FIRST CRUSH

His name is Lance but everyone calls him Lanny. In my mind he is Lancelot the shining knight because when I am nine years old he climbs the old cherry tree in the back yard of my house and delivers into my arms my cat Winky who had been crying for an hour on one of the top most branches.

“Leave that cat alone. He’ll come down when he’s ready,” my mother had answered when I asked her to call the fire department. She is working behind the counter of our family store – a corner luncheonette/dairy – and I am weeping in concert with the cat in the tree just outside the back door.

Lanny, who lives in the next street over, comes in the store and after learning of my dilemma offers to rescue Winky which he does with an alacrity I admire. He delivers the squirming cat, buys a cherry Popsicle and saunters back home. In that moment I am smitten and remain so for several years for Lanny is my first crush.

Lanny was a well-like boy but not a notable student or even exceptional athlete.  One year older than me, he was everything that I admired – extroverted, cheerful, confident and so much a rascal he should have been Irish. I remember seeing him one late summer afternoon wearing his white Little League uniform talking with his friend Tom. My heart began to race, my cheeks burned bright red and I felt dizzy. How I yearned for him.

His fatal charm for me was his flirtatious manner which he got from his father who always wore a twinkle in his eye and was a favorite with the neighborhood ladies to the consternation of his dour and unsmiling wife. Lanny would flirt with me as he did all the girls and I would try to keep up a casual repartee but his sophistication was far beyond my own. He was my Tom Sawyer but I was not his Becky.

When I was in the 9th grade my ardor could no longer be restrained and when the Sadie Hawkins Dance came around, which is a girl-asks-boy affair, I was determined to invite humiliation and ask him. I did not really believe that he would accept; after all, I was an introverted intellectual who wore blue winged glasses and plaid pleated skirts and he was perfect.

Nevertheless, one night about a week before the dance, I screwed up my courage and dialed his phone number. As luck would have it, his mother answered and when I asked for him, she wanted to know who was calling. I stammered my reply and then heard my name shouted down the hallway of his house.

A moment later when he said hello, I mumbled out my invitation. He was kind and I could hear a smile in his voice as he told me he had already said yes to another girl. A combination of disappointment and relief spread through me as I hung up.

I was proud of myself for overcoming the fear of rejection long enough to be rejected. I had thrown my hat into the dating ring and even though it had sunk and it would be another two years before my first real date, and that with another neighborhood boy, I had openly declared my eligibility to court.

From that day forward things were never the same. I knew that Lanny knew that I had a crush on him and so did his friends. When he came in the store and played “Sea of Love” on the juke box his brown eyes had the extra twinkle of conquest but he was never unkind in his teasing of me and over time helped me to learn how to talk and flirt with boys.

He graduated a year before me and got a job at one of the local factories. After high school I started college immediately and rarely saw him. He married young to a dark haired beauty from a neighboring town and it was only several years later when we were both in our mid-twenties that I ran into him again at a local store.

“Do you still have a crush on me,” he asked, his flirtatious manner still provocative and disarming. “I’ve grown out of that,” I replied with my college-educated sophistication – but I really had not. He would always be the hero who rescued my cat and whose presence first awoke my princess heart.

It was many years later in a long-distance weekend conversation with my family back home that I was dismayed to learn that Lanny had died of a heart attack at age 49 – too young.

These first loves we have are never forgotten. They become the blueprint, for better or worse, of the lovers who succeed them. As we marry and raise our families they quietly rest at the bottom of our memories; they later visit our middle-aged dreams. Finally, these first loves come to life again in our old age when we remember the days of our youth, when life was still an adventure pregnant with possibilities.

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PASSING THE TORCH

I graduated from high school in 1963. I was in a big hurry to grow up and get out in the world and so I blasted through four years of college in three. I was walking down the hall after Freshman  English the day that Kennedy was assassinated. The act was incomprehensible and unbelievable. This was America, not some third world dictatorship. How could it happen here?

It was the first of the three murders (Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King being the other two) that effectively accomplished a governmental coup de tat and changed the political landscape in America forever. I remember watching Johnson being sworn in as the next president and wondering if he had been involved. Although born and raised a Democrat there was something about Johnson I distrusted.

My college was an urban commuter institution – state supported and catering to the lower middle class city kids who typically were working their way through school to become teachers and accountants and social workers and to make their working class families proud.

By the time I was fulfilling my last credits for graduation in 1966, the boys were going to Canada to avoid Vietnam. Birth control and panty hose were paving the way to the sexual revolution that would later peak in 1967 in the Summer of Love.

