STICKS & STONES

I enjoy watching You Tube for its great archive of presentations by philosophers, teachers and musicians. It’s a tremendous resource to see and hear those artists and thinkers, especially those who have already died. I have noticed, however, a disturbing trend that has only gotten worse; that is the vituperative comments made by others to various clips.

These comments are filled with hatred, profanity, obscenity and a level of aggression that to me borders on the psychotic. Why watch a video of a person you hate or with whose views you disagree? Is it just to vent the spleen? To find an outlet for the deep well of hatred within? Do these people actually think their denouncement will have any effect on other visitors to the site other than astonishment at their bad behavior?

Although I have no way of knowing, and admit I am making an unsubstantiated assumption and generalization, I intuit that most of these scurrilous comments are made by youngish boys/men who feel threatened by anything or anyone that does not support their personal view of the world. The most vicious attacks that I have read seem to be directed to people in the areas of religion, politics and music.

Have we lost the ability to disagree with someone without consigning them to hell or wishing they were dead? As a society have we become so inured to expressions of violence that it is now the accepted response to a difference of opinion?  Has the brutality that is seen on TV and glamourized in video games become the new standard of behavior in social discourse?

Are courtesy, self-discipline, respect for others, moderation, consideration and kindness now seen as weaknesses rather than strengths of character. It used to be a compliment to be called a lady or a gentlemen but now those terms not only seem to be old-fashioned but demeaning, an occasion for smirking.

In any event, I find the depth and extent of these kinds of reactions very disturbing. The freedom of speech that we have under our Bill of Rights is made a mockery by this kind of behavior, and by abusing the right we run the risk of losing it.

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THE HOUSEMAID

Her name was Eleanor and our two families had lived next door to each other in a small western Pennsylvania town for as long as I could remember. She was perhaps 15 years older than me and this difference in ages meant that there was little we had in common but she was a cheerful person with a kind heart and I liked her.

In later years I would see a resemblance in her to Ingrid Bergman, with her slightly tilted eyes, proud nose with finely arched nostrils and high Slavic cheekbones but even as a child I could see that she had a wonderful figure with full breasts, trim hips and lovely legs for dancing.

The heady scent of her perfume was wonderful and the soft swish of her chiffon dresses seemed to me the epitome of sophistication. She had wonderful taste in clothes and always saved her money to buy her ‘good’ dresses at the better ladies stores in our town.

Because our houses were so close, it was not unusual for Eleanor to rush over before a Saturday night date or Sunday afternoon drive in the country for some last minute help in dressing – a back zipper that was hard to reach, a bracelet clasp that wouldn’t close, a birthday card that needed signing – for Eleanor could not read or write and often requested my assistance. She was what we then called a little ‘slow.’ She had never finished school; in fact, I don’t think she went beyond the sixth grade.

At age 14 Eleanor had followed in her mother’s footsteps as a daily housemaid for some of the wealthier families in town. During the week she would scrub floors, wash windows, dust, sweep, iron and do a myriad of other tasks for $5 a day. Over the years Eleanor often became part of the extended family of ‘her ladies.’ She learned whose husbands were straying, which ladies drank in the afternoon, what brides had ‘premature’ babies, and what women had to cover bruises with makeup.

One day, after I was an adult with children of my own, we were sharing a beer at the kitchen table and she talked about some of the families she had worked for over the years.  In a low voice she told me about a family I knew myself; in fact, the husband was a business owner and former town mayor.

After he retired, he began to get funny, as she put it. She had been mopping the kitchen floor when he came in, pulled down his pants and began to masturbate in front of her. “I told him, ‘Don’t do that! Please, don’t do that!’” she said, starting to cry. “But he didn’t stop and after it was all over, I had to clean it up.” Even I, at 32, found the story shocking and infinitely sad that this happened to this good-hearted, simple girl – for she always seemed a girl to me and not a woman.

Eleanor was very much under the domination of her parents, particularly the forbidding father whose silence and cold demeanor also frightened me – although from a distance. Eleanor’s older sister, Pauline, had been the smart one and favored child. Pauline married a local carpenter, had five children and after his early death worked in the school cafeteria.

