lanterns with oil and making sure the wicks were trimmed. From many years of bending over he had developed a hunchback and could not stand up straight. He was forever looking at the ground.
On June 22, 1969, sparks from a passing train ignited a fire in oil slicked debris floating on the Cuyahoga River. This was one of more than a dozen times the river had caught on fire. As the fiery mess floated down towards Lake Erie, with flames as high as five stories, it burned two railroad bridges that spanned the river. One of the bridges was owned by Norfolk and Western.
Once the fire had passed under the bridge and the fire was put out, we were the crew that had to rebuild the bridge. The heat had been so intense that the steel rails had been warped into a snakelike shape. The rails had to be removed and the ties beneath them had to be replaced as they were almost all turned to ashes. The end of each section of steel rail is joined to the next section with two pieces of steel called an angle irons, or fish plates. The angle iron, one on each side of the rail, is secured with four high-carbon steel bolts. Each angle iron weighs about 20-25 pounds.
To remove the angle irons, you have to remove the bolts connecting them. Billy went to work! He removed all four bolts but the angle irons wouldn’t come loose from the rail. The rail was so warped that they were stuck. Billy steps up with hammer in hand and swings away striking the rail on top! Sproing! The angle irons shoot out into the river in opposite directions like being shot from a catapult and the rail runs right up the inside of Billy’s leg tearing pants and flesh. Not a pretty sight and a painful scream with a West Virginia drawl. Billy’s off to the hospital and we have two hammers and other equipment in the river below.
Every morning, the six of us (sometimes with Tony) would leave the workhouse and head to the cart shack. The old railroad handcar, or pump trolley, that you see in cartoons where one fellow is on either side of a see-saw apparatus had been replaced by a motorized cart that propelled us down the track. The carts were still awfully small.
The cart was stored in a shack with tracks leading out that were perpendicular to and running right up to the main railroad track. Once Leo had confirmed that the main track was clear, we would open the shack doors and roll the cart up to the track. Then the six of us, three on each side, with a big heave-ho at the count of three, would lift the cart and place it on the tracks. Once on the tracks with the shack closed and locked up, we were off, sitting in the open air regardless of the weather, each of us lost in our own thoughts about the day ahead and what we might be working on that day. Leo was the only one who “drove”, but it’s not like it mattered, we were on the rails.
That was part of the enjoyment of the job, you never knew beforehand what you might be working on that day. One thing we knew for certain was that nothing would start until we stopped for coffee and hard rolls with butter. Make a picture in your mind. It’s unseasonably cool, there’s a slight drizzle, and your head hurts from the night just passed. In short, it’s not looking like a stellar day ahead. Then, like a hand out of heaven, you are given a hot cup of coffee and a big hard roll with a huge slab of butter! It’s the stuff of miracle cures. I can still taste it!
On another more pleasant morning, we went to work clearing weeds and brush along a crossing and a curve. Leo dropped us off with the scythes and machetes and then left us there with Jonesy as he went off to some other job. As soon as the cart was out of sight, Jonesy called for a break and we laid down in the weeds beside the track for a rest even though we hadn’t done much. Laying in those weeds, in the early morning and looking at the sky, life seemed large and promising.
Another day we had to repair a section of track where all the dirt and stone underneath the ties and rails had washed away in a flash flood. Jonesy was in charge again. He starts walking the tracks, straddling the rail above the spot where all the foundational stone is gone. The railroad ties were hanging in mid-air, four feet above the wash out, attached to the rails by spikes nailed into the tie plates. As I said, Jonesy was a big man. A few steps on the ties while straddling the rail and the plates give way, the tie falls and Jonesy lands full force with his groin hitting the rail. Another touch of schadenfreude. Arthur Schopenhauer said "To feel envy is human, to savor schadenfreude is diabolic." We were on the diabolic side. We laughed and Jonesy screamed. It seemed that we had a good bit of screaming but this was offset by much larger amounts of laughter. Jonesy survived but he worked even slower after that.
Our foreman, Leo, was also a screamer and was not much for laughing or fooling around. He was an excellent foil for the rest of us. I believe he loved us like a father loves his foolish sons and who thinks that yelling is the best form of communication. He would curse and complain about how we worked and what we were doing but he always paid for the coffee and hard rolls. He was an old man for the railroad and had worked there a long time. He wasn’t fond of the brakemen or the engineers, who also worked the yard and who seemed to hold themselves up as “better than” the section labor guys. I think that’s why he loved us. We were like him. We were his boys, no matter how old. And perhaps, I was the baby brother to them all.
At the end of summer, I returned to Ohio University. During the winter break, I went back to working on the railroad to earn some cash. In the winter, when it snowed, the switch points had to be cleared so as to prevent a possible derailment. It’s not a desirable job as it means spending the entire day out in the elements. But it’s a perfect job for a young pyromaniac! I took the job without a moment’s hesitation. After a snowfall, I would start out with a can that had a long snout and was filed with flammable oil. I would light it and start walking the switching yard from one end to the other, stopping at every switch point and starting a fire between the switch points. The colder it was the more I poured the oil. I was all by myself, which suits my temperament to a tee, and I had fire! All day from one end of the switching yard to the other, it was a devil’s delight.
Our culture, for the most part, doesn’t entertain any real rites of passage into manhood (or into womanhood for that matter). Young men back then, and it would seem even more so today, have to essentially find their own bridge across and oftentimes with other young men who are as clueless as they. Fathers, uncles, and old men have traditionally been the guides but not so much anymore. Rites of passage these days are largely drawn from main stream culture/media and the results are not terribly inspiring. Too much macho, too little sensibility, and a much too small smattering of emotional IQ. It’s one thing to find your own way, it’s quite another to have guides who can show the way and help you avoid snares, dead ends and, God willing, stupid ideas.
For the most part, my right of passage into manhood was working on the section labor gang. As one of three young men to start, I was the only one to stay. I wasn’t big or strong but I was very much alone and wanting to belong. These fine men mocked me, laughed with me, shared with me, accepted me, and under it all, they let me know that I was, like them, a “railroad man”. They loved me in a way I never knew.
I can recall but a single face from my all my time at Republic Steel and General Motors. That face belongs to a young man my age whose story remains to be told. All the others I have forgotten. Perhaps it was the nature of the work itself in the mill and assembly line that made bonding with others difficult or impossible. Where I was part of a “gang” on the railroad, I was a cog on a wheel at the mill and the assembly line.
I found an openness working with these fine gentlemen on the Norfolk and Western Section Labor Gang. They were real to me (as in the verb “to be real”) and helped me to open up. They gave me new eyes by which to see. My world got bigger because of them. I found acceptance, the joy of hard labor, and the wisdom and love beneath the surface appearance of people. To be sure, Billy spit when he talked, but he spoke directly to me. He showed me how to hammer a spike into a railroad tie without hitting the rail itself a hundred times! Adolph showed me a kindness and acceptance as a “young man” that I had never known. Once, while having lunch in a dark bar, I sat at the bar between Billy and Adolph. Adolph ordered shots and beers for the three of us, even though I was legally too young to drink whisky. The three of us raised our shot glasses and toasted the day. I will never forget those smiles on the faces of my two friends.
They are all dead and gone now. Like life itself, I moved on and they moved on. I never saw or talked with them again. I have a treasured switch lantern they gave me as a going away present. It stands on a stone pedestal in my front yard and lights up the night with its’ Fresnel lens beacon. I can see it from my window at night and it’s usually the last thing I see when I head upstairs to go to sleep.
