Lady Bird

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Lady Bird, 1962

She had stood outside in the snow for several minutes, admiring the winter birds high above her. The Pennsylvania sky was as overcast and majestic as her secret mood. The alchemy inside her granted her both patience and anticipation, each uneasy with the other. The infrequent passersby would note her demure presence as she shifted her hands inside her coat pockets. Many would take a second lingering glance, as something in her eyes and face seemed exotically out of place in the slush and roadside snow.

I alone dared to pull over and shut off the engine to my car. Inside it, I remained for a long moment, momentarily unsure of myself and caught off guard by the uncertainty. I smashed my cigarette out in the console ashtray, reached for my camera and exited the vehicle. The wind ran up the legs of my pants, causing me to shiver and clutch one side of my coat hastily.

Without preamble, I swallowed my fear and I crossed the slushy street and asked, “Can I take your picture?” My voice came out like a high-pitched plea. She laughed.

“Of course, although I don’t know why you would want to.” She laughed again. She motioned for me to come closer.

Once I reached her side, she pointed up and I followed the arc of her arm as she raised it.

“Those birds, they only seem to come around for 2 or 3 days a year. If they land nearby, they’ll talk to us in their own way. And if you throw them bread, they will swoop past you close enough to touch, if you were so inclined.” Her voice took on a lilting cadence as she spoke as if she were reading her own diary in the late hours of the night.

I watched the birds as I stood beside her. From her pocket, she removed a carefully-folded paper sack. She opened it and reached inside, then scattered pieces of dark bread in the snow.

“Wait,” she whispered, her head still pointed toward the sky.

She threw another handful, higher in the air, and the pieces arced and fell.

The birds, high above us, had taken notice and began to point their bodies downward. Within seconds, a dozen birds were swirling around us, their wings making rhythmic noises as they approached. Each bird had a small swath of red on their necks as if to mark their squadron with a uniform insignia.

Almost in unison, the birds extended their talons and landed. They began poking rapidly at the rye bread pieces on the white snow. As the bread disappeared, the birds began clucking and squawking in staccato bursts. They sounded like old ladies, with voices ruined by clouds of cigarette smoke, each trying to shout down the others.

As the woman tossed more bread pieces on the ground, the birds would take turns grabbing a piece as the others continued their squawking.  Their collective noises sounded like out of tune violins but I could discern the haunting melody of it nonetheless.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” She asked me.

I nodded yes as I listened and watched. I was hesitant to speak, lest the lingering magic of the moment notice me observing it.

With no more bread in her pockets, she put her hands back inside them and waited. The birds restlessly paced, their squawks becoming a disharmonious crescendo. They lifted off but instead of taking to the sky, they looped around us two or three times as they rose. After reaching 30 or 40 feet, their squawks ceased, leaving an exquisite absence of sound. The woman laughed again, a laugh tinged with delight, and it reminded me of a row of shattered icicles falling from an early morning roof.

I stepped away from the woman, raised my camera, and pointed it at her. She looked away from the sky for a moment and smiled at me. I pressed the shutter button and felt the moment already begin to fade away, like watching an old friend sitting in the back of his parent’s car, waving as he pulled away.

As I lowered the camera, something must have registered in my face, as she ran the few step between us and hugged me, one filled with warmth.

I got back into my car, once again inside the familiar and known. As I started the car, I looked back one last time, to see her there, faced turned upward in silent joy as she watched her birds flying high.

I’ve never shared this picture with anyone before today, all these years later.

I’ve witnessed the width and breadth of this fascinating world. Nothing, however, lingers in my heart like the stolen moment I shared with Lady Bird. I do not know who she is or anything particular to her story but I do know that sometimes if we dare, the most common thing can shatter itself to reveal the wondrous.

Those birds are still up there, flying high, waiting for us all, if we dare. Lady Bird might be just around the corner for you, too.

 

The Very Thing

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*Written as a response to someone who says it shouldn’t be done this way…
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“Very,” I whisper into the wind. I look up for a second, seeing a world devoid of words, yet never at a loss for perfect expression.

Around me, a gathering mist settled and the air moved with a tinge of chilliness. My coffee had long since turned cold, absently set aside and neglected.

Sitting on the park bench at the edge of the woods, I read the words which had cascaded from my mind, through my fingers, and onto the paper on my lap. I imagined the voice of a high school English teacher, almost deafening with assumed authority. In my head, I heard her lecture us all about using words lazily. Her principal argument was that our language was an ocean of possible variations and that we owed it to ourselves to avoid banality. “Treat the word ‘very’ like a curse,” she would say, and “Choose a word more powerfully suited to your audience.” Her age granted her solemnity in her own mind; to me, it was a reminder that she was the gatekeeper to the way things once were. She erred on the side of the thesaurus, confident that complexity equated to prose. I learned her dance and to use words like suffocating blankets.