Since Pauline had provided grandchildren, Eleanor was told her duty was to stay home and care for her aging parents as long as they lived. Who would want to marry her anyway? But Eleanor longed for love and over the years had been courted by a few men who, for one reason or another, could not marry her, at least not right now.

I best remember a man named Paul who lived in a city 15 miles away. Every Sunday, without fail, he would pull up in front of the gray clapboard house, two cartons of Kent cigarettes and a six pack of beer in brown paper bag and ring the front door bell. This was the time she had waited for all week long. In her pretty dress, high heels and perfume, she and Paul would drive to one of the many private social clubs in the area.

Because Pennsylvania had ‘blue laws’ prohibiting the sale of liquor on Sunday they would visit the Russian Club, the Italian Home, the Slovenian Society, the VFW or in the summer drive to Shady Grove, an outdoor polka dance pavilion in the country. Even though Paul did not dance, he would sit there and watch as various men twirled Eleanor around the floor.

Eleanor and Paul saw each other for many years. Paul had to care for his aged mother and could not marry while she was still alive, Eleanor explained. When the mother finally died it was the sister and her family who needed his help and attention. But Paul had promised Eleanor that he had remembered her in his will. Later, after I had moved away from my small town, Eleanor would learn that Paul died one night of a heart attack. There was no mention of her in his will; in fact, other than the friends they both knew, no one in Paul’s family knew she existed.

In later years, after her mother’s death, Eleanor cared for her father as she was supposed to do. Eventually, she ended up having to bathe him and change his diapers. When he finally died, the older sister arranged for the family house to be sold and Eleanor moved to a senior apartment complex in a nearby town.

It has been more than fifteen years since I have seen Eleanor but the other day when it was so hot and I was sitting on the patio drinking a beer she came to mind. When I did a Google search I learned that the dominating older sister had died of a heart attack two years ago and Eleanor was still alive, living alone in her little apartment. I wish I could see her again. I wish we could sit around my mother’s kitchen table with a tall glass of cold beer and she would tell me all the good gossip about the people in our little western Pennsylvania town.

SOLSTICE 2012

Yesterday, June 20, marked the summer solstice for this year. It is high noon, the time when the day is longest and the sun is at its most northern point. And now that I say that I wonder if it is true for the whole world or just the northern hemisphere. After all, this is winter time down under. Is it therefore the shortest day in Australia and Argentina? Does, perhaps the longest day for the Aussies come in the winter?

Although there will be many days this summer that are hotter, there will not be any days that are longer (for us). Already the astronomical scales are tipping towards winter. Darkness is once again gaining ascendancy.

This is the classic image of yin and yang – within light there is darkness, and within darkness is light. Life is constantly swinging from one declension to its opposite. The key to the ride is maintaining balance and poise which means not to identify or favor one condition over the other.

There are times in our lives when we get on a roll and everything seems to turn out wonderfully. We have a decent job, a partner and family, enough money and good health. We hope the ride will last indefinitely, but it never does. By the same token, there are times when nothing seems to go right, when everything we try seems to fail and we hope the ride will soon be over, and it is eventually.

It is the same process in operation – change – but in one case we label it good and want it to continue, and in the other case we label it bad and want it to end. Both reactions are inappropriate because we are identifying our happiness, or unhappiness, with external conditions and thereby chaining ourselves to circumstance. We are focusing on the content rather than the context.

Frequently, we do not have the broad perspective on our lives and label certain incidents or circumstances as bad, little realizing that these challenges, if accepted without resentment, offer us great opportunities for growth and maturity. As Ramana Marhashi said, You thank God for the good things that come to you, but you don’t thank Him for the things that seem to be bad; that is where you go wrong.

The celestial events such as the solstices and equinox, mark an opportunity to reflect on the pendulum of life and its changes. It is not our role to determine the trajectory, speed or direction of change but to be fully present, centered and aware so that we can be in perfect balance with the unfolding of the moment.

FIRE

Young star: NASA

One summer many years ago I went camping and for two months slept in a tent, peed in the woods and cooked over an open fire. There was no refrigerator, no bathroom, no running water. It was a memorable experience. When you have to build a fire before you can eat, cooking itself becomes a very meaningful process.

