Thursday, August 17, 2017

to the eclipse


As I drove down Interstate 81 South, I spotted a hitchhiker in his twenties, either scraggly or merely “roughing it,” with a cardboard sign. His branding tool was of the sort that panhandlers on urban corners employ, with captions such as: “Veteran” or “God bless” or “Anything helps” or “Hungry.” This particular hitchhiker on this particular day sported a sign that read, “TO THE ECLIPSE. 

Good one!
This was 10 days before the predicted solar eclipse of August 21, 2017. Predicted? Yes, it had not occurred yet. Although NASA scientists can forecast precisely when and where the solar eclipse will be, it still has to happen on its own. Cue Little Orphan Annie to sing about the sun coming up tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow… only a day away, etc. 
I attribute my dose of skepticism to the epic letdown of Comet Kohoutek in 1973. Experts hyped it in advance as a spectacular, mind- and soul-blowing cosmic event. It was a dud.
Presumably, the pedestrian pitching for a ride was aiming to get to somewhere like Nashville, near or on the eclipse’s path of totality. But that’s an assumption. Maybe he merely needed a ride down the road to Marathon, New York. Maybe he wanted to hit up a Good Samaritan driver for a few bucks or a pack of cigarettes. I’ll never know — unless by some strange Reverse Kohoutek Effect he reads this and tells me.
The eclipse’s expected shadow swath through the United States was “kohoutekked” as a destination for a rare and spectacular event. Madras, Oregon. Casper, Wyoming. St. Joseph, Missouri. Nashville, Tennessee. Columbia, South Carolina. Let me pause here for a cranky disclaimer. For years, I’ve heard media reports claim that a notable eclipse, either solar or lunar, would be the last one so intense and dramatic in a designated area for the rest of our lives! And then inevitably the experts conjure up ANOTHER “last-chance-to-see-the-intense-and-dramatic” eclipse. I’ve grown skeptical. Or old. 
Can you actually go to an eclipse? Wouldn’t you have to go to the sun, the moon, and the Earth? Aren’t you just going to see the results of the solar eclipse? At its climax it is two or three minutes of darkness in daytime. Spare me. I’ve had more than two or three minutes of darkness in daytime plenty of times. 
Did the hitchhiker’s TO THE ECLIPSE request mean, “Take me to the path of totality”? Our stranger may have wanted to go where the hottest (figuratively; these days “literally” means “figuratively”) solar-eclipse action was predicted to be.
Path of totality? Don’t even. I’ve been on a path of totality since forever. I don’t know anything short of totality. The path of totality is riddled with casualties. And they want to sell tickets to it?!? Gawd. On my metaphysical Google Maps, the Path of Totality is a highway with two lanes, marked All and None. It has few exits and no speed limits.
Speaking of highways, in retrospect I should have swerved to the shoulder, picked up the hitchhiker, and driven him as far as he wanted to go. I could have asked him about his own path of totality: Did he have one? Was he seeking one? Was he fleeing one? 
Oh, the places we’d go, the stories we’d trade!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

plus one


Plus One

The first time I heard the term I was confused. My friend seemed to be using it solely in a business context.

“Would you care to be my plus one at dinner Friday? My company is hosting this ritzy affair,” he asked an attractive female mutual friend. I was overhearing the dialogue, so I did not pay it much mind.

Not having heard of “plus one,” I assumed by the context that it was a sales term. I figured it meant something like this translated into non-drummer, non-sales-quota jargon (which had briefly been my world in the Eighties), “Would you please, please pose as my Number One sales prospect worth $23,500 in potential weekly revenue at dinner Friday? Because most of my prospects in real life are minus one, or minus one to the tenth, but don’t tell my sales manager.”

That explains why my sales career was of brief duration. If the company enforced the draw against advance they claimed I owed, I’d be a shackled indentured servant to this day, decades later.

Plus one.

I took it as code for elite. Like “A Team And Then Some.”

For those of you among the cultural cognoscenti, you already know plus one refers to a friend, date, companion, or, um, escort, that one brings to an event if you are the invited guest. Some sources say it dates to 2004. Don’t upbraid me for living under a cultural rock. I don’t get out all that much.

