Just don’t think

Many years ago a friend and I met another friend for lunch. He’d retired early to care for his wife, who’d been stricken with early-onset Alzheimer’s. A home health-care aide visited a few hours a week to stay with her, so he could buy groceries, pick up medicine, or get a haircut. On this day, he chose to use this valuable time to meet us at a restaurant.

They had several children, who never visited. They couldn’t bear seeing the woman who was no longer their mother, he said. He forgave them, but there was an edge of bitterness in his voice.

He knew something was wrong when he found a gallon of milk beneath the sink. The disease progressed quickly, and in a few short months the mother of his six children babbled incoherently, and was constantly in motion – pacing, trying to unlock the door, apparently unaware of her surroundings.

When I first met him, he worked at an automobile manufacturing facility in human resources, behind a steel desk. Once a month or so, we’d pile in my car and drive to his favorite restaurant, where he always ordered the same thing. I knew he liked me when we arrived and as he emerged from the back seat noticed the gear-shift lever. “Mrs. J$@!(&!”, the name he called his co-worker who was the same age as his daughter, and a year younger than me. “Did you know she was driving a stick-shift car?”

Mrs. J$@!(&!” who had been riding in the front seat, chuckled. As he held the door to the restaurant for us, he said, “It was as smooth as an automatic transmission!”

At this lunch, less than a year after he retired, he was already waiting at the dimly lit, otherwise empty restaurant close to his home. The ashtray already held a couple of crushed-out Salems. He stood and kissed each of us on the cheek before handing us menus.

He looked at me somberly. “Mrs. J$@!&!” tells me you’re getting divorced.”

I smiled. “Yeah, but it’s okay.”

Mrs. J$@!&!” put her hand on my forearm and smiled. “She’s fine.” Mrs. J$@!&!” had taken over his position when he retired, and had continued to send me work during a challenging time in my life.

“Good.” He lit another cigarette.

Our waitress arrived. I ordered a salad. I don’t remember what Mrs. J$@!&!” ordered, but he commented, as usual, “I don’t see how she can eat that much, but she always does. Mrs. J$@!&!” laughed. The waitress didn’t take his order. She already knew.

“You’ll get through this,” he said.  “Just don’t think.”

 

 

 

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A fish story

I’ve lived here almost 3 years. Before then, the house was vacant.

There’s a small koi pond in the side-yard, just beneath my bedroom window. The concrete’s cracked, so it doesn’t hold much water, but a bright orange and white fish, around 6 inches long, somehow managed to survive the brutal winter and scorching summer before I arrived. When I first moved in and was still renting, I asked the home’s owner if they’d resettle the fish in their new koi pond. She insisted it had survived many summers and winters and would be fine.

“That fish will live forever,” she said. “It was there when we bought the house. It’s either a koi, or a shubunkin.”

A friend, who’s an animal rights activist, suggested buying a large aquarium for the fish to winter in. I considered releasing it into the mill pond, but my imagination ran from it growing to the size of a rowboat, to being chopped up by an outboard motor propeller, to me being led off in handcuffs for breaking some law about introducing non-native species into a freshwater lake.

I contacted a pond specialist in California and tried desperately to find someone to repair the pond, but was unable to find anyone willing to do the work. For the past 3 years, that fish lived in a few inches of water, and somehow survived being frozen alive for several months a year. Each morning, after the ice melted, I looked down from my bedroom window and marveled at that fish.

It was the perfect “pet” for someone who had difficulty walking and limited financial resources. It survived on tadpoles and mosquito larvae and I have no idea what else. I occasionally tended to its habitat by removing dead leaves, plastic bags and candy wrappers, and on long stretches of very hot days, added some water. Otherwise, I left it alone.

A few days ago, I looked down at the pond. The fish was gone. I was still recovering from the flu, and wanted to believe the fever had caused me to hallucinate an empty pond. Each day thereafter, I looked down from my window. No fish.

Earlier today, Phil, who cut the grass for me last week, called.

“I stopped in today to check on your fish. He’s not there.”

“I know,” I replied.

“He wasn’t there when I mowed the other day, either.”

The first time Phil realized there was a fish in the pond, he insisted, “I’m gonna feed him.” I promised him the fish had survived in its fragile little ecosystem and I was terrified the introduction of anything into the shallow water would so pollute it the fish would be deprived of oxygen.

“Please don’t,” I said. It would have been easier to lie and say I fed it specially formulated koi food, an explanation that would have satisfied Phil, but I didn’t.

“It was old,” he said.

“Where did it go? If it died, it’s body would be there. There’s no trace of that fish.”

