Friday, March 30, 2018

It Happened on a Thursday

Our family washed each other's feet last night.  We've done it for years, every Maundy Thursday.  If you didn't grow up in the Christian faith - or even if you did, some churches just gloss over it - you may not understand the tradition.  So, and keep in mind here that I have a certificate on my wall that says, specifically, that I am not a bible scholar, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples the night he was to be crucified, the night he was betrayed.

Wait, you might ask, isn't that the night he did all the last supper and Eucharist stuff?  Yes, yes, it is.  But one of the gospel writers, John, well, he chose to focus on the feet washing.  He tells how Jesus took off his outer garments and, wrapped in a towel, proceeded to wash and dry, with the towel around his waist, the feet of his disciples - his friends, his troupe, his posse, his people.  He gets to one of the main guys, Simon Peter, who seems more than a little incredulous at the whole thing.

Peter says to Jesus, "Master, are you going to wash my feet?"  And Jesus says back, basically, if you don't let me do this, well, we will not be cool.  Peter told him that he should wash his head and hands, too.  Jesus is, like, no, the rest of you is clean.  He also snarks on Judas a bit and then, at the end of this passage in John, he tells them that he, as their master and teacher, has washed their feet, they should go and wash another's feet.  He tells them, "I have given you a model to follow so that I have done for you, you should also do."  This, I might add, he also said of the bread and wine he consecrated for the first time that same night.

[You can read the whole passage in John here.]

I may not be a bible scholar, - I was just trying to contextualize what I'm trying to get to today, and, pointedly not evangelizing - but, I do know how deeply this scene always touches me.  It is so humble and sweet, so tactile and intimate, almost sacredly silly.  At church, all the washing amounts to is a pouring on of water and drying with a small towel.  There are not scrub-brushes and soap, although the water is warm, there is no rubbing or washcloths... it's not a pedicure.  And I think that's the beauty of it, the almost pure symbolism of it, it is the ultimate metaphor.  There is the water imagery, the reference to baptism and all the water that flows through scripture and the Faith itself.

There is, of course, the service to others this so perfectly shows, the humbling of the self, the putting aside of worldly things.  Last night I watched parents washing the feet of their children, spouses doing the same for each other.  I witnessed the awkward joy of strangers toweling dry the feet of strangers.  I watched elderly folks bend slowly toward another.  I saw kindness in gestures as helpers replaced the wet towels and brought fresh water and drained off the used water.

The ritual is a joy to watch.  I like ritual, I really do.

Looking up at my certificate there, I see that I can speak on what I feel about the scriptures.  For instance, in this story, I see a sending-off.  Jesus knows after he is, gone... well, you know, after he does what is to come in the next few days, these guys - most of them at least - will hit the road.  He is preparing them for a journey.  He is literally saying "Godspeed."  There is, in my mind, no better story than that of a journey.  It is not just the walk that brings us closer to God or understanding or nirvana, a faith walk, it is, also, the trail of tears that can be everyday life.

I am all about the journey.  The ever-allusive destination, the goal, that mythical 'journey's end' has never been clear to me, and, as a consequence, I always am in the middle of things, en media res.  I don't mind, though.  In seeing yours as a sojourner's life, the trip becomes lighter, baggage becomes necessities, work becomes joy, hope becomes faith.  One is never disappointed when the trip is over or that the final place is unsatisfactory, unsavory or worse.  Perhaps it is because, on a journey, we can always stop and rest. We can refresh ourselves with food and drink.  We can wash the feet of those who travel with us, and they ours, and then start up again, renewed and strong.  I think Jesus understood this, I think, ultimately, he is saying I will attend you on this journey, be both friend and master, see you through this journey's joys and sorrows.  The road is waiting, take it up, and may it never end.

Listen, and this borders on sacrilege I'd say, but, honestly, I struggle with the 'true' body and blood of Christ on the Eucharistic table.  I find myself putting it in my "mysteries of faith" box.  I am sorry to say that, and I hope you don't think less of me for it.

And, if I am staying honest here, I find the crucifixion hard to consider as well.  Here, though, it is not so much about doubt as it is about the pain of it all.  A man, even just a man, hung to die on a cross, nails in his ankles and wrists, thorns on his head, blood dripping in his eyes, thirsty and forsaken,  suffers unimaginably until he dies... for me?

Would you understand if I said it is almost too much for me to bear?  That it makes me very sad?  That I know, in the depths of my being, that I am unworthy of this sacrifice?  Is it okay that his suffering in the tomb and his resurrection to come are more than I would have even fathomed to ask?

If I find the table too unfathomable, and the cross too unbearable, what have I left?  Well, maybe, I have a man, a teacher, a Master who will, with unheralded grace and humility, wash my feet.  And, perhaps at my journey's end, I will ask of him, "Jesus, may I wash your feet?"  That, even I, can comprehend.

There's a story I've been telling for years about my old friend, Hippie Bob.  Yes, that's what everyone called him.  I met him my freshman year of college where he lived down the hall from us.  He was from up Cleveland way and had that sort of clipped accent they have up there.  He was tall and lanky with long dark hair and a majestic black mustache.  He was sweet and had the kind of voice you always had to lean in towards to hear.  Notably, he always seemed to have less and less clothes on as the night (read party) rolled on.  He listened to a lot of music I'd never heard before and was smart and funny and clever.