It comes from the format that guest lists or invitations employ: Jane Doe + 1. It serves a number of social purposes, some of them awkward. It allows a host to invite exactly one half of a couple. Why? Who knows. Reasons abound. The couple may be openly on the verge of fracturing, or in an open relationship. One member of the couple might be serving time in the big house or in rehab or undergoing a transition that is still unacknowledged. In plain English, maybe the inviter(s) just don’t like one member of the couple and never did. This affords an excellent opportunity to prevent the drunken, wild boor from wrecking the event.

Then, of course, there’s the lonelyhearts angle. This demographic would bristle at being a plus one. For them, it would be an embarrassing admission of authenticity, independence, self-gratification, and the inexplicable absence of co-dependent misery, signified by a scarlet letter “S,” for solitude. The shame! Alternatively, others would jump at the chance to be a plus one, roaming socially unfettered at the event in question. Besides, being a guest of a guest might hold the promise of the tables being turned at the next social event requiring invitations.

From a purely monetary or practical standpoint, the role of plus one offers the chance to enjoy a free meal — and more! (as direct-mail advertisements vaguely enthuse). The “and more!” might mean anything from new friends to life partners — or new chances at co-dependence or relationship failure. Seen in this light, the decision to be a plus one, or not, is laden with limitless permutations, a cosmic rolling of the social dice.

One side of you might say: “Go for it!” while your other self says: “Are you freaking crazy?”

Devil or angel.

So now I know. Plus one does not refer to sales tactics, clothing size, fertility methods, supersized drinks, erectile dysfunction solutions, threesomes, or unexplored spiritual dimensions. (Disclaimer: Any reference to any real product, trademark, entity, or proprietary method is purely unintentional and coincidental.)

Happy plus-one-ing!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Envelope, Please



Awards shows create a dramatic pause by having the emcee intone, “The envelope, please.” Further drama is created by hesitations and teases before the envelope is opened. The award nominees and their entourages nervously await the anticipated announcement. “And the award goes to . . . 
Call it the envelope of tension. The tension envelope.

Years ago, I was arrested by the sight of a sign on a commercial building seen from Interstate 80 near Hackensack-ack-ack-ack, New Jersey. It's on the left as you head toward the George Washington Bridge.

Tension Envelopes, it declares.

It long ago inspired my own inner pause and reflection. Namely: the world does not suffer from a dearth of tension envelopes, does it? Aren’t we enveloped by tensions at work, at home, on the road, and in our hearts? Our inner landscapes are dotted with these tension envelopes, both individually and collectively. They come in all sizes, shapes, and colors.

Is our envelope of tension paper-thin or stretchable and impermeable?  Who affixes postage to it so that we can mail that tension to anyone, near or far? That’s easy. I’m the one in charge of dispatching my very own, specially designed, jittery-filled packages to anyone of my own choosing. Sometimes I send my tension envelopes C.O.D. (collect on delivery; capacity on demand; chew on dis; come, on dude!; change or die).

How do you send your tension envelopes? And to whom?

And are they received as “warmly” as mine? [Insert ironic emoji.]

Somewhere in the oceanic, discursive writings of Marcel Proust, I encountered his observation that the human body is a "nervous envelope." In remembrance of such a thing past, I bent the upper corner of a page. I don't know which one. But I can’t argue with Monsieur Proust’s take. We live in this envelope that begs for relief and inner peace. Our nervous envelopes seek serenity or release, distraction or diversion.

If our tension envelopes are empty, what do we fill them with? (They wouldn’t be tension envelopes if they were totally empty; by definition some tension electrons must crackle and roam around or reside there.) The candidate tension-reducers list is familiar to any wanderer of the modern world: sex, drugs, alcohol, food, work, danger, gambling, anger, other people-places-things, you-name-it ad infinitum.   

As I type it, I realize my tension-envelope mitigation (TEM) list is skewed toward the negative. It doesn’t feel complete or whole; it doesn’t possess enough dimensions for the 3-D world.

