A PASSING ACQUAINTANCE

“How old are you,” he asks after a few minutes conversation.

“Sixty-six,” I answer.

“Oh, you’re still young. How old do you think I am?” he says, pulling off his John Deere Tractors hat and bending his white head down for my inspection.

“You still have a lot of hair,” I answer evasively.

“Yeah, I do. I still play horseshoes but I don’t get the height I used to. The shoe slips from my fingers too early so I got to stand closer. But you didn’t answer me. How old do you think I am?”

“I don’t like to say. If I guess too old, you might be offended.”

“No, I won’t be offended. How old?

“Oh, seventy-two,” I respond and watch closely for his reaction.

“Seventy-eight,” he answers with satisfaction and I know I have answered rightly.

“Good for you,” I say.

I had been sitting at my favorite picnic table at the park, getting some sun on my back on this cool day. When I turned around to toast up the other side, he was sliding on to the other end of bench. I had seen him a few times before and we had shared short observations about the weather and about the squirrels.

He pulls a bag of peanuts from his pocket and we sit companionably commenting on individual squirrel’s behavior as nuts are tossed.

“That tan one’s got two in his mouth,” I say, pointing at a particularly chubby one.

“Look! He’s burying it,” he says with a chuckle.

“There was one here yesterday that had a cut on his back. I don’t know what happened.”

“I love squirrels,” he says. “I got these nuts at the store but look how small they are and hard, too.”

“I bring popcorn sometimes,” I add.

“You married?” he says.

“I was a long time ago.”

“I married twice. I had a boy and a girl with my first wife. When she wanted to split up I said I’ll take the boy and you take the girl. He lives in Denver now. Called me to say he was getting married and me and my sister we was going to drive out there but I never heard nothing. So I called him but he didn’t call back. Something must have happened.”

“When was the marriage planned,” I ask.

“Last summer.”

“Some thing must have happened.”

“Must have. He only calls when he needs something. He hasn’t called so it must be all right.”

“Must be,” I agree.

“Before I retired, I worked at the dairy. Thirty five years I worked. First in the plant. Later on I drove forklift. Better outside. Too much noise inside and when you got down time they always made you work in the coolers. Couldn’t stay warm. That breeze today, I can really feel it.”

“I like sitting in the sun,” I volunteer.

“I guess I’m getting old now. Never noticed it till last year. Just can’t seem to get warm any more. Look at this. See this here scar,” he says holding out his left arm and rolling up the sleeve. “That’s where they took the vein for the triple by-pass. I got on a t shirt, a regular shirt, a vest and this jacket. I still feel the wind.”

“It’s a cool day,” I agree.

“I saw in the paper yesterday that Sears got white cotton undershirts three for $27. I don’t really need any more t shirts but my old ones are getting tight. I’m going to get extra large this time in case they shrink.”

“If they’re all cotton they’ll shrink,” I warn. “But if they have some synthetic they won’t. Be sure to look at the tags.”

“I just throw all my clothes in the washer and the white ones, they get dingy. So I figured it’s nice to have some new white ones for wearing under shirts. Is three for $27 a good deal?”

“Pretty good,” I say.

“My feet got bigger. I got these here shoes,” he says sticking out his legs to display two glossy black feet. “I got me two pairs, just exactly the same. I wear them when I play horseshoes. When I get home I just hose them off. No good for walking though. Don’t breathe.”

“Make your feet sweaty?”

“Yeah. Can’t win.”

“Hmmm.”

“My second wife, now, I met her at the dance. Just a little thing. No more than 5 foot 2. Soon as I saw her I liked her. Yeah, I said to myself she’s the one for me and I followed her around till she married me. She could dance, too. Hardly needed to tell her what to do. She just knew. Yes, sir, she was just about perfect. She never finished school. I liked that. Didn’t want a woman smarter than me,” he says with a sideways glance.

I swallow a smile.

“Women today they want too much. They want men to be able to do everything.”

“It can be hard,” I agree.

“I think I’ll be getting on home now,” I say, rising from the table and rubbing my left knee to get the joint moving.

“Going out to eat?”

“No, I always eat at home.”