You have to have enough dry wood, both small pieces for kindling, and medium and large pieces to keep the fire going. You have to structure your firewood appropriately so that the spark can catch and the air can circulate easily. Once the fire is lit, it needs to be watched, fanned, poked and stirred, and new fuel added when needed. When the fuel has turned to coals, you are ready to cook.

As you can imagine, there were many false starts at the beginning. I had to learn about green wood and wet wood, soft wood and hard wood, the best shape to stack the kindling, how to fan the fire and how to be frugal with matches and lighters. At first, starting a fire was challenge, a labor, a problem to be solved.

But one day I had a small epiphany and the thought came into my head – the nature of fire is to burn. I thought about fire and what was needed. I had to have the appropriate fuel (dry enough and dense enough), I had to have the right amount of air (not too much or too little) and I had to have the initial spark.

If all three of these ingredients were present, fire was not only possible but inevitable. Why? Because the nature of fire is to burn. When the proper conditions are met, fire would be. The simple sentence had lifelong ramifications. If I could understand the ‘nature’ of something, I could understand its propensities and trajectory. I would have control of a sort over it.

Fire is a living thing that seeks self-expression. It is found in the bowels of the earth and the nucleus of the sun. It is primal spirit and is part of everything – from the tiniest atom to the greatest star, from an amoeba to a man. The same life spark that is in a distant star is in the cells of your heart.

Fire also has a unique and awful power – the power to transmute. It takes matter, breaks the atomic bonds that bind it together, and releases the light and heat that has been held within, perhaps for millennia.

It is no wonder that all of the primitive and ancient religions and philosophies have held fire as one of the four primal elements, and often times an expression of the Divine itself. Fire is to the spirit, as air is to the intellect, earth is to the physical and water is to the emotions. These elements are the Platonic counterparts of manifestation.

My insight into the nature of fire, prompted me to other analogies and questions. For example, the nature of fish is to swim, of birds to fly, of cats to hunt. I will not belabor the point because the comparison can be superficial, but it did lead me to ponder, if the nature of fire is to burn, what is the nature of man. What does man do that is uniquely his own.

I believe that the nature of man is ‘to reflect,’ a word whose original meaning is to bend back. I do not want to describe that reflection as ‘thinking’ for I see repetition, shallowness, self-centeredness and limitation in what is commonly referred to by those mental processes. But I do believe there is a higher level of thinking in which man ‘bends back’ his experience of life and creates the capacity for wonder, awe, appreciation, insight, creativity and wisdom. It is that which makes man unique.

I often hear people asking ‘what is my purpose in life?’ as if there was a unique job description that only they could fill; a purpose that would give meaning and definition to their lives. I don’t think the answer is that specific. I believe the purpose of life is to be, to exist, to enjoy, to experience.

All of life is an expression of Energy/God/All That Is and there is nothing that Life/God needs. By definition, God needs nothing, not even worshippers. There is nothing absent or lacking that we, as individuals, need to fulfill or complete to make Life more whole. We are here for reasons of joy, not to labor or do penance or learn. This is not meant to be a school but a playground.

Fire needs fuel, air and a spark to burn. What are the conditions that man’s nature needs? An openness to love, a capacity for gratitude and the humility to surrender to Life. Mankind’s capacity for reflection provides the material universe with a higher consciousness. Through reflection we can not only connect with each other but with all of creation.

We do not need to look for the missing link of evolution; we are the missing link. Perhaps we are angels in training. One day we may all join hands and walk together out of this reality into another. That may be the day some call the Ascension, a time when all of creation will rejoice as one and give birth to a truly cosmic body.

THE FATHER

Sandy & Mae, late 1940’s

“Catch me if I fall,” the child trills from the limb of the cherry tree.

“I’m right here,” replies the father. “I’ll catch you.”

“Catch me if I fall” – that universal prayer to the father who will be always be there under the tree we are climbing, in the car we are driving, in the race we are swimming.  And while we thrill to the excitement of independence and self-determination, we are, at the same time, afraid we may go too high, too far, too fast.  Catch me! It is this request that lies inherent in all of our prayers as we ask the father to be there as we climb the cherry trees of our relationships, our careers, our ambitions. We ask him to be our safety net, for with this security beneath us we can dare to be brave.