I keep reminding myself . . . “it’s just a fish.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Black Mamba

Dreaming should be peaceful. A smooth black face, with yellow eyes with slits for pupils followed by a length of shiny black scales should not jolt anyone awake.

Please tell the dream fairy to send the scary snake away. I am too old for nightmares.

I want to ride unicorns into dense green forests, followed by a flock of butterflies, not come face to face with a deadly serpent.

That black mamba awakened me, tonight. There are times when I don’t sleep well, and I’m often plagued by nightmares, but this one was so vivid, my first impulse was to reach for the vodka, but it’s 1:20 a.m. and the liquor stores are all closed.

Please tell me it’s not an omen.

 

 

 

 

 

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Wanting nothing

When the furnace failed in the middle of a very cold winter, I built a fire in the fireplace, cooked a chicken in the oven, left the oven door open once it was cooked, ran a hot bath and steeped in it until the sweat ran down my face, then climbed beneath several blankets to sleep. I left the water running so the pipes wouldn’t freeze and went for a long walk in the metropark across from my home the following day, kept my parka on when I returned, ate leftover chicken for dinner, took another hot bath and slept soundly for the second night. I built another fire and tended it the following day, took a walk, ate the rest of the chicken, took another bath, and went to sleep.  The following Monday, I called the repairman.

“Why did you wait so long to call me?” he asked.

“It failed while I was at work on Friday. By the time I got home it was 8 p.m. I couldn’t spoil your weekend.”

“It’s just me,” I  added.

“Don’t wait, again,” he said. His face betrayed his kindness.

I lived in that house for 10 years. It was my sanctuary.

As the furnace aged, so did I. I worried about the cost to replace it, and how I’d manage when it did.

It all worked out. When my came home from school, her happiness to be home reassured me keeping the home fires burning meant something to her, as well as to me.

I watched the northern lights from my front porch, watched deer chase each other from my kitchen window, and was greeted by snow-covered fawns peering through my bedroom window on snowy winter mornings. It was home.

Someone else lives there, now.

This wasn’t meant to be an elegy, but perhaps it is. I’m sure a family of geese still nests near the pond, the pink and white waterlilies still bloom, the chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, waxwings and sparrows still visit.

 

 

 

 

 

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Why I gave up writing

A couple of years ago, I gave up writing. The reasons for my decision are far less important than its consequences.

My friends are serious about their writing. When we communicated regularly, our interactions were typically so hilarious I laughed several times a day as I recalled someone’s brilliant quip. Just as often, I found myself revisiting a particularly lovely phrase, enjoying the combination of words, or the image they conjured.

I miss those interactions. Particularly now, anything that can make me laugh would be welcome. When I stopped writing, I was sure I’d lose touch with these friends, but we are still in contact, albeit less often. We don’t laugh as much as we once did, but no one seems to be laughing, lately.

I’ve read the words of many writers, and recognize those who write do so for a variety of reasons. Some write to entertain, some to educate, others to persuade. Some simply record their observations, leaving judgment to the reader. Others marvel at the natural beauty that surrounds us, and hope to inspire those who don’t. Many of my friends who write do so because it’s essential as breathing; others describe it more amorphously, as “a passion.” A close friend once confided he writes because it helps him understand the world.

Giving up writing wasn’t something I considered carefully. I simply stopped. Admittedly, I thought about writing a lot, just as I still think about skiing, running, dancing, and rock-climbing, since I began relying on a cane to walk. I wouldn’t miss those activities if I hadn’t once enjoyed them all, and I did not give them up willingly.

I don’t understand how some people harbor contempt for those who are less fortunate, and I know it’s senseless to try. I’m certain they’ll continue to draw support from each other, and eventually they’ll simply cut themselves off from anyone with whom they disagree. In my mind, I envision them all occupying a small cramped compartment, where, like the fictional characters who occupied an island in Lord of the Flies, they can govern their self-selected membership as they see fit.

The rest of us, who recognize the inevitability of aging and its effect on our bodies, of unforeseeable accidental injury, of congenital, hereditary, environmental and contagious illnesses, do not need to be presented with statistical or other evidence to be persuaded. We trust our powers of observation and experience and can take some comfort in the recognition that we don’t have to resort to contorted logic to support our opinions.

I’ve learned over time to recognize my own limitations, both physical and intellectual. If I spent every second of the rest of my life trying to understand the world, I couldn’t. I’m glad some continue to try. I need to read their words.

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Numbers really don’t matter

If you’ve lost one family member or loved one to gun violence, that’s the only number that matters.

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My daily meditation

My garden sleeps beneath a blanket of sparkling snow. I sip my chamomile as I survey the quiet scene.

