Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Harmony of Broken Glass

A million years ago, I used to own a bookstore. The community had asked for it and even put up much of the money. In return, they'd receive a return on their investments when the store turned a profit and would have a local store that carried the things they wanted. All Lee and I did was to quit our jobs, invest our time and money and pour our hearts and souls into it. They gave us a list of the sorts of things they wanted, we stocked them and they pointed their browsers at Amazon to buy the books and drove to Wal-Mart to buy the candles and soon we were out of business and they could not quite figure out why.

We were in Gainesville, Florida, at the end of Sixth Street, where it met 441 at an acute angle just past the north-side of town. Our building was an old gas station built in 1906. It had the original brick foundation holding up the original cedar beams holding up the original pine tongue and groove floors holding up the original pine tongue and groove walls in which were held the original windows. Nearly one hundred years old the entire building was and it creaked and groaned and loved every step made inside.

The building had two main rooms. The front, the salesroom, was twenty by twenty and windows all around except for the front door on the south wall perpendicular to the street, and the door leading to the second room, right in the middle of the west wall with a large pane of glass, door to wall, on either side. The second room, twenty by forty, was solid wall on the north and east. Separated by glass from the front room and, on the south side, made of century old wood, plaster and glass. Mostly glass.

The windows were high and wide with broad sills. In the second room, three of them stretched from the front to the back. As one looked to the lower edges of any of the windows, as one looked to the grass below through the bottom of the pane, the world stretched, became bulbous, swirly. If you put your hand on the glass, you could feel it thicken as one got closer to the sill. Thin at top and thick at the bottom. Old poured glass windows - a super viscous liquid that slowly, over nearly one hundred years, poured towards its own bottom. Kids would love to sit there and stare though the bottom and watch the world wiggle, fatten, and wave. So did I.

This was the room we used for classes and workshops. Around its perimeter, it held rugs and t-shirts, dresses and scarves as well as other textiles, folded on tables, hung from frames, and tacked to the walls. So large, it was, we never had to move anything much for a workshop or fair.

We had bands too, and we'd serve coffee. We'd be open until eleven and many of the coffee drinkers would not purchase anything, so we figured the coffee would pay for the electric that evening, at the least. The coffee was in the small kitchen area off the large room and it was self serve as we were neither set up nor licensed for food service.

At first it was by donation. When we found the donation can with little money but filling fast with empty sugar packets and gum wrappers, we decided the honor system wasn't working and charged a dollar for the cup. Not the coffee. Just the cup. All our mugs went behind the front counter. Folks could ask for one, pay their buck and drink all night if they wanted. On an average night we should have made thirty to fifty bucks from the folks who, otherwise, would not have spent a cent. Folks who came in and bought books and such, we'd happily hand a cup to. Everyone gets to do their share.

It wasn't long before I started seeing people walking around with coffee in vessels I had never seen before. Little ones. Big ones, Even stainless steel thermoses and double-size travel cups. I'd ask for the buck for the night's coffee and they'd show me their one quart mason jar, telling me they had brought it from home so no need to hand any cash over to me. I suggested, along with the cup, next time they should bring their own coffee, too. Late nights at the bookstore ended soon after that.

But the workshops continued. Authors, therapists, artists. Booktalks, dances, songfests. I taught a few myself, on occasion.

I had, over the few years prior, been doing a workshop on chants from the Kabala. I had been doing them, recently, at the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, at churches as far away as Greensboro, North Carolina, in the forests of Ohio and even in a hot tubs. So why not do one at my own store?

The night was set and we had a very nice turnout of over thirty people. Someone volunteered to watch the register and I set to work. Three rules only. These rules, along with the chants themselves, were taught to me by Rabbi Shelly Isenberg who was the Chair of the University of Florida Department of Religion. They seemed to work for him and they work for me.

Three rules. Everyone stands who is able to stand. I'm tired is not a reason for not standing. We always lose a few at this one. People walk out in a huff because they aren't going to be able to sit and chant. No full breaths from a full body while sitting curled in a chair. Everyone singing. No gawkers. We always lose a few more at that. When I tell them we'll be chanting for an hour or so, still more leave. I tell them it won't feel like an hour. That they will wonder where the time went but people want fast, instant results and they want them easy. They want to slouch in a chair and attain enlightenment from watching other people sing for five minutes. Good luck.

The last rule is everyone comes to the center. I set up four chairs in the middle of what will be our circle and, at some point, each person comes to the center to sit and have the rest of us sing around them, letting them feel the sound, the vibration, the harmony. I often have a person help me make sure everyone gets their chance. I joke that I call her my shill. I tell them, at some point, I'll be going to the center as well and, please, please, they should not stop chanting just because I have. Always people laugh at this. The twenty or so people who remained did exactly that - laughed. The group had been culled and we were ready to start.

The chants are short and simple. We learned the first one by listening to me say it once, then the group repeating after me. Then saying it with me. Then I sing it on my own and we sing it once together. That's it. No lengthy process. Nothing written on paper until the end of the workshop. The first time I taught this I passed out the chants, with their translations, on paper before we started. Then, with the chants written down, people read them over and over instead of singing, looking at the paper the entire time.

People worried about losing the words. They always do. Don't worry, I tell them. There is power in the tune itself. Hum, tone, sing dai de dai like we have all heard rabbis do. The tunes have lasted a thousand years. Two thousand years. There is power in the sound. Never worry about the words.

We sang our first chant, all in our circle, four times. It was practice, it was invocation, it was lovely.

Hineyni / osah (oseh) et atzmi / Merkavah l'Sh'kinah / Merkavah l'Sh'kinah

Hineni is "here I am." Oseh (Osah for the guys in the group) et atzmi is "I make myself become." Sh'kinah is, literally, the Presence, but a distinctly feminine manifestation of the divine presence, so "Goddess" is a good translation. But not a particular Goddess and definitely not, however, the word for small-g goddesses. That's what Craig R. Smith told me, at least. And I believe him.

Here's how Shelly translated it: Here I am! / I make myself / A chariot for the Goddess. I like that. That's how I translated it then. That's how I translate it now.

We learned the next chant.

Ana / El na'/ R'fa na lah. That simple. I sing it once through before telling them what it means. Please / Strong One, Oh Please / Heal The World (all)(Nature) Please.

Here is what Craig R. Smith says about it.

Ana and na' both mean "please," loosely. It's somewhere between begging and pleading and a demand, so it's closer to "oh please, NOW!" El means strong one. It's the same root as other strong words. For example, the word "ayil" is a ram (strong one of the flock), "ayal" is a stag (strong one of the forest) and "eyal" is strength. R'fa is heal. Tradition teaches prayer need not be lengthy or elaborate. This is the earliest known Jewish prayer for healing, uttered by Moses as a petition on behalf of his sister, Miriam: "El na, refa na lah, God, please heal her, please." 'Lah' is 'her' and the Kabalists say this is to be expanded to all nature.

*****

It is done four times, steady, rising, steady, falling, then starts over again, again, again, again, again. Ten minutes, twenty minutes. An hour. Voices rise and fall. Voices high and low. Melding, separating, harmonizing, combining into overtones no single voice creates. A circle of sound as, one by one, two by two, people come to the center, sit, vibrate throughout, breathe, heal. And all the while, a sound around it all, a tone at once over the overtone and under the lowest voice. It permeates and surrounds and whence it comes we've no idea.

An hour. An hour and a quarter. An hour and a half and the chant slows, quiets, takes longer breaths, then ends all at once as if by a cue, unheard and unseen. Silence.

What did you experience? I saw the colour blue everywhere. I could not stop singing. It was not my voice. I felt waves. I was connected. My body sang as I stood. I felt calm. Calm. No time passed.

Water passes around. Some sit, some pace. Some wonder what the sound was, that sound over the sound, that sound under the sound.

I walk to the far window, the window toward the back, for some space. To look out, to look down and see the grass wave through the thick glass and notice something new. Powder. Flakes. Chips on the wood sill. The caulking around the window is loose. The window, vibrating in the frame has loosed the old glazing. The window, vibrating in the frame, sang.

We gather again to say goodbye. A short chant only, easy to learn and in English. We make two lines facing each other, close to each other, holding hands with the person to my right, holding hands with the person to my left, close enough to hug the person I am facing, each line joining hands at each end. We are a circle pressed to a double line. We look into each other's eyes and chant, then move to the right, look into another set of eyes, sing, move to the right.

Come let us light up our hearts.
Come let us light up our homes.
Breathe in,
And breath out
Making circles of love.
Oh, come, let us light up the world.

Move to the right, look into those eyes, sing, move, look, sing. Her eyes, his eyes, my eyes.

Full circle. No one ends. We go round again. All is quiet. All is done.

*****

The next day we came to the store a little before nine in the morning to discover the phone wasn't working. In the very back of the building was a large room, concrete floored, with a separate entrance. It appeared to be a machine shop from the old gas station days and one could not get to it from the inside. I walked there now, through the front room, through the large workshop area, past the small office in the back we rented to a fledgling acupuncturist, out the back door and around to the right. I knocked on the door. This was the landlord's office.

Michael Rose owned the building and the house next door. Actually, it was one property with two buildings. He also owned a new age store not far from us. On top of these ventures, he was the U.S. importer for Blue Pearl Incense. When he was in town he was a good landlord and a more than decent person. Usually, however, he was out of town. Often at an ashram in Sarasota or India or who knows. Today was unusual and he was in his office. But his phone was not working either. Together we walked around the building to look at the lines.

It was a calm summer. There was no storm the night before. And so we were quite surprised to see, before we ever got to the phone lines, a thick black wire hanging from the tall utility pole a few feet from our building lying slack from the roof.

The wires were intact leading to the house on the property, parallel to our store, so Michael knocked on the door to use their phone. The line from their roof was still attached to the poll. It was not long before a gentleman from the phone company arrived.

