Errands

Driving a friend to the south end of town to look for an appropriate shower gift for someone else, I am in the rare circumstance of being in a traditional retail store. Once inside, we agree to go our separate ways and meet up a little later.

Wandering the aisles and enjoying all of the beautiful displays, I find myself standing in the middle of a large selection of handbags. I cannot help but pick up an exquisitely designed bag. The handbag is in medium brown with an alligator-skin pattern. The hardware is minimalistic and shiny gold. The supple material of this mid-sized purse yields easily to the touch and has a tender, “authentic” feel. Upon further inspection, I see that the bag is labelled vegan. Thus, the purse is probably made from a synthetic material derived from petrochemicals.

Spirituality
Spirituality

Because of my early exposure to a wide array of petrochemicals, experience has taught me to be careful about purchasing petroleum-based or plastic products. If any new products of this ilk are purchased, they spend weeks sunning on the edge of our back deck or in the garage to be outgassed before entering the house. My visual-aesthetic sense gets the best of my logical knowing, and I do not put the handbag down, opting instead to cross the large retail space to find my shopping companion for a second opinion.

The store is crowded, humming. Amid the background hum as I leave the section with handbags, I overhear a gentleman shopping with his wife remark, “Look at all of these purses. I had no idea there would be so many to choose from.” Style, color, size, material, brand. The array of choices in one department alone can be overwhelming.

Meeting midway between each of the departments where we had been browsing, my shopping companion and I compare the items we have found. Our conversation is not only practical, but philosophical as well. We ask questions about how we make choices as consumers—the internal and external drives behind what and why we buy.

Considering the vegan handbag in hand, I begin with an internal consideration, “There are my own issues of chemical sensitivity to consider.” Then, switching to an external consideration, I muse, “I have vegan friends who would be in full support of  my choosing this handbag over one made of traditional leather.  And, with the leather handbags here, there is no way for me to determine, without a lot of research, whether or not the makers have used a vegetable tanning process—not to mention issues of labor.”

Various concerns are raised as we talk about the advantages and disadvantages surrounding my potential purchase. From experience, I know a well-made leather handbag lasts me ten to twelve years. And, although this bag has the look and feel of leather, I also know that, from a materials perspective, it would last no more than two to three years, because plastics crack. Also, stark images of this vegan  bag ending up in the stomach of some cetacean are adding to my desire to take the bag back to its place of display.

“Why aren’t any designers making excellently crafted fabric bags with high-end hardware?” I wonder aloud.

“Why don’t you just get that bag and see how you feel tomorrow?  You can always return it,” my friend offers me a quick solution on our way to the checkout.

Continuing our conversation while in line, I voice some of my ongoing thoughts, “In addition to the issues of manufacture, I am thinking about end-point disposal. With a leather bag, assuming a rare cotton lining, I can actually denude a bag of its hardware, dig a pit in my garden and, over time, everything would return to the earth. With the leather bag scenario, the only issue, then, would be the non-biodegradable material from the bag’s stitching.”

Purchases in hand, we walk out to the parking lot.

At home, I place the new bag on the edge of my bed, then, close the door of my room. In the kitchen, I prepare dinner for my family. Three hours later, after dinner has been enjoyed and dishes have been done, I return to my bedroom to turn down my covers. Opening the door to the room, I take three steps back because the fumes from the new handbag are completely overwhelming. Calling my husband to get the offending item out of the bedroom, he appears to remove the item. Walking the new bag out to the garage, it is hung from the end of a metal, garage-door track, awaiting its return voyage to the store.

Conviction

“Can I come in?” Gator asks me softly, after having knocked almost imperceptibly on our apartment door.

“Of course,” I answer, opening the door further to let him enter. “I’ll call Matthew.” Turning my face to call around the corner, I shout out, “Hey, Matthew, Gator is here.”

I hear the door to my son’s room open. Then, Matthew rounds the corner, entering the small living room to our modest, two-bedroom graduate-school apartment.