I can’t seem to connect the dots or check off the right multiple-choice answers. I need your help. Work with me here.

An alternative, or parallel, parade of TEMs might include the following: meditation, mindfulness, prayer, walking, running, painting, sculpting, gardening, woodworking, weightlifting, yoga, pilates, massage, or doing the dishes.

Agree? (Add your own.)

But I have a sheepish confession to make. The second list sounds a tad boring compared to the first. I’m embarrassed to admit this.

Does that make me “less than”? Does it reveal a personality best left kept private?

Or does it merely make me One of Us?

Sunday, June 25, 2017

It All Depends

We all have them. We all have those infinitesimal moments when if the event had gone another way, everything in our life — and that means everything — would be different. In his poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” William Carlos Williams uses the phrase “so much depends.” Although as an English major I had undoubtedly studied the poem, it took on new meaning for me when a friend used the phrase “so much depends.” Her cancer was in remission at the time, or at least was manageable. I had asked her, “Are you in pain?” She answered, “No. So much depends…” and went on to recite the poem word for word. Her point was: whether I am in pain or not matters. So much depends on that. She added that one reading of the poem suggested that it refers to a child hovering between life and death. The poet was a doctor.

So much depends between this and that, between being here or somewhere else, between saying one thing or another, between seeing that oncoming truck before you turn or not.

The King James Version has it as “in the twinkling of an eye.”

So I never forgot my dear friend’s lesson, even though we went our separate ways.

I can readily draw up my own list of personal turning points balanced on the edge of a razor blade. I am told I started life that way, as a preemie. (Today, with advances in medicine and technology my entry into the world would be unremarkable.)

Family lore has me being nearly run over by my father in the backyard when I was five or six. Unbeknownst to my dad as he was backing up, I decided to bolt out of the car. Where did I go? Why? We will never know. My dad assumed the worst. My brother ran up the steps to tell Mom, “Dad ran over Paul!”

I was fine.

Somehow.

Whenever the story was retold at the dinner table, Dad would say, “Took ten years off my life.”

And who is to say otherwise?

Some moments get lost in the tides of time, as if they are less significant with the passage of days, months, and years.

The concussive wind of a Manhattan taxicab zooming by as I daydreamed and nearly drifted off the curb.  

Falling asleep at the wheel only to be awakened by the tires rumbling on a rough surface.

Decades ago, driving drunk and not remembering it.

Which illustrates the interactive nature of this utter powerlessness. In other words, others are inescapably involved in our seemingly random, remote choices.

Turning blue, choking on meat, only to find the Heimlich maneuver my wife of that time employed didn’t work — until she said “stop fighting me.”

In a blog post years ago, I coined an amusing term for this phenomenon:

or - chasm - n. The immeasurable distance between one choice and another.

I labeled it a noun, but these infinite moments fraught with fruition or finality have their own grammar. They are gerunds and participles and most of all infinitives.

They bear the indelible signature of choice and mystery.

These moments are the “Either/Or” of Soren Kierkegaard, "The Road Not Taken" of Robert Frost.

Name these nano-pinpricks as you see fit: choice, destiny, fate, will, coincidence, providence, or Providence.

You have yours; I have mine.

Attention must be paid.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Reading Second Skins



We sat in tiny chairs at tables made for kids. In the school library, the tops of tables and the seats of chairs were closer to the floor than what adults typically experience. We paired off, a dozen adults and a dozen first and second graders. We were reading. We read to each other. The adult would say a word that the child stumbled upon. The child would repeat it.

Some children wrote letters on erasable white boards. One could hear the mysterious soundings-out of letters and their combinations, the gentle coaxings and coachings that shed light and pattern. Sight words, flash cards, stapled pages we called books. Voices blending. Encouragement. Ears yearning.

One boy, an eight-year-old second grader, reached out to touch my gray hair, grown over the ears in wintertime, straight and thinning. The boy, polite and energetic and eager, seemed baffled and amazed at my hair's texture, its novelty. Then he looked at my hand. This was not our first encounter in the school library; this was after a few months or more of reading sessions that were not quite reading yet but were tilled soil for later bloom. He observed the veins in my aging hand, noticing the blue riverine pattern on these hands holding the stapled pamphlets we use as books.

