ROOSTER’S DAY OFF

Rooster had spent a long hot summer cock-a-doodle-doing in the barnyard of a New Jersey farm and one sunny August morning decided he would take a break from working and relax. So Rooster set off in his little sail boat with a good book and a bag of freeze dried worms for munching – and until the pirates came, he was really enjoying his cruise along the coast.

Before you could say, “Yo, ho, ho!” those bloodthirsty sea dogs had taken over the ship, trussed him up like a Tom Turkey on Thanksgiving Day, and danced the jig while a peg-legged sailor played the accordion. When Rooster jumped overboard, the anchor around his left foot made him sink pretty fast and if it hadn’t been for the incredible pecking speed he had developed over the years in the barnyard, he would never have been able to loosen the anchor rope in time to grab a flipper when the whale swam by.

Before you could say Moby Dick, Rooster had hitched a ride around Tierra del Fuego, past Peru, and across the South Pacific. By the time the sun was setting he had washed up on a tropical shore along with an old tire and two empty Pepsi Cola cans. The enchanting island songs perked up the by-now fairly fatigued fowl and the incessant throbbing beat of the jungle drums set his terpsichordian toes to tapping.

After sixteen mosquito bites and a wet walk along a dark river, the water-logged leghorn was surrounded by a circle of carousing cannibals already in the burping phase of dinner. By the time the speeches were made and the votes counted, Rooster was a shoo-in for that evening’s entertainment and in a trice, which is three times longer than a second but shorter than a minute, the unwary cock-a-doodle-do was bounced to the head of a long line of villagers dancing up the side of a volcano.

Now Rooster was nobody’s country bumpkin regardless of what some people say about New Jersey and it didn’t take him long to realize that a one-way ticket to the volcano would cramp his style. When an updraft from nature’s fiery furnace gave him an unexpected lift, Rooster flung off years of barnyard conditioning, called on his ancestral memories and with drumsticks pumping took flight as fast as he could flap.

Before you could say “Holy Smoke!” Rooster was half way over the China Sea and if it hadn’t been for that stray firecracker he probably would have made it to the Great Wall by moonrise but it’s hard to manuever when your tail feathers are on fire. So when he  looked down and saw the solitary caravan wending its way along the ancient Silk Road, he lowered his flaps and hitched a ride on a camel whose compass was set for the Gobi Desert and points east.

From his lookout on the hump of the swaying dromedary, Rooster saw the snowstorm approach and just when he was about to become the first chickensicle, which is like a popsicle only with feathers, the Abominable Snowman came by, took a shine to Rooster’s golden beak and slung him under his hairy arm. The Snowman trudged through the mountain pass, across the glacier and into his secret hideaway where he added Rooster to his treasure trove.

Adventure to be continued

THE POLAR BEAR & THE SPIDER

How come dreams are so real? Or, is it that everyday reality is so dreamlike? Last night I again woke up to find myself traveling in that mysterious borderland.

I had gone to a new “beauty shop” in another part of town looking for a beautician to do my hair. This particular town was no where I had been before. In fact, the shop itself was located in an old brick building that looked ready for demolition. There were a lot of people there getting their hair cut and dyed and blow combed.

A young, street-wise Latin woman was my beautician. I had arrived at the shop with my hair in big pink rollers and merely wanted a comb-out – a test before committing myself to her complete care. Because of a miscommunication between us, she started to dye my hair and before I knew it, I was sitting in a barber chair with a towel around my dripping head.

I was afraid to protest and wondered how I could get out of this situation. After a few moments, I walked over to the big tall windows of the building to pass the time. Imagine my surprise when I looked out and down (we were several stories up) and saw a big white polar bear cavorting on the snowy yard below.

It rolled in the snow, twisted and turned, ran and slid on the ice. All together the bear was having a wonderful time as it darted and rolled across the yard. I wanted to join him and make angels in the snow.

When the polar bear slipped out of sight, I ran to another window, hoping to catch another glimpse but when I looked out I saw the scene of a tenement or slum area, clothes lines criss-crossing the yards and hung with washing. There were tired women tending the lines and children crying for attention.

Meanwhile, my erstwhile beautician had returned to check on the progress of the dye job. She intimidated me and I wanted to keep on her good side. Although I hadn’t planned to have my hair colored, I said, I didn’t mind the mistake. After all, if it didn’t come out, it was only hair and could be cut.