The love, and I would not have called it love back then, they showed a young man beginning his journey into adulthood has stayed with me all these years. It shines as bright as the switch lantern and serves a similar purpose. I would, all too soon, need all the light and love I could find.
After winter break, I returned to college. Ohio University’s campus is divided by a railroad track that runs through the campus. I would cross these tracks on a regular basis going to and from class and, when lonely, sad, or otherwise “lost”, I would walk the tracks trying to collect my thoughts.
The Kent State shootings were a few months ahead in May, 1970. I would end my Ohio University education with a spent tear gas canister memento and a GPA of 1.2. The University would be closed. In June, 1970, I married the Queen of the 1968 Tipp City Mum Festival, a beautiful young woman and the only daughter of a Southern Ohio soy bean farmer. I would be a father by year’s end and loading fifty-pound bales of asbestos (mesothelioma be damned) into giant mixers at Foseco Chemical Company.
A switch had been thrown and I was heading down an entirely new track. The ties beneath me gave way and it would be almost twelve years before I really hit the ground.
May 13, 2021
I know where John lives. I have visited.
I do not care to live there.
John was a friend of mine but after running my monthly “My Friends” algorithm (the 4th of every month), John moved from friend to acquaintance. He is now way below Brian, Laurie and George, two names below Mark, and one entry away from “You see, I’ve forgotten your name”.
I developed the “My Friends” algorithm to augment my self-diagnosed deficiencies in establishing and maintaining relationships. The deficiencies addressed in the algorithm are largely self-diagnosed as I have more than enough input from others on this subject. The algorithm draws on hashing techniques that I worked on at Bell Labs. Simply put, hashing is a way of distributing people and/or objects using selective criteria that spreads the complete data set (universe) evenly across a fixed number of “buckets”. A good algorithm can be a significant improvement over even the most thoughtful, introspective human being.
For this algorithm, I use the numerical equivalent of the initials of the first and last name, the time I have known the individual (rounded down in years), the fact that they choose to more often call me (x7) or text me (x3), my recollection of the number of times we have had lunch/dinner and they paid for the meal, and finally, using my finely tuned spiritual assessment meter – how well they are manifesting the light within. You actually don’t need a meter; you just look in their eyes. It can also be heard in their voice and the way they cry. The algorithm does not factor in comments made on my Facebook posts.
The algorithm distributes all entries across three categories, friend, acquaintance, and “You see, I’ve forgotten your name”. (Who could forget Jacques Brel?)
I have almost forgotten the name of the fellow who started this story.
IM (Instant Message) from John: “Please help - need $2,600 right away, child support issues. Please help.”
John has issues. I have issues with John’s message. Everyone has issues, but they are not sending me IM’s asking me for help or money. John is different and desperate. And, worst of all, I think John is lying.
I don’t respond.
Another IM: “Please help! Reaching out to a number of people!”
Although once a friend, I don’t really know John all that well. We had dinner once, I met him on a few other occasions, and we have talked on the phone a number of times. He was always more of a “passing acquaintance” that one gathers as they roll through life.
I ignore this second message, telling myself it’s a prank, someone has hacked his account or he is just a hell of a lot weirder than I knew.
Next, a voicemail from John. He sounds distraught, he sounds drunk. I deny that he is drunk. He can’t be drunk. He has been sober for years. Then I think, wait a minute, child support? John is in his 50’s and his children are in their 20’s. Something smells rotten here.
I return his call. He still sounds drunk to me. I confront him and he denies it. He tells me that he is in love which, as we all can understand, is not too far afield from drunkenness.
John has met a beautiful young woman on-line, Sheila. They have been communicating and sharing photos for a month or so. He understands that she lives in Europe but he is not exactly certain where. Sheila is a model who has recently experienced a series of unfortunate events. John tells me that Sheila loves him, but………she needs money to help her through some hard times, about $27,000. She’s not exactly certain of the total amount but she’s asking for $27,000 as a start to get her out of trouble.
John is no fool. Even though he is deeply in love, he is not willing to part with $27,000 straight away. Sheila understands his hesitancy and explains how she plans to get back on her feet. She has a diamond deal “hanging in the air” with some friends in South Africa. If John could just see his way to sending some amount to help with the tax liability on this diamond purchase, all will be well. She will pay the taxes, get the diamonds, “they” will be rich, she will run to John’s arms, and they will get married. John then informs me that he has already “loaned” her $10,000. My head hurts.
John sends me her picture and a link to her Facebook page. Sheila’s Facebook page has but a single photo, the same one John sent me, and the “About Info” is blank, no “Work”, no “Places Lived”, just a photo of a buxom young woman in a bikini.
I point this out to John as being a bit suspicious. I actually clearly tell him it’s a scam and that he should stop this nonsense, but he just wants to know if I will loan him some money. Why won’t he listen to me? Oh, John asked for money not counsel.
John is behaving exactly like another acquaintance, Rich. Rich has also met a woman on-line. She is from the Philippines and 17 years his junior. She is not unattractive (as opposed to being attractive). Unlike John, who doesn’t even know where Sheila actually lives, Rich is so deeply in love that he flew to the Philippines to meet her. A few months transpire and Rich’s Facebook page lights up with pics galore of the happy couple and her extended family. Within four months they are married.
Eleven months later Rich posts on Facebook that the divorce is final. I am taken aback as I thought this was love everlasting? In addition to obtaining a divorce, Rich has obtained a zero balance in his retirement account. Oddly enough, over these same eleven months, John, who could very well be Rich’s twin brother, has also achieved a zero balance in his retirement account.
How can this happen to two reasonably intelligent, likeable fellows?
There is no evil that does not offer inducements. Few of us escape the lure of addictive behaviors and the corresponding suffocation of spirit. In modern western culture, which is increasingly becoming world culture, the poverty of our relationships contributes to our vulnerability to unhealthy addictions of every kind. Increasingly large numbers of people seem to have set sail on the ship of radical individualism where there appears to be no limits to personal gratification. I have watched people eat themselves to death, drink themselves to death, and exercise themselves to death. I have seen people shop themselves into bankruptcy. I know individuals who are so engaged in online fantasies of every shape (sexual, gaming, gambling, etc.) that the real world has become a “dream” they visit on occasion.
I recently heard a young man exclaim, “Why do I need a girlfriend when I have the Internet?” Other acquaintances have destroyed their marriages, ruined their family, and crippled their lives. They spend countless hours in the basement, at night, surfing for porn. The basement and night are critical components of this activity as darkness calls to darkness.
I suppose one might think it a bit coy of me in calling all these individuals “acquaintances” so as to shield myself from guilt by association. Think what you will, the story isn’t finished for any of us. As I said at the beginning, I have visited these towns. I will say that watching these people disintegrate has been an abject lesson in the power of uncontrolled desire. They are my best instructors.
Without being overly dramatic, it would seem that the passionate intensity of individuals, unrestrained by any sense of decorum or morality, is shredding the fabric of society. Many lives are intolerably painful or dull. There appears to be no solace in either work or leisure. We are estranged from our families and neighbors. We have lost each other. As a consequence, we stream Gomorrah in all its’ forms and shapes into our lives to assuage the pain. But no salve applied on the outside can heal what is wounded within. We cannot escape from the worldliness that is inside us or the pain of living. We can, and should, acknowledge and confront it.