He lived in the same dorm as I did for two years and I think it was in our second year that this took place.  It was late, he and I were alone in his room, a Spring breeze was coming in through the always opened window.  We'd been partying and out of no where, really, in my mind at least, he asked me if he could wash my feet.  I leaned in towards him and asked him to say it again.  It was a weird request, but hey, it was Hippie Bob and I was drunk and I said, what the hell, why not?

He grabbed a dish tub, which many of us had to clean up with in those days, and put a towel in it and placed it at my feet and asked me to take my shoes off.  He grabbed a water pitcher and left the room.  When he returned, he knelt in front of me in only a pair of shorts and had me put my feet in the empty basin.  He poured the water over my feet.  It was warm and smelled faintly of the hand soap the dorms provided.  He briefly bathed my feet and, one by one dried them tenderly.  I guess it all sounds a bit awkward, but, I never felt that way, even in all the times I have related the story.

Now, to be honest, I always told that story because I thought it was strange, a little funny and I get a kick out of telling stories about the folks I've met along my road.  I usually went on to tell the story of how he went on to become a nudist in Florida, which comes as no surprise to all of us who knew him.  It was just a quirky story about a dude named Hippie Bob.

Today, though, today, some thirty-some years later, I am rethinking the story - time can do that.  Strangely, I've always added that detail of the Spring breeze, and his near nakedness and his tenderness.  I'm not sure, but I think he was raised Catholic and, well, in retrospect, it was probably Holy Thursday.  How could I have missed this all these years?  How could I not see what he was doing?  Why did I not see the grace and humility in that gesture?

Bob, if you ever happen to see this, well, right here and now, with tears in my eyes, I thank you and I am sorry I did not offer to wash yours.

Well, that's all I've got for now.  I gave myself from nine to three to do this, this Friday, this Good Friday, the timing was purposeful, and it is nearly up and my other great fascination is about to begin - the Reds open today.

So, I wish you the peace of this season, whether you find it in a holy supper, see it in a resurrection, hear it in a redemption song, see it in the washing of feet, or simply sense it in the crack of a baseball bat.

My journey begins anew each morning.  I am clean.  I am rested.  I am ready.

For a number of years, maybe more than fifteen, this postcard has been on the bulletin board above my desk.  

Maybe I've been thinking about this longer than I know...

Monday, March 26, 2018

Defending the Indefensible

My freshman year of college, thirty-nine years ago, I walked across the hall to the dorm room opposite mine. A guy in there - a tall guy, all arms and legs and ears - was folded on one of those tiny beds they issue, guitar in lap, playing an Arlo Guthrie tune and singing. I think we played the rest of the evening. Thirty-some years later, we are reconnected, and I know about his son, named for one of the artists whose songs we sang that night, his lovely wife, and their interesting life together.

I went out briefly with the 'tender at a bar I used to frequent, maybe, twenty years ago. She was happy and smart and incredibly funny, with a smile that one remembers and sort of sad eyes which one forgets. She still has sweet eyes, and she still seems happy with a nearly grown son and a good husband.

I met a fellow blogger I know at a conference several years back. I really liked his writing and his vibe. We are still in contact and sometimes talk on the phone. I find him inspiring as a father and as a wordsmith.

A kid I met in a restaurant fifteen, probably, years ago made a huge impact on me. I suppose he was one of the first men for whom I acted as a mentor, although neither of us knew it at the time. He is wildly successful in the field he was studying when we first met. He travels the world, looks fit and happy, and his soul glows bright and shiny, and I am glad for him.

An offhand comment one time got me to thinking and inspired a story about something that may or may not have - but sorta did - happened in the woods of Maine when I was in my twenties, a piece that really helped me work through a dilemma I'd been facing about the walls and doorways between fact and fiction.

I could go on, and probably will, presenting paragraphs like these. In fact, I could write exactly one-hundred-and-sixty-one more. You see, that's how many Facebook "friends" I have. I know it's not very many - I had way more back a couple years ago, when I thought that mattered - but I don't really mind. I get more posts about my friends because I have so few contacts; I can't imagine how much I'd miss out on if I had hundreds.

But maybe that's my point exactly, how much I'd miss.

Listen, I know Facebook is being targeted for a seemingly unending list of offenses. Honestly, I can't even keep up. There are tutorials on how to delete and archive your account. #deletefacebook is trending. A book I am reading, Adam Alter's "Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked", thoroughly exposes the practically Machiavellian machinations social media platforms use to keep us on and to mine our data. I witness a lot of vitriol and unkindness on the platform. I see a lot of politics and religion. I hear a lot of jingoism and bravado, "humble bragging" and passive aggression. It's really not always fun there in those forever echoing halls in Menlo Park.