“Getting too old for a lot of things now,” he says with a sigh. “Too old to start over, too old to move, too old to get married again. I watch some TV but I can’t stay home for too long. Get restless. Go out to eat most of the time.”

As I walk over the grass to the car I say over my shoulder, “I’ll see you around” but he is already gone.

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ARIF & THE MAGIC SEASHELL: A Children’s Story in Three Acts

nce upon a time a long time ago in a land far away there was a young man named Arif who lived with his father in a little stone house beside a great ocean. Arif and his father were fishermen and although there was always fish to eat and warm clothes to wear and songs to sing, Arif dreamed of the day he would be rich and famous and powerful.

One day Arif’s father said to him, “I have taught you all that I know. What is it you would do with your life?”

“I do not want to be a fisherman, father. I would I like to have a great home and fine clothes to wear. I would like to have many servants and when I say ‘do this’, it would be done.”

“Then you must seek your fortune elsewhere, Arif. There are no magnificent homes or fine clothes or servants here.”

“When I have made my fortune, I will send for you, father. I will share with you all of my treasures,” Arif promised.

The father smiled and said, “When I was a young man I too left home. I sailed all the seas of the world and saw many strange wonders.  One night, as I sat on the seashore, a mermaid rose from the ocean and gave me this small shell.” From his pocket he drew out a pink seashell on a long cord. “It is a magic shell for it talks and can answer any question you ask if you put it to your ear. Wear it around your neck until we meet again.”

“Thank you, father,” said Arif politely. He had seen the seashell before and knew it was not magic. It had not made his father rich or famous or powerful. So Arif said goodbye and went to seek his fortune.

After two days Arif came to a place where three roads came together. One road went toward a dark woods; one road followed a wide river; and one road went over a tall mountain.

“Which road shall I take,” he wondered. Then Arif remembered the magic sea shell his father had given him and smiled. “I shall ask the sea shell what to do.”

He put the shell up to his ear and said, “What road shall I take to become a rich man?” Just below the roar of the ocean in the shell he heard a small voice saying, “Follow your heart.”

“That’s no answer,” Arif thought, so he decided to follow the road along the wide river. Soon he came to a city so big that it would take a man a whole day to walk from one end of it to another. As Arif went through the high city gates, a tall dark man on a beautiful black horse galloped past him.

“Who was that,” he asked the guard at the gate.

“That is Theodoro Abul Abdul,” the man replied.

“What kind of man is he?” said Arif.

“A merchant. He travels over many lands buying and selling.”

“Is he rich?” said Arif.

“Rich!” the man laughed. “He is the richest man in all the city.”

“I shall become a merchant, too,” thought Arif. “Then I shall be as rich as Theodoro Abul Abdul.”

The next day Arif went to the merchant’s home and asked to work for him. Theodoro Abul Abdul saw that Arif was young and strong and willing to learn so he made him his assistant.

For many years Arif loaded bundles of the finest cloth and rarest spices on the pack horses and traveled throughout the lands with Theodoro Abul Abdul. At each city they bought and sold. Little by little their purses were filled with gold and jewels.

One day Arif told the merchant, “I have learned all that you taught and now I will make my own fortune.” So Arif traveled to many great cities buying and selling, and in time he too had many bags of gold and jewels.

“Now I too am rich,” thought Arif. “I shall send for my father and share my fortune with him as I promised.”

As Arif traveled homeward, he came to the crossroads where the three roads met. “Many things have changed since last I was here,” thought Arif with a smile. “Since it is late I shall rest here and continue my journey tomorrow.”

That night as he slept, Arif was beset by thieves. After beating him, they stripped him of his fine clothes and took his gold and jewels. They took his horses and fled.

Arif cried out, “All of my treasure is gone. The labor of years is no more. What shall I do?”  He pulled his beard and wept.

Then Arif felt the sea shell around his neck his father had given him. That the thieves had not taken! Arif put the shell to his ear and asked, “My treasure is gone. What shall I do?”

Arif heard the seashell reply, “Follow your heart.”

“The same thing I was told before,” Arif said in despair. “I must start all over again. But this time I shall guard my treasure more carefully.”

The next morning as Arif was walking down the road that led to the City, a mighty prince passed by with his army. “Take that beggar there,” said the Prince to the captain as he pointed to Arif. “If he fights well in the battle, he will have the chance for glory.”