But who am I to raise a voice? In a world of radical individualism, where everyone has a right to be “me”, perhaps I should not judge. Perhaps it’s best to be quiet and neither offer or invite criticism. Just watch and learn. It seems that sharing one’s observations (not opinions, and there is a difference) has become, at least, a venial sin. In some instances, it’s become a mortal sin punishable by death. Just ask Jamal Khashoggi, but of course you can’t, he’s dead.
I once saw a young woman with a tattoo on her arm that said “Only God Can Judge Me.”
She was wrong. I judged her.
Perhaps she meant that only God can “correctly” judge her. But again, I think she was wrong because God is a lover, not a judge. And no doubt, the tattoo implied she had judged herself and was hoping that God was on the same page as to the assessment.
I “judge” people and things all the time. I am not at all unique in this. It’s what people do and must do in order to learn and grow. This fruit is ripe, this is unripe, and this one is rotten. That is prudent, that is imprudent, and that is dreadfully stupid. It’s a way to benefit from the lives of others whether the example is stellar or pitiful.
I am poignantly aware of the biblical story of seeing the speck in my brother’s eye while ignoring the beam in my own. It’s often cited as a first defense against “criticism”. We are advised to “Not judge, or you too will be judged in the same manner you judge others”. So, are we to say nothing? Do friends let friends drive drunk? If, when pointing out the speck in my brother’s eye, he would be so kind as to return the favor and mention the beam in mine, wouldn’t we both be well served? And, frankly I don’t mind handing the yardstick I use to measure you to measure me. Yardsticks are useful when used with love and understanding. This, of course, requires a significant amount of openness that is oftentimes missing.
Perhaps “judging” may not be the most appropriate word given its’ etymological history. It’s more evaluating, or trying to understand how this experience, person, or event fits into my view of the world, or even better, alters my view of the world. Again, this requires a large amount of openness that I am not always capable of. I only want things I like to enter my world and not things I don’t like. I work to “protect” myself and my world view and am more inclined to fit things in and to discard what doesn’t fit.
There are people who see no problem with pornography or any of the aforementioned pleasures to be found in streaming Gomorrah. They deny porn objectifies and degrades. They have rights. They are free to choose what they eat, watch, and support. They argue for their position and assert mightily that they have the right to pursue happiness in any form they choose.
Go for it. I will watch you. Your children are watching. Your partner is watching. The world is watching. We live in each other’s eyes.
John is getting worse.
I called him. It did not go well. He says he can’t talk. He is in the middle of something. I’ll say. He certainly is in the middle of something but it’s not what he thinks. Actually, he is not thinking. He is reacting. He is afraid. Very afraid. His daughter and son have stopped talking to him. His ex-wife stopped talking to him years ago. She is afraid. He is not making sense to anyone other than himself.
That is always the problem with madness. When you are mad, you don’t know you are mad, except perhaps in a few lucid moments, which must be terrifying. Those come and go quickly like blips on a radar screen indicating that you are off course. If you are not watching or cannot see the screen, you never notice. That’s where friend’s come in. I am watching John’s screen. He is terribly off course, yet there is time for correction. Not much, but some.
Too late. After sending the bulk of his savings to Sheila, she dropped him and wouldn’t respond to his emails or messages. Distraught and even more desperate, John resorted to sending lewd pictures to woman who are complete strangers. “You see, I have forgotten your name” goes to jail. I am troubled. I saw the madness unfold. My head still hurts.
I am an attendant friend. With a nod to T. S. Eliot, I assert that I am not Prince Hamlet, Thomas Merton, nor was I meant to be. I can advise, stall the progress, or start a scene or two. I am an easy tool, deferential and glad to be of use. Admittedly, I am often full of high sentence and sometimes a bit obtuse. I am, at times, indeed, almost ridiculous – almost at times, the Fool.
Like you, I strive to do the next right thing, then the next right thing. Then I fall. I get up and I feel the shame of failure. But shame has no half-life lasting for years. It lasts only 8 seconds before, like a bad cheese, it turns into guilt and maudlin self-loathing. Simply because we are so beautifully human? Shame is a keisaku, a remedy for sleepiness or lapses of concentration.
In the Buddhist wheel of life there are six realms; gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hells. Each realm is an aspect of human existence. I am particularly drawn to the realm of Hungry Ghosts where live those beings who are driven by intense emotional needs to satisfy basic instincts such as hunger and sexuality. In this realm, people get trapped in states of unbearable rage and anxiety. There is a constant search for a way to curb an insatiable yearning for relief or fulfillment.
How can one possibly summon the resolution and the willingness to get rid of such overwhelming compulsions and desires? The choice is between the pains of trying and the certain penalties of failing to do so. It is no surprise to see people living in the land of Hungry Ghosts, unable to escape.
But I am ill-advised to wander into that cold and dreary realm looking to lead people out. I can stand on the periphery and shine a lantern but only if my lantern is filled with the oil of my own experience. We can be beacons for each other. The light we shine is useful in that it may show another path that was hidden. We cannot admonish, cajole, instruct, or persuade someone to leave the realm. We can, and should, share our experiences in having found a way out. Sometimes permission to share is required, sometimes it is not. One needn’t always ask for what ought to be offered.
I don’t believe problems of perception are changed by logical argument, carefully prepared and presented analysis, charts and facts, or heated debate. Problems of perception are only changed by viewing the situation from a different perspective. A brand-new view, not my every moment view. It’s not a mountaintop, nor a valley, but right where someone else is standing. My life has been unalterably changed for the better because I saw through someone else’s eyes. They did not compel me. I was simply amazed that, by standing where they stood, everything was new and different.
That’s what we can do for one another. It’s not judgment at all. I have a unique, personal view of the world and so do you. It’s in sharing these views and being willing to relinquish the death grip on our own view that we are saved and that the world is saved. I am not right. You are not wrong. It’s a big world and every single, and I mean every single, perspective is critical to clearly see the picture. It’s a lens that is constantly focusing. There are moments when it’s all perfectly clear and then there are other moments.
Some years ago, I attended a retreat at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York. The retreat was “Zen and The Art of Tracking Animals” (yes, I know it’s weird). In addition to tracking animals in the fields and mountains surrounding the monastery, there were three zazen meditation sessions each day. At the beginning of the retreat, the Abbot asked if I would object to being hit with the keisaku should he notice my posture in need of correction. I said I prefer not to be hit. I now think differently.
Given permission, the blow can awaken. Without permission, the blow often adds to the pain. You have my permission to correct my posture at any time. But, please, not in the public comments, a private message is just fine. Even better, speak with me. It may elevate your position when I run the “My Friends” algorithm next month.
TWELVE RHETORICALS AND ONE DECLARITIVE
May 29, 2021
1. If your parents are dead and your only sibling, who is approaching 250 pounds and lives alone with 5 cats, invites you over for Thanksgiving Dinner, are you required to attend? Can you pretend that you didn’t get the invite? Should you respond with 7 things they should change before you will come to visit? Do you increase the amount of time you spend praying for this person? Should you bring a pie? Does this make you sad and wish it was different? How many times have you wished like this? Did it help? Do you realize how happy it would make your sibling should you show up? Can you hear your parents yelling, “Damn you, we’re family”? Would you bring a friend?