"My hand is a different color," the young fellow stated matter-of-factly.

The way he said those words, their surprise and frankness and tenderness, caught me off-guard. It arrested me. For a few beats, I didn’t know how to respond but feared no response would be a missed opportunity — for what I was not sure.

"Yes, I see that. Isn't it wonderful?" I quickly managed with a blend of his matter-of-factness and my mildly suppressed enthusiasm. We then turned to tackle another pamphlet, a level C or D “book.” The chorus of learning filled the room.

Upon much later reflection, I was grateful to my young reading partner for his honesty, authenticity, and directness. I recalled a moment decades ago in high school. Our teacher, a Catholic priest of the most progressive leanings, was commenting on Jesus’ oft quoted, “Suffer (allow) little children to come unto me and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” The only lesson I can summon some fifty years later is that Father Giuliani underscored and celebrated two qualities of children: simple and direct.   

Simple and direct. Yes indeed.

“My hand is a different color.”

A child’s uncomplicated observation of fact laden with a history unknown to me, just as mine was unknown to him.

Had I missed a deeper and more cogent opportunity? I knew the two of us were not about to engage in a candid discussion of Race in America. And I sought to avoid either preachiness or stilted speech. (Truth be told, I thought none of this. I had no time. Such considerations — and zillions more — rocketed through my brain before I uttered words.)

Those who parse such encounters might take me to task for these musings; they might posit a racial construct in my very questions.

So be it.

It’s what I had at that moment. In a country whose citizens rarely converse across racial lines, one to one, over bread or coffee or wine, it’s all we had.

The poet W.H. Auden wrote, “Love your crooked neighbor with all your crooked heart.”

It’s all we’ve got.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

life, not-so-interrupted


My phone frequently blurts out the following digital notification: “Medium power saving mode turned on  Your battery life has been extended.” The editor in me forgives the missing hyphen between “power” and “saving.” It even shrugs off the missing period after “turned on.” And why not be magnanimous? After all, the smartphone’s notification exudes generosity, hope, and optimism.

Sure, I can pretend to take some credit for the cellphone notification, owing to the settings I clicked on.

The word “notification” is a delicious one for an artisanal, homegrown, non-GMO, gluten-free wordsmith such as myself. If St. Peter is hip and modern enough, he can forgo all that fabled judgmental jazz at the gates of Heaven. He can simply email notifications. I don’t doubt he can find a way to spiritually transmit notifications to every soul. St. Peter, if you are metaphysically listening, may I make a suggestion? Develop an app that has emojis for paradisiacal salvation and for hellish damnation. Then you can save yourself all the time and trouble words take. (Purgatory? I’m not so sure about that one.) You won’t have to have all those interviews at the gate as depicted in cartoons.  

As for “power-saving mode,” don’t you wish we could do the same for ourselves? Don’t you wish that a few taps of your fingers would put you in a state of energy conservation? How handy it would be. Oh. Wait. We have that! My word for that power-saving mode is the English word “nap.” In Spanish, it’s “siesta.”

Why stop there? If we can invoke a personal power-saving mode, we should also be able to apply the same concept to endless varieties of human behavior. I salivate at the prospect of a limitless parade of modes beyond power-saving. A few brief examples include anger-saving, grief-saving, embarrassment-saving, trust-saving, and error-saving.

Logic dictates that this brave new world should stretch beyond the limits of conservation, as it were. Flip the opposite way. Power-enhancing, patience-enhancing, trust-enhancing, esteem-enhancing, virtue enhancing. The list goes on ad infinitum.

I freely admit the existence of logistical hurdles. If it’s not as easy as adjusting settings on your “digital device,” what are we left with? “Conscience” is the smart-aleck reply of the wise ones among us. My answer to that is: since our banishment from the Garden of Eden there has been a deep and wide chasm between what conscience ordains and what human beings actually do. So that’s the tricky part. Getting our behavior to be as automatic as an app on our phone or tablet is hugely problematic. That’s why we have drug and alcohol rehab centers; billions of dollars spent on psychoactive medications; and gazillions of dollars — and hours — invested in weight control and fitness. Not to be a shade too cynical, it’s also the reason we have corrections facilities that strain the credulity of the word “correction.”