Spirituality
Spirituality

At this university, the housing units for graduate students, where we live, were built post-WWII to accommodate the students attending university on the GI Bill. Refurbished and updated at least twice since they were first erected, these apartments were meant to be temporary, yet they remain tiny spaces of retreat for graduate students, visiting faculty and their families.

Gator crosses the living area in five or six easy strides, coming to sit with Matthew at the table-level breakfast bar, which separates our galley kitchen from the sunny living area facing the lake. It was here, not long ago, that Gator underscored his preference for being referred to as “Gator” and not by his given name—a mark of burgeoning individuation and entry into a healthy adolescence.

Moving into the kitchen and past Gator and Matthew, I open the door on our refrigerator to find some peanut butter and apples to have with crackers.

Gator sits down wearily and begins to explain that he had to travel down the hill to visit us after walking out on a one-sided argument with his mother.

“She kept trying to get me to repeat this: ‘I will become a straight-A student. I want to be a straight-A student.’ At first, she was just saying it, and then she was right in my face with her voice raised. I told her calmly that I was not going to lie…

“I have never been a straight-A student. What makes her think that she is going to turn me into something that I am not—something I have never been? And, I won’t lie,” Gator shakes his head in quiet frustration as he finishes explaining his sudden appearance in our home.

Trying to sound nonchalant, I ask Gator, “Does your mom know you’re here?”

Gator continues the thread of his story, “Maybe she is all uptight about scholarships for college or something. But, I won’t lie like that. Don’t you think lying is worse than facing the truth?”

Gator’s question hangs in the air. Matthew is an exceptional listener, leaving Gator a lot of space to work through his conversational experience.

Then, Gator turns to answer my earlier question, “No. she doesn’t know where I am. She just knows that I went for a walk.”

My heart goes out to Gator. I feel gratitude for his presence and the feeling that he considers our home safe space. He is a “good kid”—a thoughtful kid.

“Hey, Gator, would you be alright with my calling your mom, to let her know that you are here?” I ask.

“Yeah, go ahead. She might be getting concerned, with the fight and all,” Gator responds.

As I dial, I think about the issue of conviction, as a trait, and how our own rigidity—in the areas of belief, desire and relationship—can lead us to breaking rather than carry us forward and over the bridge to the safety of compassion and release.

Why are we so hard on the people we love most?

What is Real?

“This is not real,” my student peer leans over and whispers to me quietly as she continues to smile. Her smile is the vacant, enigmatic smile of someone who has detached herself from her surroundings.

Spirituality
Spirituality

In front of us the entire department of graduate-school art students are assaulting her work, the work of many weeks of labor, in a barrage of uncomplimentary comparisons and especially harsh critique and association.

“How can you say that?” I whisper back in frustration. “You need to say something. They are slaughtering you.”

In circles of artistic or literary critique it is not uncommon to site the works of other artists or authors, whose works are accepted or revered, as being like one’s own. This practice is akin to taking refuge in the masters and often renders the criticism being levelled at one’s own original work less harsh once the bridge of “likeness” has been established.

“No. I don’t need to say anything,” she responds to me again, maintaining  her enigmatic smile and an eerily calm voice.

Like a school of flesh-eating fish, which is in the process of cleaning the bones of one spent target, the group finishes critiquing her work and moves—as one body—onto the next station of display.

Still consternated with my student peer for not having “defended” herself, I press my friend on the issue of Reality, “If this isn’t Real, what is?”

“My relationship with my husband,” she counters matter-of-factly. “That is Real.”

Her assuredness about this “fact” regarding Reality gives me pause. If our primary, sustaining relationships are The Reality, why are we not placing more effort into growing the Love  sustaining us in our most important relationships?

Databases

Setting my things down on the empty couch at a local coffeehouse to begin working, I overhear a conversation going on between the shop’s proprietor and another customer. The customer is sitting adjacent to me at a table with two duffle bags tucked neatly under his table and a spare pair of shoes tied to the ends of each of his bags.

