March 25, 2016

"Front Window"

Another Sunday afternoon in the park. Tiny soccer players and their thirty-something parents bloom in today's sunshine. When I watch them, I feel a bit like I'm in a benign version of Hitchcock's "Rear Window." There's no real continuity to this afternoon but there are sights. No sounds of course, so this is a bit like a silent film, a tableau of Sunday afternoons all across America. 
  • Japanese cherry trees, redbud and tulip Magnolias bloom and their petals fly about in the sustained twenty-mile an hour wind. The trees move a little too. Large pink azalea blooms twitter and little bands of daffodils stand straighter in the wind. 
  • Orange, twist-spring goals wait on the sides of the small field and wind gusts move the stockpile of different-colored balls around. 
  • The teams come down the field. Boys and girls contain their extreme "tininess" inside miniature soccer uniforms. One crew wears red and the other's colors are black and yellow. Their uniforms are more like pods or stuffed-squash blossoms -- too big and all encompassing. Their little shapes seem to move in slow motion while their over-sized clothes don't really move. These kids are maybe five or six years old. 
  • Their parent "coaches" are studies unto themselves. One stocky man only walks backwards on the field and keeps bending the bill on his ball cap. One younger man passes time balancing or spinning balls on his fingers and occasionally dropping a ball onto his foot to bounce in a dazzling display of "coaches' credentials." 
  • Parents set up their own sites - Dick's must have had a huge stock of folding camp chairs in all colors. You know, the kind with attached cargo pockets and a case for the folded-up chair? 
  • So after "Run, Stop, "Goal!!" for about 30 minutes, the kids' attention wanes in the cold wind. 
  • A few kids who were too old for this session play a strange game of volley/dodge ball nearby. 
  • Two women in sweatsuits circle the whole park with large signs either protesting or promoting something. They continue their animated conversation behind their signs, unnoticed. 
  • A few moms show up late with plates of cookies. 
  • Both teams line up to "slap hands" in a very formal line down center field. 
  • Then it's cookie time while parents clean up. 
  • Those chairs go back inside the storage containers and fathers sling them over their shoulders like arrow quivers. 
  • Mothers grab hands of the mini-athletes. 
  • The procession leaves as it came. 
  • Rinse, repeat every Sunday until time for the next ritual in the lives of these families. 
Do these rituals mean anything in the larger picture of our culture? Of course, they do. This little event is a rite of passage where the whole grows so much larger than the parts. All these little rituals create a mosaic of meaning in the pliable development of the kids. What it all means won't show up on the evening news shows because this is the antidote for those things that will.  

I write this a few days later from memory. The trees are in full leaf now and I'm a bit sad that Sunday afternoons in the park will be invisible from my front window.  

March 7, 2016

Fables for Grownups: The Fox and the Swan

Once upon a time, in a land covered with miracles of rye grass and abundant butter-hued flowers: daffodils in spring, rhododendrons in summer, chrysanthemums in fall and pansies in winter, a Fox lived in a woodland. Fox ruled his woods. When he approached, other animals stepped aside for him to pass and when he selected one of them as his dinner, the other animals merely said, “Well, he is the Fox.”

Fox slept all day in a shaded glen or beneath a rock ledge. At dusk, he would awaken, shake his thick gray fur and stretch his well-muscled legs. His tail was magnificent – bushy, strong and extra long with a delicate patterned black ring around the end. His personal favorite features were his long ears with their well-defined black fur ringing the perimeter. He was a fine fox and life was good.

One day, he awoke in late afternoon when the sun was just beginning to fall behind the tree line. He stopped to sip at a quiet lake and, of course, to admire himself in the mirrored surface. He saw a gorgeous mature Swan gliding on the far side of the water. He called to her, “Creature, who are you? Swim here so that you may see me better.”

The Swan glided on the smooth lake.

The Fox was furious at this insolent creature that did not answer him. He called out, “Creature, are you hungry? Swim here so that you may eat what I give you.”

The Swan curled her slender neck tighter and unfurled it under the water’s surface. She pulled out a small trout and held it in her teeth-like beak. Quickly, she ate it. In fact, she caught as many fish as she wished and ate them all. She paid no attention to Fox.

Her audacity incensed Fox. How dare this creature glide on his lake, see herself instead of his reflection on the silvered water and ignore him?

As night fell, Swan floated to the center of the cool lake, tucked her long graceful neck under a wing and went to sleep. Fox was restless and tried to sleep near the lake. He curled up in the roots of a Sweet Gum tree and the wind kicked up. All night, with each wind gust, a shower of prickly Sweet Gum pods fell on Fox and he neither rested nor caught any other animal for dinner. He wanted this elusive creature and he planned to have her for breakfast.

In the morning, Fox paced the shore of the lake and thought of wading in, jumping in, or even diving in to possess the Swan who was still asleep in the center of the lake. Her reflection glimmered in the morning sunlight and Fox grew angrier. When he put his beautiful foot into the water, his reflection scattered and he would go no further. He was happy to see his likeness gather into wholeness again.

Swan awakened and simply flew away. Fox sat by the water’s edge a long time and by evening, he was his old self again. He captured two rabbits and a ground hog.

At the next skulk of foxes, he told the sad story of the mute and blind Swan who could neither hear his offer to feed her nor enjoy his beauty. Life was good.

March 4, 2016

Keepers of the Meaning

Last week, I finished teaching the Winter term of enrichment classes for seniors in this county. We spent January and February taking a walk with many famous American poets. Dickinson, Frost, Stafford, Collins, St. Vincent Millay were a few of the poets whose work we read. And a fine time was had by all!! 