One of the ‘star’ actresses of our college theater crowd had announced she had joined something called the Peace Corp and would be going to an island in Micronesia. Others of the avant garde were smoking grass and wearing their hair long to the consternation and ridicule of others.

Frank Sinatra and Elvis were out and The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones were in. Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki were talking about oriental mysticism; meditation, yoga, health foods and the human potential movement became topics of discussion.  Timothy Leary was urging everyone to tune in, turn on and drop out.

From the mid-1960’s to the mid-1970’s, the conventionality and satisfaction of the 50’s were replaced by political activism, public protests, communes and the militant underground. Joan Baez, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, R.D. Laing, Rachel Carson, the American Indian Movement, Mother Teresa, Germaine Greer, the National Organization of Women and dozens of other groups and individuals stepped forward to become spokespersons for the forgotten, the overlooked or the left behind.

The counterculture collapsed around 1973. Many of its political goals – civil rights, civil liberties, gender equality, environmentalism and the end of the Vietnam War – had gained a foothold in the American consciousness. In addition, the Boomer generation settled into the mainstream to raise families. Idealism was replaced by consumerism.

Why these memories of forty or fifty years? Yesterday I attended the opening of The Intercommunal Institute for Research and Social Change in Vallejo, California, a project of the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation and guided by former members of the Black Panther Party who are promoting the establishment of service-based community projects.

In general, the attendees comprised two generations: the elders who had been active participants in the social revolution of the 60’s, and the new generation – the grandchildren. The torch is being passed from one generation to the other. And this is a time when the experience and wisdom of the elders is needed to provide some guidance for those coming behind who have the energy to implement a new vision for America.

There is a beat being heard in the lifeblood of our country that was last sounded in the sixties. If it is not heeded it may mark the end of our republic. The politicians and bankers and CEO’s are living in a world of their own that does not include unemployment, hunger, illness, ignorance, crime and despair.

We now have leaders we cannot believe and we cannot respect. The people are hungry for guidance, willing to work for a greater good if only a vision can be shown that is worthy of sacrifice. The people are tired of arguments and positions and lies, and eager for hope and determination and compassion.

What will the America of the 21st century look like for our children’s children? What will be left of our Bill of Rights and Constitution? Who will take up the staff of responsibility and mentor the leaders of tomorrow? If not you, who?

THE NIGHT LIGHT

“Turn up the lights. I don’t want to go home in the dark.”

Last words of O. Henry

Her name was Mary but as a small child I could not pronounce it and so I called her Mimi. She and her family were part of the Croatian diaspora of the early 20th century. She was second generation and spoke English fluently but she never learned to read or write. She certainly never drove a car – that skill was carefully guarded by her tall, silent husband whom I always circled warily.

She was of middle height with thin mousy brown hair that only looked good on Saturday when she had a standing appointment at the local beauty shop for her regular wash and set.  She had a plain oval face, large ears and a distinctive nose. As a young woman, her body must have been delicious for even in middle age, which are my earliest memories of her, she had fine, heavy breasts and slim hips.

Mimi cleaned houses for a living but her own home was very plain and drab, like a floor that had been washed with Spic and Span so many times that all of the shine was gone and only gray linoleum remained. There were very few decorations or knick knacks in the house except for one I remember well. It was a little figurine of an old peasant with a kerchief, or babushka, on her head and broom in her hands.  Mimi told me she was a “stada baba,” a name meaning “old grandmother.”  She would say to me, “One day when I’m an old stada baba with a babushka will you come see me at the Poor House?” I would say yes and she would laugh and hug me.

In those days the County Poor House was the terrifying specter and the only option for those who were poor or without children to care for them in their old age.  Social Security was still a new-fangled idea and many people like Mimi who worked on a cash basis never even had a number, a regular paycheck and certainly no medical insurance – like many people today.

There were three local radio stations in our valley in those days and every Sunday afternoon one of them would play the music of the ethnic tribes of Europe. There was the Italian Hour, the Polish Hour, the Serbian Hour, the Irish Hour, the German Hour and so on. When the Serbian Hour came on at 1 o’clock I would go over to Mimi’s house and she and I would dance to the wild gypsy music of the chardash.  We would twirl and spin around until we were both out of breath and dizzy. Then she’d laugh and say “Let’s have a little nip.” She would pour me a bit of beer in a small jelly glass and say “Now, don’t tell your mother.”

By her forties, the years of scrubbing floors on her knees, of hanging out of second story windows to wash them, of soaking her hands in water that was too hot and full of chemical cleaners, eventually exacted a price on her strong peasant body.  Her joints became swollen with rheumatoid arthritis and her thin arms and legs were often dark with bruises from falling. There was always the look of pain behind her eyes.

