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.