Leaving Your Troubles Behind

DSCN9875

Sometimes, in the midst of rocking and rolling within our invisible life boats as another mini-gale peaks and subsides, we yearn for a break. And speaking for myself, there are also moments when I need to vacate the confines of my vacuous or nitpicking or redundant thoughts. It isn’t always clear what a reprieve may be despite desperate daydreams or spontaneous forays onto travel sites to check on the cost of a plane ticket to (and cheap hotel room in), say, Copenhagen or Buenos Aries. How many “free” miles has my spouse racked up after several business trips already this year? Likely not enough for where I want to go, what I want to do. I was thinking: a month in a cabin by a sparkling lake under the reassuring watchfulness of mountains in British Columbia. Or a combination of a thrilling/lazy respite in pristine New Zealand. But I will just as gratefully take a steamboat cruise down the Mississippi River for a couple of weeks.

Next year, maybe, if I start saving now.

Since I don’t have huge money at easy disposal I’ve become reasonably adept at taking little internal and external breaks. It gets even easier when the rain stops, since I love the outdoors. I enjoy the beach for a week-end, meander by car over the breathtakingly varied Northwest topography, take day hikes and visit all green spaces and nature preserves we can find nearby. All these make an immediate difference in my state of mind.

Simply stepping into fresher air (for the most part it is fresher in Oregon than many places) gives me a lift. I like my balcony all year around even though it does face a two-story house and a big backyard with its oft-used barbecue. I have flowers in crayon-colored pots. There is room enough for a three or four other folks if required or desired. And I can see partial sunsets and a few choice constellations even within the city.

And there is my usual: daily walks and the gym, music and books, action-packed or funny or romantic movies, light shopping (must watch cash flow), having lunch with friends (as long as heavy topics are off-limits), making art (I even have a Lego brand architecture set waiting for me to build something), visiting galleries and so on. I am not easily bored unless my own mind corners me with it pathetic insistence that I keep perseverating about the infinite meanings of life. Or the lack of signs of optimum earth life. The other night I thought: I just have to shut the door on myself more often. Granted, I have been grieving my sister’s death, but the thought still seemed right in the morning. It was easier to do that when I still worked long hours with other people’s issues.

But there are times when I am surprised by a turn of events, when even something expected takes on a far better sheen and opens up mind and spirit.

My new once-a-week break took shape a few months ago when I joined a women’s study group at my church. Alright, I suspect you want to stop reading right now and are thinking: really, a religious group, a bunch of women mostly over forty and a couple into their eighties? Not an auspicious rendering of “taking a break.” But I had gone to the traditional coffee hour after a church service and talked with an artistic woman whose cards I admired. She–right then and there–asked me if I would like to come to the Open Circle group. I liked the name of it immediately and her responsive but quiet way, so agreed to attend, shocking myself.

It took a month or two to get there, but when I made the decision I felt ready. Yet, as I entered heavy wooden side doors and trudged up the stairs to a very large room, it again crossed my mind that maybe this was not what I needed or was looking for; maybe it would even put me to sleep. Or I would say something not acceptable to them. But I had been looking for a welcoming, energizing congregation for years and when I finally felt that church might be the one, I took an unprecedented action: I joined something without having a clear idea what it was about and would happen.

Frankly, I am not an easy joiner as much as I appreciate mingling and working with others. And I do not fit a “typical” mainstream Christian believer in a few ways, due to my own theological understandings and personal experiences. I have tried other study groups throughout the years and never found a comfortable spot, at least not since my youth.

It has, however, occurred to me that being comfortable is not always the best thing. Into the room I went and surveyed the scene.

The women sat in a loose circle as if reflecting the name Open Circle. The decaf and regular coffee dispensers and cookies of the sort one has at any meeting anywhere were arranged on a cart. I availed myself of some of each. I was instructed to write my name on folded white construction paper as the others had done, then placed it at the spot I claimed. I recognized a few faces; people greeted me with a smile and nod. And we began.

I’ll spare you the tiresome bits and exact nature of our studies. But I do want to note that each time we get to know one another with creative icebreaker questions and personal prayer requests. The informative studies happen, but within this context. And the women are lively in discussion, thoughtful and open to others’ opinions.

Their sincerity that first day nearly overwhelmed me. Many are so invested they continue to attend after many years, extend themselves to one other beyond the meeting, engage with bold intelligence. It is a genuine community of thinkers and doers, all Christian and still searching for greater knowledge and connection.

I couldn’t wait to go back and did so. After a couple of months I began to develop a clearer sense of folks. My respect has grown. Their lives, of course, hold challenges not readily apparent while demonstrating strength and hope moves me. I began to rearrange a corner here and there in my mind so it was a better space to think about things in a fresh ways, ponder an array of faith concerns, consider the impact of their lives intersecting with mine. I am learning more about our complicated, sometimes  confounding faith. It is like moving steadily across a common landscape toward a brightening horizon, only this time not so alone. New information is being excavated, with better tools to aid us as we dig even deeper. How do we demonstrate in our living what we are committed to upholding?

The prayers at that table can shake me in my innermost center. Those moments tell me this is where Spirit thrives and people work to bring into fruition thoughts and deeds of compassion, despite human frailties. God, after all, already knows how and why we have failed or could fail–but that’s no excuse for not keeping at it.

Yesterday was the end-of-the-year group luncheon. It sounded like a pleasant way to spend a few hours at a stunning home with women I wanted to know better. The sky was displaying its early summer genius with vivid blue; bright sunshine made it even better. Roses and many other flowers were showing off, their blooms redolent of a tender richness. As I entered, women greeted me, chatted with me, showed me around. Iced tea and lemonade and a little wine were passed from outdoor table to hands. I finally took a seat and in minutes enjoyed various companions. Something interesting was revealed about each person with whom I conversed as we filled the deep patio and shady yard, waiting for lunch to be served.

The hostess, a woman likely in her later seventies or early eighties, made all the food herself. The simple lunch was made of freshest ingredients with subtle but tasty seasonings. The desserts–five that I can recall–were five-star deliciousness. We ate off pretty china and sipped from chilled crystal goblets. I was told this lady puts on the luncheon yearly, as she has been church and group member for more than a couple of decades. It is an act of love, a gracious offering of her time and an unusual talent for hospitality. I left content, satiated by excellent food (I am not a foodie, either) and genial conversation.