2. If you have a large garden with 30 tomato plants, 10 cucumber plants, and 8 bush bean plants and you have a bountiful harvest, should you take the excess to the local food bank? Can you just toss it in the compost pile? Is it a sin to leave it rot on the ground? What is your responsibility to the 1 in 6 children in the United Sates who go to bed hungry every night? Should you invite them all over for dinner? Maybe invite 2 or 3 and their families? Can you cook? Do you freeze the excess for the lean years that are most assuredly coming? What if your tired and don’t feel like collecting the food and driving to the food bank? How much guilt is bearable?
3. If you are a 45-year-old man and meet a 22-year-old woman on line and invite her to your house for sex and she dies in your bathroom from a cocaine overdose, is it partially your fault? Should you call her parents? Should you take back the money you paid her? Are you more ashamed than sad or the other way around? What does this do to how people think about you? Should you move? Will you go to confession? What sort of penance might be appropriate?
4. If a friend or family member posts something on social media, is it your responsibility to comment on it or correct them? What if it’s a grievous misunderstanding and you know the correct answer? If you don’t correct them, who will? Isn’t this just being helpful? Should you just live your life and accept that they are terribly misguided but you can’t help them? Is it acceptable to call them ‘stupid’ or ‘what a jerk’ under your breath? What if someone hears you? What kind of comments do you post? Do you sometimes wish you hadn’t?
5. If you have a friend who has smoked for 30 years and calls you one day to let you know they have cancer is it acceptable to say, ‘sorry to hear that’ and then ask if you can have their Troy-Built Rototiller? If they laugh at this, is that good? Should you wait at least a week or two before making jokes or asking for anything? Should you ask for anything? Should you make jokes? Can you say, ‘that’s what you get for smoking’ and how might that be helpful? Does that thought enter your mind? Should you say what you think? Ever? Always? Sometimes? When? Do you offer to come over and visit? What if, a week later, you find that you have cancer and you then think the Gods are punishing you for being insensitive? How many Gods are there? Do they punish people? Are you really insensitive?
6. If every day, some people are sending you a song or video that they think you “must” listen to or watch, do you have to? Can you just delete the text immediately? Do you thank them even if you didn’t listen or watch the video? Should you tell them to please stop sending you stuff? Is it acceptable to respond to such messages with 11 videos or songs that you like? What if there is a gem in there and you missed it? You don’t really care for music, do you? What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you simply accept what comes uninvited as a gift?
7. If you find a picture of an old flame on Facebook, should you toy with the idea of rekindling the romance? What if one of you or both are married? Is there any real harm in exchanging a few innocent text messages? Should you talk to your partner about this? What if you’re unhappy in your current relationship? Is this the universe showing you a way out? Does the universe actually work like that?
8. If, when meditating, you have a particularly bad morning and thoughts keep pounding you, should you just get up and make breakfast instead? Should you look for an easier way to hear the “still small voice within”? Should you talk to someone about your difficulty with meditation? Why talk about your troubles to anyone at all? Can’t you keep a secret? Do you buy another book? Sign up for another seminar? Should you go online and purchase a Tibetan singing bowl? How might that help? How might that hurt? Wouldn’t a pint of ice cream be better? Why are you even trying to hear that voice?
9. If you are back in NYC, post COVID, and you are extremely happy to be walking the streets again and you pass a dirty beggar on the street, should you give them money and how much? Do you empty your pockets? How do you know they won’t spend it on drugs? What if they have a dog with them or a small child, does this make a difference? Should you touch them or keep your distance? Are you capable of just walking past, pretending they don’t exist? Does that make them disappear? What if they look like your cousin? What if it is your cousin? Have you ever really been hungry? Would you miss your morning coffee for anything?
10. If you’re getting old and you live alone and you like this but well-meaning people worry that you are lonely, shall you once again tell them you are fine? Is this a lie and you are just unwilling to recognize how really miserable you are? Do you accept the invite and have dinner with the suggested friend? Do you tell them to never contact you again? Do you electrify the fence around your property and install cameras? Do you cry at night because you don’t know the answers to these questions? What about on-line dating? Do you have an interesting profile? Is that a current picture?
11. If the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are at 412 ppm and the red line that shouldn’t have been crossed is at 400 ppm, what does this mean for your children’s children? Why should you worry if you are older and close to dying? Is it okay to turn on the air-conditioning when you know that there are 412 ppm but you are hot and sweaty? Do you know your carbon footprint? Should you sell your car? Isn’t this climate stuff just a joke? What if it isn’t? What if it is a joke but not really funny anymore. Why should you care? Is this a laughing matter?
12. If you were wounded/ traumatized in early childhood and you have found a way to live with the pain, should you continue to seek ways to improve your life and get past the pain? How much pain is acceptable to live with? How much is too much? What if it still adversely affects your life? In what specific ways? Are you being honest? Should you forever try to change? Should you go back to therapy? Join a support group? How much digging in the subconscious is too much? How much is too little? What real difference has any of this made in the quality of your life? Why are you sad? Why does everyone else seem happy?
1. There are 128 questions in this bit of balderdash. At the end of every life, few questions remain to be answered other than the ones posed by Private Ryan at the end of the movie. Did I live a good life? Am I a good man? But the answer to these two questions, or really one question asked in two different ways, is just the sum of the answers to every question we have ever asked ourselves. Every moment of every day we write answers on our heart. Walking in NYC, conversations, social media, attempts at stillness, responding to illness (our own or others), and a million other events compose our “little” story. It’s what can be called a life. One life in a big book of lives.
I don’t think there is a judgment day. Every day is a judgment day. I imagine a scenario at the end wherein the heart’s script, written carefully or carelessly, is projected onto a big screen and read aloud so that everyone who has ever lived gets to hear your story. Each of us has to read our own story out loud. It won’t matter if we whisper at the sad/bad parts or sing about our shining moments because nobody will be hard of hearing. Billions of people, eating their favorite food out of box lunches supplied by some heavenly chef, will nod in agreement, hang their head in shared regret, or sit, hung jaw in amazement, at their story being told again. It will seem like an eternity to the speaker but is over in the blink of an eye.
When we finish, after telling how we made our final exit and how we said our goodbyes, we will know, and everyone else will know, if we lived a good life. There’s no reward or punishment. There’s just recognition which is both reward and punishment. It’s both comforting and troubling. It gets very quiet and you just sit there and marvel at your story. You learn to love the whole shebang. You have finally rowed all the way to the place where you “know yourself”. Best of all, you know that you are known completely and loved anyway. And, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, you are informed that you could have known this all along the road. I suppose they call this being “awake”.
The story is over and the big screen projects the blue screen of death. A beautiful blue. Like a blue you have never seen. A piece of the jigsaw puzzle of creation has been put into place. A billion voices cheer. You smile and bow. You know your shape and your place, finally. Perhaps we begin again with new hearts and a new pen. It doesn’t matter really. What matters is the writing business. I am enjoying it. Working on my penmanship, to be sure.
April 11, 2021
Baba is leaning over our backyard fence. We are talking tomatoes.
Baba lives next door with her son Richard, his wife Mary, and their nine children. Like my two grandmothers, she lives upstairs and her son and his family live downstairs.
If these three women were alive today, they would, more than likely, be in “assisted living” and this story would end right here. I wouldn’t know the aroma of their cooking. I wouldn’t know some of the secrets that enabled them to live so long and still smile. I wouldn’t know their gentleness and kindness and neither would you or anyone else.
I have never visited a nursing or assisted living home (whose living isn’t assisted by someone?) where I felt a sense of joy when I walked in. I suppose such places exist but not in my experience. My experience is sadness, resignation and death’s footman at the door with that evil smile. What I immediately notice is the upturned faces saying, “Hello, remember me? Are you here to visit me? You look so familiar. And then, inevitably, they look down again as you walk by. In a few months they won’t bother to look up at all.