Hearing her ghostly voice in my head, I reminded myself that sometimes language was a thing of comfort and better-suited toward a regression toward simplicity. For most of us, “mom” was our first word, and words such as “fireplace,” although unimaginative, evoke emotional memories. The basic words survive precisely because of their universal connections. Since then, I’ve heard and read a 1,000 admonitions regarding words of simplicity or substitution and ‘very’ inevitably sits on the list. I read them all in the shrill voice of an unimaginative authority. They are not wrong, I will admit. They are not right, either, not entirely, and certainly not to me.

For all the thousands of childhood hours spent inside books, most of the authors wrote and spoke to me as friends and none seemed to evoke the authoritarian spectacle of my teacher. Rules were made to be understood and then discarded as needed, or locked away inside a private box until they learned to bend and behave to the will of the person giving them new life. Magic forever resided in the outlying edges of words.

For much of my life, my amateurish efforts have helped me overcome the grip of perfectionism which seems to haunt people who earn their living sharing words with strangers. I look at words like I might an expanse of piano keys, each key assigned a note but when played as a whole, an infinite stream of beauty. “Very” was one of those piano keys, easily substituted, but placed there with reason. Today’s melody might be one of majestic and operatic symmetry; tomorrow’s might be suited for an intimate dinner. I would not presume to tell the man clearing my sidewalks of snow that the roads were perilous. He’d rather know that they are risky.

Even as I sat on the bench, quiet and unmoving, an entire universe was swirling in my thoughts. I thought of my past, of my youth, and of the slow pop of the logs in the wood stove of the shotgun house in a field of cotton. That thing was both heat and community, a thing beyond its confines.

“How very beautiful, this thing of memory,” I whisper.

The thing that belied my simplicity of language was also somehow responsible for juxtaposing creativity and expression.

May your ‘very’ be forever at your lips, even if you’re told it shouldn’t be.

X

Not Okay

Screams, pleas, and jabs to our collective heart.

The scene fades in.

A wide expanse of blurry green sharpens into focus, revealing a singular line of white rectangles, each adorned with a cross or a star, dates separated by too little time, names engraved into impermanent stone.

A solitary and motherly figure stands against the backdrop, a fading sun illuminating her weary face, one resigned to futile expressions of sorrow.

“You know what upsets me the most about this last shooting is that we’re not gonna be upset in a few weeks – and that’s not okay.”

Her head shakes with incredulity at the needless violence.

She suddenly sits on the ground, unable to feel a call to action in this moment.

The echoes of silenced voices surround her.

Tomorrow will be another day, for some of us.

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*I wrote this, using the actual words of someone I know, a mother, in response to the latest large shooting.

Mistaken Feline Identity

I was in the bathroom trying to shave, a doubtful enterprise at best, especially after being sick and deciding that my appearance was even less important for several days. My neck resembled a cheese left long-forgotten in the bottom drawer of the fridge.

My wife Dawn energetically opened the bathroom door, regardless of my current state, and breathlessly asked, “Why is Güino outside?” (Güino is our tuxedo cat and our current landlord.)

My mind began racing, attempting to imagine the scenario wherein the cat dematerialized and passed through a wall – or in a more sinister fashion, learned how to open the front door.

Dawn raced to the living room window facing the street and peered through the blinds. “He was looking at me through the office window!”

Just as I decided that I foolishly let him escape through some unimaginable series of events, Dawn exclaimed, “That’s not Güino!”

I almost regret that Dawn figured out the bewildering puzzle before cat-whispering the outside doppelganger strange cat into the house, only to be face-to-face with Güino.

What a strange tale we might have told, as our house morphed from a solo to a duet, cat fur flying in the background, one of the rarest cases of mistaken feline identity.

P.S. Dawn already wears glasses.

Mercurial Nature of Knowledge

At 50, I look upon the 18,587 days I’ve been alive and marvel at the things I’ve learned. Truthfully, I’ve learned more in the last 5 years than I learned in the first 45 because life hides a sledgehammer behind its back, one thankfully equipped to remind me that the first rule of life is to forget what you think you know.

I wish I had known the mercurial nature of knowledge when I was 15. The feeling of loss when finishing a good book, the pang of connectedness observing someone you value as they needlessly suffer, or the fruitless nature of unabated worry – all of these define us as we climb the descending staircase.

The mind follows the heart – and if not, everything following rings hollow.

All Hat in Springdale

I voted in the Springdale special election today. This city has impressed me beyond reproach. It’s a place with problems but what a delight to see it step away from the shadow of what it once was – and also attempt to navigate the shifting demographics of who lives here.

The dynamic of “what once was” versus what the city is becoming is a fascinating and uneasy study in politics and economics.

All I could think of was Ray Dotson’s hat as I voted “Approve” for each item on the ballot. No offense to Ray or his hat but symbolism plays a role, often at the expense of the person attempting to mold it to his or her end. In Springdale, we are a cowboy hat, sombrero, and zories. We’re not one or the other because we’re learning that we don’t have to choose one to the detriment of the others.

Listening to some Springdale residents reminded me that many weren’t going to vote based on a shared reality of progress. As much as I would have loved to sit on the couch, it seemed wise to venture out and let Springdale know that even though I don’t endorse everything happening, I can’t criticize what’s been done in the last few years, by those doing the mundane work, day after day.