But... truth be told, I like pictures of kittens and babies. I enjoy a well-executed meme. I like watching people fall down and proposing to one another and singing to babies. I am particularly partial to a well-placed, on-point quote from Thoreau or Bob Marley or Sister Jean or Rumi or Bugs Bunny. I like beaches and sunsets and sunrises, and an image of them prompts me to remember mine. A bluegrass page I follow turns me on to great new music, as do many old friends and friends of theirs, 'cause that's how the rabbit hole works. I think those NFL lip-synching videos are funny as hell.

There's more than just the silly and entertaining, though. There is real pathos and ethos on Facebook, and perhaps a certain lack of logos. But, you have to look around the edges for it, ignoring the sponsored posts, the throw-off posts, the mundane posts - although perhaps some of those hold the most pathos of all - to find, perhaps, the heart behind them.

We've all seen a billion baby pics on Facebook, you, me, my wife, all of us have done it. Some folks nearly cringe when they see them. But, what is a new mother or father, grandparent or aunt saying when they post those newborn images? Is it a plea for prayer, to think of this child and hope for his or her safety and unbounded future? Is it an exultation, an alleluia? Is it just an invitation to inexplicable joy, wonder, love?

A first bicycle ride, a cast from a fall from the shed, a toddler covered in spaghetti sauce, snowmen, a boy diving, a girl dreaming, are all proud moments that can't be forgotten and must be shared. These are the stories we used to share in letters and expensive phone calls. Pride is not bravado. Personally, I think it is always on the edge of thanksgiving.

I have reconnected on Facebook with people who, well, could have said no to my friend request and... well... I would have understood. As a younger man I was wilder and self-absorbed and, frankly, not always as kind as I could have been. These things aren't easy to admit. The comments they offer, their advice and recommendations, even the prompted birthday wishes in some way seem tacit forgiveness, intended or not.

I’ve seen a lot of other things when I look behind the frame of image and words, maybe the place between them. I've seen the strength of cancer patients and transplant recipients, seen the determination and grit as they smile up from hospital beds draped in IV lines and loose gowns. I've read the obituaries of parents and young victims and long-forgotten teachers and holy men and healers and wept. I've been outraged at the injustice of... fill-in-your-own blank, I guess.

I've seen friends fall from grace, and seen friends have Grace fall on them, and my friends have witnessed both from me. I've read sentences that shocked me and stories that have lifted me. I've watched a relative's twins, several years younger than our twins, grow up across the country and relished in the echoes and refracted memories of the same sweet times. I've marveled at a gravelly voiced old friend of mine with magic fingers playing beautiful wooden and steel instruments. I've seen images of my days and yours, long gone - a day at the park in '79, a band concert on a college green. Friends, sometimes gone, have flashed before my eyes, deep cutting and bittersweet.

Fathers and mothers, grandparents, brothers and sisters. Old bandmates and workmates, roommates and lovers and brief crushes. A beloved boss, an old football buddy, a childhood friend, you.

All this brought to me on a very flawed social vehicle that pisses me off daily... except when it doesn't.

Listen, it is hard to admit, but I'm not sure I'd be having these "connections," if you will, without Facebook. Do I wish there was a better format than it? Yes, but that's not gonna happen, Facebook is simply unpeered. Do I wish they didn't mine my data and profile me? Yeah, of course I do. Do I think there is general nefariousness and greed at the upper levels of the company? I'm afraid I do. Should I give it up on moral grounds, should I quit for the injustice and negativity that abounds? Probably.

But, you know what? My friend Terri, the ceramic artist, is working on some lovely stylized, carved clay trees, and I'd really like to see them when they come out of the kiln. I'd really like to know how my friend's daughter does at the university I went to. And Tom just got a new job. And the baby's coming for that couple whose wedding we went to a few years back. And my farming friend just got a new beehive. And old friend of a friend has MS, and I'd like to offer my support. And James still plays guitar and just got a new Martin. And...

... I gotta make sure you see these guys growing up.

 Especially the one in the middle.

Maybe I'll wait until tomorrow.

There's another thing that probably wouldn't have happened it, the "... from the backseat" posts I've been putting on these pages for the past several years. Like this one:

... things you don't expect to hear from the backseat ...

(spring break edition)

"I love sleeping in. You're not dead inside when you wake up."

Peace, and thanks for coming around. I'm probably very wrong here, but, I've been there before.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Remembering Forward

In the backyard today the wind is whipping the vulnerable maple trees around, the pine trees are waving.  Feathery, dusty snow falls down on the grass it so desperately wants to cover.  But the gusts blow it back up, along with the oak leaves which fall so late.  This time the snow will not be the deep, rich blanket it longs to be.  It will be lace-like, thin, and will play in the wind.

I know snow.  It's nice that rhymes.

I was the same age as the boys are now, twelve, JB was a year older.  He and I had come upon some skis somehow, and...  Actually, we'd taken them from an old out-building way back off the road that was filled with old tack and rope and broken tools and mice and spiders and, oddly, skis.  

When we were littler we couldn't get into it, the shed, the padlock seemed so threatening.  Recently though, we'd come upon it again.  JB had grabbed the lock out of curiosity and the screws that held the latch for the lock gave up and the lock just swung out of the way.