Much to think over. Already I am wishing it was autumn so the group could reconvene. I look forward to welcoming someone who is newer, finding out how to be of service, participating in more thought-provoking discussions. I am hoping to become a good friend as well as welcome others into my life. And that my faith will expand and be shared in effective ways.

This post was to be about taking a break, leaving behind troublesome or self-absorbed thoughts that can threaten to undermine–any sort of reprieve that does what you need it to do. Or what you weren’t looking for at the start. And maybe this kind of time away from your home or head would not be for you. I wish you well in your search for rejuvenation.

But for me, this circle of pilgrim women has been a surprising answer to prayer.

(Thank you, KB, for extending a kind invitation to me.)

 

The Special

Photo  by Igor Moukhin
Photo by Igor Moukhin

They live a block apart, just down the street from the other but they hadn’t spoken to each other in years. For four decades, to be exact. It wasn’t something terrible, planned out like a vendetta. They didn’t acknowledge one another face-to-face after that summer, that’s all. I thought it was strange, but lots of things people do are unexpected. Since I knew them both, I was in a hard spot at first. They didn’t include me in it and it was better that way. After the first couple of years I got the point and stayed friends with them both.

But seeing them in the same places and not even looking at each other, not directly at least–that still throws me off. They telegraph a quick vibe that’s not so comfortable, step back and maybe nod at whoever else is nearby. Not too long ago Terry was behind Vincent in the drugstore before he realized it. I was with Vincent and turned to grab a couple of peppermint patties.

“Hey, Terry, how’s it goin’?”

“Marty, going great, you and the food business good as usual?” Then he looked a moment at Vincent’s profile and then away.

“Thriving. Come in and I’ll treat you to a steak. Even give you a doggy bag of scraps for your mutt.”

“Our handsome Rusty? He’ll love you for that. I’ll have to get out my good pants and shine my shoes, your place is jumping these days. I’ll stop by sometime with Janell.”

We moved on and when I turned to see if Terry was looking back at us as we exited, he wasn’t.

“Come on, slacker,” Vincent said, four paces ahead of me.

I kept a snapshot of our teen days stuck in a dusty album. I used to study it, thought I could figure us all out. Vincent is the one scowling, which he can still fall into off and on. Terry is the guy happy to have a girl in his arms. I think he’s looking at her friend but I’m not clear on it. I’m the one you don’t see, taking the picture with my Kodak, wishing the girl in front of me would turn around and see me. She was too swept up in conversation with the girl wedged between Terry and her so never did show me any favor. That picture is a tiny clue to a puzzle I have so far failed to solve.

It was the summer before high school and we were hanging out at one of our spontaneous street gatherings. Music was blaring from a portable radio. Fifteen or twenty kids usually showed up via word of mouth; there were blocks jam-packed with families. Everybody had the bead on everybody else, or thought they did. But nobody knows for sure what happened between Vincent and Terry, or if it was just one of those things. They had been buddies since kindergarten or before, same as me. By the time we started tenth grade, they had gone their separate ways and had nothing to say about it. Vincent shrugged and said, “Man, it’s nothin’ to freak out about, forget it, you and I–we’re good.” Terry told me, “It was a weird thing last summer. We had our own viewpoints, that’s all. Don’t worry about it, I’m cool.” So that was that.

Now we live in the same general neighborhood, better than our old district. Comfortable, a big step up. But it’s taken awhile. Vincent lives four blocks from me but close to Terry. A park divides their houses, though, and when you walk through it, you come out to a “little less” or a “more” environment. Vincent was the “less” but he did well, too. Terry didn’t have children so they never had to worry about their kids becoming bosom buddies.

I left in the seventies, hitchhiked out to California for a year. I got high too much, worked odd jobs, ate too little. It was an experience but I came back to my parents’ restaurant. Now it’s mine. Vincent couldn’t wait to work at the Ford factory, said he made great money and benefits and was proud to help build a fine product, then became a manager. He liked to play ball on week-ends, likes to attend games now and toss a ball with neighbor kids. He has a good family that is tight. Terry was a good student and liked school so he went to college, fell for the charms of Janell, a mixed race gal, got married, went on to become a veterinarian, as did she. He takes on quite a few indigent pet owners, which I’m all for. He can afford it.

This weekend when I’m trying out a new chicken dish, a special, Vincent comes in with Haley and their son, Jay. He’s all excited to see me, wants to tell me something, but I’m rushing around staying on top of things, greeting new patrons, hoping the dish will be as perfect as it was during trial runs. Otherwise, my new chef is gone and I’m going to send out an S.O.S. for help.

Friends always think you can do them a favor, make their visit extra special, more meaningful somehow. Not necessarily going to happen but I try. I seat his family by a large window that looks out over a creek.

“Got good news to tell you,” Haley beams at me after a quick hug.

“Can’t wait to hear it, but later, sorry. Try the new Chicken Roulade. A winner.”

Vincent settles back, keeps his news on hold while Haley sulks the barest amount as she scans a menu. Jay looks a little sweaty even though his polo is clean, so likely was dragged in from skateboarding. He’s already decided on T-bone, he always does.

“Glad you all came in, guys. I’ll check back when I get a chance to chat.”

“Sure, no worries.” Vincent waves me off as I head to the kitchen, on the way instructing a waitress to tend to them sooner rather than later.

A half hour later the place is crowded with people lined up at the door. I’m counting my lucky stars again. The Range and Sea has been updated and revitalized; it has paid off fast. I’m standing in the back, chatting with staff, watching folks come and go. The special was perfect as it could be, excellent wine is flowing, everyone is relieved it’s Friday and glad to be at my place. A swell of contentment fills me up and there’s a moment when everything that matters is clear to me, and I’m floating above the din and seeing how it all fits together. Except for Sara, my wife, soon to be ex-wife if she insists on having her way. The effervescence of happiness starts to go flat as I bring my mind back to the person who is asking me something.

Then I spot Terry’s head bobbing along as he jockeys for a spot to wait with Janell. Her dark, curly head leans against his shoulder. They’re a striking pair, he pale and angular, she caramel-hued, tall like him and vibrant in the sea of mostly white faces. She specializes in more unusual creatures, charges far more to examine paws and feathers, I’m sure.

I re-engage with the waiter in front of me despite wanting to welcome them.

“We’re running out of room, that line keeps lengthening,” he says, face ruddy, tinged with perspiration. He dabs his upper lip with a tissue.

“Good problem to have. Set up three more round tables on the side terrace if you can make the space without bothering diners.”