Full disclosure # 1: My father died in a nursing home at age 90.
Full disclosure # 2: I will die in my garden, not in a nursing home. There is nothing ‘inevitable’ about going to a nursing home outside of the willingness of people to forgo learning from the wisdom of a lifetime.
Yes, I know how difficult and unpleasant it can be to be old and how difficult and unpleasant caring for the elderly can be. But consider what we lose for the sake of ease and comfort.
I have a dishwasher. When you have a dishwasher, you lose the joy of washing dishes by hand. You don’t notice the favorite plate that your daughter gave you or the mug you purchased when you went to California with that person who no longer loves you. If you have a clothes dryer, you never have the experience of hanging clothes out to dry in the sun and wind and how they feel when you bring them in. You lose the experience of someone shouting “rain” followed by a mad dash to get the clothes off the line as quickly as possible, popping clothespins as you go. You don’t even know what clothespins are!
Life is easier but, in many ways, poorer.
I know, I know, it just has to be done. It’s too difficult. They will get better care. I have my own life. And on and on. The “benefits to aggravation ratio” has been calculated and the answer is clear and works for you. But what works for me sometimes and what works for you sometimes doesn’t always work for others. Some factors are left out and some added. Not that we should care. It’s a simple calculation for chrissakes! Stop bugging me.
The fence Baba is leaning on separates our family from the Terepkas. The weight of anyone else leaning on this fence would break it but Baba is a wisp of an old woman. Eight kids on our side of the fence and nine on the Terepka’s side. Both of our fathers are drinkers and our mothers, while saintlike, are not saints. Baba is the real saint.
Baba is wearing a dress, a soiled apron, and an almost toothless smile. She wears these items every day, especially the smile. The smile disappears only when she is yelling at her son, Richard. In a few years, Richard will die in a fire that starts when he falls asleep while smoking in bed. Nine children will be without a father, but Baba is there.
As I said, Baba and I are talking tomatoes. I am nine years old and she is over a hundred to my way of thinking. She leans over and holds up one of her tomatoes for me to see and I hold up one of mine. You could almost see a tomato ripen in Baba’s hands. She knew magic and she applied it to her garden. We make an exchange and both bite into the gifted tomato. No salt shaker (which I would never do without these days) but we didn’t need salt then to enhance the flavor of the tomato or the moment.
Baba smiles at me and remarks that my tomato is excellent as the juice runs down her chin and onto her apron. In that moment, Baba lit a fire for gardening and growing tomatoes that has never gone out.
In my greenhouse, some 60 years later, there are 72 tomato seedlings in potting trays. There are at least seven different varieties, mostly heirlooms. In Baba’s day we did not know “heirloom” even though Baba herself was an heirloom. We knew tomato, “Burpee’s Big Boy”, “Beefsteak” and “Roma Plum”.
Few pleasures can complete with biting into a tomato picked right off the vine from your own garden. It’s like heaven (okay, heaven is probably a lot bigger and better but you get the idea). When you are nine years old and an old woman who grows good tomatoes tells you that yours are delicious, that you’ve done a good job, it’s transformative. It adds an unconsidered factor to the previously calculated “benefits to aggravation ratio” and tips the scale to having the old live nearby, perhaps even upstairs.
My garden consisted of a small patch of dirt between the garage and fence. It might have been all of 40 square feet. Baba’s garden wasn’t much bigger. I would dig it up with a pitchfork, break the clumps with a hoe, and rake it smooth. I would sometimes save the worms in a tin can on the off chance that my dad would take us fishing. More often than not, that tin can became their burial place.
Into that tilled and fertile soil, I would cut straight rows with my fingers and drop in all the tomato seeds I had. Carefully closing the dirt over the seeds, I would add the hopes of a young boy that his life would work out. I had no concept of thinning. (I still have only a mild acquaintance with thinning things out.) In a week or so, with an advertised 90% germination rate, I would have a difficult time listening to Baba as she encouraged (not told) me to pull out some of the smaller seedlings.
As I was writing this, I began to think that my youth was nothing but a “frost of care” in the same sense that Chidiock Tichborne viewed his youth in his most famous poem “Written on the Eve of Execution”. He saw his youth as a frost of care and a dish of pain. Granted he was about to be executed and perhaps this soured him a bit. My youth, while sometimes frosty and painful (who escapes such things?), was made easier by growing and harvesting tomatoes.
Chidiock, now there’s a name for you, was only 24 years old in 1586 when he was hanged, drawn, and quartered for his role in the Catholic Babington Plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. I submit that he might never have found himself in such a dire situation (and that is clearly textbook dire) had he grown tomatoes or grown anything. Or, perhaps closer to the truth, if he hadn’t been a Catholic.
Like most plotters, Chidiock was trying to save someone or something. People who are trying to save you are annoying at best and, at their worst, will actually kill you to save you. History provides a sufficiently large number of examples.
Anais Nin (another beautiful name) said, “You cannot save people. You can only love them.” Planting and growing has saved me more times than I can count. I hold Baba largely responsible for saving my life in this way. But, in truth, it wasn’t Baba per se, it was Baba’s love.
If preservation of self is the first law of nature, and the natural world provides a large number of examples, how does one get beyond self-preservation and self-centeredness? What makes an old woman befriend a young boy? In the most extreme example, how do you explain an individual who sacrifices his life in order to save a complete stranger?
The answer, it seems to me, is that sometimes when we look at another person, there is an intuitive, split-second moment where we see ourself and the other as one. There is no thought, there is only recognition. In the extreme case of saving a stranger’s life, the individual is, in fact, saving himself. Baba knew, as grandparents often do, that I was a worried, frightened little boy and, perhaps, saw in me something of her own childhood self.
In the past few weeks, I have planted rhubarb, Jerusalem artichoke, Solomon’s seal, mulberry trees, paw paw trees, apple trees and peach trees. That’s all good but the pièce de résistance of every spring planting is tomatoes. I do not plant the tomatoes by myself. We, Baba and I, plant tomatoes like we have been doing for 60 plus years. That is what love can do.
In some future Spring, I will die in the garden. I will die in Springtime because sadness is easier in the Spring than it is in the other seasons. This, of course, assumes that some people will be sad at my passing. Regardless, I have generated more than my fair share of sadness in life and do not want to add unnecessarily to the load on my way out.
I will be buried in the graveyard at the Plumsted Meeting House (Quakers). I will be buried inside the stone wall and not outside the wall like those horse thieves, the Doan Brothers. When I am buried, I want tomato seeds sprinkled on top of my grave.
Tomatoes are part of the nightshade family of plants. As we sometimes need shade from the day’s sun so we sometimes need shade from the night’s darkness. Baba provided shade in the sometime darkness of my youth.
I want to rest under night shade as I did as a child.
AND THEN THERE WAS HUGH
March 31, 2021
Hugh Creveling was my friend. I was Hugh’s friend.
I have a host of friends (thank God) and a number of very good friends. Hugh seemed to have only one friend and that was me. I know this because when a Binghamton, NY police officer called me in December, 2012 and asked if I knew a Hugh Creveling, I responded, “Yes, why are you asking?”. He replied that Hugh had been found dead in his motel room and the only number on his cell phone that had been called in months was mine.