She, in turn, apologized for her misunderstanding and offered to get me a cup of hot chocolate. It would be another half hour before I was done and could leave. I declined but felt much easier now and when I looked again I saw that she was not the hot-tempered young Latin girl I had thought but an old skinny man who was not angry but overworked.

As I sat back in the barber chair to await the results of my dye job, I thought to myself, “I want to remember about the polar bear. It will make a very interesting topic for the blog. Now how did this whole story start?” And then it was I realized that it had all been a dream and I woke up to hear the morning news playing from the bedside radio.

I went into the bathroom to wash my face. Several days ago a spider had taken up residence in one of the twin sink bowls and I had been reluctant to move him/her on its way. I looked down and spider had curled up into a small black ball sometime during the night and its little spidery legs were folded up like an ironing board. I knew it was dead.

I was glad I had not disturbed the spider’s last few days with my desire for cleanliness and a bug-free bathroom. Years ago I had heard a spiritual teacher say that every life form values its life just as much as I did. Since that time I had found it very hard to step on the stray bug or swat a fly. I, in turn, did not want my own life cut short by some gigantic foot or  hand.

My mind darted from the dead spider to the cavorting polar bear. Which one was more real, I pondered, then sat down to write.

I NEVER PROMISED A ROSE GARDEN

I was reading a book the other day – nothing really memorable except the passage I am about to relate. It was a science fictionbook in which the hero finds the ‘ancient artifact’ that gives him a glimpse into his future. Hero is happy to discover he will live to a ripe old age, be admired and respected by others, and died surrounded by his many loved ones. What a great future! I thought to myself – one that I would like to have but doubt I will achieve.

Anyway, this belief in his future gives the hero courage and a sort of trust in life and in himself that he hadn’t had before and he plunges, with a careless grace, into all sorts of adventures. But further on in the story, when confronted by a dangerous adversary, he has to make the choice of two actions. In that crisis he suddenly thought that the future the ancient artifact has presented was not the future that ‘would be’ but the future that ‘could be.’

In an instant his understanding of the vision changed. There was no Guarantee. The future he had seen was not a certainty, only a probability, or perhaps at best, only a possibility. Since his rosy future was not guaranteed, the hero’s courage wavered; fear took up residence in his heart.

Before this revelation, the hero would plunge blithely forward – the Fool, the Innocent – but he now began to analyze situations, to weigh and balance options. Before he made no plans and set no goals because the future was assured; he now began to devise tactics and set strategies to manifest the future he desired. Instead of living in Faith, he began to live in Hope.

How much control do we have over our lives? How much power do we have to influence outcomes, achieve goals, to determine our futures? Is it better to live in Faith or in Hope?

I remember a few years ago when the book “The Secret” was such a sensation. As I understood it, if you just desired hard enough, if you just affirmed strongly enough, if you just believed deeply enough, if you prayed hard enough, you could have anything you wanted. And there was an implied lifestyle to accompany this.

If you set goals, met deadlines, uncovered subconscious assumptions; if you stop eating meat, did yoga and meditated, rode a bicycle and saved energy; if you recycled, championed peace and human rights, you would become spiritually worthy of all good things – and all good things would eventually come to you.

In other words, if you played the spiritual game according to the rules, you would be safe, happy, healthy, loved, etc. The vision of yourself you pictured in your personal ancient artifact would come true. Your ‘could be’ would become a ‘would be.’

But real life doesn’t exist in a world of Newtonian physics. Causality is not the ultimate arbiter of destiny. Goals, deadlines, affirmations, belief systems don’t work with that level of certainty. Just ask the vegetarians who developed cancer, the yoga experts who had a heart attack, the ‘good’ people who suffered economic or emotional devastation. Just ask the Jobs of this world.

This life is not a rose garden and it is naïve to believe playing by the ‘rules’ will get you what you want. Life is not an academic course that comes with a text book and mid term exams; nor does it come with a roadmap with carefully marked rest stops.

Maybe it would be more correct to say it is a Fun House at the carnival, filled with unexpected twists and turns, a bumpy ride with the occasional bogeyman jumping out, a hall of mirrors in which reality has many dimensions. Maybe life is just an adventure to be lived, rather than a lesson to be learned or a trophy to be won. Maybe life is an experience in which hope is not needed, and is, in fact, a place where hope keeps us from experience by placing the emphasis on the destination rather than the journey.