Spirituality
Spirituality

A “homeless” man, whom Taoists would term a “noble” traveler, this customer is looking for a safe place to sleep before moving through and out of town tomorrow.

“I was going to stay at Happy Homes shelter tonight, before moving on tomorrow,” he explains. “But, after I gave them my name, they looked me up in some medical database and found out that I had been diagnosed as being bipolar years ago. They told me that I had to see a doctor before I could get in.

He continues, “I haven’t had problems with my bipolar disorder in years, so I stopped taking the medication. Isn’t that stupid?”

Hearing what this man is saying, I ponder the logistics of what the shelter has proposed. Here is a man with an insufficient amount of cash to be able to afford a motel for the night. He is moving through. Yet, the shelter wants him to be able to afford a doctor’s visit. Then, there is the issue of how long it actually takes to get in to see a physician in this area—somewhere between three to six months.

In addition to these logistical issues regarding seeing a physician, I consider the fact that the man is not being allowed to acknowledge his own healing or the apparent improvement in his mental health. The other, larger issue is that of an organization having access, not only to one’s criminal record, but to one’s personal medical records.

Because of the hour, there are three of us in the coffeehouse. To assist in the process of finding a safe place to sleep, I pull out my phone to help search for the addresses of nearby shelters. Due to my walking patterns, I know where most of the neighborhood shelters are located, but I do not have addresses memorized.

In a few minutes, we have the address of another walkable shelter for this gentleman to try. Bending over his things to organize the few belongings he carries, he prepares to walk the eight or ten blocks to the proposed place of safety for the night.

It is late in the afternoon. I hope he makes the shelter’s narrow in-take hours and passes their “entrance examination.”

I would that a prayer of mine could solve this man’s issues. Instead, as he reaches to push the door of the coffeehouse open onto a very blustery late October afternoon, I shout out a lame cliché, “Hey, good luck tonight.” He nods in my direction, in acknowledgement of my statement.

And, I think, “It is I who should be acknowledging you, dear Sir.”

Water Chestnuts

Water chestnuts, throughout most of the American Midwest, usually come in cans. They appear as one of the many “vegetable” items in certain Asian dishes and, to the untrained palate, seem to offer little more than extra crunch to any given entree.

I like crunch, thus I like water chestnuts. To my way of thinking and in the context of Asian cuisine, water chestnuts have always been relatively mild cousins to the likes of canned bamboo shoots—positively crunchy and fairly innocuous in terms of taste.

A friend of mine tells a story from his childhood, not about canned water chestnuts but about canned peas. At the home of a relative, the hostess was in the process of serving up a side of peas (another non-vegetable vegetable) for him when he declared quite diplomatically, “I am not a pea fan.”

Spirituality
Spirituality

This simple statement, from the perspective of a child, underscores the fact that canned peas are a distant and somewhat challenged cousin—in terms of flavor and texture—to both flash frozen peas or the Vanderbilt of legumes fresh peas.

Fresh, flash frozen or canned? My own relationship with water chestnuts changed radically one year, after our family moved to a Big-Ten-University town. This university’s extensive Asian population supported not one Asian specialty supermarket—but four large, dedicated Asian grocers, where water chestnuts were flown-in regularly and could be purchased fresh.

Fresh water chestnuts are a completely different animal, as the expression goes, when compared to their canned cousins. Fresh water chestnuts are incredibly nutty, with a delightful depth of flavor that is not replicated in any other “vegetable” I know. And, they are crisp and ungrainy—like some of the very best fall, apple varieties. I fell in love. Who knew that an issue of processing could so radically change the nature of a simple “vegetable”—water chestnut or pea?

In thinking about this issue of changed states with processing—whether meeting a food item for the first time or, in a cataclysmic mental leap, acquainting ourselves with the personality of an individual for the first time—I wonder about what we are actually experiencing when we encounter something or someone who is not in their most authentic state of Being—not fresh.