“But I am a merchant, sire. I know nothing of fighting,” said Arif, bowing low.

“A merchant!” the Prince said laughing. “You have no fine clothes and proud horses.”

“I was beset by thieves, your highness…”

“Silence!” roared the Prince, striking Arif. “Do as I say or die now!”

So Arif gave up his dream of being a rich man. He marched to war with the Prince’s army. In time he learned how to use a sword and how to fight. He learned how to follow and how to lead.

After many battles, the war was won. The Prince called to Arif and said, “You have fought well. Stay with me and I will share my glory with you.”

“I was foolish to desire riches,” thought Arif. “Treasure can be stolen. I will become a famous warrior. Songs will be sung about me and my name will live forever.”

So Arif served the Prince well and led his army in many battles. Songs were sung about his brave deeds and the Prince gave him all his heart desired.

One night Arif remembered his father and thought, “After tomorrow’s battle I shall send for him to come to me. He will be proud to share my glory.”

The battled went badly the next day and later that night the Prince ran away, taking his fine horses and jewels and gold. He left Arif and the tired army behind. The next morning, the enemy came in even greater numbers. Arif and his men fought bravely but the enemy pursued them into a dark woods. Finally, Arif sat down under a large tree and bound the wound in his arm. He was surprised to see he was once again at the crossroads that he had passed so many years ago.

“First I lost my treasure and now I have lost my fame,” thought Arif. “What shall I do now?”

He still wore the little seashell around his neck so he asked, “Where shall I now seek my fortune?” Arif could barely hear the seashell say, “Follow your heart.” “This shell knows nothing of life and its sorrow,” he said bitterly.

Just as he was ready to fling the shell away, he was surrounded by enemy soldiers. He was taken prisoner and marched over the mountains to a far distant country. When it was learned Arif knew the art of buying and selling, and the art of fighting and warfare, he was given as a servant to the Prime Minister of the King.

The Prime Minister said, “If you serve me well and truthfully, one day you I shall set you free.”

Arif bowed down very low and thanked the Prime Minister for his mercy. “How foolish I was to think that glory was the key to success,” thought Arif. “Glory lasts such a little time. The only thing that matters is power. With power you can make men slaves or set them free.”

Arif learned how a people are governed and how they are controlled. He learned how laws are kept and broken.  After many years, the Prime Minister said to him, “You have been a good servant and now I will keep my promise to set you free.”

Arif was a free man but continued to do all the Prime Minister asked of him. To those he liked, Arif gave favors and to those he did not, he shunned. Soon everyone feared him.

One day, Arif thought, “At last I am successful and secure. I will send for my Father so that he can share my power.”

But that night there was a bloody revolution and the King was killed. Arif ran to the palace but as he entered he heard the Prime Minister say, “Arif knows too many of my secrets. I can not be King while he is still alive.”

Arif left the palace by a secret door and escaped with nothing but the clothes he wore. He hid in the woods by day and traveled down lonely roads by night. After many weeks he found himself again at the crossroads. He remembered all that had happened since he had left his father’s house.

“I have failed,” he thought sadly. “My riches were stolen from me. The songs that were written of my courage have been forgotten. My power did not last. I have nothing now to share with my father.”

When Arif thought of his father, he remembered the seashell and once again put it to his ear. “Where shall I find my fortune?” he said. The shell answered, “Follow your heart.”

Arif pulled the shell from his neck and threw it on the ground. “When I ask for treasure I am told to follow my heart! Where can my heart lead me?” Then Arif remembered the little stone house by the great ocean. He thought of his father and all of the people he loved. He thought of blue sky and green fields. Arif began walking.

When he arrived he saw his father watching the dolphins playing in the waves.

“Father, I’ve returned.”

“Have you come home a rich man, Arif?” asked the old man.

“Very rich for I carry my treasure here,” he said tapping his heart. “The riches of heart can never be stolen, the songs of the heart are never forgotten, the power of the heart is eternal.”

“Then you have indeed found your treasure,” said his father and embraced him.

All the rest of his days Arif was happy man. He was rich in friendship; he was famous for his tender heart; and he was powerful in helping others.