I glance back at Terry and Janell. They’re heading to a table as I go to my office to answer a phone call. I could hide out but prefer being on the floor of my establishment, absorbing the heady buzz of conversations while tantalizing fragrances emanate throughout the rooms.

It’s my wife on the other end. I close the door.

“Listen, I have thought some more and I think we should get counseling.”

I can hear her breathing and I know she is nervous. It throws me off.

“What?” I can’t believe she is calling me at rush hour.

“I mean, we might still try to make it work. Maybe I need to make some changes, too. I just don’t know what or how yet. I think we need someone one to help guide us…”

Her voice is thickened by threatening tears. I wonder what brought this on. But I’m not about to start questioning things. I have been hopeful and deflated before. Despite my passion for work, I so need and love her, too. “Okay.”

“Okay? Just like that?” She whistles, which sounds funny making its way between teariness and the serious tone. But that’s Sara for you. “Then will you come home earlier tonight? Please?”

I consider the restaurant, how much there is to do yet before I oversee closing up around midnight. But, yes, I could leave early.

“Is this for real? Don’t answer. I’ll do my best. Yes, I’ll come home earlier.”

When I open the door, I feel lighter even as my stomach quivers. I suck it in and head into the softly lit, navy blue and dove grey decorated rooms. I search for Terry and Janell, and remind myself I need to stop by Vincent’s table, too. I can see Terry’s balding head above others and make a beeline.

And slow down as I approach.

Terry is seated by the window, next to Vincent’s table. In fact, they are facing each other across a small space separating them. The women are looking from husband to husband, then back to each other. I approach with cautious friendliness.

“I see you’re all taken care of? Got your food already, Vincent, Haley. I hope it’s to your liking tonight. Glad you all came!”

“Maybe we could be seated elsewhere, Marty,” Janell suggests in an calm voice. “Not sure this was the best idea.”

“Well, why not?” Haley pipes up.”You and I are friendly enough. Let the men do as they do. The food is tasty, the creek view is lovely.”

Jay shakes his head, takes another bite of rare steak coupled with a roasted garlic potato.

Vincent is gesturing wait staff for more wine and not meeting my eyes. Terry is looking at his watch, as if to gauge whether or not they can get in elsewhere for dinner before fainting from hunger. They love to eat out every week-end. I want them to stay, and come again soon.

“I think we’ll manage. We’re about to order,” he says to Janell, then smiles widely at me–but his eyes are half-closed as if shielding what he really feels, a quirk he’s always had.

I step aside while my staff attend to both tables. I am wondering what the news is from Vincent’s camp but think better of that. “How about the Chicken Roulade?”

“Mine was very good. We’ll finish up in a few, yes, Haley? After another glass or two of wine. We’re celebrating, after all.”

Vincent is getting loose, just enough that we notice. He’s not a big drinker like his dad was, but it occurs to me he’s trying to deal with being so near Terry. How do you leave when it’s obvious? When you aren’t acknowledging someone in the first place?

Terry pulls his sleeve over the watch, puts his hand on Janell’s. They taste their wine as if discovering its virtues for the first time.

“So, business is fantastic. We haven’t stopped by for a couple months. I’m impressed. You’ve done a fine job at refurbishing things, and I bet you’re giving really good competition to the rest.”

Janelle smooths her hair back from her face and the movement is a tell, showing her attempt to keep things neatly under wraps.

Terry taps my shoulder as I lean in. “We need to have a barbecue this summer, invite the neighborhood, make it a big affair, even a pool party, what do you think?”

“I agree, we could use more fun. We all work way too hard. Maybe in  July? If we can just get everyone to agree on a date and time that suits all.” That would be interesting, everyone together, even Vincent?

“That’s the truth, we do work too hard for our fifties,” Vincent says from the half-slouch he’s affecting. “Anything else we need to state or overstate?” He sits taller. “In fact, anything we need to say that hasn’t been said before?”

“Dad, come on.” Jay pauses, fork in mid-air, puts it down. “Mom?”

His mother makes a little moue with her mouth, lifts her goblet, sets it down. She is done with her Cobb salad, waits to see what happens. She trades a look with Janell but it’s unreadable.

“Hey, I need to run, but I’m always gratified when my friends come by,” I say, anxious for this to blow over, wanting to keep the mood lighter, hoping to be home earlier than usual to see what else Sara has up her sleeve.

“Well,” Terry starts, his voice quietly commanding our attention, “let’s get it done. Tell me: why did your father say that to my mother that summer night we were barbecuing in our yard? In that way? With that look? Aye, Vincent?”

Vincent sits up straight, barrel chest out. “Of course. I supposed that was still it. That all this time you’ve labored over it, tried to make sense of something that had nothing to do with us. That was about stupid issues we didn’t understand. I didn’t, anyway.”

“‘Stupid issues’?” Spittle with bits of chicken falls from Terry’s lips and he wipes it away, then inflates with a steadying breath. “My dad was thinking of leaving her, you knew that. Not everyone did, but your family did. But they were still together, and I was praying all summer they would stay that way. The cook-out was going well, everyone was good, Dad was even being attentive to my mom. Then when Dad went inside your dad sidled up–”

“‘Sidled up’? Like it was something dangerous? I was there, too. He was just making conversation, they were all good friends!”

Janell puts her arm around the back of Terry’s chair as he continues.

“–sidled up to her and says, ‘If I were your husband, I’d be more careful. You have beautiful eyes of an angel.’ And he leaned down and whispered something in her ear, put his hand on her back for a split second. ‘Right?’ he said and laughed. I saw your mother flinch, saw my mom smile an embarrassed smile. And there was Dad, at a standstill with a platter of hamburgers as he watched your dad slink away, my mom stand alone with her arms wrapped around her. I’ll never forget her face, confused, anxious.”

I almost want to bolt. This is none of my business. I have other things to do, important things. But I can’t move.

“I told you what was what then,” Vincent says as he starts to stand, then is tapped on the arm by his wife. He sits. “My dad could talk too much, said things he should have kept to himself. But he wasn’t the sort of man you accused him of being, and he didn’t do anything bad then!”

“Like hell.” Terry seethes but with quietness, ever mindful of his surroundings. “You weren’t there later that night. You didn’t have to hear Dad and Mom arguing and watch my dad pack up a suitcase and leave the house. You weren’t me in my dark little room, watching out the window as he pulled out the driveway like a madman and then disappeared for the whole week-end. Your dad instigated all that.”