It could be that the person we are encountering for the first time has been flash frozen by life circumstances. Flash frozen is close to fresh, but it is not fresh. And, life processing is going to change the metaphorical flavor, texture, appearance and nutritive value of any sentient being.

Or, what if—after ten years of being “canned” in the pressure cooker of her parents’ home—the hardened child has had the natural vibrancy drained from her character and/or her contributory capacities compromised to the extent that she causes problems in a classroom?

I bring this up because, when we come to encounter that person on the street who makes us want to turn away, we must behave like we know that that person is relating to the world in a processed state. Each of us should be wondering or at least curious about what another person (or we) might be like, if he (we) were able to return to an unprocessed, fresh state.

A canned water chestnut or pea can never turn back into a fresh version of itself. And, yet, the miraculous thing about people is that there are opportunities in every one of our lives to do just that—to become fresh, authentic, true. But that journey of reverse processing, if you will, in order to return to one’s freshest state is sometimes a long, challenging or seemingly impossible.

So, we need to be here for one another—with patience, kindness, good listening skills and compassion. Each one of us is in possession of a depth and breadth and set of  gifts, our unique flavors, which would benefit us all, if only they could be tasted and shared.

Listening

It is late in the day. I am driving out with my husband and my five-year-old son to Lake Park to observe autumnal rituals. When we arrive, the park is deserted. The trees have dropped their leaves. Parking the car among a basswood-maple-and-pine forest, we take a moment to collect ourselves and our things. Leaving the car behind, we walk into an area where large groups camp in-season.

After setting our things on a picnic table, we gather downed sticks and dry twigs. With everything gathered, a fire is soon blazing in a favorite, rusted truck wheel, which serves as our official fire pit. As the wind comes up and the fire matures, the remaining firewood fractures in the heat, turning to red-orange coals. White ashes organize themselves into miniature dervishes performing a holy sema.

Spirituality
Spirituality

With the coals from the fire now fully formed, foil wrapped onions, potatoes and yams are tucked in to roast while we warm ourselves and wait. The prayerful dance of the ashes progresses. We sit to eat the roasted potatoes dressed in cottage-cheese pesto.  Then, with the flames gone, our fingers grow cold and the spell of the fire is broken.  Spreading what remains of the ashes and coals, the last wisps of smoke go skyward.

We walk.

It is a trail we know, over a small wooden walkway, past the beavers’ lodge and through a low, marshy outcropping of land that breathes with the Lake. Shallow patches of water are frozen over with thin sheets of glass. Mid-October. Cattails are tan, brittle and broken. Large skunk cabbages and other marsh plants are hunkering down for the winter, their leaves already appearing wet and wilted after two hard frosts.

The last harsh gusts of autumn wind accompany us on our walk. Some of the remaining brown oak leaves continue to scatter.  Only the pines remain erect; their needles threading erratically through the wind, sewing the clouds to the sky.

When the wind is bellowing through the woods in strong, irregular patterns, it becomes fiercely difficult to think. For the contemplative walker, it is sometimes impossible to discern internal dialogue from the wind’s messages or the voices belonging to the trees themselves. Like an old-folks’ home at bedtime, the woods snap, groan and creak.

In an effort to clear my head, I walk on without my family, leaving partner and child behind to enjoy a shouted, nature tutorial.  Then looking up, I see a crane take flight from the top of a singularly tall pine; this is when I am told that my father will die.

“But, when?” I ask,  as if the information, shouted over the wind or by the wind, is not enough.

After returning home that night, I lay in my warm bed reviewing our family’s relocation schedule, which I have been holding carefully mapped out in my mind. Then, addressing any higher power who will listen, I ask that, if my fifty-four-year-old father’s death must be soon, please let it happen within the next year. I need to be close to home for my mother. Leaving her alone at this time is not an option.