I liked Hugh the way you like friends who can be really annoying at times. In the English language we do not have many gradations between ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’. Our language and thinking are typically either/or. The Innuits of Northern Canada have 20 or more gradations between ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’. There is even one word to convey: ‘I like you very much but I would not want to go seal hunting with you’. That’s the kind of friend Hugh was. I would not go seal hunting with Hugh but I was his friend. (Actually, I don’t have any friends that I would go seal hunting with.)
Hugh had a talent for being annoying which, more than likely, contributed to his having only one friend. It wasn’t really a talent, it was how he lived, how he saw the world. It probably never occurred to him that he was being annoying, any more than it occurs to me when I am being annoying. Hugh lived a good part of his life driven by demons and your demons work hard to keep you to themselves.
Hugh was likeable from a distance. The closer you got to the spectacle of Hugh, the less appealing he appeared. Hugh emitted a vibe like juglone from a Black Walnut tree. It protects the tree from competition and keeps from other plants from getting too close. A big man in a white dress shirt, bowtie, and jeans who could speak fluent Japanese. A bit scary. But if you were willing to press closer you could see he was truly a good fellow.
I cannot recall exactly where and when I first met Hugh and how our friendship developed. He was a Vietnam vet and a drunk/addict. I seemed to be attracted to such people (or they to me) but that’s really another story. Somehow, we met and became friends.
Hugh stayed at my house a few times but he didn’t like being in one place and was loathe to have a permanent address. In fact, he so much loathed a permanent address that he had his Social Security checks sent to my house. I would sign and cash them for him and then send him the money via Western Union subtracting the Western Union fee, which is onerous particularly when your only income is Social Security. On a number of occasions, he asked me to take out $50.00 and give it to my daughter Megan as a gift. I can’t help but think that he was vicariously giving the money to his daughter.
Hugh was estranged from his two children, a boy and a girl, as I was estranged from my two sons. The adjective “estranged” is used to soften the hard truth that we both abandoned our children. At our core, neither Hugh or I are really like that. But then I never thought I was the kind of fellow who would sell my blood or work as a migrant laborer on a South Jersey vegetable farm and Hugh never thought he would end up in a wheelchair in a cheap motel.
Addictions make choices for you. You lose the power to choose for yourself. You do stupid dreadful things. For sure they are “choices”, but it’s the darkness within making the decisions, not the light. You are on a carousel that never seems to stop. Inevitably, you either have the good fortune to be thrown off, pushed off, or jump off and live or you ride the dark horse until you die. You can even get back on if you are crazed enough! I was thrown off. Hugh, living in the city of carousels, rode the dark horse to the end.
I visited Hugh a number of times when he took temporary residence at various veterans’ homes or cheap motels/hotels. The veterans’ home in Binghamton (which is in fact, the Carousel Capital of the World), was depressing and was closed shortly after my last visit. I was traveling to a business meeting in Rochester, New York. There is an excellent pie shop (Bingham’s) on the way, not far from Binghamton, and I would stop there on every trip through the area. If the time and my mood was right, I would stop in and say a quick hello to Hugh.
I found him in the dingy lobby reading his Japanese newspaper which he had asked me to get a subscription for. It was a sunny day and he was looking rather Zen like all alone at the table.
Startled to see me, he jumped up and greeted me like the friend he was. We went out for lunch and then I was on my way. I usually didn’t make the time for lunch as I was a very “busy guy” and had lots to do but I remain grateful to this day for stopping that day. It was an act of kindness for both of us and we both were the better for it.
There is a Sufi story in which a young man is sent out on a mission by his father the king. The son becomes entangled in the world and forgets his fathers’ mission and what he is supposed to do. When he is almost out of hope and completely lost, a small bird comes and sings a song, “Awake, you are the son of a king!”.
I don’t know how often this bird comes to sing but I assume it’s a lot. Perhaps if you miss it the first time, you stay lost. But Hugh was asleep, drunk, high, or otherwise occupied whenever his bird sang. My bird song came at 2:00 AM on January 24, 1982 in the voice of a woman I didn’t know. She was crying hysterically in a room I didn’t recognize nor could I remember how I got there. I heard it. It threw me off the carousel. It hurt.
After the call from the Binghamton police, I drove up to the cheap motel where Hugh had been staying. I was hoping to claim whatever personal belongings he had (which wasn’t much) so as to add them to Hugh’s stuff that was still in my basement for any relative that might show up. I was shown a pile of stuff, including his wheelchair, but when they learned that I wasn’t a blood relative, they wouldn’t release any items to me. A long drive with nothing to show.
As Hugh was a veteran, they arranged for him to be buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Binghamton, New York. I was the only individual who knew of his death and the only one who posted a remembrance on the funeral home guestbook. Nine months after my post, his daughter, who had been looking for him for 15 years, found the site, learned of his passing, and posted her own note asking me to contact her.
We exchanged letters. I sent her whatever remaining items I had from her dad and we have remained friends since. I still have the bench that Hugh’s father made and that Hugh bequeathed to me. It sits just outside my front door and I rest there frequently. I often think of Hugh and his father’s craftsmanship.
Last year for my birthday, I rented a cabin in upstate New York. Passing through Binghamton, once again I stopped for a pie (hopeless pie addict), and decided to see if I could find Hugh’s grave. Much to my surprise, I drove right to the general area and found his grave with little effort. It was overgrown and I spent some time cleaning it up and then said a few prayers.
Visiting and praying at a gravesite is an experience I enjoy despite all the macabreness associated with death and graves. Somehow, it seems more likely that the dead person hears you and that they are nearby watching you. As ghosts (or spirits if you prefer) they are bound to the vicinity of their burial, with their memories slowly fading away as their mortal forms return to dust. Cemeteries are full of these ghosts. You brush against them and feel them in the breeze. They are always comforting you more than they need to be comforted.
I don’t know what else to say about Hugh other than I miss him sometimes. He was a blessing to me. I sometimes sit on that bench he gave me and cry for all those who have passed away. I talk to them, tell them what I am up to and then look about to be sure nobody is watching me. But there they are. They have jumped the cemetery wall and are sitting right next to me, at my feet, behind my back and putting their ghostly arms around me. I feel the breeze and I know that I am not alone and I am loved beyond anything I can imagine.
Then I think about driving to Bingham’s for a slice of pie.
March 11, 2021
My friend Bob Carleton has experienced that dramatic change of address that awaits us all. He died on February 25th.
Bob and I were friends at Padua Franciscan High School in Parma, Ohio. We were a quartet of young bucks (Bob, Bowker, Phil, and Brady) seeking our way in the world, employing such time-honored traditions as the Irish exchange of punches (at least that’s what we called it). In this tradition, you stick out your chin and the other fellow gets a crack at your jaw. It is best played while inebriated so as to heighten the hilarity and raise the pain threshold.
The most significant event in our friendship occurred one winter’s night while attending a holiday party (when people still had holiday parties) at a home on the shore of Lake Erie.
It was a rather large gathering and we were drunk. At some point, a group of us had the notion to leave the party and walk out on the frozen lake. Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes (average depth of “only” 62 feet) but the depth immediately off shore is 20 or more feet. You can actually walk to Canada in some winters (30 miles). It freeze’s solid.
While a small crowd stood close to the shore, Bob and I took a beer can and proceeded to throw it further out on the lake and then race to see who could get there first without falling down. Great fun, in that youthful, drunken boyhood sort of way. Further and further, we went, on our way to the Canadian shoreline! After a while we looked back and noticed that our audience had left. Without a crowd, the game became less interesting and we elected to head back. Mind you we were not wearing coats or jackets, just our “party clothes”.