As I said at the outset, my phone also declares without equivocation: “Your battery life has been extended.” Would that we could be as certain. Would that our fortunes were bound by such a simple and absolute algorithm.

“Your life has been extended” if you eat right, exercise frequently, wear a seatbelt, and signal before turning. (Extended for how long? one wonders.)

Text St. Peter. Ask him.

Get back to us on that.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Brutal Murder

In news stories, one frequently sees or hears the phrase “brutal murder,” or words to that effect. Although I worked at a newspaper and in publishing, I have never taken a journalism course. My first year of teaching I was forced to teach a journalism course though I lacked any credentials aside from having been an English major and having worked on the school paper in junior high, as it was called then. But if I were to study or teach Journalism 101, “brutal murder” might be a good starting point.

I understand that some murders are more grisly than others. I comprehend that certain methods of violence are more heinous than others, and that the intent of such a phrase is meant to underscore that.  And yet . . .

All murder would qualify as brutal, wouldn’t it? Whether the method is subtle or silent, or explicit and horrific, the result is the same. Nevertheless, the idea of brutal murder is worth pondering. Is a drone operator who is detached from the sounds and smells of execution any less murderous than one more directly involved? When combatants in World War I engaged in combat with soldiers close enough to see their eyes, was the result different? Or did personal proximity raise the remote possibility of peace, at least briefly and on a small scale? There are many accounts of Union and Confederate soldiers engaging in conversation, perhaps exchanging tobacco. But the grim truth is that the ravages of war continued.

Back to “brutal murder.” What do we mean by “brutal”? Are we referring to the look or the sound of the perpetrated act? Is it measured by the incalculable pain that is endured? Or the innocence of the victims?

Does war or insurrection get an exemption based on the assumption that war is brutal and murderous by definition?

Extending the notion, what roles do intent and context play? Surgical and precise terminations of life may seem less brutal owing to evidence unseen or unheard.

And what about the phrase “killing with kindness”? What is meant by that? More than a touch of irony emanates from that particular locution. Surely, we will never hear a news reader proclaim, “In other news, police are investigating a kindly murder at Peaceful Heights. The victim’s identity is unknown, but authorities were puzzled by the smile on the victim’s face.”

No, we will never hear or read anything like that at all.

Nor should we.

What’s my point? I am suggesting that words matter. They matter as stand-alone utterances and in combination with other words. The combinations matter, too, as much as the individual words. Implications exist. Legal bindings or loopholes, acts of war or declarations of peace, or life-long covenants hinge on both the mosaic arrangement of words and the very words themselves. Think of that jigsaw puzzle with one missing piece. It matters.

The same with words.

Am I a nut for attuning my ear to a simple and widely understood phrase? Perhaps, but not likely.

Failing to prick up our ears like a dog alert to a dog whistle means we run the risk of becoming deaf to meaning and subtlety. That opens the door to manipulation. To be honest, the door is already open.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Everyone Is Approved Here

As you drive along the busy boulevard, an A-frame sandwich board all but shouts, "Everyone is approved here!!!" It is an unabashed, traditionally American, free-enterprise invitation to buy “pre-owned” automobiles. The sign says, in effect, "No matter what your financial history is, no matter how reckless or foolish or disastrous or triumphantly capitalistic, we can lend you the money to buy a vehicle." (Naturally, such generosity has its own price. That price goes by the code words “interest rate” and “months.”)

Which got me to thinking.

Imagine if "Everyone is approved here!!!" referred to real people. What if actual living humans were approved “here” just as unconditionally and with the √©lan of three exclamation points as a used-car dealer approves all?

"Everyone is approved here!!!" could be a statement of credit beyond financial history, and instead it could apply to redemption that reverses personal misdeeds and waywardness.