The waiter brings the orders to Terry’s table, speaks to me of a kitchen issue, then leaves. All is silent. I try to think of a way to call it a night on this topic. My wonderful special steams on the white and silver-trimmed plates. And isn’t touched.

“Wait a minute. Your dad actually left over that?”

Terry smooths the napkin on his lap. He picks up his fork and stares at it a long moment as if deciding if it is meant to do something else. “Yes.” He takes the knife and cuts a piece of chicken and eats, then cuts another. Janelle follows suit. Terry’s face reddens with each bite and he stops. “Yes, he left us, and that week-end felt like an eternity. All because your father made it look like my mother and he were in on something. It took a long while for our lives to re-settle when he got back Monday night. Too long. Alot was never the same for me.” He sets his fork tines atop the enticing food on its pretty plate.

Jay coughs, takes a long swig of ice water.

Haley sits up straight. “And neither was the friendship between you boys, once two of the best friends. How can that be?”

“He never took back the curse he threw at me, at my own father, Haley. I almost beat him up, it was so wrong. I couldn’t keep my dad in check, anyway. It was all a mess so we just never talked again.”

I sit down between the two tables. “I’m sorry about that, guys, but…Really, that was decades ago. Who doesn’t have parents who were foolish in some way? Ours were good to us, tried to do the right thing most of the time. They all stayed together, right? And we’re still here and have a lot of blessings to be thankful about.”

I think about Sara, how we need to talk better, argue less. That I can’t wait to see her this time. How we can lose someone over what is not said or finally said wrong.

Jay has finished eating, sits with elbows propped on the white tablecloth, chin in hands. “You know something, damn it? You two are acting kind of like teen-agers, like you got stuck there. Sorry it was rough on you both, really. But can’t we just call it good now, make up and so on? Can’t we just talk about the prize we won?”

I don’t mean to laugh but it explodes from me and in a few seconds the spell seems nearly broken as Vincent and Terry shift, relax. I stand up, roll my shoulders free of tension. “Just tell us the surprise.”

Vincent gets up and raises his wine glass to both tables, which might be a result of being tipsy but he seems relieved and excited. “We won an all-expense paid trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands for ten days!”

“My gosh, Haley, are you still entering all those contests? And it finally paid off!”

Terry and Janell almost look glad for them. I try to envision them all going on vacation together but quickly let that go.

As I leave them, the women start carrying on about what resort wear actually is and fancy drink names they’d devise. Jay is enthusing about surfboarding and the girls he’ll meet. The two men, my old buddies, aren’t quite talking yet when I turn to look back but they aren’t in a big hurry to leave, either. They’re listening and settling. I figure it’s a start. At least I didn’t have to break up a fight. Terry and Vincent are far better than that, they just haven’t entirely finished up their old business. It can happen. I tend toward optimism; it’ll happen sometime soon.

But it wasn’t miraculous that they came to the Range and Sea tonight, were even seated next to one another. I put things in place. They won’t learn that piece. Vincent and Terry still mean that much to me.

 

The Heart Knows Its Way Back

 

Columbia River photograph by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

This grief is like a stone I cannot dislodge from the spinning center of my being. It makes my eyes small waterfalls. It is a rough hand in the night when I am in need of a soft touch. It melds me to melancholy, seeds my mind with memories. It makes me reach for something and forget what it is, my feet to stumble over the walk I know so well. The world seems so busy living, glad or mystified or angry about it, yes, full of retorts or words of sudden insights or the volleying about of various sorts of love–but at least not steeped in melancholia’s blues, greys. For me sadness is a pearlescent sheen of hurt that illumines day and night with somber beauty. Then the garish crimson of aching creases time, a slice into what I know and don’t know about sorrow. I bleed a little without you knowing it.

It is a relief to softly shout at God, a bold prayer that takes the air from me. It is made of words that only God knows so I cannot tell you what is said when I call out. Grief moans even when it is silent.

Why do we think we must move on, move on, keep up with the ticking of clocks in the midst of our losses? It is a ruinous thing to hurry forth. The river of sorrow takes with it everything and who are we to try to change it? Sometimes I get a foothold on the banks, pull myself up and tell myself, See, this is still the garden of human life on earth. I walk amidst a wilderness of flowers, I find wonder in the work of bees. I can speak to others and they speak back, eyes open. And seeing what? Is my heart showing, is yours? Is there a bridge to be made? We cannot walk across the chasms without help, without solace rendered by other souls.

But what often pulls me is the deep seat of my chair, the mug of tea that offers fragrant spice and sweetness on my tongue. What can soothe but the simplest things? Light that carries day into all corners of the rooms, the dark that sails me into night and beyond. Lessons of God as I meditate and pray. The strains of Debussy and Bach, Dexter Gordon’s jazz saxophone, the dance and drumbeat of Ireland, a wailing flamenco call. There are poems that remind me to be patient, art that reminds me of more to come. But whatever I see and hear, the surge of tears arrives. They are like warm water over the wound.

Some days I want to move on. I want to write things that are abundant in hope, notations of life that will bring to all more promise of fullness within the realms of Spirit. I want to be able to laugh without it being undercut by numbness or misgiving. But everything–the gym, the household chores, the forays into nature, the music and books and calls to friends who love me well, the family I call often, the spouse and others I tend to and who tend to me–everything I do leads me back to one thing: this is the thirty-second day my sister has not been living here, cannot be called, cannot be written or visited in the flesh. This fact is irrevocable within each twenty-four hours. It stares at me until I look back at it and see her face, hear her voice, know her beauty and kindnesses, want her back…perhaps then let her go a little more. But the crying remains, don’t ask me to try to stop it for it is a force that knows far more than I do.

It cannot be changed, grief. It changes us. It deepens and broadens everything, brings us closer to truth. Makes rich what felt paltry and empties what seemed full. It is a thread of grace wound about my being and stitches my longing to the heavens even as it stings. Grief tells tales of valor that end in loss and yearning that leads to more desire and hope that cannot brighten the lay of the terrain I must travel. It is what I hear and know, now, this moment.

So I thought I would not attempt to write today because I cannot speak of happiness, of wise acceptance of death and tenderest things that bring relief. But then I sat down and began, because this is one thing I must still do, let language shape feelings into something I recognize and can love. If we are fully human, we can and do feel it all, cannot ignore the ones that are hard or confusing, and certainly will not make them different than what they are. Not for long. They find a way to stake their claim on us, anyway. So I allow my innermost being to speak to myself, to others, for where is the value in making mute what wants to make a mission of great and small loves? This is the natural bent of the soul. And we have a heart both muscle and guide that must be heard and cared for in order to do its work. To be whole. But even when it falters, it has the greatest, the definitive say.