He was nine years old and part of the Italian immigration that arrived in America at the turn of the 20th century.  He and his older brother, Dominic, and his younger brother, Louie, arrived with their parents in 1912 and went directly from Ellis Island in New York to a small western Pennsylvania town where other friends and relatives had settled.  The family rented an apartment above a bar in the lower end of town where all of the other Italian families lived.

Of the three brothers, Dominic, the oldest, was the most ambitious.  He would eventually end up with the largest house in the better section of the town and outlive his two brothers.  Louie, the youngest, had striking Italian good looks, and was the most out-going and charming of the trio.  He had a quick wit, a ready laugh and a kind heart. He drank more than he should have, lost money playing cards and never amounted to much but everybody liked him.

The second son was named Sante, nicknamed Sandy, and he had neither Louie’s good looks and bon vivant indifference to fate nor his older brother’s canniness and drive.  He was the middle of the three brothers and this middle position seemed to color his appearance too, for everything about him was medium – his height, his weight, the color of his brown hair and eyes.  Only the space between his two front teeth was unusual and in later years, these teeth would be lost one by one and it would be the jack-o-lantern smile that would be remembered.

He had little patience and a short temper that would be dramatically lost upon occasion accompanied by much door-slamming, Italian swearing and arm waving.  He smoked long, skinny black Italian stogies and on the Sunday afternoon drives he took with his family in the car the air would be thick with acrid smoke.

Leaving school after the third grade, he completed his education at the local steel mill and foundry which was named Shenango, an Indian name for the river that ran through the long valley.  His lack of a diploma seemed not to interfere with his life for his ambitions were not high.  He could do enough math to watch his money and could read well enough to follow the sports in the newspaper every day.

Sports were his great love.  His favorite game was baseball and his team was the New York Yankees.  But they were far away in New York and he in Pennsylvania so he concentrated his energy on the local high school teams and would follow them to out-of-town games.  One year, when the local high school won the state championship in their class, he took the whole team out to a local restaurant for a celebration dinner.

Along with team sports, he loved to hunt and fish and every year he was part of the fall exodus to the mountains where he would try his skill at rabbit and deer hunting.  He kept a few hunting dogs over the years but did not seem to have any affection for them, treating them with a careless indifference that edged on cruelty.

More than anything,  Sante wanted a son.  But he was infertile and believed he was less of a man for it. Because he yearned to have a boy to share his love of sports, he became a big brother to some of the youngsters who were kept at George Junior Republic, a county institution that cared for boys who were delinquent, orphaned or from broken homes.  And over the years, these big, gangly boys from across the state would be taken to games, taken hunting and fishing and when they were old enough introduced to the fellows at the neighborhood bars.

In 1945, after nearly  twenty years of marriage, a mutual relative told Sandy and his wife about a man who helped people just like themselves – who were too old or too poor or too ethnic –  to arrange private adoptions for a consideration.  There were a lot of young girls with soldier boyfriends in the 1940’s and a lot of babies without homes.  Sandy would have preferred a boy but that summer only girls were available.

Shortly after the baby was adopted, the first signs of Sandy’s future health problems started to manifest.  He had to quit working at the steel mill and took a job as a bartender in the neighborhood bar he had once lived above.  On the weekend, live hillbilly bands would play in the dining room and everyone would drink too much and dance.  Later he would work at the Italian Home, a social club with a bar, restaurant and meeting hall.

But even this work proved to be too much, and in 1953, he and his wife decided to build a small dairy store on the extra lot they owned beside their house.  It was open from 7 in the morning to 11 at night, and often later on the weekends when traffic from the local football or basketball games kept everyone hungry and excited.  A combination dairy store and luncheonette, the store sold a little bit of everything and could provide anything from coffee and donuts to full dinners.

By 1955, Sandy was diagnosed with diabetes and the next year he had an operation for kidney stones.  In 1957 he caught double bronchitis from winter cold but by the time his illness was properly diagnosed, his heart had enlarged and his ability to work was even more restricted.  Then one a Friday night in 1960, after attending a local football game, he died of a heart attack on the way home.