It didn't take him long to fix it though he had to run a new, longer line. That seemed a bit strange. Why not just attach the old one? Would making it longer keep it from breaking?

When I asked, with Michael looking up at the new line, the repairman just shook his head. He said the building had shifted nearly two inches and that had put enough strain on the line to pull it off. How it shifted, he'd no idea. He'd seen this after floods or, more rarely, large storms. Our area is not known for tremors and, if there had been one, certainly there'd been more lines pulled off than just ours.

He left. Michael shook his head. Tall, heavyset, usually smiling, he stared concerned up at the roof. I told him I thought I might know what happened and asked if he would come inside and look at a window.

I lead him to it and he immediately saw the flaked glazing and the powder on the sill.

"We had a chant workshop last night. We wondered what the buzzing was."

He breathed in heavily and out again, aiming at the window sill and blowing the powder into the air. He was more than familiar with chanting, with sound and with vibration. He also had been invited to participate. But, still I had not expected him to actually be happy.

But happy he was. His eyes squinted and his smile grew wide and he laughed.

"Fantastic. I wonder what other damage you guys did. Other than moving the building. Can you break it?" Can you break the window?"

"I have no idea. Why would I?"

"Do it. Break the window next time. I'll replace it. It'll be worth it if you can do it. I want to see."

And so the next workshop was set but this time we called everyone we knew who would be the slightest bit interested. When they hesitated, I'd tell them the goal.

No, no charge. Just show up. Show up and sing.

Never underestimate the power of promised destruction. People came just for the opportunity to sing a window broken. People brought people. Small folk and thin folk with voices high and piercing. Big folk and squat folk with voices booming and deep.

More than forty people were there, in that room. We were not crowded and had space between us as we stood in one large oval. Four chairs were set in the middle. We were going to do this right.

Dusk came. Held in the air, a red thread could not be told from a blue one and so it was deemed night and we sang our invocation. It was livelier than usual but the invocation quieted the spirits and settled the energy.

Then, on to the chant. Many had been to the last workshop and knew the chant but we taught it from scratch. Why not? It doesn't take long and I wanted everyone to get as much out of this workshop as possible. If we didn't break a window, we should still all leave with something we learned and a story to tell.

Ana / El na'/ R'fa na lah. Ana / El na'/ R'fa na lah. Ana / El na'/ R'fa na lah. Ana / El na'/ R'fa na lah. Down low. Ascending. Up high. Descending. Down low. Ascending. Up high. Descending. Voices mixed, changed, created other voices. Forty felt like fifty, like eighty, sounded like a hundred. The space felt vast, the room felt small, people walked to the center, vibrated visibly, found harmonies. The pictures on the walls clattered. The hum was evident. Obvious. It was loud and came in waves, different this time. Higher, oscillating, changing. Was it one of the windows? Was it one of the two large panes of glass separating the rooms? Was it something else? No matter, we continued and continued and the sound gloried in its being sung.

Time past unnoticed, the ineffable cue was felt and we slowed, quieted, stopped. We sang our last chant, each looking into the eyes of the person across in a double serpentine bent at the walls. Again, it was quiet.

So quiet. We just stood there. No one wanting to talk. I asked no one to tell what they saw, felt, heard. I asked no one to share their experience. The silence told the story.

No one rushed to the windows.

But after a while I walked to the front window to look out and see the moon rising. I looked up to see it over the trees, bright and beautiful. I stood, staring through the window.

And what was this? In the high left corner, small small, a crack. Visible if one looked but nothing terribly noticeable. Still, a crack. We had done it. We broke the window. Not shattered, not busted, but broken nonetheless. In the end, I'm glad it was small. The perfect result in all ways. We did what we set out to do but the window could stay, as it had, for nearly a century. We could still see the grass wave, convoluted, from the thickened bottom. The glass, as originally placed, would continue on. Of that, too, I was glad.

Because, if you get very close, if you listen very carefully and very near, on a quiet quiet day, you can hear the recorded hundred years – the rumbling cars and trucks, shoes on raised wood floors, thunder and pelting rain, laughter, the harmony in the broken glass.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Appledance

I can’t remember having waited in a line this long. And certainly not holding this much. Not in DC waiting to get into the Capitol. Not in New York City waiting to get to the top of the Empire State Building. Not at the DMV. Maybe at Disney World, but I was twelve and that was Thanksgiving weekend. I haven’t been back since.

I am holding five bags containing a total of three pecks of apples while balancing a spaghetti squash and three jars of elderberry preserves. Lee is holding her purse. That seems fair.

Homestead Farms is crowded. With hayrides out to pick your own pumpkins from the fields, stands for freshly made caramel apples, squashes of various kinds still happily on the vines, and trees full of apples - Rome, Golden Delicious, Fuji, Stayman, and who knows what else. Now the apples are picked-clean but the pumpkins are still out there and the lines are crazylong with kids sticky, wheelbarrows full and parents camera-laden. Summer is full of berries, but fall is all pumpkins and apples.

I walk to a window. The sign above it says it’s for hayrides. I poke my head in front of the lengthy mass.

“How do I pick apples?

“All picked-out.”

“Just walk in?”

The gal behind the window, underneath the goat overpass, looks to be sixteen, maybe, and happy to be where she is. She repeats herself a bit more slowly as I might be hard of hearing or, perhaps, a moron, “The apples are all picked-out.”

“What if I pout and make sad eyes?” I draw a line with my left index finger from the outside corner of my left eye, down my cheek.

“Then you will be sad and still have no apples.”

“Good point, but can I go look anyway? I bet there will be at least one apple out there for me. Things are just like that.”

She smiles. “You might be right. Just for you.” And she points the way. No need to wait.

We walk between the barns and weighing stations to the orchards, find it empty of people, walk the rows, smell the fermenting applefall under the trees. Among the Fujis, at one of the trees, I reach my hand in, drawn deep inside. There is an apple for me. Just one. Huge. Monstrous. Forgotten. I pick it. It is red, perfect, without blemish.

As we walk between the rows of trees, the air is cool, the fall hues have set into the leaves coloring the trees and the ground, and I have a fresh apple in my hand, sweet and all mine.

I take a bite. It is hard to do. The apple is so large I can’t open my mouth wide enough, my teeth can’t get a purchase on it. It’s like biting a flat surface and proof my mouth is smaller than people tell me. As I eat the apple, small bit by small bit, feeling, chewing, my chin, my cheeks, my nose become apple-sticky from continued attempts to bite the sweet red crisp fruit. I am pulled in by gravity as much as taste and texture. I dance as I walk with my face buried within the globe. It is all I can taste. All I can smell. All I can see. I am consumed.

Lee, instead of dancing with me, is just watching and smiling. She doesn’t have an apple so she can’t have an appledance.

Though she certainly did dance with me the night before.

We’re in a partyroom, behind the skyboxes, at FedEx Field in DC. The event is the becoming a bar mitzvah of Matthew Gloger, son of my Sweetie’s cousin, Fran Gloger and her husband Mark. A beautifully well-done affair, comfortable and low-key, set in Matthew’s favorite place. First there was the tour of the stadium and the locker-rooms. I had never been in a stadium before, had never even sat to watch even a moment of a football game, let alone explored a stadium, played in its skyboxes, infiltrated its innards, walked its field. This is where the Redskins play, whoever they are. And this is where the entire population of the city in which I live could sit to watch them do so. After a walk on the field, there is dining and the dancing.

The dancefloor is twenty by thirty or so. Set up in the middle of the long hall, wall to wall, it separates the room in two. Against one wall are a DJ and a large white translucent screen with colored lights behind it. On the floor are two hired dancers - a tall black fellow and a short white gal – to make sure everyone is comfortable and to lead the partiers in line-dances and Thriller dances and whatever dances were popular then or now. Adults seem to congregate on one side of the dancefloor and kids on the other.

Much of the music is selected for a thirteen-year-old and his crowd. Music Matthew and his friends like. That makes sense. After all, it is his day. But through the night there often are slow dances or music of an age or type that calls the parents, who then flood to the dancefloor. Adults flood in from the dinner tables and skyboxes, kids flood out to the kid’s buffet and party-rooms, kids flood in, parents flood out, waves and waves until that rare moment when the music is right and waves flow in from both directions, flood to the floor and dance.

Lee and I dance to as much as we can and each slow song that is played. I dance with Lee, her cousins dance with us, her aunts dance with us, her mother dances with us. As long as I have known Lee’s mother, this is the first time I have seen her dance. Not that dancing with her is strange, though it is, but there is more to it. There seems, in that dancing, an acceptance of my presence I have not felt in the past.

Before one dance, as the music starts, I step aside to wave her through the crowd and onto the dancefloor ahead of me, a normal display of deference and manners.

She keeps her place in line. “No, you go ahead. You’ve been part of this family long enough.”

Is this acceptance? It seems so. It has been only a week since Lee’s father came to the same realization – that I am permanent. Our eighteen year old son, Alek, and twenty-four year old daughter, Sef, isn’t proof enough. Twenty-five years married to his daughter isn’t proof enough. What is? An electric bass and Elie Wiesel.

It is a week earlier and Lee’s mother and father are visiting. Her father, Lou, is taking a look at some of the minor changes we’ve made in the house over the past few months. He looks into my office. A computer desk, a laptop, couch, meditation cushion, bass, dulcimer, uke and amps.

“Is that Alek’s bass?”

“Nope. Mine.”

“Yours?”

Then, seeing the walls of books, he asks me something about “Night” by Elie Wiesel. He had just heard of it and is intrigued. He wants to know if I have read it. I have, and I hand him one of my copies.

“You have this?” One would think the answer was obvious, me just having handed it to him.

“Sure. And a letter from him on the wall. We had written to each other a few years ago.” I walked him over to it and he spent a moment reading. “Sef saw him in Washington but I have the letters. I think we’re each a little envious of the other.”

“Elie Wiesel sent you a letter?”