This heart, the one that beats within me and you. The one that stopped pumping in my sister after long suffering.

Let me give my heart its due, its authority, as did she, and feel the blessing of it. There is nothing else I can do today but let the rains come and breach the walls and in time, adapt, make a finer place again to be and do.

So please bear with my pensive offerings. I cannot hurry up. I have faith in this way and I will find my way back. I always have, God lighting my next steps. In time, prayer, tears, kindness, the glory of nature, creative work will all bring me to another rise in the path and help me see and long for the horizon once again. I do hope you find it in your life if your are sorrowing, too.

A scene from the last yearly Sisters' Trip taken with my two dear sisters.

A scene from the last yearly Sisters’ Trip taken with my two dear sisters.

 

The Half-Invisible Man

Photograph by Helen Levitt
Photograph by Helen Levitt

I’d lived on the same street as Gene’s barbershop for years and the one thing I knew for sure about Gene Wilsey was that he couldn’t much abide animals. He might be polite but that was customer service.

“They’re usually dirty and smelly, crave attention, spontaneously bite you and cost too much.” His lips turned down in distaste.

“But still, how can you not at least feel for animals a little? Like this creature. Give the guy a break.”

I’d bumped into Gene, arms full of groceries. He was shooing away a stray dog with his ever-present broom. The Labrador mix would have loved a treat and long drink of cool water.

“Not all animals, per se,” he said as the mutt slunk off. “I’m okay with cows, chickens and pigs and so on. I like horses better than pigs, but they all do what they’re supposed to do and they stay where they belong.”

He leaned on the broom handle as I clumsily unlocked the back door of my sedan. Gene knew I could use help and, typical for him, he’d likely keep leaning on the handle until I said something. I wasn’t going to ask. I set one bag on the roof and yanked the door open. Then I stashed the groceries, closed it, and leaned against the warm blue metal.

“We picked up Chigger yesterday from the vet. Has an eye infection.”

“Nice. Let me guess. Cat cost you a couple hundred bucks.”

I just smiled. “She’s a lot better and ready to take up her duties as mouser again. I look forward to her antics and purrs.”

“You should move from that building. Probably can’t because you spent your extra on the cat. That townhouse, fancy or not, seems to be a rodent magnet. Your real estate agent was a crook. You need me to come over and set up more traps?”

“Thanks, but now that Chigger’s home, things will settle back down.”

He swept some litter from the sidewalk into the street in front of my car, then stopped. “Okay, the offer is open. Anything you need, you know. How come the cat’s named Chigger, anyway?”

“Danny named her when he was little. Had something to do with her liking to stalk things in the empty lot grass and weeds, I forget. I’ll ask him sometime when I see him.”

The late afternoon sunlight glazed everything with a golden cast as it began its descent. Gene looked a little yellowish which made me worry, even if it was just the light. He had had skin cancer three years ago. Was he hanging out in the sunshine again? I could hear mom fussing at him, informing him of the right vitamins and minerals, that he should wear a wide-brimmed hat in all weather and heavy duty SPF. She had affection for him even though they had a history rife with arguing, too. Now she was in a nursing home, too early but too ill, and Gene was in his late sixties and still working.

“How’s Estella? I have to get up there this Sunday.”

“She’s complaining about the tomato juice, says it’s watery. I have to get her some V8. And she said her bed has a sag in it–that’s true, it does.”

“We need to get her something good–a chocolate muffin or a piece of that fancy lemon pie. Even if she just nibbles at it.”

He was done sweeping. The skinny black dog emerged from between a couple of cars and barked at Gene, then threw me a pitiful look as if he knew I’d be moved to do something for him. I checked my purse for cellophane-wrapped crackers I’d filched from a restaurant, but Gene swept the dog off his piece of sidewalk again. He barked back at the mutt and guffawed.

I got into my car, disconcerted. He waved me off ith a grin, then went into his barbershop.

I thought how Gene had visited my mother every single day as she was dogged by cancer and rallied with her when she got better. I had been eight when she first got ill, twenty-six years ago, but his presence had been a steady comfort in the evenings. There had never been anything formal about their relationship, no real indication they were a couple with a “C”. Mom was widowed when I was four and she remained a widow, while Gene had never married. Mary, mom’s oldest friend, called them “frenemies” since their arguing was as standard as their laughter. But I saw more.

I was about twelve. I had finished homework early and went downstairs for lemonade and a snack. I heard the creak of the porch swing and the low murmur of voices as I filled my glass and peeld apart slices of American cheese. It was late spring, and a breeze that swept through the screened door was laced with lilacs and something else, something with a tart edge that made my nose wrinkle up a bit. I went to the door and peered out.

Gene was sitting by my mom, his arm stretched out around her shoulders, hand hanging off the back of the swing. They were pointing at something in the yard, probably talking about her prized irises and he chortled, then leaned closer to her. She turned her head so that they were almost nose to nose. I held my breath. Bees were buzzing away around their feet. Traffic had stilled and nothing moved but the bees and that swing, a slow, easy movement as their feet pushed off and then lifted, pushed and lifted. Mom slowly turned her head back and looked across the lawn but Gene still focused on her, as if dazed. In a sudden shift, she looked as if she might put her head on his shoulder.

I felt everything tighten, my forehead wrinkle. That weird smell was cologne, men’s cologne, and Gene was tidier than usual, a nice blue shirt with tie and black pants, polished shoes. I wondered where he was going, why he had stopped by. I slurped the cold lemonade but it didn’t get all the way down. I coughed.

They turned my way just as I stepped back, then ran up to my room, lemonade spilling with each step, the cheese slices sliding off and sticking to the wall. When I got to my bedroom, I put everything on the floor and grabbed my pillow, my face squashed into it. I laughed and laughed but before I knew it I was sniffling with a few tears. I didn’t know why. I just felt scared and happy and uncomfortable all at once. Gene had been a neighbor (two blocks away) and a hair cutter when I was little, a handyman when we needed it. Definitely a good friend to my mom and like an uncle to me. But it didn’t make sense that he’d be sitting so close to her, arm around her back. Or maybe it did. I couldn’t get it straight in my head. It was like he belonged with us but apart, need to be there in a way that wasn’t quite as close as that.