They came from Detroit and Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, from Youngstown and the Valley, singly and in pairs, the relatives and friends he had made over the years came to say good-bye, for he was a well-liked man.  The baskets of flowers accumulated around the casket, fifty-three in all, just four short of each year of his life. On a cold, rainy day in late October he was buried and his obituary was published in the sports column of the local newspaper.

My father died when I was 15 –  before I ever had a date, before I graduated from high school, before I finished college, before I married, before I had the two sons he had been waiting for all of his life.

When I think of him, I remember being three years old and laying on his chest as he sat in the easy chair while he sang “Daddy’s Little Girl” to me.  I remember walking with him to the news stand every pay day where he would buy me my favorite comic books.  I remember the pair of ice skates with black and white pompoms he gave me when I was 11. I remember working in the store the evening he furiously warned off a local boy who was talking to me.  I remember him coming home drunk one night and bragging to the friends who brought him that he had enough insurance to send me to college when he was dead.

Although he respected the feminine, it was the masculine he loved and I longed to be the son he wanted. He never took me fishing or to a baseball game; we never had a beer with the boys down the club or stood around at family gatherings out in the yard discussing politics.

Now, when I climb too high or too far or too fast, there is no father beneath to catch me, there is no one to protect me from myself. But the lessons he taught me have served me well in my life’s battleground.  I learned how to fight and how to stand alone; how to be strong rather than vulnerable; how to lead and not to follow; that intelligence endures longer than beauty; to watch what a man does, not listen to what he says; and to always sit with my back to the wall and my eye on the door.

Sometimes I think of this man who held me in his lap while my head lay on his chest listening to his heart beat and if I am very quiet I can hear him singing to me again. Thank you, papa, for everything.  I wish you could have known my boys, I wish I could kiss you again. And to all the fathers everywhere, I hope we made you proud of us.

“You’re the end of the rainbow, my pot o’ gold

You’re Daddy’s little girl, to have and hold

A precious gem is what you are

You’re Mommy’s bright and shining star

You’re the spirit of Christmas, my star on the tree

You’re the Easter bunny to Mommy and me.

You’re sugar, you’re spice, you’re everything nice

And you’re Daddy’s little girl.”

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-_6_3sOnxw

(Sung by the Mills Brothers, late 40’s)

IF ONLY

“If only I had a little cottage with a yard,” she said with a childlike whine in her voice. “That’s all I want. Then I’d be happy.”

It was a hot afternoon and the first day I had been able to sit upright on the couch without a lot of back pain. Gina, my neighbor, had dropped off a few groceries she had kindly gotten for me. Her round face was slightly puffy from the humidity and the blue glass tiara she was wearing in her waist-length blond wig was slightly off center. Long dangling earrings and a necklace and bracelet combination with large multi-color butterflies completed her ensemble. With her substantial bosom and high heels she looks like a 65-year old Barbie doll.

As she bustled around my kitchen putting away the few purchases she again began her litany. How the only thing that really gave her pleasure in life, other than her parrot, was her plants. All she wanted was a little cottage with some room for a garden. Was that too much to ask?

Since circumstances had forced her move to the apartment complex last fall, all of her beautiful succulents were stacked in pots on her patio or boarded out among friends scattered across the city. The apartment manager had already warned her several times to remove the dozens of pots from her entry way as they were a hazard to the fire department.

Ginahas been on tranquilizers since she was in her twenties. She has a social worker who goes with her to various appointments as her level of anxiety is so high it is sometimes difficult for her to drive. She is a kind-hearted person and I have never heard her gossip or talk about the other residents. She is street-smart, rather than educated, and is proud of her 40+-year career as a waitress. But she can no longer work and the money that came so easily before is now hard to come by.

I’ve talked to Gina many times over the last few months and each conversation eventually centers on the same theme – if only I had a little cottage with a yard, I could be happy. It is the same conversation we all have with ourselves. If only … I had a partner, a better job, was better looking, had more money, had a house, better health, a stronger body, had a child, had a car, had some recognition, had a spiritual breakthrough. We each finish the sentence in our own way but we all say it.

We take the unhappiness or dissatisfaction with our lives and give it a specific focus. If only this one desire could be fulfilled, we could be happy. But that fulfillment is always held like a carrot on a stick, somewhere in the future, at some golden time when our hearts will finally be at ease, when the gnawing hunger will finally be satisfied, when our minds will finally be quiet.