Again, one would think the answer was obvious. As he reads, as the evening progresses, it becomes equally obvious that, after nearly thirty years of knowing me, of dinners, holidays and occasions, he has just now, just today, at the age of eighty-two, decided he has a son-in law and not an interloper. Lee shakes her head. “He could have had that son-in-law the entire time.” True. True.

And so, as part of the family, I enter the dancefloor ahead of my mother-in-law.

There is Bob on the dancing with his daughter, Emma. Bob Phillips is married to Cheryl Levin, one of Lee’s cousins. Both are artists. She works in stone and finishes and interiors soft and hard, in mosaic and mural. He is a blacksmith who creates fences and gates that give one the impression one has shrunken to the size of an ant and is looking up at blades of grass with an occasional dragonfly having decided to alight and rest lightly. You expect it all to wave slowly in the next breeze. He manages this with wrought iron. Butterflies you would expect to float on the air but are the size of VW Beetles and made or iron. Doors, chandeliers and nearly anything else you’d want, Bob can render in organic perfection so one cannot tell where nature ends and art begins.

Years ago, on a visit to his studio in the Fishtown neighbourhood of Philly, when his thirteen-year-old Emma was five, he made and presented to me, three feet long, five inches wide, a question mark. He could not have known, during my earlier college years, the faculty and staff of Miami Dade Community College, where I was teaching, had presented me with a construction paper question mark and “The Order of the Grand Enigma” during an awards function my final year on faculty. And here was a second question mark to go along with it. Bob has been one of my favorite people since.

How many times have I met her cousins, her aunts and uncles, so much more friendly than mine, so much more accepting, so much more family, but I never was able to accept myself as part of that family, no matter how much they accepted me. Not until this trip. Not until last night.

We’re in the bar at the Marriott, sitting with Lee’s cousins. Her cousin Fran is not there, of course, since she is making last minute preparations for the festivities the next day, but Harriet, Cheryl, Robin and Jack are, along with their spouses, Rick, Bob, David and Lori. Everyone wants to hear how everyone is doing. This includes, to my shock, me. How am I’m doing? I mentioned the book coming out next year and the trial of finding an illustrator for “Bud the Spud.” I mentioned the book currently being worked on, the reprints and reissues, and the success of the practice, how much I enjoy managing it and how happy I am as a massage therapist and how it brought about my delightful extremely-early retirement from teaching.

Robin says she had no doubts and recalls a foot massage I gave her nearly twenty years ago as still the best one she has had yet. Harriet, in a simultaneous conversation I was not fully listening to, mentions a photograph I took of her daughter, Tedra, now finishing college. The picture, taken of her as a baby, is still their favorite, the one that captured Tedra. The one that shows best who she was and the essence that still is. I had been liked and respected and thought of fondly and I had not known. Or not allowed myself to realize it. I filtered it out.

And so I am grateful to learn this, to see them all here, to dance with them, to be part of this family. And I am glad to see Bob, on the dancefloor, with his Emma. He is dressed more comfortably than I, though I have removed my coat and tie, as have nearly all the men. We have removed enough garments to end up in the state of dress Bob started in, except he has on much more comfortable shoes. I make a note that I must give my shoes away before the next occasion. Emma is in a dress she made herself. All fruit - the top a print of raspberries, the middle strawberries, the short skirt blackberries. The shoes, Converse, are black and white. It was a formal function, after all.

The next dance is one for all the ages and I grab Sef’s hand.

“I’ve never seen Mom dance.” I can’t believe that, somehow.

“You’ve seen me dance.”

“Contra and English Country Dance. But I’ve never seen you dance without specific steps. You’re really bad at it.”

Lee butts in. “Everybody is. Just dance and don’t worry about it.”

A few years ago she would. Maybe a few years from now she will. But right now, at twenty-four, she won’t. She can’t. What she can do is still be embarrassed by her parents. It is an unsettled age when one may be more comfortable with oneself but one still cannot quite grasp aging, that one becomes more and more like one’s parents. Sef can certainly dance but dancing with me reminds her there are things she cannot do, things she isn’t as good at as she’d like. Perhaps.

And so she dances not quite with us, not quite apart from us. She dances with Lee’s sister, Fran, who dances no differently than Lee but is neither her mother nor father.

The song ends.

I walk over to Bob. “You guys are so cute. Dance with her while you can. She won’t be dancing with you long.”

“That’s what I figured. Maybe another year or two, God willing. Then, who knows?

We talk about our daughters, passing time, fazes and fads. People join and leave the conversation, Lee’s aunts, her cousins, Sef, Lee. Another song comes and we dance. Dinner comes. Dinner ends. We dance.

The next day we are at Fran’s house for brunch. A large comfortable home in Potomac. The gathered are mostly family. We nosh on eggs, lox, bagels, fruit. We talk. Sit in the back yard in the cool October air. Sit inside at the kitchen table.

Sef had left early that morning, taking a cab before seven to the Metro, the Metro to DC and an Amtrak to New York City. Then another train an hour and a half north to Beacon. She calls to say she arrived. It is a few minutes after one.

“Your mother isn’t budging.”

“Leave her alone. She never gets to see her cousins. She’s happy.”

“Oh, trust me. I wouldn’t say a thing. We’ll leave whenever she decides to or when she discovers the time.”

“Good.”

Of course, Sef doesn’t have to drive from Maryland to Central Florida.

But looking at Lee, she is happy. She glows. The entire time here she glows and from this happiness I will not move her.

Our plan was to get to Fran’s about eleven and stay for two or three hours. To leave by one or two, drive until seven or eight. That would put us in South Carolina and leave us an easy day’s driving tomorrow. It is now after three. The crowd has thinned. It is now after four. People have left for airports, for drives to Philly and New Jersey. It is now after five. Only a few of the cousins are left and we all sit in the kitchen. Lee talks about how much she likes the area, how much she misses the North, how we plan to become bi-locational, someday, somehow.

Some understand. Some don’t. But it’s cold. But it’s crowded. Who would not like Florida?

Fran mentions the time over iced tea and apple slices. Suggests that, as much as she loves having us, we have a long drive. Or we could at least leave early enough to go do something on the way we can’t do at home. Why not pick apples?

Pick apples? Well, yes! Lee loves the idea. So do I. Fran looks up the address for us. She goes there with her kids to pick berries, apples, pumpkins, squash. It is close by. I look at the time, say nothing.

We say our good-byes. This takes about half an hour while Fran reminds Lee that daylight will end sooner than she thinks.

As we drive, the parks are full of people playing. The sidewalks are full of people walking. Late on a Sunday evening and people are out being social, being active, being a community.

Turn by turn, we arrive at Pooleville, follow the signs and pull into Homestead Farms. It might take a while to find a parking space. But that’s ok. There are apples in my future.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

My House has no Spirits

My house has no spirits.

We don’t ascribe to all that can be read in the many books of feng shui that can be found in nearly any bookstore. I have a few on my own shelves, as well. But even those we don’t follow. Not really.

It seems what is right in one culture is not so in another. What one country, or one people, think is bad luck, not beneficial, may bring blessing in another. I, for instance, very much like exposed beams. The feng shui books tell me to cover them or, at the very least, to place a flute or staff in the rafters. They advise us in the use of fortune corners and love corners and corners for this, that and the other thing.

Nearly none of which we follow.

But we do follow the principles behind these rules, the concept of space and the flow of energy, the movement of people and air, light and sound in a home. And so, our corners are softened with long sticks of bamboo, a didgeridoo or a long flute. None of our furniture protrudes past wall to block a walkway or into a hall, we don’t have our windows covered with furniture. Our kitchen table is not in view of the bathroom. That’s just makes sense if you think about it, but many homes have bathrooms right next to the kitchen. “Excuse me,” you say, getting up from dinner with friends, walking to the bathroom five feet away so the dinner guests can wonder whether that is the kitchen sink or you running. Some guests won’t use a bathroom in view or earshot of the table. And the sound a toilet flushing is so very appetizing.

We do have a mirror in view, up high, at the top of the wall you see as you walk into the house. It confuses spirits who don’t belong in the house. Or so the theory goes.

Spirits. There is the central idea. The spirits of the house. What makes them comfortable and allows the household spirits to live in harmony with the house and the land and the more corporeal inhabitants? Find the answer to that and you have feng shui. And this is what the feng shui books try to tell us with their compasses and diagrams and rules. But the spirits in my house are not Chinese spirits. I need the spirits in my house to be happy, not the ones in China.

But my house has no spirits.

I came to this realization this evening while listening to a television program that had a brief reference to feng shui. It hit me, suddenly and strangely, my house had no spirits. And I started to cry. Just a little, but the tears were there and a deep sense of sadness within.

When we looked at this house, it was what we could afford. It was what we could get financed for. Not too old, newly refitted with the type of contractor-grade carpeting and paint and fixtures one would expect slapped into a home to make it salable. We weren’t blind to that. We needed a house we could move into then, not later, and didn’t have the money just then for repairs.

The house we wanted, twenty thousand more and needed twenty thousand in repairs, felt alive. We wanted it. But we had a month to move in unless we wanted to renew our lease for a year which removed that house as an option. But it was vibrant and alive. It had spirit. Or spirits. Or both.

So we bought the house ready to move into, the one we could afford. We said, before long, we’d make it ours. That was three years ago

So far, we ripped out the carpet. It became stretched and beyond usable within the first year. We cleaned the terrazzo beneath but still have not repaired the nail holes. We painted the master bedroom, but that was a year ago and we still haven’t removed some of the blue painter’s tape. We painted my office. We bought a used but comfortable couch but that is it as far as furniture. We had many plans to green the home, to make it more ecologically friendly, but, other than the ducts and insulation, which were paid for by Florida Power and Light, and changing all the light bulbs, we’ve gone as far as we will. We compost, but there is no will to garden here. The plans for green are gone.

Gone also are the plans to close in the carport, to move a wall and enlarge the living room, to screen in the patio so we can enjoy dinner outside. Gone are so many plans I can’t even remember most of them. Many low-cost. It’s not for want of money. We just don’t care.