Plus, they didn’t get along half the time. They had different politics, mom had said, as if that explained everything. Mary said he was “a Catholic plus too damned conservative” but mom shushed her. We were Methodists and mom voted independent, she’d said, and that was the end of any more questions. But they played canasta every weekend and he mowed the lawn sometimes, things like that. He took her to doctor apointments when he could. He was just around.

I still smelled the acrid but sweet cologne; it made me want to wash my face. If I pushed against the screen window in my room, I could see the edge of the porch so I took another peek.

Gene was in the yard and mom was walking him toward the little weathered gate in our fence. He reached for her hand and she let him take it. Then they laughed and it was dropped like a hot stone and he left. I saw him look back as he walked but mom was already on the porch, then I heard the screen door slam. I thought she might come up to talk to me but she didn’t. I got a towel and cleaned up the spills, took the cheese off the wall and carpet, and deposited it in the garbage in the kitchen. She was whistling, something she often did, and smiled at me, making me feel right and warm again. But she didn’t say a word about his cologne or anything else.

Later I learned from eavesdropping on Mary’s conversation with mom that he’d had a wedding to attend in a neighboring town, a second cousin’s. And he had asked mom to accompany him.

“There’s little more I can’t stand than going to an event, especially a wedding, where I know not one soul!”

“You would have known Gene, Estella. And it was a chance to dress up pretty.”

“That would have been a little odd, don’t you think, going like we were a couple?”

Mary raised her eyebrows at mom. “Well…”

“Well, nothing. Don’t start. I’m done with all that.”

I was on the couch reading. Right then my chest expanded with a huge intake of air, like there was more room inside again. But all afternoon I wondered what their talk had meant. Finally I decided it was grown up talk riddled with secrets I wouldn’t get even if they was spelled out. It did make me think of her differently, as if I saw she was a person beyond being a mother. Someone I didn’t know as well as I’d thought. Gene, too, which was almost more strange. Life went forward, mom got sick and better off many times, Gene was here and there.

After I’d chastised him about the dog that day I ruminated about his life. If he was lonely. If he had a good retirement saved. If his skin cancer was really gone and if he planned on working until he’d drop over. He loved his barber shop. Despite all the salons that had sprung up over the years, he’d seen barely a dip in revenue. The old men wouldn’t abandon him. They loved gabbing about sports and yard care, cars and women and grandkids. There were newer customers, though, even up and coming businessmen. The shop had a clubby air to it, a little dark with leather chairs, smokey. Coffee on tap, cold beers for later in the day. I had seen a few young women come and go but Gene’s spot meant old-fashioned shaves and haircuts. I had liked visiting him when I was young.

Since then I had become a lawyer, been married briefly and divorced and Danny was in college. I saw Gene maybe every month or so, usually running into him on my days off. Things were different between us, sure, but also the same, I thought. I hoped.

One Saturday morning I paused on the sidewalk, checking the To Do list on my phone. I stood across the street from the barbershop and was drawn to the sound of Gene’s boisterous laugh. I ran between cars stopped for a light, the stood still at the edge of the sidewalk. Gene was bent over, gingerly reaching out to a cat on a leash.

“That’s the way to do it, keep this pretty critter leashed!” he said. The owner smiled down at her orange tabby. “I was attacked by one, you know. Just a runt of a boy when I visited my aunt in Louisiana and her cat, who didn’t like anyone but her if even that, just up and jumped me when I was sleeping! Scared the crap out of me! Had scratch marks all over my face and shoulders. I was allergic, I guess, because those things itched and hurt, all at once.  My aunt aorried I’d fgfet cat feveer but nothing more happened. I was just traumatized for life.”

The woman on the other end of the leash was looking impatient now rather than sympathetic. Who stopped a cat owner and told them he was traumatized by cats? She didn’t know Gene or she would have come back at him with something.

“Gene!”

“Well, here’s my girl, what’re you up to?”

The cat led the woman away.

“Never thought I’d see you so near a cat.”

He gave me a hug. “Lots of things you haven’t seen and that isn’t even the most interesting, I’m sure. Come on in, have a beer and a chat.”

We entered the shop. There was a little boy waiting to get his hair cut, his father sitting with a magazine.

And that’s when I saw the stray dog lying on the floor, chewing on a toy. His coat shone.

Gene picked up a comb. “Ready for a fresh look, buddy?” he asked the boy, and the child hopped into the chair.

“Gene, you have the dog now. I mean, he’s really yours?”

“More like he got me by default. He wouldn’t leave me alone and no one else would bother with him.”

“You, either!”

“Oh, I fed him a little then more and more. Beggar! But I had to. Rocky was so skinny and pathetic.” He ruffled the boy’s damp hair and the two grinned at each other in the mirror. “He cleaned up nice, though, right?

“Rocky. Like the old movie?”

The dog got up and came forward for a sniff of my hand.

“Yeah, it suits him, a survivor. We look out for each other. I’m getting old, can’t hurt to have more friends!”

I got a beer and watched Gene work with the boy, chatting about video games and comic books, Rocky wagging his tail at me until I petted him at great length. The dog was spoiled from all the attention. More customers arrived and joked with Gene, ruffed up Rocky’s handsome head. I finally stood up and tossed the half-empty beer can in the trash. Rocky grabbed it, started to lick it.

“Rocky, no.” Gene came to the dog and stood, hand on hips. Rocky looked at him from under a scruffy brow, teeth locked on the can. Gene stared hard at him, and he then released it and sat, panting lightly. “Good dog. No beers before eight o’clock.”

Everyone chortled as I slipped out.

Gene called after me.”Let’s go see Estella tomorrow, okay?”

I nodded in agreement. But when the tears prickled my eyelids I wasn’t ready for them. The bright blue-sky day, the hum of his barbershop, Gene’s new dog friend, Rocky–it felt golden and righteous good. It was a moment I’d keep with me, like when he and my mom swung on the porch swing during a good, healthy spell, when life for me was transparent and mysterious all at once. It still was. Here was Gene and his small kingdom, his surprising kindnesses, his gift for welcoming other underneath the gruffness. How could I forget?

I resolved to spend more time with him, invite him over for dinner, go for walks on days off, whatever he’d like to do, even fish. Not just for mom or him, but for me, the kid who was given love by a good man who was just always around, when I didn’t even yet know it was love. It was high time to let Gene Wilsey know I saw him but also wanted to know him better. I was a grown up now, had changed some. But he still mattered to me. He was such a humble and worthy man it shook me up to think I might have taken him for granted. I figured Rocky might feel a bit more loyal to him and I wasn’t going to let a dog–even a good street dog– outdo me. I had more to share with Gene, more to appreciate in him. I suspected he had been waiting for me to just remember.