As we jogged back, Bob was ahead by a bit. All of a sudden, Bob disappeared. I am mystified. In another few steps, I am not mystified, I am in the lake. We had fallen through the ice at a large opening. Why open water at that point did not concern me, I was desperate to get out before slipping under the ice.
I had no idea what Bob was doing but I was grasping at the ice edge trying to pull myself out. The pieces kept breaking off and I kept falling back in. Finally, at some point I grabbed a piece of ice sticking up a bit and dragged myself belly first onto the ice. A few yards away, I saw that Bob had done the same. We looked at each other and started laughing and rolling on the ice. We had “cheated death”! We were alive! We were invincible! We were freezing to death!
We went back to the party and there the host (a fellow I barely knew and cannot remember) provided us with a change of clothes (way too big) and we headed off to an all-night laundromat to dry our clothes. Upon taking my clothes out of the dryer, I noticed that my favorite purple and black sweater had shrunken to the size of a girlish crop top T-shirt!
Bob went on to become one of the earliest international male flight attendants on United Airlines. More impressive was his career as an internationally acclaimed mime. He represented the USA at the Shanghai International Pantomime festival in 1994. As for me, I went on to a career in Telecom and “wanna be farmer”.
A few years ago, I met Bob in Chicago for dinner. Our conversation centered on our “failed” marriages, our daughters, and our journey since falling through the ice. It was a golden moment only realized in its passing. He gifted me (is gift a verb?) a few of his posters.
Bob was a good and decent fellow. A heart of gold and a smile that penetrated any darkness it encountered. What amazes me still is his striving and lack of bitterness. In the last few years, he started The Unicorn Mime Ensemble of Elgin with a small group of young people. They will carry his imprint as I do.
Please don’t say “sorry for your loss”. I haven’t lost Bob and Bob isn’t lost. Just because I can’t find something in its usual place doesn’t mean it’s lost. It’s transitioned. It moved or was moved. It’s somewhere waiting for me, perhaps in a room for which I do not yet have the key. In that room are a host of relatives, friends and probably God too.
For better or worse, we imprint each other. I am a better fellow for having known Bob. And now you know him a little bit too!
LOOK AT ME NOW
July 27, 2021
Jerry handed me the shotgun. I had never killed anything before.
Jerry stood off to the side with his two brothers, Ken and Steve. These country boys, sons of a soybean farmer, were going to learn this city kid, who was about to become their brother-in-law, a few things.
I pointed the gun at the mulberry tree filled with fifty or so starlings. I pulled the trigger and as I tumbled over backwards, eight starlings fell dead to the ground. The laughter of my future in-laws could not drown out my remorse and embarrassment. Those eight starlings remain a weight on my conscience, the embarrassment but a sad, transitory moment. Eight dead at the hands of a foolish young man. A foolish young man in love, or so he believed. No, I was in love.
I loved their sister, Cheryl. She was 18. We met in college, she a freshman and I a sophomore. She was the first woman I ever slept with. I say “slept with” because to say we “had sex” is crude and debases the moment. To say “made love” overstates the youthful passion which had captured us.
I was 19 years old. The landscapes of death and love are most vividly painted when young. We old have seen our share of the dead and dying, and love has lost its’ shimmer and has become a dusty, quiet gem.
I was mesmerized from the beginning. We walked everywhere together, my feet inches off the ground and our hands entwined. Quiet kisses stolen as we walked. I held her tighter than I ever held anyone. We could not bear to be apart. I waited for her outside classes as she did for me. I was never more alive. Every painful memory evaporated in her presence. She was a princess, a goddess, my sun and moon, my life and soon to be wife.
How to describe those moments when a young boy and young girl first fall in love? Time and wishful half-remembered fantasies intrude and perhaps the love was not as gentle as my memory. Still, it’s a writer’s job to put into words the beauty of such an experience. I am a poor writer and must rely on others to say how I feel. Compare her to a summer’s day? Count the ways I loved her? Out my senses, leaving me deaf and blind?
We were to live our whole young lives away in the joys of a living love.
Fifty years have passed since we touched. Fifty years since I held her hand, kissed her lips, seen her face, heard her voice.
In a dream last night, she came to me. Curled up in our bed, she looked up at me with that smile that first captured me. I leaned forward and said “I love you”. She lowered her head, closed her eyes and began to cry.
Eight starlings rose from the ground and the tree burst into bloom.
July 27, 2021
Kevin wears a red bandana around his forehead. He sprinkles it with holy water.
He wears it all the time, even while sleeping. Kevin is certain that he will go mad if he takes it off. He is not kidding; he will hurt you if you try to remove it or touch it.
I lost touch with Kevin years ago. I won’t forget him. How can you forget a tall, lanky fellow who wears big, heavy, black shoes and shuffles like Lurch from the Munsters and has a red bandana tied around his forehead? Kevin even looked a bit like Lurch but was more of a good-looking young man. He rarely spoke. When he did speak, it was more whispered than spoken. The headband was his trademark identifier. He was a heavy smoker.
Every time someone met Kevin there was that question hanging on the edge of their tongue, “What’s up with the headband?”. Kevin’s habitual response was a fluttering of the eyes and a look toward the heavens. He wouldn’t say anything. He couldn’t say anything.
The last time I saw Kevin was in Marlboro State Hospital just before it closed in 1998. He had been transferred to Marlboro a few years earlier from a residential health care facility because they could no longer care for him as he required additional support. Although generally mellow, there were moments of unpredictable rage, despite the bandana, the sprinkled holy water, and the heavy medication. When I saw him in Marlboro, the heavy medication had transformed him from a shuffling Lurch to a walking Zombie.
His transfer to Marlboro could not have been more poorly timed. Marlboro was already the subject of an undercover inquiry in the late 80’s that revealed inhumane care and treatment of patients as well as poor living and working conditions. I have visited Marlboro and other mental hospitals, most notably Greystone, as part of my education and, at times, to visit with a friend, such as Kevin. These visits made it very clear to me that the maintenance of one’s mental health is every bit as important as one’s physical health. Just how to do that, in light of life’s unfolding, is an entirely different matter.
Marlboro State Hospital opened in 1931 and, at its peak, had 800 patients. So many patients died while in Marlboro that they have their own cemetery on the hospital grounds for bodies that went unclaimed; 924 marked graves are there. Greystone opened in 1876 and reached a high of over 7,000 patients (yes, 7,000). Among these 7,000 was one, Woody Guthrie. As a result of deteriorating conditions and overcrowding, Greystone finally closed in 2008.
Kevin came from a wealthy family and prior to his move to the residential facility and subsequently to Marlboro, he had a caretaker. I once asked the caretaker why Kevin wore the headband. He said that it kept Kevin from going mad and the holy water ensured the devils wouldn’t get into his head. Without it, he said, Kevin would surely go crazy and the results would not be pretty.
Kevin wasn’t born that way. In fact, Kevin was like most young boys except for the fact that he came from a wealthy family. He wanted for nothing. He had no siblings. He was heir apparent to the family dynasty and fortune.
Then his parents sent him on a sailing adventure in the Caribbean, a weeklong “live aboard” on a large schooner with a group of other young boys. At first, the trip was everything he imagined it might be. Then it was nothing he could ever have imagined.
He was raped.