Sometimes at night I would be watching television and hear the back door open.  Mimi would hobble in and say “Don’t be mad at me for bothering you, Marie.  My legs hurt so bad and I just didn’t want to be alone anymore” (for her husband worked nights). Always she would apologize for interrupting me, for intruding her pain into my superficial teenage life. Often she would cry. We would watch a few programs together and then at nine o’clock she would go home.

Before I relate my final conversation with Mimi, I have to include another piece of information.  As a child I had always slept with a night light on for I was afraid of the dark; that was when I felt most alone. To be in the light meant to be happy and loved.

One night, many years later, when I was in my early 50’s, I woke up within a dream. I was in a cloudy kind of place and, although it had been more than 30 years since her death, I was talking to my dear neighbor. I heard my mind saying to her mind, “How happy you must be now, Mimi.  You don’t have any more pain.  You can do anything and it doesn’t hurt.  You can even smoke as many cigarettes as you want.”

This was really a projection on my part because Mimi never smoked. I was the 30-year, two-pack a day nicotine addict who was one year into abstinence.

I felt Mimi smiling as she replied. “You don’t understand. You only come here when you don’t want anything anymore,” and I instantly understood that she was perfectly right. Heaven is being without compulsions and desires.

As she was leaving me she turned back to add, “You know, Marie, up here the light never goes out.”

A jolt shot through me and I immediately woke up. I remembered that just the year before I had lain in Intensive Care, drifting in and out of consciousness, living in a half-land of darkness and shadows. I had been afraid then that the light might go out for good. Now this kind woman from my childhood had come back to tell me that there was nothing to fear, that a place of safety was waiting, a place where the light was eternal.

I never forgot Mimi’s last visit. I think maybe she is waiting for me. When I arrive the music will start to play and we will both be young and beautiful and we will dance chardash again.

SLEEPLESS IN SACRAMENTO

I have had a busy day and after reading for an hour or so to relax, turn out the light and go to bed about 10:30. I put on one of the inspirational tapes I often play to accompany me to slumber land, adjust the pillows just so, tilt the small fan to encourage the mild evening breeze and with a sigh settle in for a long snooze.

But it is not to be. Somewhere around midnight I nod off but then awake at 1:30 bleary eyed and sweaty. I take an aspirin for my aching knee, check the fridge thinking I might have a small beer to loosen the edges but see that my weekly quart is finished. I plump up the pillows again and pop in another CD.

I lay on my right side and then my left. I lay on my back and slip a pillow under my knees and sprawl. I review the projects I am working on and come up with a solution to a design problem. I make a mental note of the groceries to buy tomorrow and consider my plans for the upcoming week. I think of an old boyfriend, then wonder what my old family home now looks like. I think of my son and miss him.

By 3 a.m. I am worn out trying to go to sleep and finally get up. I do not fight this unexpected change of tempo but willingly explore it. I have learned that as you get older your circadian rhythms lose their regularity and can slip from three-quarter time into a samba or jitterbug without warning.

The hours between 3 and 5 are the deepest part of night – too late for night owls and too early for worm catchers. It is the no man’s land of sleep. Nothing stirs but the delta breeze. What happens at night when everyone else is sleeping? If I stay awake until 5 or 6 will I then sleep until 2 or 3 tomorrow afternoon? I don’t think I have ever slept past 10 a.m.

I make a strong cup of coffee, slather a croissant with some thick blackberry jam and go out to sit on the patio. Less than a moment later Sweetie Pie joins me, her golden eyes gleaming with a nocturnal hunter’s lust. The air is much cooler outside and when I look up I see only two stars twinkling. The city lights cast too strong a glow for starry skies. I remind myself that a trip to observe the desert sky at night is on my bucket list and I have already postponed it too long.

I hear a car engine growling and soon a security patrol car is slowly gliding past. A youngish man with a peaked hat sits in the front seat looking alert. What a job! He stops further down the parking lot and gets out to examine a car by flashlight, but seemingly satisfied, soon drives off.

I think of the neighborhood watch program now in effect at the apartment complex. We are located in a marginal area of town, already a little run down and shabby but still making an effort. One of the involved neighbors told me they are considering putting razor wire along the perimeter to discourage people from going over the wall. When I inquire whether this was directed towards our residents or our neighbors, my remark was greeted with suspicion and inspected for irony.

Yesterday morning I noticed a nicely dressed young man with a big black plastic bag walking down the driveway. The friendly hello I offered was met with squinty wariness and a quickened pace. A few moments later I saw the dumpster lid go up and a dark head bobbing among the fumes. Someone was stealing our garbage, I thought, my eyebrows shooting skyward. Was this a matter for the neighborhood watch? I considered the ramifications of being a stool pigeon and kept mum.