I'd bet that no one had been in that shed in over thirty years, so I think we just felt like we were rescuing those old skis.  We took them home.  The bindings were leather and sort of slid on on a metal piece.  Like old-school roller skates, the ones with a key.  We oiled up the leather, got the pieces to slide again.  We figured we'd just use a couple of the countless sticks that leaned outside JB's garage.

This was in the fall.  We waited for the snow. 

It finally came in January.  It was a Saturday - I remember being bummed out because we didn't get a "snow day" - and JB called me early.  It had snowed the evening before and into the night, dry powdery snow like today's but more of it, maybe five inches.  He said today was the day.

It may be tiresome to hear yet again, but my childhood was so vastly different from our boys' it almost seems... historical, bordering on fictional.  I'll just say, well, perhaps we had more time on our hands than kids do today.  That's why JB and I had a plan.  We knew where we'd go, the trails and farm paths we'd take.  We'd done a childhood of day trips and camp-outs and such so we knew every bit of our surroundings.  We packed bread and peanut butter and honey, canteens of water, a couple of oranges and a bag of cookies and two thermoses full of hot chocolate, Swiss Miss, instant, with mini-marshmallows.

We put it all in our standard-issue canvas army knapsacks along with one wool olive drab blanket each.  We clumsily strapped the skis on over our layer of socks and winter boots, grabbed a couple of the smallest walking sticks we could find and headed out on those skis.

Our destination was, fortunately, a modest one.  A hay barn out beyond the soybean field that ran behind both our backyards, maybe a half mile away at best.  It, of course, hadn't yet occurred to us that we wouldn't be able to get through the stubble left on the field on the skis.

It was early when we left, eight-thirty or so.  The winter angle of the sun made it sparkle even more.  It was pretty. 

The first thing we had to do was negotiate a long hill in his backyard.  I tried to go fast but got scared and stuck my poles in the ground and slowed down, nearly losing my footing.  JB just sort of limped down the hill at the speed of a man on crutches.  We waddled our way through the snow, deeper than we were expecting, more walking than skiing.

We found the gap we always went through in the old fence and, well, that's when we realized we couldn't ski through it.  We agreed to take the paths we knew so well and headed off cross-country style.

We were both football players, JB was a big, stocky kind of guy and I was still rail thin in those days and pretty strong.  Neither of us, though, had the stamina that sort of exercise takes.  In no time we were huffing and puffing.  Hats came off and were stuffed in parka pockets, now unzipped, because we were getting so exerted.  It didn't take long to come to the conclusion that, well...

We really sucked at it.

Now, when your in you're early teens, the realization that you suck at something doesn't really come that hard.  Personally, I don't think it ever should.  The value of knowing yourself cannot be understated.  A keen awareness of one's weaknesses and, of course, strengths can be empowering, oddly.

We slowed down, took a break or two, teased each other and urged each other on.  It took us about forty-five minutes, maybe an hour, to get to Mr. Poff's barn.  

I'd noticed a change in the light I think, but, to be honest, when a guy is trying to ski, for the first time, on forty-year-old skis, with branches for poles, well, the focus tends to be down at the ground.  

The sky had darkened, full of those gray, almost charcoal edged clouds that only mid-winter breeds.  We reached the barn, slid the big two-by-four out of its rusted cradle on the doors and went on in.  Dry, dusty, dirt floor, hay was strewn about and... cold, very cold.  We closed the sliding barn door behind us and unfastened the skis with relief.  We leaned against a row of stable walls that separated the stalls when the barn was newer and we had some water and some cookies.

I suppose we talked, had a laugh or two, congratulated ourselves - that sort of thing.  It's funny that I use words so much now, but remember so few from my life's conversations.  I recall the more visceral, the more sensorial details.  I remember we were getting colder, that the cookies were those weird "windmill" ones.  I can see the packs on the floor, the skis and "poles" leaned up against one of the thick timbers that held the roof and loft above us.

I also heard something outside, it was the wind.  We opened the door and watched as it rearranged the snow, forming eddies and little drifts before blowing them down again.  The clouds above looked as if they were about to burst, and, after one last gust of wind that rattled the barn, they did.

All of the sudden, big fluffy flakes of snow started down.  It was so hard and steady, and the flakes so hefty, you could hear it.  It was the first time I'd ever the snow fall.  I can't describe it, a muffled click, maybe, or a million little tiny thuds, imperceptible alone, but, amplified by multitudes, you could hear them.

It was weird.

There was an awning, a roof really, over the doorway we stood in.  We could get out maybe ten feet or so before the snow came down on us.  The driveway was a little below ground level and sloped down towards the door, on either side of it was a knee-high cinder block wall that held the dirt from falling into it.  We could sit on the little wall, protected from the snow, and watch. 

We did what any country boys would do - figured we needed a fire.  

Do ya'll know what a "burn barrel" is?  Well, out where I grew up, a lot of folks didn't have garbage service, no trash collection.  For years JB's dad didn't.  It seems hard to believe now.  Anyway, the way you handled all the paper trash was to burn it in a burn barrel, a fifty-gallon drum, up on bricks, thumb-sized holes punched in it ringing the barrel about a foot from the bottom.  Inside it, above that line, was a grate, sometimes welded in, often though just shoved down in it and pushed up against the walls of the barrel.  It's the barrel hobos and apocalypse survivors huddle around in movies.  I still see them frequently out in the country.