 

A Mad Charade

smoke-13011683829JH

The rotund cigar was positioned between index and middle finger of my right hand, while the left was positioned on my blue-jeaned hip. My friend, Bev, was standing nearby, waiting for her turn. The cigar had been filched from her father’s stash, which was the first thing that had made me nervous. But, hey, I was far from home, hanging out in Pontiac, Michigan, a city north of Detroit that felt as foreign to me as Detroit, itself. Gritty streets were jammed with honking, revved up vehicles, smog laced the air, and people yelled from their porches at the traffic jams and passersby. Even the extrenally more pleasant neighborhoods gave off a disgruntled air, as if the houses themselves would just as soon be elsewhere, and the stores would rather close up shop and migrate to the tranquil northern forests, even for a brief respite.

This was Bev’s town. I lived in a much smaller city in mid Michigan replete with lush lawns, a plethora of well designed parks, a major architect, Alden B. Dow, whose influence was seen everywhere. There were more churches per capita than almost anywhere. Situated there, commanding the services of everyone from renowned scientists to line workers, was the world headquarters for a major chemical company that Jane Fonda, in person, protested. The arts and sciences created their own complex and impressive culture. Beauty reigned, as well as excellent education. But clearly there was a significant lack of population diversity. All I had to say was “I’m from Midland” and Michiganders understood–or so they thought–what that meant. To me it was home for eighteen years, sometimes inhospitable and other times a seeming paradise.

It was true that in Pontiac I was out of my element, but this is one reason I liked to visit Bev. I had done some travelling but at fourteen I hadn’t yet experienced a wide variety of environments. My family travelled by car on vacation each summer. I had been to various summer arts camps and met people from all over the world, yes; at one I’d become friends with Bev, a talented pianist who wanted to be a composer. For world experiences I couldn’t quite count a week-end summer shopping trip to Chicago or Detroit when my parents and I would also attend a symphony concert and visit art museums. Pontiac gave off a slightly dangerous, exciting vibe. I thought this could be where authentic people lived, not just those who presented as perfectly well-groomed and mannered and appranetly free of the growing angst I felt. It was nineteen sixty-four, and the world sure was changing, per Bob Dylan and so many others. I was restless.

Since I was caught in the maelstrom of adolescence I had begun to try on different styles of fashion and types of behavior. Different personas, to see what might fit better. If I was out-of-town, that is, where it was safer to do so. And Bev seemed of my ilk, ready to push limits just enough, interested in deeper meanings and unusual possibilities, at least philosophically. We both had read Hermann Hesse and Ray Bradbury, Albert Camus and Kierkegaard and Jung. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Buffy St. Marie and Joan Baez were guides as well as Bach, Stravinsky and Handel. Ensnared by “teendom” and also the impulse toward adulthood, we explored life with a boldness shaped and at times undercut by an intrinsic sense of responsibility and well ingrained conscience.

So we did a few things that we told no one.

Earlier in the day we had wandered stores as we did on occasion, speaking in extravagant accents that undoubtedly fooled no one while garnering a little attention. I had a  habit of trying to speak in another language even though I had barely begun the challenging task of learning French. Bev spoke what sounded like passable Spanish but I had no idea what she was saying to me. So I invented my own languages, utterances rolling off my tongue without self consciousness. I also wanted to indulge myself in even a barest imitation of how I imagined Anouk Aimee, Catherine Deneuve or Jane Birkin might be in their own cities, laughing and sharing secrets, gesturing eloquently and swooping about the aisles with eccentric, self-possessed grandness. I wanted to have that sort of magnetism, to be as confident as they were. And I wanted to play.

I might wear a floppy hat or bright head scarf with bell-laden, dangling Indian earrings my mother would have forbidden. I preferred black boots with bell bottom jeans borrowed from Bev or long gauzy skirts if we could find one at a second-hand store. It was costume time, an activity I missed from childhood. (At home I still wore slacks, matching skirts and sweaters with Capezio flats; my own trendy jeans, loose chambray shirts and love beads came a couple of years later. But never in school.) We bought a token something now and then–matching enamel butterfly pins for our jackets, a fancy pair of “natural tan” pantyhose, a bright bangle–to lend our forays more shopping authenticity and as momentos. I doubt that sales associates or shoppers fell for any of our raucous, amateurish attempts to appear like exotic European visitors. They likely were laughing behind our backs as we made our way from department to department or cafe to shop.

Never mind. We were having too much fun. Bev and I saw ourselves as romantic idealists. We vowed to live industrious, imaginative lives and thirsted for adventures that tested our intelligence, conferred high value on fledgling talents. We were powered by the zest and foolishness of youth, moved by a desire to make the world better but also more vivid and dynamic, as if we were worried it might not hold enough of either without our help.

Secretly, I wanted to be a stage actress and playwright–secretly because that sort of vocation would not do in my family. The best I could hope for was to perform in a few school musicals and plays, so I did. But I read all novels or memoirs (including Moss Hart’s remarkable offering Act One: an Autobiography) about acting I could, behind my closed bedroom door or in the big maple’s treetop branches. I was not a huge movie goer–it was not encouraged, as I had academics, church, cello lessons, dance, singing and figure skating to devote myself to first and last. But I might still see them on a group date or when visiting Bev or another friend out-of-town. Every now and then I was allowed to go to a Saturday afternoon matinee for a quarter at the Circle Theater.

But how unbelievably powerful to write a play (I’d tried a childish few), then direct it with characters placed about a bare stage, turning it into a pulsing, riveting piece of life lived before one’s eyes. How much better to be the actress who is given choice words to enliven a moment or an hour, to move an audience with a shrug of a shoulder or a lowering of eyelids, a small space of silence or a bellow of grief or joy. And, oh, to be someone else, anyone else but myself for just a little while…the freeing beauty of that!

So, you can see I was already at risk that spring day for something unexpected and untoward. I was perhaps overzealous in my passion for the arts, in my longing for exotic experiences, and molded by a certain naiveté that one develops living in a small near-cloistered Midwestern city. If Bev showed some restraint as we lolled about a street far enough from her house to both feel like visitors, I did not.