The coffee that I earlier drank to keep awake has now perversely made me sleepy but I will not yield lightly to that siren’s call. I have already been fooled by the drooping lid and casual yawn. The lawn sprinklers pop up and begin spraying at 5 a.m. In the distance I hear the high call of a lonesome rooster who is also sleepless in Sacramento.

CYBORG

We live in a media world. Everyone is a voyeur – by chance and by invitation. We have reality TV that is anything but real and evening news that reports the party line; we twitter and we digg; we post on Facebook and get LinkedIn; we are patted down at airport and scanned at traffic lights; our cell phones take pictures, answer questions and store information in clouds.

We can talk to anybody in the world while we brush our teeth, buy our groceries, drive our car or walk in the woods. In the checkout lane tabloids show us pictures of the glossy people and tell us how they are in/out/in rehab, in/out/in love, in/out/in fashion and tell us how we can be glossy too. Our children grow fat playing video games while our parents browse dating sites and dream of better days ahead.

We have Homeland Security, Airport Security, Social Security, security systems, and planned communities with high gates – for we must avoid risk at all costs. We chip our animals in case they get lost and then consider chipping our forgetful elders and careless children for reasons of safety. Just in case we forget where we are or where we’re going we put satellites in the sky and GPS in our cars and phones.

The computer has replaced the speaker, the book, the radio and the television as the tool of choice for communication. We sit at our desktops and laptops and i-pads and keep in touch, keep in tune, keep in step while our lattes cool and posts are read.

Just as the printing press revolutionized society, the computer is revolutionizing consciousness. It has given us the tools to reach out and link up. But we sit in silence, we sit apart, we sit in a world of our own making. We have video conferences and distance learning. We do not meet face to face except through Skype. We do not touch except in passing.

While we have never been more connected, we have never felt more alone. We are becoming a living network, each of us a minute brain cell in an electromagnetic grid embracing the living body of Earth. When we are all connected, will the cosmic neural network be complete? Will a bolt of light jump the synapse and open a portal to eternity?  As one will we at last be One? Will we finally be connected to ourselves?

GOING DOWN

Yesterday I received an email from a friend of some 15 years saying he didn’t feel good about life and was going to disappear for a while, which translated means he was depressed and didn’t want to talk about it.

We’ve all been there, it is not unusual. But it reminded me of a dear young relative who at 16 is on anti-depressants and unlikely to get off of them in the foreseeable future; and of numerous acquaintances who if asked will recite their story of woe; and of periods in my own life that I still find after many years too painful to recall with equanimity.

Depression is so sad. It is as if the heart is a bottomless well of tears that will never be empty no matter how much or often they are shed. The downward draw of depression is like a whirlpool escape from which is only achieved by a last minute, desperate will to live – for death is what lies at the bottom. If through an inner strength or through the merciful grace of God we choose to resist the automatic response of No! and replace it with a resolute Yes! we may be saved.

For depression is the result of the mind/ego/intellect’s refusal to accept the reality of the ‘now’. When I was depressed because of a failed love affair, a bad work situation, the betrayal of another, an illness, a humiliation, etc. it was because my mind would not accept the truth, the finality, of the situation. Instead it wore itself out in trying to change it to fit its own desires, battering on an iron door, until the body in turn fell into exhaustion and many times became sick.

Depression is, in many ways, the result of an internal temper tantrum in which we demand but are not given our way. Our love affair, for example, is ended and no amount of crying, pleading, demanding, coaxing, bargaining will bring it back – so we become depressed. We may even punish ourselves for being unable to change the situation and so indulge ourselves in blame, regrets and self-pity.

But to no avail. The lover is gone. We may try sublimation and buy new clothes, a new car, go on a diet to attract a new lover, take a vacation, get a dog, work harder. If these tactics bring no real relief, we are left alone with a feeling of helplessness and despair. What to do to escape these constant negative thoughts?

Through the insights of various spiritual teachers I have found, and continue to remind myself, that my thoughts and I are not one. If they were one I could control them. I could stop thinking on command. But I can’t do that. The thoughts just keep coming. That shows they are ‘not me.’ From this ‘not me’ position of watcher of thoughts, I see them arise, pass by and fall.

If I can watch sad thoughts and realize that I am not my thoughts, this brings a little space into my heart and within this little space is peace. By analogy, I will say that thoughts are like little fishes swimming in the sea of mind and that by watching the fishes swim by I see that they are charged with emotional energies and that ‘I’ am beyond sadness or happiness, anger or despair.