Does unconditional approval get the cold shoulder in our society because of our puritanical past? One can reasonably argue that the reward of virtue and the punishment of transgressions is the right path. It’s wholesome for society. It sets the right balance and the right example.

But is that notion more cultural than theological?

After all, the New Testament offers ample weight and rich testimony for what we will call the Mercy Rule, as opposed to the Justice Rule.

In the early Seventies, when I was a fledgling English teacher, a colleague just as new to the profession announced to his social studies students on the first day of class for that marking period: “You all have A’s. That’s it. You have an A.” This was not contract learning. It involved no quid pro quo. The students were dumbstruck at first. Looking back, I would venture to say the teacher risked disciplinary punishment or job loss for this daring, if not foolhardy, move.

The teacher later trumpeted the success of his gambit. He said no class collectively or individually ever produced more or learned better. They rose to the occasion and justified someone’s belief in them, however dreamy or utopian. All were not merely approved. They were rewarded in advance, unconditionally.

Not being a sociologist, I cannot safely draw any generalized conclusions from this small sample. I cannot go from point A to point B to establish a theory of education or a social construct rooted in unconditional “all are approved here.”

But being a columnist, I can pose leading questions, and draw inferences till the cows come home — home from wherever they wandered to in the first place.

Taking literally the declarative sentence “All are approved here” (with or without accompanying punctuation denoting interjection, surprise, or excitement) yields a multitude of questions, the answers to which will remain speculative.

Could you successfully apply this approach to child-rearing?

What about the justice system? Would the Radical Advance Approval Method cause chaos and imperil public safety? (Incidentally, my former teaching colleague went on to become a top official at the U.S. Department of Labor. I was shocked to see him one evening making a comment on the evening’s national news.)

Speaking of labor and industry, what if supervisors and managers gave employees automatic A’s on annual performance reviews? (I had a manager do that; I loved working for him.) Would quality and production improve?

Consider the implications for the alcohol and substance rehabilitation industry. Would outcomes be better or worse than those produced by current methods?

I’m just a columnist. I get to grade myself with an A no matter what anyway.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Earth Day, Requiescat in Pace


Let’s kill Earth Day.

The kill doesn’t have to be violent. A few means of termination come to mind immediately: a fatal dose of unctuousness with a dollop of messianic fervor; toxic buildup of evangelical environmentalism; or suffocation by smugness.

Let me know if you have some other methods of moral euthanasia you can summon to the cause.

(There. I feel better already now that I’ve exhaled and typed this long-overdue death sentence.)

“Oh,” you protest. “How could you? How can you be so cruel and callous toward Mother Earth? We have no Planet B, you know.”

Spare me.

My coveted role as judge, jury, and executioner has nothing whatsoever to do with Mother Earth, climate change, global warming, denialism, science or anti-science, or political correctness or impolitic incorrectness. And lest you think my words are a sly endorsement of our Not My President (NMP), you can forget that. I condemn and abhor NMP’s choice to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and NMP’s proposed budgetary slashes and rollbacks of environmental initiatives of the last several decades.

No, my gripe goes like this: Earth Day is a feckless, feel-good escape, a chance to feel environmentally holy. Sure, many of the priests and priestesses of this secular religion practice their rituals the other 364 days of the year. But the annual cleanup rites typically take place around Earth Day. Earth Day incarnates a branding that has become tired, ungreen, and more harmful than helpful. It’s not, um, sustainable. Earth Day is not unlike waltzing to the soup kitchen on Thanksgiving and handing out turkeys. Good for one day, maybe even a week. What has changed? Not much. But nothing bad happened either, etc.

What about those cleanups? Don’t they make you feel grand? Is it the same feeling of sanctity and squeaky-clean absolution I felt as a teenager after going to Confession, with all my impure thoughts scrubbed off my soul for all eternity?

And what about these armies of the day making the world safe for carbon footprints? Picture legions of students or retirees, civic leaders and teachers, work gloves and trash bags in hand, whisked in from their pristine golf-course-riddled suburbs to save the unwashed urban masses from themselves.

How can we ever thank you? How can we ever thank you enough?