We don’t even want to put screws back into the light switch. There’s just no motivation. None.

And no spirits either.

We sensed something wrong after we moved in. My wife, perhaps, before we moved in. But we didn’t know quite what it was or even what to do with it. This seemed our only option. We took it.

And it feels strange. We lived in trailers we liked. We kept them well and fixed them, improved them, made the homes.

Our home in Gainesville, smaller than this by far, was alive. The land was alive. The trees were alive. We improved, changed and enlarged that home. Pulled carpet and placed wood floors. Made wood baseboard, hung our cast iron from hooks in the kitchen ceiling, built small wood decks at the front and back doors to catch the dirt as one came in, planted trees, built stone circles, hung parachutes, made gardens. The house was happy. The spirits were happy. We were happy. Still we miss that house.

But here? I think of the houses I have been in through Palm Bay and Melbourne. Some empty and void, some alive. Nice houses empty. Some not so nice ones, full of life. Vitality seemingly having nothing to do with the youth or state of the house.

So what to do? Toward the ocean? To a creek? Across town? We aren’t sure, but something has to change. Soon.

We miss the life. We miss the happy spirits. It’s time to move.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Summer Solstice Eve

I have been standing in the Indian River for an hour now. Maybe longer. Maybe less. But, as I have stood here, the sun has disappeared behind me and darkness risen before me. This impossibly hot, long day has slipped into hot night.

A wood stork, never more than six feet from me, has been my companion since first I entered the water. We have both been listening. Just listening. Waves come gently in and out. Manatees nudge me in the knee-deep water. Fish jump, splash me. The bird and my self, silent and still.

There is no moon in the sky, only stars, numerous and bright. No light reflects in the lapping waves. They are felt, heard but invisible. The river, unseen. The water, silky, thick, warm. The air, dense, warmer, still.

After some time, I am moved to move, to travel to the sea and so I leave the river and make my way the half mile over it to the ocean, to the Atlantic.

Coconut Point. Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. My car is the only one there. I leave my shirt in the car. Sandals in the car. Wallet and keys and phone in the car. The boardwalk through the mangrove, over the dunes, is long, winding, impossible to see in the new moon and I feel my way along. The waves resonate thunder through the boards, reflect off the waxy leaves. The thunder is everywhere. The waves are everything. Everything drums and crashes, washes in and out.

The boardwalk turns and declines and becomes sand. The waves quiet on the wide beach. I walk. I feel no other human footprints on the dark sand but, from time to time tracks, shaped like those which might be left by a small earthmover, a backhoe. Follow them to the waves and they disappear. Follow them to the dunes, a sea turtle may be found digging her nest, laying her eggs. Some tracks lead from the water, to the dunes and back – a turtle having entered the air and exited again, leaving her eggs behind.

Still, there are no signs of people. No light, no print, no sound. I remove my shorts and walk. Walk. The world is naked to me and I to it, with no thing between me and nature that is not of nature's making. Feeling the air about me, over me, covered in night and salt and dark and warmth, I am engulfed by the moist air and the sound of waves, each inch of me.

More sea turtle tracks. More and more. Some come halfway to the dunes, circle and return to the sea. Once a turtle is laying her eggs, she will not cease. Nothing will end it until she is done. Before she has begun, she may be followed behind, but cross in front and she will turn around to try another night, undisturbed.

Here and there I see a darker spot on the dark sand. They are patches of plant or stone, driftwood or the shadow of a depression in the beach. One walks carefully in the new moon. Slowly, they move. Turtles, the size of wheelbarrows, walk to the ocean, and I, from a distance, watch. Turtles, the size of kitchen tables, moving beachward against the oscillating surf. Do I see it? Do I see it? Yes, moving, moving, leaving the water for the land. I keep my distance, wait, watch, cross far behind.

I walk. Walk. There are small luminous, glowing spots in the sand. Shells, insects, glow worms, radium. I don’t know. I don’t want to know, I don’t want a description, I don’t want a name, I don’t want them named. I want only for them to shine blue and green and be the only lights on the beach. They are a mystery and I want them to stay that way. I leave them, undisturbed, like the turtles. Like the dunes, like the beach. When I have left, it will be as though I were never here. Already it is so.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Great Mender

I have felt agitated the last few days. I have been running hot, feeling anxious. It has taken a while to figure out why. Once it was pointed out to me, though, I put my finger on it. I had been taking Great Mender for a busted rib. Jin Gu Die Shang Wan tends to heat the body. Mine is already on the hot side so there are certain herbs I don’t take as they will create even more excess heat. Americans tend to run hot as it is. Then we take red ginseng and other herbs that heat us further. Great Mender is wonderful for helping heal bone injuries but I should have taken something to help reduce the heat from it.

We treat herbs as though they are not medicines. Strange. We think they are powerful enough to be of use but not powerful enough to take the needed precautions. We self-prescribe without knowing much about them or how they interact with different conditions, constitutions, herbs or even medications. We treat them like Western medicines when most herbs should be used to treat underlying causes and not overlying symptoms.

Of course, many MDs will do just the opposite, telling the patient herbs are of no use and then forbidding their use. Which is it? If they are powerless, why not take them? But then contradictory stances are nothing new in Western Medicine.

So I cut the dosage down and am feeling better and still healing. The agitation has gone away.

I was feeling useless. With Shelley taking up so much of the day to day functions in the office, I am left to massage therapy, working on patients in tandem with Lee, creating web content, setting up public events, promotion, networking, publicity, and writing a series of essays, poetry and a novel while supervising the illustration of the last children’s book. On top of that, I started a Free Market downtown.

And so I have been feeling as though I am not pulling my weight, even though the weight pulled may well have been quite excessive at the beginning, even though the inertia of that pull is still carrying us forward, I ask, and have done so out loud to my office-mates, “What have I done for us lately?”

I am supposed to take more time to write. When I do, I feel I am shirking my work at the office, most of which is being handled more than ably by Shelley. So she schedules clients most likely to need me around the same time so I am able to take half days or full days to write.

I recognized feeling that was neither here nor there. All the ways I felt are based in real feelings, real assumptions I have of myself, but they were just excuses I used for the agitation. The feelings were there anyway but they were not the cause.

Still, I sat and went over all the horrible things I so often think about me. I spent far too long on this.

Then I thought of the wonderful things people say about me. How misguided they must be. Obviously terrible judges of character. Should I trust people who know me to… See, I will examine this to death. And the more I do so, the more ridiculous it will get. Good, it needs to be obviously ridiculous.

When someone has something negative to say, it is always worth looking at. What grain of truth might there be in it? None? Perhaps. Does something of it ring true? If so, can I learn and grow from it?

If I can learn from that, how about the positive? Should I not listen to that, examine it, learn and grow from it?

Am I really a mensch? Am I really a good man? Does no one really try harder?

My Tibetan name, is Karma Bondru Zangpo. Excellent Diligence. Such a name, given when one takes Buddhist Refuge, is a lesson. It is called a Dharma Name, and it is the person’s best, most prevalent quality. It is also that person’s biggest, most prevalent trap. It is the trait that makes them wonderful and that which trips them up. It is what they do and their undoing.

As I diligently examine myself into a state of anxiety, I think of my name, slow down and become just a bit less diligent. The anxiety dissipates just a little.

I have just had the air conditioner replaced in my office. The handyman did not move anything before setting to work. A bookcase fell. The CD cases not broken before are more than broken now. It takes me two hours to clean up the mess. Broken plastic, plaster, sheetrock, books, CDs, cards. It is an opportunity to examine what was there and move something to the front that had, over time, moved to the back of the bookcase. Time to take stock and time to thin the herd.

I find an envelope. It is from a class I took two, maybe three years ago when I was teaching middle school. We work during the summers, most teachers do not have long summer spans free, and this was just one of the many summer classes I had to take. This one was on poetry. Poetry Alive. How to spoon feed sugar-coated poetry to kids who have no interest in it at all. They do performances and classes in school all over the US. That explains quite a bit. The class itself was awful. The idea was to have kids perform poetry instead of read it. If they perform it, they will have to investigate the poems more fully, get deeper into them. Perhaps. But, in the end, it taught close reading, as I taught, and the performance aspect was just a way to allow the teacher to grade the students when a discussion, a real discussion, long, without goal, without preconceived ideas, would have done much better and be far less tacky.

More often than not it resulted in bad performances that would drive even the most ardent lover of poetry to prefer spending his or her time watching reality TV instead.

The teacher for the course had each of us make a bag, a small brown lunchbag, and put it up on the wall. Anytime we felt the desire to say something nice, to compliment a fellow student, we were supposed to write it on a piece of paper and put it in their bag. It was supposed to be anonymous.

We were supposed to decorate it in a way that portrayed our true selves. I did this by not taking a bag. No bag, no decorating. Not pinning it to a wall. No thank you. So the teacher did it for me. Now there’s a lesson for me.

I still do not understand why the notes could not be given directly to the person. Why we could simply not have told the other person. Why was it supposed to be secret?

I pull out that bag now and remove the varying slips of paper.

You are always such a patient and compassionate example to those in the group. You work so hard to help others and to understand them - who they are and what they need. This group would certainly be less without you in it.

Adam, Sometimes I feel like you hold back on getting to know people or letting others know you. You are a wonderful friend, love to spend time with you.

Adam, You exude wit and intelligence and keep me on my toes.

Sage, poet, artist, warm-hearted man. WOW.

An honest sage and philosopher always when we need it most.

I am always amazed at you when we talk.

Thanks for the reality checks.

You are an intelligent, insightful person though, at times, you overanalyze a situation.

Of course I can’t believe people who know me too well and these people don’t know me well enough to be believed. How far do you think that thinking will get me?

Looking at these comments, I realize this must be a different bag. None of this is about poetry, or teaching. Somehow, at some other time, I must have done this exercise with another group. I can’t recall, but the evidence is in my hands.

