We love our veterinarian–I and my dogs. He is an all around good guy who knows his stuff and who shares his professional knowledge liberally. Dr. Veterinarian also ensures that his staff is well informed on current trends, which makes life much easier for pet owners with routine questions.
The other day, one of my dogs and I were visiting his office with a minor concern. Near the end of our appointment, I mention to the vet how happy I am with the dog food we are using, pointing out my canine companion’s dark and extra richly glossy fur coat.
The vet concurs, then turns to me, asking, “What are you feeding him?”
My mind goes blank. I can see the dog-food bag in my mind’s eye–actually the entire line of offerings from this same company, but I cannot “read” the brand name on a single, envisioned package.
Still struggling to pull a name out of the air, I respond meekly, “Well, I can tell you what the entire line’s graphic design looks like, its color schemes and where to find it on the shelf at the local pet-food store.”
Shifting my focus from the bank of visual images in my mind to gaze back at the veterinarian’s face, I am suddenly five-years-old again, facing my father in a rare moment of impatience with me. The veterinarian’s facial expression is one of contorted, impatient disgust, telling me he does not have time for my bumbling lack of recall, especially this late in the afternoon near the end of the week.
Crestfallen internally, I decide to keep my mouth shut about my mild aphasia. Leaving the examination room, I pay my bill and exit with what little dignity I have left.
Walking out of the clinic’s front door, the sun greets me with the same comforting warmth it always does, as I ponder how many times I must have sent my own students, clients and acquaintances back to their childhoods through my professional or personal impatience and lack of compassion. Notes to Self: Be more patient. Be more compassionate.
Gazing down at my banana-yellow downhill skis, I see that—about a foot from their upturned tips—they are hopelessly crossed over one another. Hanging from leather straps around my wrists, my ski poles twist in confusion around me, adding to my cold entanglement.
The bottom of the ski hill is a busy place. I stand frozen, pigeon-toed and strapped into the dead weight of my heavy skis. These are old-school downhill skis, and there are no quick-release binders. There is no quick fix to my situation.
Working to lift my right leg off the ground to maneuver my right ski off of the top of my left ski, I feel the almost impossible heft of the wooden ski pulling on every muscle, ligament and tendon in my pint-size hip, leg and foot.
Hoping to rectify the situation more quickly, I glance up toward my father, who has gone out of his way in his attempt to share his love of downhill skiing with me, having borrowed a pair of skis for my use during some informal instruction.
In place of the humorous, often patient twinkle that I am used to seeing in his eyes, I see a look of undisguised disgust at my predicament. The look cuts into my five-year-old heart. I am an inept disappointment. Somehow, I have messed up. I do not recall how we moved forward from that point. But, we must have. I do not remember ever trying downhill skiing again.
Years later, at fifteen, while rummaging through the family cedar chest, where we kept the specialty woolen wear “too good” to use, I stumble upon an exquisitely handknit wool sweater—a ski sweater.
The sweater is wrapped carefully in pristine tissue paper. Pulling the sweater out, I notice its unusually soft suppleness. The sweater’s body is knit in a realtively loose manner in a natural off-white yarn. The neck and shoulders feature a beautiful, understated Nordic pattern in a muted light-brown yarn.
Turning the sweater over in my hands, I wonder, “Where did this come from?” It looks to be my size.
After a very careful line of questioning, I learn that my father purchased this sweater as a gift for my mother, while they were still dating, in the hopes that they might go skiing together. My mother is deathly allergic to wool and, as a hot-cocoa-fireplace-with-a-good-book type, I imagine she proved as inept on the slopes at the age of twenty, as I did at five.
Parents. Partners. Children. Family. As “family” we are bound together by choice, blood and love. Sometimes family members share overlapping interests, talents or skills, and sometimes we do not. Even amidst the most tightly knit, active and lovingly respectful members of a family, a single soul can experience a tremendous sense of loneliness—especially when that individual soul is unable to share with those closest the activities or interests which make that unique Spirit come alive.
I try to imagine the dispiriting loneliness my father must have felt as a young suitor, wanting to share an activity he loved, one that made him feel more alive, with the primary someone he cared about most. Suddenly, the scene from my own five-year-old’s attempt at downhill skiing comes into a state of profoundly heightened focus. My father’s look of disgust was the emotional mask he was wearing over his own Spirit’s profound grief.
“Sometimes I feel like we just use one another.” It is the late-night, exasperated comment from an overly tired friend after a long week.