From this place of observation, the reality of a situation can be seen without interpretations.  The loss of the job, the death in the family, the ending of a relationship, the loss of a possession are just seen for what they are and this seeing then frees the mind to allow life to happen. This does not mean that there will not be some grief – it means that there will not be suffering which is the result of trying to change what is and being unable to.

This understanding about the nature of thoughts and the realization that I and my thoughts are not the same thing/entity first arose several years ago when I broke my addiction to cigarettes. After 30+ years of smoking and mostly loving it, I stopped cold turkey because cigarettes no longer provided me the comfort/escape/pleasure they once had.

How I suffered in those early weeks. It was not the physical withdrawal which was accomplished in a few days, it was the mental/psychological withdrawal that took weeks – and to some extent continues today. I cried constantly. I felt there was no end to the sadness that was in me. All those years of smoking had helped to cover up this deep pain that now lay exposed and throbbing.

I had come up against the wall – perhaps it is the wall of aging – and had realized that no matter what I did, what I owned, what recognition I might receive, no matter who loved me or who did not, I would never be happy because something was wrong inside. It was the wall that can be called, “Is that all there is?” I knew that nothing ‘outside’ could make the inside happy.

My koan, my question became, “Is it possible to be joyful – regardless of the circumstances?” I phrased it in this way because I had realized that changing the circumstances with new things/people/places did not relieve the deep sadness. My smoking crisis took about six weeks and then leveled off.

My question of joy took many years to explore and I am still in its labyrinth but can say, without equivocation, that joy is not dependent on circumstances, that it can be ever-present, and that joy exists outside of the realm of thought and thinking. To be truly joyful is to be in no-thought.

Therefore, although I may experience some days in which I am more peaceful than others, I no longer experience the wrenching sadness and loneliness of earlier years. So to my friend who is depressed and wants to disappear, I say ‘You are not your thoughts.’ When you see this much of your sadness will go away. If the mind is dis-identified with negative thoughts, the world is seen as throbbing life and waiting to be acknowledged. In the wake of depression gratitude arises and with gratitude comes love.

THE BEETLE

We are in the midst of another week of 100+ heat. There will probably be another two or three before the season is finally spent. It makes for quiet mornings. Few birds chirp and those that do murmur soft and low from high hedges. For a few hours this morning the air will be smooth and cool but as the sun climbs once more into the sky its piercing white rays will blanket the earth and iron it flat and silent. The smell of burning tar will rise from the roads. People will retreat behind closed doors while air conditioners hum and TV’s roll out reruns of the Olympics.

This morning I open the door to collect the newspaper and see near the doorstep the same large black beetle that had been lying there yesterday afternoon frantically kicking its legs. Twice in passing I had turned it over so that he could get upright and make its way out of the 104 degree sun.  I am astonished that it is still here but this morning only two legs are pawing the air and those feebly.

While I was lying quietly in bed last night, the small fan drawing in some of the night’s coolness, had this beetle too been on its back, its legs pumping in a race it would never win? Had the moon’s lullaby closed its eyes at midnight as it did mine?

Even in this most simple and primitive creature I recognize the same drive for life that beats in me. My heart turns over and this time I get a stiff piece of paper, scoop it up and deposit it under some nearby bushes. Its hard black shell blends into the background of the mulch. It is temporary upright although unmoving. At least it can now die in the shade.

I am reminded that everything of form eventually dissolves back into the formless. Out of the porthole of my vision I see the trees and cars and flowers, the cat and computer and cup of coffee. I see my legs and hands and breast. These forms shall pass also. This knowledge adds a deep poignancy to the morning and I am reminded that I shall not pass this way again.

How shall I spend this moment that is so unique and irretrievable? The cat hops up on the small bench that is her lookout on the world. Her large round yellow eyes, alert but unfocused, admit everything and leave nothing out. Between her and the world she sees there are no barriers, all is equal and acceptable.

An electric chair silently speeds by, a tan Chihuahua its tiny nails tapping like high heels as it scampers alongside in an effort to slacken the pull of the leash. The old lady’s gray hair hangs in long strings around her thin face, jowls drape the stick neck, the beak of her nose juts forward like the prow of a ship and her flapping shirt outlines the wobbly cones of breasts. There is a sadness in her haste that cannot be shaken off and left behind.

For the fifth day in a row, I hear the cry of Canadian geese. As they fly overhead I count 17 in delta formation. Moments later 11 more cleave the sky. The turbines of a 747 on route to southern climes are echoed by the whine of air conditioners which intrude their voices, one by one, into the silence of the morning. Before I go inside, I glance into the bushes and see a black beetle waving one leg slowly in the air.