The details of such a horrendous experience are not acceptable material for any story other than criminal testimony, although in Kevin’s case, sadly, that never came to pass. For Kevin, the details are a locked box wrapped in a red bandana and sprinkled with holy water.
We lock up what is too painful to look at. We fear that, if released, we would be unable to cope with what might emerge. These boxes hold a panoply of monsters and demons of many shapes and sizes. Kevin’s monsters were huge and mean. As R. D. Laing once observed, “Insanity is a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world”.
Trauma overwhelms normal coping mechanisms. The circuity of the brain is overloaded and coping mechanisms, intended to provide a sense of control, meaning, and safety in response to life events, fail. This creates disruption in the limbic system of the brain where emotional responses are stored. Traumatized individuals commonly have a flood of emotions when recalling traumatic experiences. Unable to cope with this flood, they attempt, either consciously or unconsciously, to avoid the difficult emotions. Anything to stem the flow; drugs, booze, sex, food, bandana with holy water, you name it.
At first, the affected individual struggles to come to terms with the shock of what happened. Then there is an inclination to deny/pretend it didn’t happen or an attempt to figure out how one could have “let it” happen. When that fails, and without additional help, the feelings are stuffed in a box deep inside and locked. Every significant event of our life history is recorded in our bodies and nervous system. Our unconscious contains all the repressed emotional trauma of a lifetime. “I do not want to or I cannot look at this.” It hurts. Deeply. Like a wound that nearly kills you and most certainly kills a part of you.
Years after that horrifying event, Kevin still sprinkled holy water on his bandana and tied it around his head. He is safe. Protected. The demons are locked down. His “madness” was the best solution he could find to the strangulation that life has imposed upon him. “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”
I gave my phone number to Kevin in a moment when I thought I might be of some help to him if he ever reached out. I would live to regret it. While he lived at the residential health care facility, I occasionally stopped by and we went out to dinner once. At the time, he was still relatively coherent and could participate in a limited conversation, although oftentimes the discussion would trail off into nonsensical unrelated topics. A conversation on baseball would morph into a discussion of personal hygiene and what he had eaten for breakfast the last three days. As time went on, he got worse and I could not understand what he was saying at all and it wasn’t for lack of trying. I no longer stopped for a visit as there was no point, Kevin would just sit there smoking and mumbling incoherently.
Kevin would still call me using the house phone. He would call at any time of the day or night. He would mumble, or play a song, or sing, and then hang up. He always left a voicemail of some sort. Christmas carols sung in his whispered voice were a standard. On a number of occasions, I asked him to stop but to no avail. Kevin listened to other voices that were much louder than mine. Sometimes weeks would go by without a call then they would start again. I grew in patience and tolerance with each phone call. Of course, I could have blocked his number but I didn’t. Not sure why, perhaps I thought it was good for him to keep reaching out. Finally, I stopped answering any of his calls. Voicemails with barely audible mumbling continued for months.
From most appearances, Kevin’s life appears as tragic beyond belief, and to a very large extent it is. Nevertheless, there remains the nagging suspicion that someone ought to do something or something ought to be done. But despite the considerable resources of his parents, all the therapy, shock treatments, and medication have failed to release Kevin from that one terrible event.
Recovery from trauma is an individual process and is different for everyone. The objective facts do not, in and of themselves, determine whether an event is traumatic, but rather one’s subjective emotional experience of the event. An event may be highly traumatic to one person, and only moderately disturbing to another. Siblings who witness traumatic events when growing up in a dysfunctional home do not all respond the same. We can see other people's behavior, but not their experience.
Recovery is not the complete absence of thoughts or feelings associated with the traumatic event, but is the ability of an individual to place the event in “proper perspective” so that it is no longer in control of their life. Some individuals recover, some do not. It is not predictable and varies dependent on an individual’s psychological makeup and resources available to assist.
Mental illness has a broad spectrum of behaviors. Some not easily recognizable (or very well hidden) and some quite visible and unbelievably scary. Although progress has been made, the stigma and fear surrounding mental illness remains a deterrent to both its identification and treatment. Casual presumptions about the solvability of mental illness rarely survive a real encounter with its unmitigated harshness. People with mental health problems, including dementia, are often considered ‘defective’ and are sent off to asylums or homes as it is also still considered largely ‘incurable’. Those without access to metal health resources oftentimes fall through the cracks and live desperate lives on the streets and in homeless shelters. You have met them. They see you walk by. You might have stopped and asked their name but you didn’t. You were busy.
Understandably, we don’t like illness, particularly mental illness. It disturbs. But by drawing our circle of empathy smaller, or by simply turning a blind eye when mental illness presents itself, we continue to engender indifference to those afflicted. There is no denying that some forms of mental illness require the individual to be removed from society, but to extend that perspective to mental illness in general is a disservice to so many who live honorable, difficult lives with their affliction.
Today’s treatments are characterized by a strong emphasis on pharmaceuticals. Perhaps far too strong an emphasis. Thankfully, experimental treatments such as lobotomies, hydrotherapy (patients held underwater until they lost consciousness), bloodletting, purgatives, and others have ceased. Other treatments, such as electroconvulsive therapy, still remain in use although more limited in their application.
If one loses a limb in an accident and is forced to use crutches, a wheelchair, or a prothesis for the remainder of their life, we don’t urge them to give up the crutch, wheelchair, or prothesis. More often, we are impressed or inspired that, after such a serious physical injury, the individual has found a way to cope, a way to walk, a way to live. Cancer survivors are honored, and rightfully so, for the courage and determination it takes to survive both the cancer and the treatment. This is not the case for mental illness. We find it difficult to comprehend and appreciate the struggles of mental illness and its treatment.
What Kevin taught me, and what I have come to admire, is the oftentimes hidden story of courage and determination of people afflicted with mental illness. If one could “put aside” the trauma that led to the illness, (and that is the fundamental problem of those afflicted), and adopt a heartfelt and honest look at an individual’s response to such trauma, what remains can inspire. Recovery from trauma is a testament to the tenacity of the human spirit. We all meet life’s greatest tests alone and when life itself is lunatic, who knows what is madness and what is cure?
Kevin’s life is a story of strength and determination. Nevertheless, his story does not have a happy ending. Efforts to have him remove the bandana only made his condition worse. He is no longer free as he was when I first met him. He remains institutionalized. Although we can hope that people are liberated from the demons that haunt them, we should not fantasize that we can force the exorcism of those demons. I wish it were otherwise. It is not. Life can be terrible and difficult for some people – through no fault of their own. Strength and determination alone are insufficient to overcome some forms of trauma and one is left with a red bandana and holy water to get through life.
Perhaps if those with mental illness would wear an identifying bandana, we could then treat them with the additional kindness such wounds require. Red for trauma, blue for depression, green for bi-polar, and so on. Perhaps then we could see more clearly the strength and courage required to live with such afflictions. Perhaps we would be more loving and less disturbed. We could walk beside them as a fellow human being and a kindred spirit and make a commitment to accepting them for who they are, which is the essence of any healing or nurturing relationship. They may already have affected the most optimal cure as a sane adjustment to an insane world.
Perhaps our emotional wounds and others’ wounds can be transformed into gifts. Just as alcoholics can be the source of cure for other alcoholics and addicts can share their experiences with other addicts, so too can people with mental illness be a resource to others so afflicted. Knowing Kevin and his story has been a gift to me. He altered my view of the world. A lanky fellow with a red bandana tied around his head added meaning to my life. For that, and so many other things, I am grateful.