So I say give up hope and deadlines and goals and achievements. If you must have a vision, see yourself in total surrender to what life brings; that way all decisions and stresses and indeterminations are set aside, along with worry and suffering. All is meant to be exactly as it is; we are all doing the very best we can right now; and we are all part of the Great Game that does not keep score.

MIRROR, MIRROR

It started out as a discussion about plastic surgery – rhinoplasty in particular. The youngest daughter of the family had just returned from a trip overseas to visit relatives and was reporting on the various family members – feminine – who had their noses ‘done.’ The long, straight and strong family noses had been snipped and shaped into turned-up, Barbie-doll dots. The consensus around the breakfast table was that noses, unless extremely large or especially off-putting, should be left as nature intended.

With that subject exhausted, the youngest daughter, who had been carefully examining herself in a hand mirror, decried the fact that her front teeth were too large.

“It’s your fault, mom. They’re just like yours.”

Mother, who had slightly large front teeth with an overbite, said, “They look cute! I like my teeth.”

“They’re too big. They’re gopher teeth,” said elder daughter with a fashion-savvy look.

“Are you saying I look like a gopher,” shot back mother.

“Do you want the truth?” daughter backhanded.

“Yes,” said mother. “I think I look cute.”

I began to squirm. Truth always affects me that way. I slid a sideways look at mother. Not a gopher, but maybe just the slightest bit rabbity. Rabbit’s not as bad as gopher, is it?

Meanwhile, younger daughter was saying, “They look cute on you,” with the implications unstated.

“Well, yes, they’re okay on you because your head is big enough,” said elder daughter in a carefree aside as she tried to back peddle her way off dangerous ground.

“Mom thought she looked beautiful until you said she looked like a gopher,” said younger daughter.

“I am beautiful,” said mother, with a confidence that I could only admire.

And that was the real gist of it, I thought, starting to unsquirm. Beauty is not only in the eyes of the beholder but in the mind of the presenter. When we look at ourselves we see what our minds are programmed to see. It’s like when you have pimple on your face and look in the mirror all that you see is the pimple. When you stand in front of the full length, you don’t see your body; you see the ten pounds you gained.

Years ago, the tradition used to be that there were no mirrors in convents. Nuns wore long veils and wimples and never knew what they looked like to others. No doubt, that helped them to keep their minds on God rather than the world. As a result there was always a clean simplicity to their faces and allowed their souls to show through- for better or worse.

Nowadays, nuns wear skirts and blouses, drive cars, hold jobs and have their hair done. They have the right to look as bad and be as insecure as the rest of us. Just think, if we didn’t look into mirrors, we could believe we are as beautiful as we want to be.

“Gee, you look good today,” someone might say.

“No, I look beautiful,” might be an appropriate response.

CALLINGS

There always seems to be a certain moment in August when the presence of Autumn is felt, like a seed revealing itself within the ripened fruit. In some years it is a crisp smell in the morning air, or perhaps the need to pull up the extra blanket from the bottom of the bed at night. It may be the unveiling of new fall fashions in the stores or the reds and golds of harvest vegetables.

This year it was the sound of geese flying south. I heard them long before they came into view through my bedroom window. The honking was loud and it was more than a moment before I saw them flying against the cool, grayish sky. It was a large flock, more than a 100 geese I’d guess, and the flock was still disjointed as if it was just in the beginning of its formation rather than the smoothly flowing flying phalanx it would become.

The first grouping of about 25 or 30 was followed by smaller bands of 10 or 15, all flying in the same direction but not in unison – some trying to catch up, others gaining headway – but all of one purpose and that was to move southward to warmer climes.

The migration of the geese tripped a lever within me also, a desire to get up and move onward, to search out a new nesting ground for the cooler and wetter times that lie ahead, to find a dimmer, warmer den in which the activities of this year can be reflected upon and weighed in the balance of my life.

This last week I have often awoken in the middle of the night from dreams in which old friends and family, now long gone or lost in time, have peopled my mind. Old boyfriends, long-dead relatives, childhood friends have taken roles in my nighttime plays and I rehearsed my parts against theirs. Part of my consciousness seems enmeshed within these phantom dramas and once awoken it is hard to disentangle myself from their stories.