On Sunday morning, just as I had seen it happening and forgotten about seeing it. I am standing in the doorjamb of our bedroom, four days after the telling and four days after the hearing. My mother is on the other end of the telephone, asking me whether or not there is someone there who is close enough to hold me. I want her to just spit it out.  My father is dead.  It is not a surprise; it is a shock.  It happens sooner than it should have and sooner than what I thought the telling had told.

Only hours ago in a dream, I saw the close-relative pallbearers. They carried a polished, red-mahogany ship hull up out of the main marshy area on my parents’ property. The sun was breaking through the pines’ thin needles in ribbons, glinting off of the boat’s polished body. My father was not among the pall-bearers. With that image, I knew that my father was being carried away. Dead. Again, I stand among the long-needled pines, in the cold wind, watching a crane take flight.

Spiritual Seasons

A large, mature black-walnut tree stretches its limbs to embrace the sky.

In our backyard, this tree’s trunk is so substantial that, for the tree itself to be embraced, two people would need to reach out, press the sides of their faces and their unguarded hearts against the tree’s bark to clasp hands. Only then would another circle of awareness be able to touch the tree’s Being.

Spirituality
Spirituality

Some urban yard keepers consider the black walnut a high-maintenance tree. During good years, the walnut bears large seeds, with nut meats firmly ensconced in hard protective shells, guarded by yet another layer or husk of a pithy bright green.

All of this fruit is of a substantial diameter and mowing becomes impossible without its timely collection. In addition to black walnuts, every autumnal season, our yard fills with a layer of detritus from the tree’s fine, needle-like leaf stems or petioles (black walnuts have a composite leaf structure), as well as a traditional cascade of deciduous leaves.

One of the walnut tree’s functions, as a “community citizen” engaged in selfless service, is that of neighborhood fresh-food market. When there is a good year or season, this tree produces enough walnuts to help sustain, not only a thriving community of squirrels, but our own.

We collect and fill gigantic tubs with the unhulled walnuts, which may be sold to a local processing facility. This processing facility, in turn, sells the shelled black walnuts back to the community. There is not a great deal of money to be made in this endeavor, but the collection of the walnuts is part of honoring the tree’s natural labor and the more general circle-of-life.

The act of producing fruit is not an annual constant. We have lived through two years of severe drought with this tree, thinking there might be few walnuts during those years. Nonetheless, during the years of severest drought, we were surprised to observe the tree ramp up nut “production” to bring forth not one but two bumper crops.

For two consecutive years, the black walnut seemed to produce something out of nothing—fleshy moistness out of the earth’s brittle dryness, as if striving to reaffirm its own life as well as the lives of those around and seeming to draw from its own internal stores of water to give more than it received.

Sometimes, when our own lives are endangered, we push our children forth into the world to take our places—whether we sink our roots deeply into the soil to commit to serving in one location or roam the earth to find our place of service, while walking on just two legs.

During the drought years, as I observed the phenomenon of this tree’s abundant fruit-bearing with amazement, I could not help but be reminded of the European Jews who were recorded throwing their babies to the outstretched arms of other Jews fortunate enough to be leaving Europe on departing ships at the outset of World War II.

In reality, the walnut tree standing in our yard is not “ours.” We share a place in the world with this tree, and this black walnut shares itself with us and our outdoor neighbors, the squirrels.

The tree stands as a source of food, shade, playful respite and shelter. In our own ways, “we”—the squirrels and members of our household—each try to give back in support of the tree by assisting the walnut with its process of propagation.

Gathering and planting black walnuts in the soil, where they hope the seeds will winter-over and become late-winter or spring meals, the squirrels busy themselves with the act of putting food by, all autumn long. Sometimes these walnuts become breakfast, lunch or dinner; sometimes these walnuts are forgotten and, in remaining unclaimed, take root in the soil to become seedlings.

For our part in the process of propagation, whenever our household is able, we dig these seedlings, pot them and eventually drive to replant them in remote places on rural land. It might be stealth reforestation or guerilla forestry. It is part of a spiritual practice which assuages feelings of modern isolation or urban disconnectedness from the natural world.