Tomorrow, my class continues on graceful aging with mostly super-senior students. This week our topic is Keepers of the Meaning. I expect that most of them will say the next generation needs to learn about respecting their elders, honoring family culture, practicing religion, avoiding politics and saving money. Big ideas for important times. 

While our generation was busy chasing those Big Truths, much like today's younger generations, the little truths got away. The real meaning in life exists in the small things, in the little truths that accumulate into larger Truth.

This short poem by Veronica Shoffstall holds fundamental truths that my life experience revealed. How much better life may have been if a "Keeper of the Meaning" had shared these with me along the way. Shoffstall was a keeper of meaning and like any good writer, she shared her truth in her work. I hope today's keepers of meaning will share these lessons with the next generation. 

                               After A While

After a while you learn the subtle difference
between holding a hand and chaining a soul
And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning
and company doesn’t mean security.
And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts
and presents aren’t promises
And you begin to accept your defeats
with your head up and your eyes ahead
with the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child
And you learn to build all your roads on today
because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans
and futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.

After a while you learn that even sunshine burns
if you get too much.

So you plant your own garden and decorate your own soul
instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.

And you learn that you really can endure
that you really are strong
and that you really do have worth
And you learn and you learn
with every goodbye you learn...

----   Veronica Shoffstall

February 16, 2016

Fables for Grownups: In the Meadow

       In the Meadow...

“Ah, here's another springtime,” said Rabbit and danced around Chipmunk. 

Now and again, Rabbit stood on his hind legs, stuck his nose into the center of a vibrant bloom and inhaled, deeply.

“I wanted to share this meadow with you,” he said. "The beauty of Spring! It's the best time of the year,” Rabbit said. “Would you like me to pick a tall cornflower so you may smell it? We might taste it, too.”

In a fit of anger, Chipmunk bit Rabbit on the leg.  Shocked and bleeding, Rabbit dropped the blue flower he had chewed off as a gift to Chipmunk. 

“What's wrong with you?” said Rabbit.

“How dare you insult me!!” said Chipmunk. “I am not short.”

February 15, 2016

Class is in Session

Today’s external weather threatens to turn into a miasmic blend of nastiness. My interior climate is nostalgic but also poignant and free and happy in an intermingling that appears when one is at a crossroads. Oh, I've been here many times before but these crossroads of change are still surprising, aren't they, Babies? We're moving along like the elephant parade in William Stafford's "A Ritual to Read to Each Other" on our way to the next show, holding on and following the elephants in front of us until we come to that unanticipated crossroads. Do we decide to let go and follow our own instinct? Which way is town anyway, the circus tent or just tomorrow? 

Only two more sessions of my American Poetry class at ELM, this county's dominant enrichment program for seniors, remain. Next term, I will teach the evolved version of "Ethics and Graceful Aging" which I think I've finally gotten "just right." But, for now, American poet William Stafford and his brand of ethics have center stage. Stafford is an insightful poet and his later work is probably my favorite American poetry. No American Poetry class would be complete without his work and only respect for his copyright keeps me from reproducing this particular poem. The best I can do is share a link: A Ritual to Read to Each Other.

Teaching to other seniors is always a fulfilling, challenging privilege. Again, poetry has been a learning experience for me. That’s the magic of real poetry; a good poem waits for you, no matter how long you neglect it, and always has something new to say to your spirit.

Babies, I encourage you to read “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” Stafford speaks to the bond readers and writers share and offers a reason why I write here and why you come back.

February 11, 2016

Jeremiah Bullfrog and Friends

For someone who isn't a party person, two celebrations in one week (it was only Tuesday) is a "bunch." 

The first half of Sunday's Super Bowl kept my attention on the field. That halftime show left everything off the field. At the party, most of the fans left in the third quarter to watch "Downton Abbey" at home and then, switched to the last hour of football. Sadly, pro football has little excitement and razmataz left. The players, coaches and owners just hope to survive into the playoff season -- bonuses add up. "It's mostly about the fame, Bay-beee." Oh, there are a few players and coaches who still have class but that's a different post. 

On Fat Tuesday, the flavor of the day was Mardi Gras!!! The jazzy band played "Jeremiah was a Bullfrog" without the drama but all of the bouncy rhythm. Some neighbors, volunteers and staff did some versions of the "Hokey Pokey" under their layers of Mardi Gras beads. While the guitarist/singer (yes, in that order) droned on about Jeremiah being his friend, dancers of all sizes and abilities twirled and "hokey-ed" around and around the refreshment table in the room's center. They were focused in their own little bubbles of fun. Outside, snow showers begged the question of Spring and its trappings of all kinds. Another Fat Tuesday came and went in cold snow and wind. 

Today Spring is back in business: a regal Red Tailed Hawk again visits the huge oak tree in front of my window; he's like a statue, hunting. Robins, a small flock of Starlings in their exquisite murmurations, Mockingbirds, a few sparrows and Blue Jays all populate the park at once. The hawk watches. I watch the hawk. A reckless squirrel inches up the westside of a stark oak tree and hopes the hawk doesn't see him. The birds don't look up but instinctively close their ranks in a dance of survival. The hawk waits in the bright sunshine of this cold Wednesday. Everyone is hungry, patient and all about survival. 

Perhaps the ground birds, the treed-hawk and the twirling dancers are all focused on the same thing.