Anyway, inside the doorway was one, four bricks stacked next to it.  JB grabbed those and I rolled the barrel out.  In no time we had it up on the bricks.  We had matches because, well, country boys, and JB found some newspaper somewhere inside and some extremely dry hay.  Meanwhile, I'd gone around to the side of the barn where I knew there was a big pile of brush and old fencing.  We were in.

Now, the thing about a burn barrel is that they are incredibly efficient.  If you know what your doing they're basically an incinerator.  They catch fast and we were toasty in minutes.  The wood from the pile, once extricated from the snow, was dry and the pinewood fencing popped in the wind.

JB went inside to make sandwiches and I stood there, hands out like a blessing to the fire, and considered the snow.  I thought of sled-rides and snowball fights; I thought of football games in the snow, of wet, cold feet; I thought of frozen ponds and cracked ice; I thought of snow forts and plywood ramps and muffled laughter and crazy screams.

I thought of more though, I remembered what was to come.  I could feel the cold snow and hot tears that stung two faces, kissing on a college green, in a storm that piled up on our shoulders.  I could hear the clomp-clomp of horses coming up First Avenue in New York City pulling, of all things, sleighs to give rides in Central Park and me talking the driver into a one.  I could feel myself skiing right down the middle of a country road.  I could see the unexpected snow on a mountain meadow in a September yet to come.

I thought of cold slogs through snowstorms and slippery streets with backpacks full of beer.  I see a hot tub and anatomically correct snow-angels in the snow next to it.  I see snowflakes on eyelashes. I taste the Canadian Club snow slushies.  I see hours of watching snow fall from window after window after window.  I sense the isolation, the long loneliness it will someday surely bring, and the sheer damn beauty it will always offer.  Yesterday's muffled laughing mixes with the crazy screaming yet to come.

All this at once - future, past, present - in concert.

I guess we all know it couldn't have really happened like that, one cannot all tenses be.  Unless, of course, that's exactly how we are...

JB came out and handed me a peanut butter, honey and hay sandwich.  He asked me what I was looking at.

"I dunno," I said.  'Everything', I remember thinking.  

(I won't dwell here, although I'd like to.  I also like to just stop here as well, give up trying to explain it all.  My emotions, my feelings, my memories, my loves and hates and desires... well, they often stand counter to linear time for me.  It's disconcerting.)  

We stood there, JB and I, finishing our sandwiches.  I hope he got to sense his what's-to-come as I had.  We sipped our hot chocolate, the snow fell and piled up crazily, settling deep and thick and then the wind would gust and blow it back away and the burn barrel would flame up like bellows on a forge.  A couple of hours passed, the sky that backlit the clouds was losing its light.  

I guess maybe we should have been worried, we weren't really.  I remember feeling fresh and invigorated, hopeful somehow.  It didn't feel like the predicament it, well, was.  We knew we had to get going soon and we were letting the fire die down.  We were trying to decide if we should go home the way we came or try the farm path and then the driveway past Old Man Poff's, out to the main road, State Route 741.  

It was snowing and blowing, but through the noise of the storm, we heard a low rumbling that was getting louder.  We both stepped out a little farther and finally saw something green through the snow, John Deere green, in the form of a diesel 3020 with a front loader attached.  Mr. Poff was coming our way. 

This is the point in the story where you might suspect we were gonna get in a bit of trouble, but, again, it was different back then.  We didn't know this farmer very well, but, we'd returned a cow or two to him and, a few years back, we'd found his old blue tick hound a long ways from home and seemingly lost.  We walked him home and Mr. and Mrs. Poff were just so happy - I guess the old, dumb hound was presumed dead.  She gave us sugar cookies and RC colas and old man Poff turned his back and snortled into an old handkerchief and dabbed his eyes.

The point is, he knew we were good boys.  He parked and idled back the tractor and came under the awning.  He said he'd been out at his livestock barn and noticed the smoke from our fire and decided to see what we were doing.  Farmers are observant people and I'm sure he quickly figured out the whole scene, we'd pack up our things and the skis were leaning against the short wall, we were basically waiting for the fire to go out so we could head home.

We told him as much and he said that the storm was going to get stronger and we'd better be on our way.  He asked which way we were going home and we told him our options - back the way we came, which was a lot of uphill and deep snow, or out past his house on his lane then down the road.

He nodded and headed toward the tractor.  He gunned it and then lowered the front loader and rammed it into a drift and then negotiated the tractor and that pile of snow under the awning and dumped it directly on the burn barrel with a sizzle and a lot of steam.  He idled back again and shouted to us to get going, saying the best route might be by his house.

We take off in the John Deere tracks and it is fairly easy going at first, but there was a hill ahead and the wind and the snow and impending darkness are slowing us down.  