The End

SPRINGS SONGS

The tinkle of glass chimes announces the arrival

of a breeze that ruffles the curtain and enters my room,

drawing in its wake the scent of orange blossoms.

It is spring, my marriage has ended and

while two young sons lay sound asleep,

the morning song of a bird eases my desolation.

*

Sharp and heady, the scent of the grapefruit tree

floats through my window.

Cross country moves have been made,

lovers found and lost, jobs taken and discarded,

sons grown and gone; the nest empty.

While the mockingbird sings I look at the moon.

*

At the knife-edge of dawn I hear a half-forgotten sound.

“What is it?” I wonder. Then other times and other places

come to mind when just outside my window

the song bird sang and cascades of notes

fell like a spring shower. I sniff the air.

“Where are the flowers?”

*

This year spring has come several weeks early. The false pear trees are already in bloom, white cotton balls of blossoms coating each branch; pink trees peek out of backyards; and swards of bright orange wildflowers line the freeway. At the park a team of men rake new sawdust beneath the swings and monkey bars while the wild ducks splash in the creek.

The sun, too, is swinging in a higher arc, lighting up new corners of the patio. The cat sits in a sunbeam, prolonging her noontime toilette, then rolls on her back to expose her white untanned belly. The wind has grabbed the trees and bushes in its teeth and shaken them like a dog with a rag toy. It is Spring! Awake!

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come,

and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.

Song of Solomon 2:12

Picture: Pansies, M. Taylor 2008

DUST

“Remember thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.”

I was reading a book the other day that said we never really believe we ourselves will die, and after I thought about that statement for a while, I had to agree. I read the newspapers about thousands of people dying in wars. I see people I know die and I know intellectually that one day I will die too. But if I look deep down inside myself, I find it really hard to believe death will come to ME. There’s a little niggling part that says an exception will be made in my case, that I am immortal.

After all, life is all I know, all I have ever known. As far as I am concerned the world didn’t exist until I was born. I certainly don’t remember anything else. I have no recollection of heavenly clouds and angels; I have no recollection of other lives in other times; of being a bodiless soul looking over the earth for a compatible womb to inhabit.

In fact, my earliest memory is about age three when I woke up in the morning in my crib. I had to go potty and was yelling for my mother to come and get me so I wouldn’t wet my pants. Over the next few years the world blinked in and out of reality while I created it – somewhat like the Australian aborigines who sang the world into existence.

And all through my childhood I was the center of this world, all revolved around me, the good and the bad, all were designed for my instruction and amusement. As my memory grew and deepened the world became more solid and I became more immortal even as I watched the cycles of life and death turn all around me. If I die how can the world possibly go on without me? Will I ever cease to exist?

Just as I remember nothing before I was born, I foresee nothing that may happen if I die (you see, I am still unconvinced of the inevitability of mortality). If I die, will I take this memory of life with me or leave it behind like a suitcase forgotten in a bus station? If I have no recollection of what was before birth, how can I have any recollection of what I experience during this life time?

Thees are the questions posed to us on Ash Wednesday, the questions to ponder for the next six weeks of Lent. Is dust both our origination and destination? Or are we more than the leavings of matter, dust balls swept up from under the bed, cobwebs in high corners that are lifted off by old brooms, rag rugs that are whipped and shaken out the window?

Lent invites us to consider the conundrums of time and eternity, of body and soul, of regret and repentance, and the differences of birth and death and life. It invites us to question who we are and why we are here. It asks if there a great Forgetting to transcend. Are the big bang and the black hole two sides of the same door?

And now a little levity from the book I was reading about death:

The doctor told Mrs. Malone her husband had only one month to live but if she helped he might recover. “What can I do,” asked Mrs. Malone.  

The doctor said, “You have to cook delicious meals every night and let him watch all of his favorite programs on television. You must give him a massage at night and breakfast in bed every morning. You have to laugh at all of his jokes and agree with his opinions. Make sure he takes a nap every afternoon and never argue with him. Every Thursday night, invite his friends over for poker and make all his favorite snacks.”

When Mrs. Malone got home from the doctor’s office, her husband asked, “So, what did the doctor say?” “He says you got a month to live,” she answered.  