In my mind I swim backward through time, like a spawning salmon. I count off the years in memory – this was the time I was in love with him, this was the time I lived in that apartment, this was the time I took that road. Once the play is underway I cannot leave the stage and find myself for two, three hours lying in bed, eyes closed, my mind caught in the under toe of this ever-flowing stream of thought. Who is this witness of this life, or is the question, what is it that witnesses?

Backward and backward, now over sixty years of story to unwind before I can rest. Looking backward and wishing I understood then what I understand now, yet knowing those mistakes and missteps were the very ones which brought me to this day. Wanting to forgive myself for ignorance and innocence and selfishness but finding it hard, if not impossible. If God can forgive my errors, why can not I?

Autumn is the richest season, the last great cry of the year, holding a poignant goodbye kiss to what has been and will not be again. Autumn is the shedding of the past, of what is no longer needed for the journey ahead, and a preparation for the clear and clean and keen breath of winter ahead. It is the time when the future is held in seeds, when sins are forgiven and forgotten, and when geese fly south in windy skies.

GIMME SOME TONGUE, BABE

In 2008 I developed rheumatoid arthritis and because of the ensuing disability found it difficult to live alone. Since then, to decrease my responsibilities, I have rented rooms from a series of people. My current sojourn with the Iranian family is the best of all my experiences.

They are warm, friendly, funny, intelligent and kind. I have found the cultural differences between my Italian-American/Catholic heritage and their Persian/Moslem background interesting and educational.

One characteristic that I noticed from the very first day is the importance that the dinner table and sharing meals have in their daily life. I had read in various books that Middle Eastern people placed a high importance on hospitality and I have found this to be true.

Although I was only renting a room (with kitchen and laundry privileges) I was treated as a guest and have often been invited to share dinner with them. At the table I am always served first and encouraged to take another helping. There is no TV or music playing in the background; instead it is conversation that takes center stage. It is not unusual for a meal to last two or three hours in which stories were told and reminiscences shared.

Another aspect of dinner is the exotic dishes I have tasted. Wonderful chicken stews with plums, tasty lamb kabobs, rice and saffron, toasty flat bread and fresh leafy herbs like cilantro and mint. Today my epicurean adventures unexpectedly took me into hither unexplored realms when the Mother knocked on my bedroom door to ask if I wanted to join them for Sunday lunch. Sure, I replied. What are we having? Tongue, she answered.

I instantly realized I had been too impetuous in my easy agreement to share their repast and also knew that to back out now would be rude. So I held my tongue – pun intended – and sallied forth – which is like sauntering but with more fear.

As I approached the long dining room table (easily seats 12 – another indication of the importance of eating) I remembered the beef tongues I had seen in the local supermarket –  mysterious slabs as long and full as a loaf of French bread. I pictured one of those tongues in its pre-delicatessen state, lolling out the side of a mouth stuffed with grass and vibrating with contented moo’s. A slight shudder passed through my stomach and shot down my walking cane – a slight stumble as I pulled out my chair.

At this table, however, I saw a large round bowl in which small, dark brown lumps bobbed in a fragrant broth. I was handed a small bowl and told to help myself. I took the smallest lump I could find and lots of the broth. I was instructed to cut some of the tongue and place it on a piece of warm flat bread. I then had a choice of extra flavorings – cinnamon, garlic powder, salt, pepper, vinegar or a twist of lime.

I took a tentative bite and swallowed as quickly as possible to bypass my taste buds. It had a salty, sort of beefy flavor. But it was not the taste – which was enhanced by the cinnamon and lime – but the texture of the meat that took some getting used to – soft and crumbly in a way, or was it stringy?  No need to chew.

As lunch wound on other tasty delicacies were planned for future repasts. Sheep brains (after cooking they looked like cottage cheese, said Mother) and sheep cheeks and lips (a rare and memorable taste treat, said Daughter) and sheep tails (almost pure fat until it was boiled off to leave little ‘bacon-bits’ of flavor, added Father).

I was hard pressed to match those offerings with any of my own. The Italian kitchen of my childhood had only brought forth such mundane fare as tripe (cow stomach), snails (boiled, then sauced) and chicken feet (skip the toenails).

As I remembered these long ago meals, my stomach rumbled, once, twice. An unbidden a burp floated up from those nether regions. From behind the napkin that I pressed to my lips issued noises that sounded like … Baaa! Baaa…  Good grief! Had I started to speak in tongues?