Evidence. Now comes the analysis. I’ll let you know how it comes out.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Nor'easter, Part 3: Goodbye Monks, Hello Dalai

Nor’easter: Being a Whirlwind Snowy Trip to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York City or How Van Gogh and a Herd of Alpacas helped Lee get her Groove Back.

Second day: Morning. Goodbye Monks, Hello Dalai.


We rise a bit before seven and the first thing I do is look out the window to see the cars, pavement, roofs, covered in snow. I noticed, last night, the car had an ice scraper in the trunk. We may well use it soon.

We shower and pick out the day’s dress. Long johns for Lee under a shirt. Special thin long johns under her dungarees. For me, a long sleeve charcoal long john shirt with buttons, looks like a jersey, and generic long johns under my dungarees. Each of us has a leather jacket. We wanted our longer coats but there is only so much we could take on a plane. Slowly, surely, car travel seems much more the luxury than travel by plane. The luxury of time. The luxury of space.

We dress, all the while marveling, as we do when we travel, at the TV. Not so much the TV, of course, but the regional differences that can still be found in the programming. Different accents, different emphasis on different stories, more of one type of commercial than another. Local flavor can still be seen, though it is often subtle.

Of course, one of the big differences is not just due to the area but the area at this time of year. The weather reports suggest several inches of snow. There are ski commercials, farm commercials and commercials for various animal-related fairs as well. No idleness during the winter months.

We eat breakfast. Apples. Bananas. We know Rachel will be here at eight and we don’t want to be late. Today, we are hers for wherever she wishes us to be. And the first place to be is outside at eight.

And so we are. Gloved. Scarved. Hatted. I have leather gloves, a newsboy hat with a brim just big enough to keep the bright sun out of my eyes and a cashmere scarf I never get a chance to wear. Lee has gloves we just purchased for her, Thinsulate within, leather without, and a stocking cap. I tried to find her better gear, and find I did. But the interest was lacking. At least I managed to get her into a pair of hiking boots.

Standing in the lobby of the Eastonian, we see a car pull up. It parks, driver window open. It’s Rachel. Window open. Open. This is not starting out well.

Out we go to meet her. Her window is broken and will not roll up. Ok, we could have met her at her house. No problem. She tells us she’s used to it. She is dressed in a T-shirt and sweat shirt. Last report was it was 22 degrees. Lee tries to give her another sweat shirt for under it but, no thanks. Rachel says she is fine. Neither one of us believes her.

We walk over to our car. It is covered with a fine powdery snow. I open a door and nearly all of the powder falls to the pavement. We get in, Rachel pulling up the seat to sit in the back, and closing the driver’s door, shakes the remaining powder from the front and back windows. Lee does not want to drive but can’t sit in the back. She never can for more than a very short distance. Rachel is sure she can direct us from the back seat. Off we go. Where to turn? What is that? What does that mean? A new town and I am a kid - curious and fascinated.

The first stop is actually in New Jersey – The Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in Howell, Washington County. It should be but a half hour away. It is listed as a monastery and welcomes visitors. According to the website, it is the home away from home, at least in the Northeast, of the Dalai Lama and it is where he does the bulk of his teaching in the US. There is a stupa there I have wanted to see and this snowy day is my opportunity.

But first, we must go through downtown Easton. This won’t take long and I drive slowly, even considering there is ice on the road. The buildings seem odd and it is a few moments before I realize it is simply because they are old. Old. Not in ill-repair. Not at all. But not modern. They have character and a scale more human than I have often seen. We drive by Lafayette College and it is quite a sight. Beautiful, up on a hill in the center of downtown surrounded by trees that must provide needed and appreciated shade in the summer.

At the very center of the downtown area, as per design and practicality, by the grace of fortuitous geography, on one side of the town square, where the Bushkill flows, is the old Crayola factory. Long moved to the outside of town and having significantly cleaned up its act, folks here used to be able to tell what color crayon was being made that day by the color of the Bushkill. Now the old factory building is called Two Rivers Landing. The Crayola Factory, a museum and activity center based on the much-loved company and product, takes up the bottom two floors. On the top floor of the three story building is the National Canals Museum.

The Northeast has the bulk of the navigable waterways in North America. Not the biggest rivers, perhaps, but the most, often the deepest, and easiest to get a ship down. Or, if not a ship, a boat or barge. Goods moved from place to place by water more than most people think. And, when there was no river, a canal could be built. The best known of these is the Erie Canal in New York, but there are many important canals and many still in use. This area long depended on the Lehigh, Delaware, and Morris Canals and the Lehigh and Delaware Canals meet right here in Easton. The Bushkill behind us, two canals within walking distance and the Delaware River but a mile away.

It is the Delaware we are headed toward now. On the way I notice there appear to be many more chiropractors' offices and tattoo parlors than most places I have been. Any place I have been, actually. Often next to each other. Getting a tattoo must be more rough than I thought.

As we come over a hill, in sight are the Delaware and two bridges less than three blocks from each other. Also in sight, over the Delaware, is Phillipsburg, New Jersey. Rachel has me take the closest bridge, called the old bridge. "Is that its name?" No. I had asked about that the night before as well when first seeing the two bridges. The old bridge to Phillipsburg and the new bridge to Phillipsburg. No one I asked, and I asked quite a few at Tick Tock, knew the name of the other bridge or why there was a new one. And the new bridge cost seventy-five cents to cross leaving people to routinely shun it for the old bridge which crosses the Delaware just as well as the new one.

How can no one know the names of these bridges? There is really the excellent reason for this. The names are horrid. Not exactly names to trip off the tongue or lodge in one's memory. The old bridge is The Easton-Phillipsburg Toll Bridge and is part of US 22. It does have a toll, it turns out, but only coming into Pennsylvania from New Jersey. The other bridge is The Northampton Street Toll Supported Bridge and it has tolls both directions. It should be noted the new bridge was damaged by Hurricane Diane in 1955 and later repaired so even the new bridge is not exactly new. Still, it is easy to see why the spans are called the New Bridge and Old Bridge.

Just before we get to the bridge there is a steep bank to the south and then to the east again with a rough rock wall to the south as the road circles around Lafayette College and cuts through the solid rock which rises on the sides of us as we sink to river-level. Roads cut through the land are common in this part of the country. They are called roadcuts, as a matter of fact, and are often studied by geologists, who let the roads folk do the work and then come in to study the strata uncovered and material left over. You can even find them in cities such as this one in Easton and right in the middle of Philadelphia. It is not strange at all to see rock walls on either side of the road, and amazingly close stones jutting out as though one sneeze at the wrong moment, one twitch of the hand, will leave a driver without a passenger-side mirror or a passenger side all together.

The rock wall, as we approach the bridge, drops suddenly just as the road curves, just when you think you might hit the jagged granite and slate, there is nothing but drop. Nothing but air and treetops as the land falls away.

"That's called Cemetery Curve," Rachel tells us.

"Why? Is there a cemetery at the bottom?"

To my surprise, the answer is yes. There is a cemetery at the bottom of Cemetery Curve.

"Did they name it for the cemetery or did they put the cemetery there because that's where all the bodies piled?"

"You know, I'm not sure. It was probably easier just to leave the bodies where they landed. Less hauling."

I'm thinking we might not make it to New Jersey.

Finally, over the bridge, the geography changes instantly as the geology does. Granite and slate becomes dolomite and pegmatite, pinkish in color, and there is less roll to the hills, fewer rocks cropping up. The buildings, as well, are more composed of wood, more clapboard than stone. That we are in a different place is apparent. We continue to head out on US 22 though Phillipsburg to Howell. Among the bedding stores, the auto repairs, hardware stores, marts, offices, shops and restaurants, we pass a foodstand, an old gas station by the looks, white, wood. This is the sort of place one stands outside of and orders while the people inside make the food. The kind of place people congregate round during fair weather. This is not fair weather but I am no less intrigued by Toby's Cup.

The cup in Toby's Cup is not for soup or coffee. The cup is a bun and this is a hot dog stand. Not a bun in the sense most people think of one. It is a steamed bun without opening at either end, forming a long cup, a trough, for the hot dog and a slice of pickle, sauerkraut, onions and various other condiments to be loaded into. The hot dog is not broiled, not boiled, not baked or steamed - it is deep fried in peanut oil until it screams and splits. A Splitter it's called, not surprisingly. I saw this on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations special show on New Jersey and decided, if I found one, I'd try it for sure. Once. Just once. I would stop for one now, regardless of the early hour, if Toby's was just open. Once. Just once.

As we drive, Rachel points to the north at a gap, a wedge cut in the mountains. Wind Gap. Wind Gap is where the Delaware used to flow, she tells us, dividing the mountains for millions of years millions of years ago until acted upon in a manner so startling and violent, the flow shifted miles away to the present location, now called Water Gap for clear enough reason.

But this is not correct, alas. This is an area where the North American and African continental plates meet. Many streams once flowed from the north to the south through this area. One by one, the streams eroded wider and wider beds through the soft lime leaving the harder rock, sandstones and conglomerates, much less eroded and formed these old, now rolling, mountains, part of the ancient, even by mountain standards, Appalachian chain. The widening creeks and rivers, one by one, found the crack, the cleft that divided the plates, and the rivers were “captured.” Over time, more and more rivers joined them, eroded the crack to a bed to a cleft to a gap.

As it is now, Water Gap is a mile wide from New Jersey’s Mount Tammany at 1,527 feet to Pennsylvania’s Mount Minsi at 1,463 feet. The Gap is about 1,200 feet deep from the tops of these mountains to the surface of the Delaware which, itself, is, at this point, 290 feet above sea level and fifty five feet deep.

And Wind Gap was and is for wind.