Pausing before I respond, I begin slowly, “Some people do ‘use’ others. But, there is another way to function in the world. There is a different paradigm which can be employed. Some people, while taking exceptional care of themselves, actually ‘assist’ others. And, in turn, they generally receive the assistance they require. Some members of society ‘rely’ upon others, as they walk their very individual paths.
“Try thinking in terms of an interlocking system of loops—circles of giving and receiving. A system of free-flowing and, sometimes, compensated giving and receiving is very different from a system in which people only ‘use’ one another. There is no measured quid pro quo in the system of free-flowing, assisted exchange—only a voluntary, ‘How may I help?’ which may be declined or honored.”
My friend chimes in, “It sounds too good to be true.”
“In this alternate system, people cannot simply ‘use’ others or ‘take’ what they want and dispose of relationships they no longer find useful. In the system of assisting, a great deal of trust and listening are required; and, greed would need to be removed from the equation. Ideally, people would best be served if they were able to contribute according to their unique gifts, talents or skills and receive according to the things they lack.
“Anyway, it is late to be having this conversation. Try working with a new verb in the context of your relationships this next week and see what happens.”
“Hey, I like your braids,” the Navajo man—sitting adjacent and behind me—comments as I await my food order.
Watching the front counter, I sit sideways on the firm seat of a canary-yellow Formica booth, immediately behind this man and his dining partner.
The man and his dining companion started their meal by splitting a burrito, purchased by another customer. When my initial order came up, I handed my plate of food to them as well, so that they would have enough food to eat between the two of them.
My sense is that the proprietor was neither overly pleased with the first burrito handoff, nor did he seem exceptionally happy with me for relinquishing my initial order to these two diners. Both of them appear to be quite tipsy. Yet, they are also both very hungry.
Soon, my own (second) order is up. Walking to the counter to retrieve my plate, I stop at the salsa bar to select a few extra condiments, then, return to my seat to eat quietly.
Everything on my plate is a hot, melting, mounded delicious blend of flavors. Letting the warmth from the food move into that empty space in the middle of my hungry being, I forget about our restaurant host’s potential consternation, hoping he can be happy with the opportunity to have sold two additional meals. I understand his perspective, as well as that of the hungry people behind me.
“Braids,” I muse silently, considering the twin issues of identity and heritage. In my mind, I think—braids, Heidi, blondes, Switzerland and the Alps or, alternately, braids, Inga, redheads, Scandinavia and fjords. But, why not consider braids, Morning Star, raven-colored hair, Pawnee and The Great Plains? Sometimes our minds and individual I’s settle into self-referential ruts. I had been stuck.
Shifting into a state of gratitude for this man’s indirect thank you ,which may be what the comment regarding my braids was about, and without uttering a word, I nod to this man in my mind’s eye, answering him spiritually, “You are most welcome.” We are part of the brotherhood of braids.
Travelling through the “headwaters” of the American South, I stop at one of my favorite stores to pick up a few items for a thick lentil soup. I am on my way to see family who now live even further afield from the Upper-Midwestern region we used to call home.
Walking the aisles, after a few hours of driving, I fill my shopping basket with millet, brown rice and large, locally grown produce—onions, tomatoes, cabbage and greens. As I shop, I notice someone in the store has been working extra hard to introduce some levity into the store’s shopping environment.
Alongside the jasmine rice, there is a highly-colored cartoon image of a princess; and, in the dried-bean section of the store, an image of a popular musical act is next to a stack of black-eyed peas. The visual puns and light humor are a welcoming phenomenon in contrast to the linear look of a dull, itemized grocery-store list.
Then, as I round the corner of another aisle, the soft smile of amusement—which had formed almost involuntarily on my face–leaves quite suddenly. Next to an area with seeds and beans for sprouting, I see an image of the African-American, child actor who played the character of Buckwheat in Hal Roach’s “The Little Rascals.” He is covered in a spray of white flour, and his hair is in an unkempt afro towering above his head. Inside of me, some invisible line has been crossed—where humor does not reside. The image does not strike me as funny.
Taking my basket to the checkout, I pay for my things as I attempt to sort through the emotions of my internal reaction. While walking to the vehicle to load my groceries, I try to decide exactly what it is, if I were even remotely centered, I might be lead to do.
Something. Not nothing. Have a conversation. Keep it light. Open a conceptual door.
Turning to lock my vehicle, I walk back into the store and ask whether a manager is available. Our conversation goes something like this:
—Hello. Do you have a moment?
—What can I do for you?
—I wanted to tell you that I love to visit this store. You always have all of the things I am looking for, the dry items I need and the produce.