We hear him first, coming up behind us, and then he sounds an anemic horn.  The headlights are on and he is waving us out of the road.  We figure he just wants to pass us.  We crow walk off the tractor path and he passes us.  He waves and he gestures behind him with a thumb and that's when we see it.

He's dragging a thick hemp rope, tied up somewhere under his seat.  The rope is knotted four or five times.

"Grab on!" I remember hearing through the storm and tractor noise.

We shove our poles beneath the knapsacks and do grab on and he accelerates.  We are at a slight incline and the tractor labors a bit but we get going.  We negotiate the rope between us and we are evenly spaced behind the tractor.  He turns to check us out and that's when I notice something.  Mr. Poff is an older guy, a WWI vet if memory serves, probably born around the turn of the century.  Farming wizens men and so does smoking and battle and wind, but, when he turns to look at me I see a young man, twenty-something, with a happy wildness in his eyes, and I sense that that's the way he feels right now.

We get to a flat stretch that then begins to slope down by the barn behind his house.  He keeps looking back, I swear he's laughing, I know Joe and I are, and...  he keeps inching that throttle up and, soon, it feels like we are flying.  It was fucking fun, man.

Now we figure he'll drop us when he gets to the barn, but, he doesn't, he continues down his lane, which he'd plowed, and gives a little more diesel and just as we are about to get out to the main road, he slows a bit and lowers that front loader down and, like a tank, busts through the deep snow that the plows had pushed into his lane and takes a hard left.  This whips us around and we let go, sort of adjust ourselves, and follow him out onto 741.

He points on down the road, freshly plowed, and winks at us.  We try to thank him but he doesn't hear us over the engine and the wind, but I thought I heard him thank us.

We find our poles again and shove off down that long hill I'd only ever been down on car and bike.  It is smooth and slick, like a toboggan run and the skis floated over it.  We swerve and laugh and then we decide to to get up as much speed as we can to get up as much of the hill as possible.  It is twilight now, the snow is still falling, the trees next to the road a bowed under the weight of it all.  It all seems so familiar and, yet, new...

Listen, I don't know what was in the wind that day so many winters ago.  Maybe it was the snow whipping around, maybe it was that odd sound or the crazy black clouds, maybe it was that the same ancient snow falling again was folding time and memory, confused in whiteness.

We found our way back home and split up on the road in front of our houses, I had a little farther to go.  It was then that I realized something, just hours ago as I'd stood outside that old hay barn remembering my own future, I'd seen myself skiing down a country lane.  I'd seen what I had just done and I knew that there was so much more to come, so much more to see, so much more to understand.

As I got to our garage and was taking those old skis off, I realized this as well... they'd probably been Old Man Poff's.  We'd purloined them from a shed on his property.  He was a sharp old dude and I figure it put it all together.  I think that is when I realized the timelessness of it all.  Maybe he'd been pulled by an old Model T when he was a boy, maybe he'd pulled his own children down the same lane he'd just led us down.  I realized that he'd knotted that rope just so like he'd done it before.  I recall being him for a moment, being boy, father, old man, all at once.  It was the same feeling I'd had looking out as the woods and fields filled with snow and I gazed both ahead and back simultaneously.

Over and over again in my life, I've felt it, this disjointed sense of time and memory, and I've grown to accept it and, maybe, understand it for a moment.  And, in that moment, known a certain peace, a feeling that our loves and losses and fears and tears and past and future are all, somehow, a part of the only time we only will ever really have... now.

A few months after this, in an English class, we read Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."  I'd encountered it before, but, this time, well, it made a lot more sense.

I've kept you so long and I suspect you have your own "miles to go" so, godspeed, and thanks for stopping by.

(See what I did there?)

Here's an image of the tractor he pulled us with:

And, this is a picture of me that year.


Friday, December 8, 2017

The Cookie Lady

I just got back from running some errands at the grocery store.  I needed some things, regular stuff - eggs, some produce, stamps - and then I went to check out.  I usually wait for a cashier, I figure they don't pay me to self check, and I'm not really in a hurry.  Sometimes it is Jane, who always asks about the boys, or Dianna whose been there as long as I remember, or Pearl who always gives me a hard time about the fried chicken I get there now and again.  Today it was the very chatty, and opinionated Rose.

The woman ahead of me had a pretty full cart, lots of baking staples and cute green and red storage containers.  There was lots of decorating stuff, sprinkles and icing, flour, white and brown sugars, and, well, you get it.  I was thinking about how much fun it looked like she would have, maybe making cookies with her kids or something.

I was trying not to listen in on her conversation with Rose, but, sometimes people talk so loud, I think they want strangers to hear them.  Here's the thing, she wasn't a stranger to me.  I know who she is, the mother of a girl the boys go to school with.  I'd volunteered with her a few times in the library at the elementary school and I've seen her on the sidelines of a few soccer or baseball games, maybe a band concert, I'm not sure.

That being said, she is not the sort of person who remembers others, especially others that have nothing to offer her.

"I am soooo busy," she was saying, "I have to make a bunch of cookies for my son's church class that I teach and more for the Cub Scout den, I'm the den mother, you know.  Of course I need a bunch for the cookie exchange in my neighborhood and then more for the family.  And those I'm going to have to take to Florida where we Christmas."