My heart rate slows. My muscles relax.

It’s January, 2017. The election is over, and the United States of America has a new president, and new representatives in Congress. My exhaustion has given way to hope.

 

 

 

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This season is meant to be joyful

A few years ago, when I was living in a house with no insulation and an ancient furnace, I didn’t think about the comfortable homes or the jobs I’d lost. I thought only about improving the life I was living at the time, and the only way I could do that was to help improve the lives of others.

“If you do something good for others, no matter how small, you will make a difference,” I told myself. I still have hope that if I continue doing the right thing, my efforts will be meaningful.

I’ve found myself lapsing into sarcasm, lately, when I’ve been exhausted by fighting the good fight. I can’t offer my exhaustion as an excuse, but I can recognize how it’s affected me, and acknowledge I need to avoid responding to offensive opinions with snarky remarks. Sarcasm is, I’ve found, too easily misconstrued as assent.

Emerging from a state of exhaustion must be a gradual process, I’ve learned, and being “quiet” is essential to recovery. I’m fortunate to have this perspective, while others are struggling in so many ways.

This season is meant to be joyful. If you can, find your joy and hang onto it for dear life, because each life, including our own, is dear. If you can, during hubbub of the holidays, take a moment and find your joy, in some small way.

There is peace within us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Treasure

I’ve been avoiding the boxes in the attic, particularly those with my daughter’s name scrawled on their lids and sides. I know what’s in them, but I push them aside, not yet ready to remove the packing tape.

I know their contents like I know the whorl just to the right of where I parted her hair before I plaited it into two long braids that reached her waist. There are summer camp photos of girls with braces on their teeth grinning at the camera, arms encircling each other’s necks, and autograph albums with tiny hearts and smiley faces in various places. At the bottom, there are a few broken crayons, partially empty bottles of glitter glue, colorful pencil erasers shaped like puppies, kittens, and ducks, sheets of stickers with faint outlines where a few were removed, and, in all probability, an odd sock or mitten.

The haste of moving from one place to another, for a new job, a more comfortable home, relegated these treasures to a couple of cardboard cartons. They traveled from bedroom closet to basement, from basement to storage unit, from storage unit to rented condo, from rented condo to storage unit, then to another storage unit, and then to a garage, and from that garage, to the attic, intact.  A long journey, spanning almost two decades.

My conscience tells me I should scavenge these boxes for non-edible Halloween favors, (there are some lovely temporary tattoos of unicorns, and flowers, and flocked stickers of a variety of animals that could bring joy to a child whose imagination is ignited something besides chocolate) but I’m afraid they’ll be discarded, or worse, confiscated by parents and sold on Ebay as “collectibles.” I push the memory of my mother’s favorite holiday table decorations on a flea market vendor’s table from my mind, and open the boxes.

Those little treasures, packed away for years, deserve a better fate than to be tossed in the trash, or perhaps worse, to be hermetically sealed in some aspiring entrepreneur’s closet, in anticipation of luring some fetishist, who’ll pay big money for a “My Little Pony,” who a four year-old girl once kissed on the nose each night before her parents tucked her into bed.

Despite my fears and misgivings, I will give away the stickers, the stamps, the small toys at Halloween, hopeful that when another little girl dumps the contents of her orange plastic pumpkin, she’ll find among the tiny chocolate bars and bags of colorful candies, something rare and precious.

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Sticks and stones

I’m sharing some painful memories, which are offered to illustrate, rather than to offend. Please forgive the coarse language I’ve quoted. It was common “back in the day.” Thankfully, those days were long ago.

After school one day, my brother told our mother a classmate called him a “kite.” Our teachers told us, “Sticks and stones can break our bones, but words will never hurt us,” and the phrase, “I’m rubber, and you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me, and sticks to you,” was offered in reply to bullying and name-calling.

My mother replied, “Tell him he’s uncouth.”

The next day, my brother told Mom his antagonist had had gotten him in trouble by telling their teacher my brother called him a “coon.”  Mom calmly explained that “kyke” was a derogatory name for a Jew, and “coon,” was an equally insulting name for an African American. At that time, African Americans were still called “colored people,” and “Negroes.”

It’s important to mention that our father was a Jew. Our mother wasn’t. The little boy hurling the racial slurs was white.

My mother was in a difficult situation, because our family was vulnerable, but Mom never permitted others’ prejudice to intimidate her. We learned to ignore the taunts and not to engage with the provocateurs. Fifty years ago, when words were the weapons, rather than guns, that was the appropriate response.

I wish I could end this essay, here, but I need to add an explicit conclusion.

More guns is not the appropriate response.

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