AN AGE-OLD CRISIS

We all hear about the mid-life crisis that hits in the 40’s when marriages break up and men buy red Corvettes and women get face lifts. The question usually is “What do I want to experience while I can still enjoy it?” The mid-life crisis is the making up for lost time, the grass is greener, the last fling, a grasping after what youth and energy missed the first time around.

There is another crisis that follows the 40’s. It can happen in the 60’s or perhaps in the 70’s. It is when we have to come to terms not with what we want to do but what is still possible to do. The later life crisis faces challenges and obstacles such as lack of health, lack of money, lack of companionship, lack of energy, lack of purpose. It is by far the more difficult of the two crises and is unavoidable.

When we’re young, if we think about getting older at all, we plan to have a nice little house, loving partner, comfortable amount of money, good health, time for hobbies or just doing nothing, opportunities to travel, helping our loved ones or doing community service, an interesting job that supports our value system, good friends, some local recognition, an outlet for our creativity. I could go on but you get my drift.

So if we are good little boys and girls we invest in IRAs, pension funds and other financial hedges against future needs. And if we are even better little boys and girls, we watch what we eat, exercise regularly and floss every day. But no matter what we plan, life gets in the way. It has a way of changing our priorities as we age. For aging is all about letting go. Letting go of jobs, money, children, health, friends, driver’s licenses, mobility, homes, pets, memories, partners.

I have been ‘coaching’ a woman I will call Virginia who is in her early 60’s. I act as a sounding board, a clarifier, a focuser in her confusion for she is having a later life crisis. For the last two years she has been fighting with the bank to keep her house out of foreclosure. She is finalizing her third divorce. She holds an MA degree but is now working at a low-paying, part time job. A family member is in long-term care. She is on a variety of medications for depression, sleep deprivation, anxiety, etc.

I am providing an anchor of sorts in the midst of her storm. I help her focus on ‘next steps’ as she is overwhelmed by the changes she is going through. When I ask her what she wants to do with the rest of her life she comes back to me with a long list of 15 or 20 goals that sounds like the ones she probably had when she was young. Some things on her list may still be possible of attainment but considering her age and circumstances are not likely.

I suggest that she focus on regaining her mental and emotional health and to simplify the circumstances of her life. She must decide if financial reward or job satisfaction is more important. If keeping a house with high maintenance is preferable to a small apartment with few responsibilities. If time for friends and hobbies is more important than recognition and fame.

There is no right or wrong answer but she does have a choice. And the longer she postpones choosing, preferring instead to believe she can have it all if she just wants it hard enough, the more stressful her life will be. She is in denial of her aging, and like many of us, is acting like the young child who has a tantrum in the toy store. I want it all and I want it now!

Right now she does not see that simplifying her life will bring her the peace she so desperately wants and needs. Instead of seeing what she does not have, she could be appreciating what she still possesses. Instead of regretting what was lost and will not be again, she could be grateful for the past and enjoying the beauty of the present.

It is not easy to get old and we are never quite prepared for what we will individually experience. Perhaps it will be poor health or loneliness or poverty or pain – or maybe none of the above. There is no guidebook to aging only the shared memories and experiences of those who went before us. Although fear of aging and its limitations may be quite real, equally true are the peace, joy, beauty and trust in Life that aging can offer.

Prayer of the Navaho

Beauty is before me,
And beauty is behind me.
Above and below me hovers the beautiful.
I am surrounded by it.
I am immersed in it.
In my youth I am aware of it,
And in old age I shall walk quietly
The beautiful trail.

 

CHAOS THEORY

(Encore Post)

I was watching a movie the other day and a commercial came on for one of the rental car companies. Their pitch was that all cars came equipped with a built-in GPS so that the driver, meaning you, could never get lost. They drew back to show a satellite orbiting the earth and the voice-over had Hal the Computer telling the confused and distraught driver to take a right on Front Street.

This commercial really struck a nerve with me – the nerve that says, you should never get lost. Who says so? Some of my favorite adventures are getting lost stories. Think Robinson Crusoe, Shangri-La, Alice in Wonderland! What I found so unsettling was the subliminal message, assumption, cultural cue that a person should never be in a situation in which he does not know exactly where he is, where he going and how to get to his destination. Very results driven, very destination oriented, very up-tight, very anal, very high pressure.