I smelled, then I lit the cigar. And inhaled. The fragrance and taste of the hot smoke hit me. I consoled myself with the thought that this was different and different must mean better. And then I choked, blew out a rapid stream of smoke. I felt light-headed, pleasantly so. Disoriented, perhaps, but not enough to raise alarm. I handed the cigar to Bev and she puffed away. I suspected she had done this before, had a small stash in her room along with marijuana and found this possibility awesome. I noticed a few people staring at us as they walked by, a couple of guys poked their heads out their car window and whistled. I reached for the cigar again and inhaled more deeply and slowly, tossing my hair back and adjusting my sunglasses. Exhaled more slowly. And began to feel as if I was on a merry-go-round and as if I was floating away, then turning upside down. I wondered if it might be laced with something bad. I wasn’t ignorant of some illicit substances but neither was I any expert. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be feeling; I had thought it would be a little like cigarettes which I had tried once. A green wooden bench was to my left. I sat down and leaned back, inhaling a last time.

That was a mistake. I felt immediately nauseous and leaned over in time to vomit. Only I didn’t. I hadn’t eaten in a few hours and the dizziness seemed to stay and swirl inside my head, not quite upending my stomach. My heart raced and I began to perspire. Bev came over and spoke to me but I put up my hand.

“Okay, Cyn, what’s going on?”

“I think I’m going to die,” I whispered.

“Not possible. It’s only a cigar.”

“I am definitely going to die. Call 911.”

“Well, I don’t see a phone booth anywhere so just relax. Breathe.”

She sat down and rubbed my back and I jerked away.

“Don’t touch me, I’m going to be terribly ill.”

It was like being in some sort of tobacco hell, so nauseous and whirly-headed I couldn’t see straight, yet I was unable to divest myself of the sickness that consumed me.

“You inhaled, didn’t you! Why did you do that?”‘

I turned my head enough to see her accusatory look, her irritation.

“Why didn’t you tell me not to inhale?”

“I figured you would know that much.”

“I’m going to pass out. I have to get help.” I eyed a police station across the street and felt much sicker. No, not there.

Bev looked around. A couple of passersby slowed to gawk. I put my head between my knees when I heard a woman offer to assist us. Bev was talking to her and then her arm went across my back and her hand under my armpit with presure enough to lift me.

“Get up. We’re taking you across the street.”

“The police? No!” I wanted to stop talking and thinking, go to sleep, just wake up tomorrow.

“Yes, police department,” the woman said as she took the other side of my body and we crossed the street.

“No! I’ll get in trouble…”

“Already are,” the stranger said, cackling.

I loathed her help more than being ill.

The policeman who came out to meet us in the hallway took one look. “Drugs? What kind did you take?”

“None! I smoked a cigar. I’m so sick.”

“Right.”

He turned to Bev as the helper slinked out.

“She’s right, we shared a cigar. I don’t inhale but she did.”

“You do look pretty green, no kidding,” the policeman said. “You’ll survive. Lie down, I’ll get some water. You kids!”

He seemed tickled by my foolishness, though, and laughed so hard he clutched his stomach, another police officer coming out to see what was up. The longer this went on, the more I wanted to throw up. I gingerly lay back on a bench in the hallway and closed my eyes. I wanted to caution Bev to not give him our names or addresses, but figured she knew better. Everything was muffled as my head reeled and pounded, my stomach endured its stormy unsettling. I heard the man offer a paer cup but shooed him away. Breathe in, breathe out, think good thoughts, I told myself.

In a few minutes the spinning slowed some. I squeezed my eyes shut. I could feel Bev’s warm thighs under my outstretched calves and ankles. She kept drumming her fingers on my boot. I suspected she was practicing some piano piece she had to memorize, or she might be dreaming up something new. It irked me, then was calming. I fell into a light, woozy sleep, and dreamed of the open air stage of the music camp where Bev and I had met. It held rows of neatly seated cigar smokers.

In real time, a man and a woman came in arguing, followed by a teen-aged boy cursing at them both. My eyes flew open.

“Any better yet?” she asked.

I sat upright bit by bit. The spinning had stopped.”What time is it?”

“We’ve been here twenty minutes, maybe longer. You dozed some. I’m hungry.”

“You always are…maybe I could manage a pop.”

“Well, I guess you aren’t a born smoker.” She grinned, then hung her tongue out at me and widened her smallish hazel eyes.

“Stop. Not cigars, for sure…”

The others took the next bench, still going on about rent overdue and a car that had to be towed “or else” and tickets the boy had. I glanced into the office where police officers were milling about. They were paying no attention to me. I marvelled that I hadn’t been arrested for underage smoking or sent off to emergency for nicotine overdose. I wondered why they were so blase about a young girl nearly passing out on their turf. But I suspected this was the least of their worries, so stood up and tested my first steps. Success.

“Thanks,” I shouted into a hole in a thick glass window.

A guy who was studying paperwork looked up, gave a lazy salute.

We bought two soda pops in a machine down the hall, exited the building and waited for the city bus back to her folks’. I took off my hat and wiped off pale lipstick. It had been a heck of a day, and a painful mixture of relief and disappointment welled up. I put my arm around my friend’s shoulders. She elbowed me as we started to giggle. We both knew the next time I was in Pontiac there would be another caper.

I caught a Greyhound to Midland the next day. No one heard my tale at home. It was back to the routine, learning how to be a musician, reading and researching for school, hours on the ice rink and stolen moments with notebooks where I recorded the ins and outs of growing up. And my stories of brave girls and seriously beautiful romances, poetry of despair and passionate longing for more of life. I heard from my hometown friends that I was too earnest and sensitive, but I couldn’t seem to be otherwise.

The last I heard Bev ended up in L.A. and made a good living as a pianist and songwriter. That gave me happiness. We were true friends for a couple of years when we needed some zaniness as well as loyalty and respect. I found ways to grow into myself; it took time, endurance and better creative thinking. There were false starts and odd scenarios, a few leaps of faith. I had to admit that becoming whole and authentic was far harder than playing elaborate games of pretend, and the lessons of those times helped point me the direction I needed to go.

But lest you think that day was just a lark and had no real impact: I still cannot abide the barest whiff of cigar smoke fifty years later. Later, surprisingly, I did take up cigarettes for thirty years, and I regret every one smoked. But I was appreciative of a wise policeman who gave me a safe place to recover, put things into a right perspective with his good humor, then looked the other way. And lastly, you never know when what you’re looking for will turn into something else entirely.