—Good to hear.
—I also appreciate a lot of the visual puns you have been placing through out the store. They add some levity and fun to the shopping experience. Could we walk over here?
Stopping in front of the image of the childhood actor, Billie Thomas, portraying Buckwheat in “The Little Rascals,” I turn to face the manager.
—You know, I’m not so sure about this one image.
—Well, you know how people like to share the things they love with the people they love, like good food, where to shop and humor? I was trying to imagine travelling through to shop at this store with some of my husband’s extended family, they are of both European and African heritage—biracial, and I don’t think that they would find this image funny. I think they might even find this one visual pun offensive.
—You really think so?
—Well, the image does not feature an afro from the 1970’s. It isn’t about black power or racial dignity, is it?
—I suppose not.
—You know, I am not of African heritage, and I am from a different region—a different culture. And, if I were to speak truthfully, I would have to say that I find this image offensive. It represents a place in time where we were culturally—once, with our humor. I don’t think we are there anymore nor should we be revisiting the place of this antiquated form of “humor.”
I watch the manager’s wheels turning in his mind. He can’t seem to make the conceptual shift to see this image from a different perspective. I wonder whether or not the manager grew up on a diet of Little-Rascals, after-school reruns.
—Contrast this image with the one of the modern, musical group. The modern image is inclusive. The musicians have named themselves. They are performing together, as adults, in roles they have chosen. This other image is quite different. You have a few stores in your chain, right? Maybe the next time you have a group meeting with corporate you could have a conversation about the feedback I have given you and make a decision from there—amongst yourselves.
—Yes. We could certainly do that.
—Yes. Do that. See what kind of feedback you get. Thank you for your time and taking my concern into consideration.
Through the front windshield of the bus, I watch the painted white lines on the black pavement of the road passing alongside in mesmerizing, rhythmic order. Thwop, thwop, thwop, thwop, my mind lays down a soundtrack to accompany the hypnotic visuals of the center-line’s fragmented glow under the low beams of the bus’ headlights.
With almost everyone else asleep, I remain awake as we travel through one of the least populated and most desolately beautiful regions of the Four-Corners area of the American Southwest. The time is closing in on midnight, and the highway is relatively deserted. No moon is visible. And, although the interior of the bus is dimly lit, the world immediately around me is bright, filled with spiritual Light.
Sitting quietly, as I review events from the trip, I remain in a state of heightened gratitude for the Grace extended during this excursion of spiritual errand—the Light needed to be reaffirmed in myself and among those whom I visited. Travelling for such a purpose is always humbling. With the aid of Grace, the best and sometimes most unexpected doors open with simple ease.
Sitting in my own bubble of spiritual reverie, I hear the man next to me shift in his seat. The bus is almost full. Then, turning toward me, he leans over to ask a simple question—something about current events. It is an election year. Not wanting to disrupt the thread of connection that is part of the larger picture and my heightened sight, I politely change the subject. Then, after regrouping, he redirects his own conversational energy, asking a series of questions about my religious affiliation.
After a few minutes of polite exchange, where I try to ascertain the general purpose of his line of inquiry, I finally ask him outright, “Are you needing me to pray for you?”
“Yes,” he answers in a hesitant affirmative. Then, with more conviction, “I need you to pray for me.”
The man appears to be Native American. He may be Navajo, Hopi or from another First-Nation group native to this region. One of the things I learned while living in the Southwest is that most Native-American Peoples, who are still in a state of receptive connectivity, understand the Way. They know how Grace flows and moves and are respectful of the nature of sacred contracts.
“Do you know this song?” the man asks me, beginning to hum quietly—slowly—as he adds a few lyrics.
“Yes,” I answer. “I remember that song. It has been a long while since I have heard it.”
“Yes, it is an old song. I only need you to pray for me when you hear that song, that will be your cue that I need you to pray.”
We lean back again into our individual seats. I am amazed at how respectfully he has put forth his request. The parameters of our agreement are clear, tidy and not overly demanding. I find myself filling with gratitude again; this time it is for this man’s respectful politeness toward my own manifestation of the Light.
“Would you like some sunflower seeds?” The Native-American woman sitting next to me at the bus stop turns to ask.
“No thank you, but thank you for offering,” I gesture, clamping a hand across my belly. “I just ate.”
We return to silence, waiting for the bus together.