The message is that security can only be found in the ‘known,’ that the unknown, the unexpected, the new, is dangerous. In fact, the unknown is so dangerous that we’re going to put Big Brother in the sky to look down on you. We always know exactly where you are and where you are going. You will never get lost again. All of your journeys will be routed ones. Holy cow!

I think our culture has become so safety-oriented (from airport security to job security to social security) that we no longer see the value of chaos. Have you noticed that it is only when you realize you don’t know any answers that you find them; that it is only after you admit you don’t know where you are going that you find your way; that it is only when you acknowledge you are lonely that the other arrives? In other words, all wisdom is born of chaos. It is the great melting pot of life. It is the place where stars are born and the place we return to when we die.

And it’s also very interesting to observe reactions to being lost. For example, a companion and I took a trip last summer to the Pacific coast. There was an energy vortex over the town of Gilroy which is famous for its garlic (perhaps it was the fumes). No matter which direction we took, Gilroy was always five miles ahead. My companion (male pilot) refused to listen to any of my (female navigator) suggestions. It mattered not that I had the map as well as the leisure to contemplate it.

Instead, he took a reading from the Compass Gland that is found at the base of the spine only in the males of any species. The pointer set a direction from which we dared not deviate. We were off! My responsibility during this “Finding Our Way” phase of the trip consisted of reading the map and calling out “Go right! Turn left!” while freeway signs flew overhead. His job was to pretend deafness, wave his arms and careen down exit ramps at the last possible moment only to head up another ramp going in the opposite direction.

Needless to say, this was memorable trip for both of us and very revealing of our individual temperaments. We did make it to the ocean and after a couple of stiff drinks resumed conversing in a less hostile tone of voice. Strangely enough, we both felt responsible for finding our way out of Chaos and therefore had the smug satisfaction of being right while mentally giving a sniff and a toss of the head at the other’s ineptitude (except that I knew he was really lost).

The chaotic journey is packed with energy perhaps undirected but full of life and attitude. In contrast, the mapped journey is straight and narrow without interesting side trips. You may get there faster but not wiser nor happier. Getting lost is an opportunity to discover where you are – and perhaps who you are.

EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT LOVE I LEARNED FROM MY DOG(S)

Champ, Beau, Cassie, Miss Emmie, Kelly

Just the other day I read a post on Face Book by a pretty young woman who said, “I miss having a Valentine. I don’t like being alone.” And then there is the example of Charlie Brown and the little red-headed girl – always just out of reach.

Valentine’s Day is second only to Christmas in its potential for depression. Everybody is looking for the Other, that missing half of themselves that will complete them and usher in a Golden Age of happiness and contentment. Or, so they say.

I must admit my forays into valentinehood have not been all that successful. I was married once for about six years and followed that with a few select relationships afterwards. But these relationships never lasted. I was a clumsy student in the art of love.

In contrast the time I spent with each of my individual dogs was measured in lifetimes – from puppyhood to death. In the process I learned a lot about how to love and be loved. In fact, if I had had my dogs earlier in my life I would have been a better wife and mother. Here are a few of the lessons Champ, Beauregard, Cassie, Emmie and Kelly taught me.

Be loyal: this is the ‘for better or worse’ part. My dogs stuck by me when I was sick, broke, depressed or having a bad hair day. As long as we were together they were satisfied.

Be patient: no matter how badly they wanted to go for a walk, or chase the ball or get a treat, they knew how to wait until I was ready. They trusted me to take care of them.

Be yourself: dogs never pretend to be anything but what they are. No pretense, no games, no surprises.

Be grateful: just adopt a dog from the shelter and you have a friend for life. They appreciate what they have and show it.

Be open: dogs are ready for any adventure. Just open the car door or get out the leash and they’re with you no questions asked.

Be quiet: a dog knows how to listen when you’re feeling bad or need a hug. No words are necessary. They can absorb that sadness and give you back peace.

Be happy: dogs are naturally optimistic and happy. The depressed and neurotic ones have become that way because of their owners.

My canine companions taught me responsibility, compassion and loyalty. I’m still trying to live up to the examples they gave me. So this year my valentine is for them.