For Gina, that hunger is to have a garden again. It is unlikely that desire will be fulfilled for cottages with gardens are now out of reach for someone on social security living in a city. She has been told about the need to accept things as they are, to make allowances, to make compromises, to surrender to the facts of life. But she is not willing to go gently.

Like a child who cannot understand why she is being denied the treat, she cries and worries and prays and begs the faceless energy called Life for a reprieve, to be the loving mother and father who are now gone.

In the same way she cannot put aside the long blond wig or the childish tiaras or the Daisy Mae blouses, Gina is unwilling to be carried along effortlessly in life’s current. Instead of a peaceful acceptance of the way it is, she is fighting for the way things ought to be, and it is a losing battle for her and for all of us.

Meanwhile, I change the subject and ask her what she will make for dinner tonight and what clever thing Zorba her parrot has said today. We tentatively plan to go to the farmer’s market when I can get around again and she relates how the things she was given at the food bank were mostly spoiled. When she leaves I give a hug to her small, sturdy body and some of the long blond hairs rub against my cheek like little plastic wires.

POST HASTE

I’ve been sadly remiss in posting of late. I have many excuses. My back went out again and I was flat for a week; I was busy preparing art for a show; I had nothing to say, or more correctly, I was unsure of the value of what I had to say; I was crabby; I got a new computer and had to break it in. Take your pick. All of these are true and not-true.

Once discipline is broken it is hard to get back on the wagon, to mix a metaphor. Writing creates more writing. Not writing creates more not-writing. Yesterday I wrote a small post for the art site (www.marietaylorart.wordpress.com) and that greased a few of my writing joints, hence this pecking away today. Just to bring you up to speed, here’s what’s been happening.

In the last couple of weeks, summer has been trying to pry open the door, sending in a few scorchers to wake us up and a few cloudy days with rain to remind us what is being left behind. A few of the morning birds start about 4 a.m., later followed at sunrise by whole choirs of chirpers and warblers.

The little Mexican man with the umbrella chair and table who sold oranges and strawberries on the corner this spring is now selling cherries and watermelons. For a brief period there was a second, younger, small man on the diagonal corner hawking cherries but without advertising the price. The unremitting squinty-eyed stare of the veteran plus the suspicions of the local customer base finally forced him out.

The neighborhood dog walkers have grown in number but the schedule has been changed to early morning and dusk to accommodate the heat. Sweetie Pie, the cat, is shedding her winter fur and coughing up hairballs like nobody’s business. She carefully deposits these in hard to reach places like behind the couch or under the table.

Two friends of mine I don’t see very often came to visit last week. We used to live at the same apartment complex. One lady is my age, the other just turned 100. Yes, you read that right. Maggie had her 100th birthday in April. She still has her teeth and hair and her mind is as bright as her eyes.

When I first became ill a few years ago, Maggie would come to my apartment twice a day and take my dog for a walk. She is still going strong and, needless to say, still walks a whole lot better than me. When I asked her how she felt, she said fine although her medications sometimes bring on diarrhea. “I never thought I’d live this long,” she added, reminding me that my Aunt Lucy at 97 recently said the same thing.

How long do any of us think we will live? We hope our money won’t run out first. We hope that we will be healthy enough to work if we need to. We hope that the end, when it comes, will be quick but nobody knows how many sands are in their personal hour glasses. Years ago when I was 30-something, I went to a psychic who told me I would live to 72 – which at 30 seems like a fair amount. Now I am just five years short off that doorway and some nights wonder how accurate her prediction will be.

The other day I was talking to my old friend Frank on the phone and he brought up the name, Richard Brautigan, to which I immediately replied, “Trout Fishing in America.” Now I hadn’t thought about that poet in at least 40 years but the title of his book came instantly to mind – and I never even read it. On the other hand, I’m not sure what I did last Saturday.

Time, time, time. Was it Heraclitus who said you can’t step in the same river twice? It is not the river that changes but ourselves. Therefore, I have been turning over new leaves by looking up recipes for fruit salads and thinking about exercising.