In my peripheral vision, I watch as she continues drawing the sunflower seeds from their package in small groups, creating a well of unhulled seeds in one palm. Then, taking her hand to her mouth after her palm is full, she carefully cracks each seed one-by-one with her front teeth. Her well-practiced tongue deftly picks up the freed seed meat, tucking each along the bottom edge of her cheek. When my bus-stop companion has collected enough seeds, she drags the edge of her jawline clean with her tongue and chews on the seeds’ meat in an appreciative and meditative manner. Ritual eating. She is fully present.
Four-lanes of traffic move without stop in front of us. Two-lanes of traffic move by our joint right. We are parked on the bench. Early. No bus. Waiting.
“I’m going to the Native American Center,” she reopens our conversation. “I had to transfer. Do you have to transfer today?” Her transfer slip is lodged between her ring and pinky fingers on the hand holding the perpetual well of unhulled seeds—her left hand. The story of her hands tells me she may be in her fifties.
“No. Not today. Today, it is just this one bus,” I answer. The sunshine feels good on my face. I turn my face to meet the shifting sun, grateful for my bench companion’s calm presence as we wait.
“You are lucky.” Changing the subject, she continues, “My brother is having a show, an art show at the Center. He is an artist—a pretty big deal. He lives clean. Doesn’t drink. Doesn’t smoke. Real clean, my brother. You should meet him. We are Lakota Sioux. You should come to the show. I’ll introduce you.”
Without stopping, she continues, “I bet you’re wondering why I have this busted lip. Like I said, I’m Lakota Sioux. I was walking home late one night with my groceries a week or so ago when three Chippewa gals jumped me. They were leaving a bar. They’d been drinking.”
“Oh, my. I’m sorry to hear that. Is it healing alright?” I ask, trying not to be overly intrusive.
“Yeah, I had some stitches. They’re out now, but it still looks pretty bad. “Her report is matter-of-fact. “You know the Chippewa don’t like us.”*
I think back to my one history course on Indian treaty rights. Chippewa. Ojibwe. Anishinaabe. My head is swimming with names, given, chosen, preferred, rejected, taken by various First-Nation Peoples of North America. Our conversation has entered uncomfortable, conversational territory—personally, politically and historically—and my knowledge is sketchy. Who names things? How do we name things? From whose perspective do we tell our stories?
I am not sure how to reply appropriately to her report.
“Well,” I pause to take a breath, “you know with so many of ‘us’ out there, I would think that ‘you’—all—would need to stick together. I am sorry that you were hurt so badly.”
The bus pulls up, slowing to a stop. With the familiar expulsion of pressurized air, our conversation comes to a halt. As we stand, my bus-stop companion turns to me, shrugging her shoulders, “Yeah, well, it happens. Come and see my brother’s work. He is real good.”
“Thank you for the invitation.”
*Prior to extensive contact with European traders and settlers on the North American continent, peoples of the Great Sioux Nation were being pushed off of their native lands in what is now the Upper-Midwestern portion of the United States (Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin) by the westward expansion of the Ojibwa. Territorial conflict betweeb the Ojibwa and Sioux intensified after the Ojibwa gained access to European weaponry, resulting in the Sioux having to relocate permanently.
One winter, a man travels from his home in perpetually sunny, southern California to the snow-bound Upper Midwest and, from there, to a tropical island in the Pacific. He observes that in his home in southern California, the windows are almost always open to the constant, ambient hum of city activity, mixed with the sounds of a subdued version of nature.
Flying into the Upper Midwest, to stay in the home of friends, he is amazed by the nighttime silence of a snow-blanketed winter. There is an almost dead silence, common to the closed-windowed deep winter months. Even though he is in a large urban area, the home’s double pained windows, substantial insulation, combined with a doubly thick blanket of snow outside, keep audible sounds to a minimum. Who is not hibernating?
Finally, after a very long flight, he lands on an island in the Pacific Ocean. On his first night there surrounded by the lush jungle, a cacophony of sounds—typical of any viable tropical forest—keep his eyes wide open. Awake amid the common night calls, clicks and cries from the forest coming through the open window, he lays listening. Nothing seems to sleep.
It is one of the last weeks of September; the air is cool. In the sun, horseflies are still biting. In the shade, mosquitoes hum toward me like wandering tourists, trying to determine which location might be best for a snack or meal. In cool weather like this, even the hand of a small child can thwart most mosquitoes’ efforts. With each successful swat, grey dust outlines a dead mosquito’s silhouette on an arm, elbow or leg.