(Is "Christmas" a verb, and, if so, do I capitalize it?)

"And of course, everyone likes different ones so I've got to make a bunch of different kinds.  And, I've got to get them all done by Saturday," she kept on.

Rose, who doesn't really have much of a filter, said, "Sometimes when I've got a lot to do, I use the cookies in rolls, or even the frozen ones."

Aghast, the cookie maker, said, "Oh, no, they simply must  be homemade.  I not going to bring cookies from frozen to a cookie exchange.  It's not as special."

Now, I heard that as a sort of slight to Rose, so I interjected, "They really can be quite good, the frozen ones.  I also like the peanut-butter chocolate chip ones in the tube, they..."

"Oh, no, I can't bring peanut butter ones, so many are allergic these days."

"... right."

Rose, who had been slighted, looked my way.  "You do a lot of cooking, Big Guy,"  she always calls me that, "What kind of cookies do you make?"

"I make Oatmeal Craisin, everyone really likes them," I said, I think we were both trying to stop the woman from going on more.  She made a quick sour face, no doubt oatmeal cookies were too pedestrian for her high standards.

"I like to do cookies I can decorate," indicating the sprinkles and such Rose was scanning.

"Craisins instead of raisins, that sounds good.  What's your secret for those?"  The woman was getting on her nerves, which Rose doesn't hide well.

"Well honestly, I just follow the recipe on the Quaker oats box and substitute the craisins.  I would say that it is really important to get everything out early and bring it to room temperature.  You know, the butter and the eggs, even the flour and sugar and the milk and...," I said.

"Oh, who has time for that?" baker lady interrupted me as she was fishing in her fancy purse for her card.

I leaned a little to get her eye and said quietly, "I do."

Rose smirked.  I smiled.

"Well, I've got to do so much today, I've still got to go to Target and, hopefully get some more presents bought and... Do you think the groceries will be okay for a while in the car?"

I said, "It's forty degrees out, they should be fine in the trunk."

"Well, I don't have a trunk, I drive a Yukon."

"Of course you do," Rose said under her breath.

And, with that she was off.  Off to her world of self-congratulatory, self-absorbed busyness.  No, 'goodbye' or 'thank you.'

I sort of felt sorry for her.  Rose, well, didn't.

"Well she's full of herself," she said.  "What're you gonna do with these pork chops?"

I remembered to thank her when I left.

Listen, I can't tell you how to do your holidays.  Some people like all the hustle and bustle of it, thrive on it even.  But, if you're complaining about all the cookies you have to make, or the shopping you must do, or the traveling you must do... well, maybe you're doing it wrong.

That all sounds a little preachy, doesn't it?  A little judgemental?  Well, then, I guess I'd better call it a day...

I went to Costco right after I went to the grocery store.  It was right at ten when they open.  I parked a ways back and watched as folks were getting out of their cars and vans.  I've never seen such hurried, harried looking people.  No smiles, no laughing, just grim determination.  I went towards the door but hung back.  The line for returns was forming, a huff of folks.  Everyone had carts and their little red cards ready to show the gatekeeper.

The whole mood was one of agitation and dread

I left.

As I walked back, against the angry grain, an old man with a cane was headed my way.  I moved aside to give him some room in the parking lot.  He asked me if the store was open.  I told him it just had.  He looked me up and down and asked where I was headed.  I told him it was just too crazy for me, I told him I panicked.

"Seems like you're the only sensible one here today," he said and patted me on the shoulder, "It'll be better next time.

Actually, this all happened yesterday.  I went again today, the mood was much happier... or, was it just me?


Wednesday, December 6, 2017


Nick did this one time.  All he said when I asked him why was "I felt like it."

Life's like that, ain't it?

He also made a cake for a dinner we made for a meeting at the church.

He's a good boy.

Zack is a deer boy as well.

That's all I got.


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Noni's Black Apron

I remember her hands, mostly.  Thin, once elegant I'm sure, the knuckles now arthritic.  Her hands were amazingly soft in contrast to the angles and sharpness time had twisted them into.

She wore black, always a dress.  On Sundays she wore a black lace widow's veil.

Her face was pinched and drawn, deep wrinkles on olive skin.  Twinkling, sharp green eyes shone out from her weathered face.

She lived down the hall in a three-family apartment I once rented in Astoria, New York.  Nineteen-hundred-and-eighty-eight.  Her family owned the house, she'd raised a family there, three boys, but, so many years later, she lived alone.  She was well into her eighth decade.

She went to Mass most mornings, seven, noon on Sundays.  Sometimes we'd pass each other on the sidewalk or steps in front of the house, me coming home from an evening's work and night's partying, she off to pray her black and silver rosary that hung around the high collar of her black dress.  She seem to not notice me.

We were unlikely friends.

The house shared a common entry on the side for the two upstairs apartments.  We'd pass each other, I'd try to say hello, but, short of a quiet sort of sighed greeting, she didn't say much when I first moved in.

Honestly, we would never say much, but...