Looking for sunlight amid an opening in an already full canopy of foliage outside of the city, we plant seedlings where they might thrive. It is a process of hike, search, dig, plant, water, then, retreat. We say farewells, “We wish you well. Grow tall, majestic, become who you were meant to become,” because, after all is said and done, that is what each of us was brought here to do—affirm one another’s lives in the context of Community.

Remembering Who We Are

Leaving the house in search of some downtime, I take a chance on spending part of the late afternoon at a charitable thrift store.

Pulling into the parking lot of one of this area’s largest stores, I find only two spaces remaining. Balloons and special signs tell me today is a serious sale day. People are everywhere, arriving, leaving and milling about.

Over the years I have lived here, I have come to recognize a few of this community’s most serious secondhand shoppers-not by name but by appearance. And, when I begin to bump into any one of them frequently, it is a signal that I need a few months off from my own charitable-thrift-store “ministry.”

Spirituality
Spirituality

This afternoon’s trip is about getting out of the house to regroup, ground and center, rather than being about hunting for something in particular. Walking into the warehouse-sized store, oldies blare through the PA. My mood, which is upbeat, elevates even more. And, though the store is very busy, the racks are full enough for the methodical shifting of garments in front of my chasséing body. I will be able to regain center amid the chaos of people.

Moving through one section of the store, I notice a mother-daughter pair, whom I have not seen in a long while. The daughter is a mature woman, and her mother looks more frail than she did the last time I saw them bargain hunting. More frail or not, the mother maintains her general sparkle—a sparkliness of countenance which I love seeing.

Two sections later and with a one-half-hour between us, all three of us end up in the same area. To bypass the lines at the dressing rooms, I use a full-length mirror to try a dress on over my clothing.

Setting her frail body down on a steam trunk which is for sale, the mother glances my way. “It looks like a fit!” she announces. (Supportive, team shopping is not uncommon in this area.)

Struggling to release the hem of the garment from the grip of my blue jeans, I answer, “Well, almost. I need to drop the hem to make sure.”

We talk a little more—idle chit chat of the girl variety. I am reminded that this type of banter is a luxury, a gift representing a certain amount of leisure time. We are fortunate. Having finally dropped the hem, I zip the dress up. It fits in a lumpy manner over my clothing, but it is good enough to take home and retry. Unzipping the garment, I slip it over my head and fold it, placing it on the small stack of items I have.

Readying myself to leave, I stop briefly in front of the elderly mother, with whom I have been conversing.

“Where have you been?” I ask frankly. “I have not seen you or your daughter out for a long while.”

“Oh, I have had such adventures this year,” she replies. “First I had a mild heart attack, then, a mild stroke. After that, I was mending.”

Worn into her daughter’s face are the lines of an exceptional care-giver. Every new line has been translated.

“Oh, my. You have had quite a year,” I respond simply.

Then, reaching for my hand, she takes it into the smooth cradle of both of her soft-skinned arthritic hands, saying, “You look like a praying woman. Please pray for me. Pray for my health.”

She has granted me a blessing. The blessing of being seen.

As she releases my hand, I assure her that I will add her to my prayers.

Setting Boundaries

There was a bank robbery. Or, more accurately, there was an attempted bank robbery. The bank was a counter outlet with two tellers within a large grocery store.

Approaching the bank counter with a note, a man demands all of the money in the teller’s drawer. Amy, the teller, looks the man in the eye, demanding back, “Do you have a withdrawal slip?”

Knocked off course and flustered by the unexpected question, the man stammers, “No.”

“Well, at this bank in order to withdraw money, you need to have and complete a withdrawal slip. No slip. No money,” Amy concludes firmly.

Dazed and confused, the would-be robber turns to leave the store. The police arrive shortly.

Spirituality
Spirituality

Later, a short report of the incident appears in the local paper, cautioning readers never to behave as Amy did and, instead, hand over any funds that are available.

But, if you knew Amy—one of my favorite bank tellers ever—you, too, would understand why that man left empty handed.