After a while we come to the monastery road - a sharp, sudden left turn on a snowy steep hill, and pass it hearing “there it was” from Rachel. Another quarter mile and we find a safe place to turn around and slowly make the right onto the road, winding up and up, my wife wincing at the drops and occasional small skids, past farms and stables and homes and then, on the left, Tibetan prayer flags. We turn in.

There are two buildings. One looks like a large home, in the back of the property. Perhaps in the back. There may be more land, much more land, behind it but I cannot tell. To the right is a large hall. At least it looks to be a single large open room, with a wrap-around porch atop stairs atop a hill.

But this is all dwarfed by the stupa, high, round and white in the middle of the icy field. It is the first thing we see as we enter the gate and it dominates the scene. We park in front of the hall in the gravel spot large enough for only half dozen cars.

It takes us a few moments to gather our warm things and, in the meantime, Lee notices, out loud, this place appears to be empty. We leave the car and carefully walk to the one hundred foot or so gravel path to the hall steps. In the distance, the door to the distant house opens, closes loudly echoed on the ice and down the stairs, across the field, a short, many-layered lady approaches, calling to us. She introduced herself as Diana Cutler. Later I would find her to be one of the first American students of the center and the one to whom administrative duties were passed when the monks, when the monastery, moved to New Brunswick and the Center, called Labsum Shedrub Ling – simply, The Learning Center, was gifted to the Dalai Lama.

In thick sweater and coat, jeans and hiking boots, Diana has crampons under her soles. “We don’t get visitors here in the winter.” She can’t say that anymore. She worries about us falling on the icy gravel and asks us to walk on the side where it meets with the dead grass. There are no monks here, she tells us. And she is headed into town to see her acupuncturist. But she has a little time and we can see the study hall and learning center. We walk carefully where she instructs us and hold the railing up the wooden stairs. The double colonial doors are not locked and she bids us leave our shoes outside and we enter.

Fifty by thirty feet, I am guessing. Doors to the left and the right. Meditation cushions stacked against the wall through which we just passed. In front of us, a large alter spans the center half of the wall we are facing. Next to it, on the left and the right, from altar to wall, are bookcases. It is cold in here. There is no heat. There is no provision for heat.

The altar has flowers, statues, candles, pictures, iconography, tankas, incense stacked in tall cans, all in a profusion of color and texture and the closer we get the more interesting, the more fascinating, the more diverse and complex it becomes. There are tiny household statues of stone and pewter. Small necklaces and strands of malas sent to spend time on the altar. Coins cover much of the surfaces that, from further away, seem empty. Much of the color and texture comes from cans of food, boxes of cookies, toiletries. Much of the altar is composed of mundane household items and, along with the statues and candles, it all fits, it is all beautiful and serene and holy. The canned peas are holy. The toilet paper is holy. The toothpaste is holy. The cookies are holy cookies. The razors holy razors. Sacred are the Ritz crackers. Sacred is the cheese. Holy is the mundane. We back up again and it all blends and all is holy.

I sink to my knees, prostrate, allow my forehead to touch the floor once, twice, thrice. I walk up, take incense, light it. Offer it. I leave a few dollars in a box. I fold myself again, to the floor, on my knees and sit. I am quiet.

Lee asks Diane where the monks have gone. Gone they are and gone they have been for quite some time. Once it was home to Tibetan Monks and Mongolian monks in a culture that was mixed so both would feel at home. Then Americans started to enter as well. Americans like Diane and her husband Joshua. Now everyone is gone but them. Gone. Gone by death. Gone by attrition. New monks heading to the cities to be engaged in the compassionate work of the world, easing suffering with hands as well as hearts, to work as well as meditate. Only Joshua and Diane Cutler remain. And, in 1984, the Dalai Lama asked the monastery in Howell, NJ to change the name to The Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center. Now, this is where the lessons are taught when the Dalai Lama is in the NE United States. But not in the winter. In the winter, it rests.

And so do the texts. They rest. The massive shelves hold them. A full third of the wall is covered by them with half one side of the altar and half on the other.

These texts are bound in cloth and are just under a foot long, three inches wide and about an inch thick for the smaller ones to four inches for the heftier tombs. Each has a flap on one end of a specific color. It’s the color that tells the reader the language from which the text is derived, and the further information on the flap tells the title and contents. One holds them or, more traditionally, places them on a small slanted stand, with the long axis from hand to hand, and flips the pages up. Tibetan is read from left to right. These are the books Richard Gere has been spending so much on translating and digitizing. These and others like them from other collections are being saved and translated, made available and read more widely than ever. Perhaps not better understood, but certainly read.

And there are hundreds here, at least. They are stacked long-axis-in on the shelves, which are arranged, further, into cubbies. Six to twenty-four books, stacked three to six high, are in each cubby and there are four to seven cubbies per shelf on seven shelves set atop a set of cabinets and reaching within a foot of the ceiling. They are organized by color. These are the sutras and commentary.

On the bookcase to the left are the sutras, all one hundred and eight, in red. Above them, to the top of the case are the Indian commentaries in blue. Those continue to the next bookcase and, then, above those are the books in yellow – the Tibetan commentary on the Indian commentary.
Diane has to get to her appointment so we start to leave and I turn around for a final look. Once out the door, I see the prayer wheels, again. Each like the next like the one before, each a black cylinder bidding us to open like a lotus. Om Mane Padme Om. May I open like a lotus. I go to the first one on my right. I have never spun a prayer wheel before and, as I do, Diane calls to me. “Start on the other side and walk clockwise.”

I start again, on the left side of the front doors, spinning each, walking, allowing my hand to contact the bottom of each, spinning it as I walk, the next, the next. I turn the corner and continue and I can hear the wheels turn, behind me they slow, the next one start, several turning at once. Each one spinning a prayer again and again and again. Coins are left here and there and I dig into my pocket with my left hand and leave a quarter at the next corner before I turn, not missing a beat. The back of the building, wheel after wheel and another coin to leave at the corner before I turn and the other side of the hall and another coin and then the last half side and the door again. Lee is smiling. She knows I have long wanted to do this. And smiling, we walk down the stairs, carefully, on our non-spiked hiking shoes. Rachel in her sneakers. Diane walks confidently, we, slow and haltingly, carefully, where the iced grass meets the gravel. We thank her and Rachel and Lee go to the car.

The stupa sits large and imposing in the field. Not the tallest in North America. Not the widest or most ornate, but it is the one I am at. There is too much ice to go there but I do regardless, slowly, carefully, crunching and balancing the two hundred or so feet into the field. This stupa was dedicated in 1984 to the founder of Labsum Shedrub Ling, Venerable Geshe Wangyal (1901-1983). And I stand at its base for a short time knowing those behind me are cold. So I turn around and tread to the car.

Once in, we head back the way we came, down and around the mountain, slowly on the icy road, to the main road back to Easton. Tony’s Cup is still closed. Over the Delaware, Rachel gives us directions to her house. Her mother wants to take us to see the sights of Jim Thorpe and some surrounding areas. Not having any idea what she is talking about, we happily give in to a new adventure seeing things we’d never heard of. She has a minivan and will drive. An easy day for us.

Arriving at her house, the garage door is open. Dogs are barking and can be heard all over the quiet, snow-covered neighbourhood. We enter the house to wait for her mom who has taken a half day off work. It is loud with five barking dogs that never cease. It is musty with animal, fur, aroma of cage. Lee exits and waits outside in the cold.

She enters again asking for paper. The answering service called with a new appointment for a new client. We had put off getting an answering service because of the expense. This trip made it a necessity and, searching the Internet, found a local one in Melbourne. The cost is sixty dollars a month. Much less than we had anticipated and added one more example of our not taking advantage of something because of our assumption it would be expensive. Before the day of vacation was out, we’d have three new patients. All while enjoying the Poconos. One day and the service paid for itself nine times over. So much for saving money.

Mom arrives. After a few minutes of hellos and explaining why Lee could not stay in the house, after making sure Rachel was dressed more warmly, we are all into her van and off to see Jim Thorpe. The road is leading up and up while the snow begins to fall.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Night Garden

It was around eleven pm and I started feeling hungry. I’m not sure if this is my stomach or my brain. I had a cup of black rice with about a cup of cooked vegetables for dinner around seven. Yet, since ten, I wanted more.

I opted for a bowl of organic Cheerios-esque cereal with almond milk. Not long after - not even after, halfway through the bowl, actually – I regretted every spoonful. So I continued, more and more loathing building with each mouthful until I finished the bowl, now empty of cereal but brimming with contempt.

Having eaten, it being about a quarter after eleven, I have to take a walk. While I know this does not undo what has been done, there is a part of my brain that tells me that is precisely what it does. A part of my brain exists that says this one action, talking a walk, will undo the cereal. A crazy part, no doubt. This is not something of which I am unaware. But had this part spoken up before the cereal, I’d be in bed now.

So I put on my socks and sneakers, collar and leash the suddenly ecstatic dog and out we go.

Today it stormed. This evening it stormed. I could hear the frogs and various un-named creatures through the windows. So, while I would normally take my MP3 player with me, this time I leave it at home. While normally I’d listen to lectures on physics, or religion, or recorded books, tonight I will listen to the sounds of the natural world, all wet and happy, awake and loud.

We leave through the back door, quietly, as my wife is sleeping, grabbing the bamboo short staff. There have been, as of late, stray, large, unfriendly dogs following us on our walks. Dogs in pairs and triplets, one at the heels, one on each side, each pushing me into the other. Growling and showing teeth. I tell them to leave and they do, then return a minute or so following closely, more closely, at my heels and side once again. I tell them there will be one fewer if I find a stick. When I do, they leave me before I can pick it up. Since I have carried this thirty inch long, one inch thick bamboo, they have not approached.

Through the yard and out the gate to the sidewalk. I attach the free end of the leash to my belt loop and my dingo trots along my left side, leash loose, looped, swaying as we walk.