One cool fall day, I came in from running errands and, as I was about to open my door, I noticed hers was open.  The hallway was full of a scent I was unfamiliar with, like licorice sticks but prettier, purfumey.  I couldn't figure it.

I lingered in the hallway.  She saw me standing there and walked a little outside her door.  She shrugged a 'what' look my way.  I smiled and inhaled deeply.

"Ah!  The cookies.  Come, come."

They were little shortbread cookies, flavored with just a hint of anise.  To this day I hate licorice, but those cookies were so perfect.  She invited me into her kitchen and she showed me how she made them.  A pinkie-sized, flat oval, that she gave a little half twist before she put them on the tray.  Brushed with egg whites, they were golden, tender at the ends and crispy at the twist.

I'd visit her kitchen many more times from that afternoon on.  At first it was cookies and treats, but soon she was making lasagna and Alfredo.  I watched as she made noodles and gnocchi.

One day she was cutting some onions and she set the knife down and rubbed those tired hands.  I took up the knife and continued chopping them.  She was delighted when she saw I knew what she was doing.

I was working evenings in those days, long ten, twelve hours shifts, but only four a week.  I was home most afternoons and some nights.  She took to leaving her door open when she was cooking or baking, and sometimes she'd knock me up and ask, no, tell me to come help her.

It's imperative that you understand we had no way of communicating.  Her English was minimal and heavily accented, my Italian was non-existent.  We gestured and smiled and winked.  I remember cutting the roasted red peppers she'd scorched on the gas stove, covered to sweat, then peeled - a process I'd never seen before - too large for her liking.  She pushed me away with her hip and showed me how she wanted them.

She always had a bottle of limoncello and she'd offer me a bit every now and again, in a classic sherry glass.  She asked me to help her one time and the day was hot, I went to get a beer out of my apartment, when she saw it in my hand, she grabbed a little pony glass off her shelf and had be pour her a few ounces.  We'd repeat that little ritual dozens of times.

In the crazy, wild world of New York City, she offered me quiet and stillness.  She worked slow and carefully, so different from the frenetic kitchens I watched in the resturant where I worked. She showed me tradition.  She had me taste sauces and pastas, soups... and beans.  I had no idea about the diversity and difference in beans - giant cannellini, tiny pinto like beans, dried Limas and peas - so much a boy from the Midwest had never seen.  I came to treasure our time together and I hope she did as well.

She sent me once to the Salumeria just down the street - the one I was afraid to go in because the proprietor looked so rough and ill-tempered, the one with sausages and pepperonis hanging in the window - with a note in loopy, shaky Italian.  I opened the door to the dinging bell that markets had in those days to the scowl of the butcher behind the counter.  I timidly handed him the note.  I was suddenly his best friend.  His English was better than Noni's and he filled me in a bit, same sad story, children gone, busy, never visit.  She made food for church, socials, funerals, parties and such.  He seemed sweet on her, I know I was.  From that day on I was a regular in his shop.

I carried home to her a bag of sausages and meat and who knows what.  I watched as she turned it into meatballs, spicy, hot, delicious.  She baked them in the oven, flipping them half way through.  She called the sauce she made for them "arrabbiata" and it made my eyes water and she teased me about it.

That's what brought all this to mind today.  I made meatballs recently. 

When I form the balls I always coat both my palms with olive oil, just as Noni did.  I often remember her when I make Italian food.  I remember standing next to her, watching her form the meatballs, thinking of my Dad's hands forming hamburger patties, of my mother's hands peeling potatoes or carrots, of my sons' hands, stirring sauce, browning meat.

One of the last times I cooked with her, she caught me in the hall and showed me that her hands were stiff and she needed some help chopping some canned whole plum tomatoes, the only kind she used.  I was going out and had on a pair of jeans, cowboy boots and a white dress shirt.  I went into her kitchen and indicated I was afraid I'd get the shirt dirty.  She took of her black apron, trimmed in black lace, and put it over my head.  It hung on me like a cummerbund, I can't imagine how very silly I must of looked.

She offered me a glass of sherry, and kept giggling like a school girl, at me in that black lace apron.  I danced a little cowboy jig for her, I remember, and she laughed until she had to sit down.  I'll never forget how happy she was that evening.  I wish I could have kept that apron.

We were unlikely friends.

When I finally left that apartment and headed back to Ohio, she cried.

So did I.

It's nice to think of old friends.  I'm sure Noni is long gone.  I never knew her last name.  I never thanked her.  But I honor her often, I think of her often.

Oddly, this is not the first time I written about meatballs.  Here is that piece.

I hope you've enjoyed meeting Noni, she lingers long in my memory.

The day I left one of her sons was there, the one who still managed the rentals and sometimes checked in on her.  My then girlfriend, a girl named Howell, was there to see me off.  It was the first time Noni had ever seen her.  She had an animated conversation with her son, lots of hushed voices and furtive glances my way.  Noni gave me one last hug, we both knew it was our last.  She looked at me, tear in eye, a slight smile and said something to her son.

"She wants you to know that all this time she thought you were gay.  She'd have never let you into her home if she'd thought you were straight."

We laughed, and our tears fell again.

See, there's always more.  

Peace, and, I'll see you next time.