For the record, I hate litter. It is contemptuous of civil order, an act of apparent self-loathing and belligerent degradation. Or maybe littering is simply callous solipsism. I cannot claim to fathom its sociological origins or its embrace of cavalier negligence. I’ll leave that to sociologists. But I have a perverse fantasy. During one of these jaunty, community-spirited Earth Day cleanups, I crave for the volunteers to encounter directly a besmirching of the aforementioned civil order. I want the corps of cleaners to see a pizza box or overpackaged burger and fries go flying out a car window, with an added toss of soda-fountain beverage containers, extra large, with straws, napkins, and plastic bags sailing down the boulevard. I crave for the perps and the enforcers to meet head-on. Have at it, boys and girls. Send me a transcript of your friendly dialogue.

Maybe you’ll have better luck than I do. (I may meet my demise one day via one of these uncivil encounters.)

You say Earth Day is about more than Saturday-morning community service cleanups? True, true. I cannot argue with you on that. You won’t get me to condemn tree or flower plantings, or springtime prunings or fertilizations. I can see such acts as commensurate with tender memorial tree plantings honoring deceased loved ones.

As for the deceased? Add Earth Day to the rolls. Rest in peace.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

area of refuge

In the building I just moved into, filled with loft apartments in a former knitting mill, each floor has a designated “Area of Refuge.” These locations are situated near each floor’s entrance to the elevator and on the landings of the four floors, at least one on each end of the building. Residents, especially those with special needs, are instructed to gather in an Area of Refuge. There’s a callbox and a panel where one can “Push for Help.”

 Naturally, as with nearly all signs I encounter, this got me thinking. Don’t we all need an Area of Refuge, at least for part of the day, most days?

 As a grade school student, I once had to deliver something to the teachers’ lounge. The room was billowing with smoke from cigarettes and pipes. I was a messenger visiting a foreign country.  It was shocking. But today I would have to conclude that room was an Area of Refuge for those teachers. They needed a break. They seemed so much more relaxed and jovial. They were remarkably different from their classroom selves. Among them were likely non-smokers as well. It didn’t matter. All were there for a common purpose, despite the health dangers we now proclaim, but did not then.

 If we need Areas of Refuge for work, we need them elsewhere, too: at home, at play, in public, in private.

 Churches and other houses of worship over the centuries have served as sanctuaries, Areas of Refuge. This decade, whole cities, hundreds of them, have offered to be Areas of Refuge for undocumented immigrants.

 We all need a safe harbor now and then, legal or not. People in recovery programs understand the absolute value of radical hospitality when they enter a room where a meeting is held. They depend on it as an Area of Refuge. No questions asked. All are welcome.

 Today, near my new residence, walking to the nearby library, I saw a sign in a window of the elementary school (they used to call it a “magnet school,” but that’s another topic for another time). The sign said “Rescue Window.” I recalled times in my life when I was looking for a Rescue Window anywhere I could find one:  hallucinogens, alcohol, sex, you-name-it. Then I needed a Rescue Window for what I thought was my Rescue Window, because nothing was working.

 What’s your Rescue Window? Food? Yoga? Running? Hiking? Relationships? Quilting?

 The point is, we all need Areas of Refuge and Rescue Windows, even if we think “that’s for someone else.” We tend to think such places — real physical locations or more metaphorical ones — are for those less fortunate, the underprivileged, the hunted. That assumption is wrong.

 We all crave these things. Otherwise, there’d be no need of man caves, social clubs, knitting circles, places of worship, booster clubs, book clubs, flower guilds, PTOs, union halls, or bars.

 The lingering mystery, however, is “what do we do when we get there?” What do we do when we arrive at the Area of Refuge? Tell jokes? Calm nerves? (How?) Hold hands? Meditate? Pray? Sing rock ‘n’ roll oldies together? Tell ghost stories to each other?

 At the Rescue Window, are we reaching in or reaching out?

 The answers to these questions are endless. And I submit the answers don’t matter all that much, not as much as we imagine.

 What matters is being there, arriving at the Area of Refuge or Rescue Window. Together as we can be — awkwardly, fearfully, and hopefully.