I don’t see her, of course, walking next to me. One side is the blind side and the other side is the one with very little peripheral vision, so I need to trust her. And I do. I know what she is up to. I can tell where she is by the pull on the leash. When she gets a sandbur, and we have some versions of cenchrus here that appear to have been developed as devises of torture by the SuperDevil, I can tell immediately by the change in her gate, the different rhythm in the paws on pavement, the change in the sway of the leash.

A short walk. Two and a tenth miles. I walk this in the morning in thirty-five minutes which is a shade under four miles per hour and quite good for a fellow with my leg-length. Far too fast for an extended conversation which makes the dog a perfect partner. Tonight, though, we’d take our time and walk for the air and the sound.

The rains have left the night cool. Wet. It feels like home. Not a specific home, not a specific place, but home, a home faintly, distantly recognized, comfortable, familiar, inviting and kind. The wind is easy and the frogs are singing. Insects are buzzing. As we walk, Dusty’s nails clack on the sidewalk, insects tick in the taller grasses. There are croaks and calls and buzzes.

I place the staff, lengthwise, on my right shoulder, a foot and a half or so behind me, a foot and a half or so before me. It balances easily, seesawing from time to time, swaying in and out now and then, like a compass needle. This will keep my posture in mind as we walk.

I wonder what sings in the grass. Not names, not labels, just what is. So many creatures and so few found. So few named. Many people think we know all of life on the Earth, but here, right next to me, could be life unknown. There very likely is.

Very few have any interest in this. You could gather all the taxonomists in the world into one small hotel. Experts on fungus? The world’s mycologists could meet at a Day’s Inn conference room.

In The Diversity of Life, Edward O. Wilson describes the work of one botanist who spent a few days in Borneo and discovered over one thousand new flowering plant species. More discovered in half a week than the total of what is known in North America since we have been keeping records. A pair of Norwegian scientists, as a lark, picked up two samples, only one gram each, of soil from a beech forest near their lab. Carefully analyzed, they found between four and five thousand separate bacterial species in each sample. More than is recorded in the best known record of things microbial, Bergy’s Manual of Bacteriology. Over nine thousand species in two pinches of soil taken from no place special. In Kenya, four new species of millipedes and a new tree, a big tree, is found.

Such is the myth of naming. Such is the idea that we explore, thirst to discover, to mark, to label, divide, organize. We don’t care, most of us.

I don’t care for names. But I listen as we walk, wonder what might be singing I have never heard singing before. Maybe something is thrumming with life, just beneath my feet, no one has ever seen. Maybe.

Bamboo leaves rustle. Jasmine glows under the three-quarter moon. Angel trumpets hang, moonflowers open as we pass. A rabbit is sitting by an in-ground pool behind a house no one has lived in for over a year. Owls call. Bats dart. Dusty, from time to time, walks out slightly ahead, looks this way and that. When I follow her gaze, I see cats.
Lives in the trees as we approach silence as we walk under them and resume as we pass.

I bend forward and the staff slips off my shoulder and down into my right hand. I twirl it forward, back, round and round, behind me, under my arm. I flip it over my hand and into my left to do the same. My dog never notices. I place it on the left shoulder, grab the front with my left hand and the back of the staff with my right, pulling down, bringing my shoulder lower, digging into the muscle, ironing it with the broad bamboo. Over the back and onto the right shoulder for the same. A large toad crosses the sidewalk in front of me.

I leave the staff to balance once again. Blue lights of TVs brighten and fade, one person argues with another, cicadas call, moaning gains intensity, breathing quickens rhythmically, gains volume, slackens, softens, intensifies again, a dog barks, a baby cries, there is buzzing in the grass, someone says they are not coming back. A car starts.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Nor'easter, Part 2: Eat In or Pass Out


Nor’easter:
Being a Whirlwind Snowy Trip to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York City or How Van Gogh and a Herd of Alpacas helped Lee get her Groove Back.

First day: Night. Eat in or Pass out.


After a finger-numbing walk around the car, making checkmarks where indicated, promising to bring the car back with the same amount of fuel it has now—just over three-eights of a tank and why on Earth don’t they just fill the tanks and then ask you to bring them back full—we settle into the car with a plunk as we allow gravity to seat us. Low car. Too low.

We get direction to Easton, but fifteen minutes away according to the girl at the car rental. We ask where to eat, as it is getting late, but she has the suggestions one might imagine for around an airport and not one fast-food joint was more appealing, or less appalling, than any other. She is sure we’ll fare better in Easton.

It is an easy drive. And, as we drive, it begins to snow. Lightly. Lightly. East to nearly the New Jersey border. The roads are good and we make amazing time even in the snow. At nearly eighty miles per hour we are being passed by cars whose inhabitants must be getting younger as they drive, whose speech, if only I could hear it, would sound slower to my ears, whose color shifted strongly to the red. People driving so fast they will have to reset their timepieces ahead when they get to their destination to match local time.

Lee is speaking to Rachel on the phone. Where to stay? If not for her two cats, five dogs, and various other animals, we could stay with her and her Mom. The Estonian is the suggestion. She gives us directions. We follow them and become, after getting off at the correct exit, lost. Instantly lost. While the next day we would see how easy it, in reality, was, in the snowy dark, it is anything but. Finally, after asking several people in parking lots, we are directed to The Estonian Suites. Suddenly, as we pull in, I understand and then, just as suddenly, no longer understand the hotel’s name. The folks here pronounce it East-onian. And, indeed, it is named for the city and is but a few blocks from Lafayette College. But it is spelled as though it is named for the country, Estonia. And, apparent only as we pull up, it is a Holiday Inn Express.

Within, it is empty save two people behind the desk. Past this person is a large reception area followed by a larger comfortable lounge. There is also a computer area with Internet and I make note in case I cannot find such in the room. The price is more than I am comfortable with, though, in truth, that is not hard to accomplish, but less than most places we have stayed.

It occurs to me, I have never seen a hotel lobby this empty. So empty, the idea comes to mind that I could easily break out into a Robot Dance right here and no one would notice. No one but Lee, it would seem, who apparently hears the thought and steps lightly on my foot adding just enough inertia to keep me where I am. I think of a waltz instead. She steps slightly harder.

Classes started last week, at Lafayette, the clerk explains to us. Last week, there was not a room to be had in the county. This week, hardly a room is full and we can have our pick. Non-smoking, top floor please.

Like the lobby and lounge, the hallways are lovely as well. The entire hotel is lovely and only the small sign outside under the hotel’s name would give it away as a Holiday Inn. It is clean, nearing elegant, beautifully decorated, large and with a staff than cannot think of enough wonderful things to do for their customers.

We are going up to our room. It is coming on eight o’clock.

Lee calls Rachel again. Where to eat? No worries. She’ll come over and guide us. We’ll have dinner together. She arrives about a half hour later, after we have cleaned up, put some clothes away, changed and we head out to see Rachel waving fro outside of a minivan. Rachel gets into the middle seat, as do I and Lee takes the front passenger seat. After Rachel introduces her to Mom, we head out.

What does Lee want to eat, Mom asks. A cheesesteak, of course. No problem. We’ll go to Giamanies. We ride some twisty-turnies and arrive to a closed deli. Closed at nearly nine on a Wednesday evening. No problem, We can go to The Widow’s Tavern.

It takes us ten minutes or so down roads I could never find my way back on, through neighbourhoods and past buildings I really would like to return to in daylight to explore before we find The Widow’s Tavern. This is not a new building.

It used to be a stage coach stop and an inn of quite little repute. Marvin, perhaps the innkeeper, had an affair with one of the “house ladies” and, later spurned, killed her and placed himself dangling sharply at the end of a rope. As the story continues, he is sighted now and then at the tavern, turning this, dropping that, peeking here and there.

We walk in, have a seat, ask for menus, are told no food is served after eight but we are free to drink, hand back the menus, exit the opposite door and get back into the minivan.

At no time did I see Marvin.

All the while, we are getting the special “it’s too dark to see it but that is the ____ and it was built in ____ and now it is a ____ tour.” Lee and Mom are talking about Alek, of course. I have met mom, but Lee has not, and they seem to be getting along well enough. Rachel and I are busy texting Alek and being, more or less, pains.

Lee wants to know if he is OK. Alek is seventeen, has Dusty the Dingo home with him, transportation and numbers of three people ready and happy to assist in any way he might find useful. Alek sums this up by texting me "Mom's a pain."

Lee calls him and asks if he's OK. She does her mom thing. He does his son thing. The conversation ends.

Alek texts Rachel. "She is a crazy lady." Rachel laughs and shows it to Lee.

Where to eat. Mom tells us the only place that is certainly open is Tic Toc. It’s the place all the kids go, all the adults go, everyone goes to, it is always open and always has decent food. It’s just rather run-of-the-mill. Fine. No problem. We arrive at Tic Toc about fifteen minutes later and are now two blocks from the Estonian.

Tic Toc is a large diner. New Jersey has, by all accounts, more diners than any other state. We are but a few blocks from the Delaware River and Jersey and, apparently, diners spread. And the Tic Toc is huge by any standards. By diner standards, it is a behemoth. Remember the old Sports Authority commercials? “Rhode Island. It’s a small state but would make a huge sporting goods store. That’s us. Sports Authority.” I have passed though towns smaller than Tic Toc.

We are seated amid the glorious smell of commingled eggs and coffee, toast and potatoes. We each have a menu. And what a menu it is. Five pages thick, front and back and, as always, whenever I am handed a too-large menu, I freeze up and become instantly un-hungry. Lee takes the menu from me, points to a page and says to just look at this one page and order from there. Excellent. She has removed the fried entrées, the sandwiches, the salads for which I am too hungry and the deserts.

I order hash browns covered with vegetables, two fried eggs, a bagel and, and . . . what is this? Pierogies? It has been years since I have seen them—once or twice in a box from the freezer section (Mrs. T’s barely qualify) and it has been ten years since I have made them myself. I order potato pierogies—too many for me—and ask Rachel if she will split them with me, which she happily does. Everyone else has what they want as well. The iced teas and waters arrive and we are set.