My father, sister and I drove up early this morning, specifically to butcher. Winter is coming on. People who have known hunger view an approaching long, cold winter with an attitude and timbre radically different from those who have known only moderate weather, packed pantries or full larders. A one-and-half year old steer is being readied to become steaming spaghetti dinners, hot beef-onion gravy, paper-thin breakfast steaks, broiled rib-eye and roasts to be baked with carrots, onions and potatoes—garden produce from this summer’s harvest.
When our trio bursts onto the scene at my grandparents’ house, my father’s family is not prepared for us or the day’s project. The shotgun must be retrieved from the back of the closet underneath the stairs. A sufficiently sharp knife must be found in one of the crammed kitchen drawers. The red trailer remains to be hitched.
Our early arrival marks the beginning of chaos in the house. Except for my grandfather, already on his morning walk, my father must rouse everyone. My grandmother came in late last night from work. My young aunts and an uncle are rousted to get breakfast and look after my younger sister and myself. Because she is working at the hospital, my mother is not there to care for us herself. We did not actually bring the chaos. The chaos is the result of two overly-full schedules colliding on one of the last available weekends for butchering.
In October, the snow will come halting all outside food-producing activities for the next seven to eight months. Except for the canned vegetables and fruit already set aside, our freezers are empty. The meat from the steer will fill two freezers. Urgency surrounds preparations today. Fear of hunger is factored in. I think of my father.
After breakfast and a few warm hours in the house, I walk outside to amble about the yard. Peering around the edge of the now-hitched trailer, I look inside to see the dead steer’s head staring back at me. His supple black, velvety hide is in a low crumpled heap, cushioning his head. Closer to me, his tail lies discarded—a rope with one frayed end.
In the dark, yawning doorway of the barn behind me, hanging from his back legs, the steer’s carcass has been hoisted up by a chain with block and tackle. With his skin fully stripped, I observe a thin milky membrane covering the fine musculature of his body. Component parts are connected by thick fibrous strands, crisscrossing his legs, hips, trunk and shoulders. My father and his father are preparing the animal for meat cutting at a shop forty miles south-east.
Peering again around the monstrously tall sides of the hay trailer, I am struck by the contrast in colors. The trailer is red. The hide and head and tail of the Angus steer are a glossy jet black, except for cut surfaces which bleed red. I am also amazed by the size of the animal’s head and his protruding tongue. I stick out my own tongue to examine its color, texture and shape. We seem to have the same tongues on different scales. Somehow, it feels like we are siblings. I know that, if I were to peel back my own skin, we would look much the same, except that I am smaller, leaner—skinny.
Padding toward the house, across the dark green grass, it is almost noon. I feel how cold the ground is already. My sister is chasing cats in the yard. Despite many scratches, she looks pleased to have caught a grey puff of fur. When I finally catch my own cat, I observe in its heft that there is not enough meat on this skinny-carcassed animal for even one meal.
One table away, at the Indian restaurant where I am dining, a little boy is crying. He is not crying loudly, though he has come to the dry, hiccuping phase in his tears which indicates it has been a long road to arrive at this stage of his demonstrated upset or grief.
As I sit down to eat, I notice that he and his mother are part of a larger family gathering. Buffet days at this restaurant are consistently busy because the buffet offerings are of enough variety to satisfy even the most persnickety of eaters.
“If you can’t stop crying, we’ll have to leave the restaurant,” the boy’s mother leans over to inform him. “Do you want that?” she questions him in a threatening tone.
Internally I sigh and, while taking a deeper breath, wonder why she has not asked him about the source of his tears, reminding myself that I am coming into the situation late. Sometimes the intellectual-emotional exercise of asking children about why they are crying is enough to stop the deluge, if only for a moment.
Finally, out of sheer exasperation, I overhear the mother tell the boy to stuff it, using the old maxim, “Big boys don’t cry.”
I cringe. I contemplate the antiquated maxim, “Big boys don’t cry.” And, ofttimes big boys—that is grown men—can neither identify their own feelings as adults nor can they draw up plausible cause-effect relationships between their personal experiences and those of their internal, emotional world. In this last scenario, grief, fear, abandonment, being slighted or otherwise hurt by life circumstances may end up being channeled into anger or rage—two of the more culturally “acceptable” emotions for men to exhibit.
Returning my attentions to the beautiful plate of food in front of me, I say a short prayer for the gift of my food, as well as a short prayer for this mother and child, while recalling—with profound regret—the less-than-optimal parenting skills I exhibited in my own youthful, child-rearing days. We are a work, are we not? And all of us are “in progress.”
Dear God, please let this small boy come to know that it is okay to cry.