I relish the opportunity to criticize, but voting “Yes” was a “thank you,” from someone who seldom sees the direct impact of my vote.

I’m hoping I wake up tomorrow to a city whose vote reflects the shift in the last decade.

May This Be Enough, Always

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Though the photo might have been a bit blurry and taken with the most inexpert of hands, it perennially resided in Henry’s pocket, decades later, his own private Mona Lisa. In quiet moments, he studiously uprooted the snapshot from its cocoon, fingering the edges of the one true memory of his life. He saw the haunting beauty of the faintest smile in the picture in his hand and knew that the universe, though for a fleeting moment, had chosen to give him a precious and transitory gift.

His friend Joseph had come by to pick him up before the train came to gather young men. Joseph had a camera and seldom needed an excuse to use it. Henry and Joesph laughed as they drove, wondering at the uncertain adventure of their long lives stretched before them. They stopped near the house Henry lived in with his grandmother for 8 years. The love of Henry’s life wiped away the tears gathering in her hazel eyes and stood lonesomely by the roadside, her presence unexpected and a steely finger into his heart. Even though they spoke their goodbyes the night before, Sally was there, waiting, her hands restless and her eyes reddened from the shock of impending separation. Surprised by the sudden shift from jovial to melancholy, Joseph fumbled and took the cherished picture before Henry could join Sally for the picture. Instead of joining her for another snapshot, Henry embraced her as she leaned toward him, sobbing. They drove as slowly as the car would allow, marking the sun’s arc across the afternoon sky, telling shared stories of their times together. They all felt their childhoods melt away as they drove toward the station.

This picture, it was enough to replenish him, always, no matter how difficult the day. Jacob sent it soon after Henry entered boot camp. Attached was a note: “We’re waiting.” That day at Salerno, screaming and deafened by the inhumanity of his surroundings, the foggy minute early in November, decades ago, when the word “cancer” pierced his heart, even the afternoon 17 years ago, when the last connection to his biological family passed away – all of these were momentarily forgotten with a glance at his most prized possession.

Henry barely survived the river at Salerno, his vision of Italy scarred by war. He came home, hobbling and injured, to find his Sally waiting for him. They were married the day he arrived. Joseph stood by him and held him upright as the Presbyterian minister shouted his invocations. Henry and Sally loved like no other existed. Sally died in her sleep in early 1944 of an infection, one which came suddenly and with finality. They had shared only 122 days together as man and wife. No matter how sweet the days would be ahead of him, Henry knew that his life would be a black-and-white rainbow without her.

He returned to the war, voluntarily, and went back into the world to find something to stuff inside the void of his heart. Henry lived to be 96 years old, each day in recognition that he had already experienced the best of life. He laughed easily, cried deeply, and hugged with the ferocity of those accustomed to loss.  Henry taught me all the important lessons in life, each lesson ribboned with the reminder that pain comes to those who have chosen to live a full life.

Pressed inside his favorite book of hand-written words of wisdom, Henry’s treasured picture came to me,  its edges defying time and submission to decay. I wept, knowing that Henry’s fingers had caressed this last reminder of his sweet Sally countless times, each a silent prayer of thanks and loss.

When I decided to copy it and frame it for my own wall, I turned it over and found these words inscribed by Henry:

“May this be enough, always,” he had written.

May you find your ‘enough,’ and may it be sufficient for you, always.

 

Love, X

 

May Your Days and Nights Be Filled With Karls and Ninnys

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At the intersection of worlds: “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Sling Blade.” I awoke, staring at 3:33 on the clock, hearing the resonant voices of Karl Childers and Ninny Threadgoode fading from my mind. I could feel their enchanting universes slipping away from me, foggy nostalgia as real and certain as the bed in which I found myself. The quote in the picture popped into my imagination. I don’t remember the dream which seemed to have spanned an entire life while I slept, but what a great place to live, one in which both fictional and real people would come to life and interact. It was a testament to the power and appeal of both stories, with characters so rich that it would be impossible to resist an invitation to live in their worlds.

I would reverently walk those sparse roads and listen, sit on the porch and hear the whispers through time and share a thousand laughs. Yes, even dreams would come to an end, no different than our waking life, a finite loop of possibilities. When I awoke, though, the fading resonance of a rocking chair moving against loosely-nailed boards still filled my ears – and I felt an acute loss fill my heart, the one beating between the twilights, one waking, one still in the other world.

People often connect with us in ways that can’t be easily defined. Sometimes, they do so across years, generations, and in spite of all our differences. If we are lucky enough and allow our imaginations to flourish, sometimes those characters created by others come to visit us on either side of the drowsy line. Lifetimes can be lived between these spaces. For those truly blessed, the people within the boundaries of their lives experience this daily.

I hope your day has a few Karls and Ninnys, people who light your life with interest and spark.
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(The picture is of ‘the’ house from “Fried Green Tomatoes.” You can see Ninny in the upstairs window, watching Karl and Frank below…)
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