It is busy. Teens, adults, old folk, groups and clubs. Packed. And we are served as though we are the only folks here. The food is quite good for such common fare and the pierogies, large, ear-shaped, boiled and then, in this case, fried in butter quite like my grandmother would have done, are wonders. I have two and let the other two go to Rachel.

We make our plans for the morning as we eat. She is afraid we’ll get lost going to her house so she will come to the hotel and we can follow her back, where we’ll all continue on in the rental car. She’ll meet us at eight. Rachel has taken the day off from tending the alpacas and we’re happy to let her take us around as she likes. One day in and around Easton, in the Poconos, with Rachel as our guide. I have a feeling there is much more here than I had anticipated.

Now, well past ten, we are quite full and more than tired. We pay, despite Mom’s protest, let them drive us the two blocks as, in the dark, we do not want to chance the uphill walk on ice, and we hug good night.

Through the empty lobby and up to our room. It is comfortable, quiet. We use two binder clips, we always carry in the suitcase, to clip the curtains together to keep the light out. Lee has her computer open and we take turns looking up various bits of what-to-do-ness. There is the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center, there is the Appalachian Trail, Delaware Water Gap. There is Lee’s hand closing the computer. She is, of course, right. It is time to go to sleep if anything is to be seen though open eyes. Especially if we are to be out by eight.

And I am, frankly, more than ready for sleep.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Nor’easter: Being a Whirlwind Snowy Trip to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York City or How Van Gogh and a Herd of Alpacas helped Lee get her Groove

Nor’easter: Being a Whirlwind Snowy Trip to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York City or How Van Gogh and a Herd of Alpacas helped Lee get her Groove Back. First day: Afternoon and Evening. A Long Day’s Journey into PA.

My diabolical plan has worked. When my daughter was just old enough to reach the counters, open a fridge, use a can opener, I started cooking for her less and less. She learned to get a piece of fruit, make soup, pour cereal into a bowl she used a stool to get off a top shelf.

When she was adept at feeding herself, I started to feed her brother less as well. Soon, she was getting him a piece of fruit, making him a bowl of soup. Soon, he learned too. Anything they would need to live on their own, I slowly withdrew, let them take over.

It worked. Twenty-three years later, I am finally going on vacation. Without them.

*****

“What do you mean you’re going to Allentown without me?”

“We’re going on vacation. School starts before we get back.” Alek is seventeen and in his second year of college.

“You’re going to visit MY girlfriend. Without me.”

“Don’t worry, we won’t talk about you. I brought the naked baby pictures instead. Besides, Mommy has never met Rachel’s mom or dad.”

“But without me?”

“I want to see alpacas. Rachel works on an alpaca farm, right? Think I can get a tour?”

*****

I bought tickets on Allegiant Air. Fifty-nine dollars each way. Not bad. With the tax and charges, the fee for the bag, reserved seats so my wife and I would know we’d be sitting together, the added charge so we could change our tickets if need be, the total came to over four hundred dollars. We were flying into Allentown, Pennsylvania. Arriving at what the tickets said was Allentown International Airport. The return tickets were for Lehigh Valley International Airport. Strange, I thought, for the tickets to be for two different airports. Strange, but not quite as strange as an airport with two different names.

We are packing. It is eighty degrees now. It will be in the thirties, if we are lucky, when we arrive early in the evening. Packing for that requires bags that squeeze all the air out to vacuum-pack more clothes into a suitcase, the one case we paid thirty dollars to check, than we would during warm weather. We’re packing long johns and sneakers. We’ll be wearing our hiking boots, carrying our gloves, scarves and hats. I bought a messenger bag just for that purpose so I’ll know where all our things are, passports included, in case we decide to drive north to Canada. All the easier to walk through New York than having my pockets stuffed full of items. All the easier to stow under an airline seat.

The tickets are out of Orlando Sanford International Airport. Don’t confuse this with Orlando International Airport. Sanford is a half-hour further away, one fifth the size and ten times easier to navigate. I figure our two airports with nearly one name is as confusing to folk up in Allentown as their one airport with two name is to us. We’ve picked Rachel up from Sanford twice before. The first time, she walked out of the plane, looked around, turned to see what was beyond the windows. This was not Orlando.

Alek doesn’t want to be without the car. He doesn’t drive. He just wants it to stay in the driveway so it looks like someone is home even though the two motorbikes pretty much take care of that. No problem. It would be seventy-five dollars to leave the car at the airport anyway. No problem. We’ll take a shuttle.

No shuttles. Not to Sanford. It would be one hundred and fifty dollars to get one to go there. No problem. We’ll rent a car.

Thirty bucks for the car and fifty dollars to drop it off. Fifty? To drop it at a location where they rent cars will cost me fifty dollars? No problem. We’ll. We’ll… I have no idea.

Craig offers to drive us. Shelley offers to drive us. As a matter of fact, Shelley and Matt will be using their trip to Sanford as an excuse to go to nearby Mount Dora, elevation one hundred and eighty-four feet, to spend time with Matt’s Grandmother and Great grandmother. And they’ll pick us up four days later, thus ending their vacation. And the trip will be fun.

Shelley is a trip all on her own. A patient of ours, now a friend, I dare say, I met her at a Food Not Bombs picnic. Next thing I know, we were heading to Playalinda, she, Matt, Jazmen and Rhiannon. Then she was a patient and soon we were bartering for services. Help cleaning and filing for acupuncture and massage therapy. Everyone thought they are getting the better end of the bargain and was always a bit worried about evening it out, which is how barter should work. Any day Shelley had an appointment, any day we would see her dreaded (as in hairstyle) head walk through our door was a day Lee and I would be smiling. Now she is the office assistant and we can’t imagine the office running without her.

*****

The plane leaves at 4:20. Shelley and Matt arrive at our house at noon and the drive is two hours. The car is cramped but comfortable, the trunk nearly full before our one suitcase, one backpack and one messenger bag made their way there. At the last moment Lee decided the computer had to come, could not be left home. We had talked about getting a netbook but could not see spending the money on it for one trip. I am sure we will see this as an error in short order. She needs her email, to look up directions, do whatever it is Lee does with computers that, after these many years, I often still do not understand.

We are on the road with Shelley and Matt. Lee is excited. More than I had come to expect. More than I would have understood. It is surprising, delightful, enlightening and delicious. So excited she does not even seem to mind sitting in the back as we make our way up Interstate 95 to State Road 520. We need very little leg room and this is a good thing. On the road, suddenly, Lee exclaims, nearly squeals “This is so exciting. No destination and no time to be there.” This is only the second trip we have ever taken together, by ourselves. But each trip we have taken, and there have been very few over more than the last quarter century, has been on a timetable, at the summons or control of family, attached to an event, a wedding, bar mitzvah, funeral. This one has no event, no place to be and no time to be there. Only a time by which we must be on the plane to leave.

We exit State Road 520 for 417, and then, fifteen minutes later, get off and follow the signs for the airport. Exit, turn right. Next set of lights, turn right. Just under three miles later, after three signs telling us the Orlando Sanford International Airport is closer and closer, we see a large ground-level, curved the full perpendicularity from street to street, silver sign with silver letters announcing the airport to the left. It is quite hard to read and, at first glance, we think it is introducing us to the entrance of an industrial park.

We are in, follow the signs, park. Shelley and Matt come in with us and, when they know we are safely where we are supposed to be and the incoming plane is arriving reasonably on time, we all hug, we give them our thanks for the trip, wish them a good visit with their family, and they are on their way to Mt. Dora. We go to check in and collect our tickets. The cattle chute awaits.

Only we are not sure where to enter. We have long experience with such chutes. Many years queuing at The Rascal House and other Jewish delis - parties of one form a line here, two here, three here, four here, parties of five or more here please, mind the poles and no ducking under please – and we’re pros at following the taut ribbons as we inch closer, closer to the official at the end. This time, instead of an overstuffed pastrami sandwich on rye with half-sours and coleslaw, maybe a knish, at the end is a ticket to Allentown.

But where is the entrance? As we look, a uniformed man is moving the entrance to the queue, pulling one pole, then another. Four feet this way, then that. Entrance to one side of it, then another and, after each set of movements, holding his hand up, bidding us wait. The line forms behind us as the line between the ribbons becomes shorter, the end further and further away, backs to us, now facing us, now away from us again. Finally the end is in place and we are told we can have the pleasure of waiting with the others.

There is a gal behind us, a few people removed. She is not right. Deformed in a way I cannot describe, barely noticeable. I ask Lee to take a look and she does. Disturbed shen, she tells me. Her spirit is disturbed and it shows on her face. Not all physical deformity manifests from disturbed shen but all disturbed shen shows up on the body. An unbalanced cover may hide a glorious spirit but unbalanced spirit always shows up in an unbalanced body if one just looks carefully enough, is sensitive enough. Of course, this is a discussion we have had before. She has explained shen to me on various occasions. Shen, chi and jing being the three essences of the body in Chinese medicine. But, in this case, the shen was palpably disturbed, pressing on me from behind. The line moves quickly on.

Our Internet-generated passes are exchanged for actual airline tickets and we are on our way to sit quietly for an hour or so before boarding. Time to get out the laptop and watch a movie. Or maybe an episode of Dead Like Me.

No "Dead Like Me." It’s on the external drive at home. Lee looks for "Dexter." She’s never seen it and has just downloaded a few. Where are they? On the external drive. She cleaned her computer out and organized her hard drive. Nothing to watch on the computer. No problem. There is always YouTube.

We try logging on. A log-in screen instantly appears and that is as far as we get. No log-in. Failed. Again and again. We try everything we know but each is met with failure. Username and password. Guest guest, log-in. Airport name. All the usual public wifi log-in methods. Nothing. Time for a walk. We leave our things at the chairs. No worries. While this may not seem prudent to many, we never do worry about our things and they are always there when we return. Computers in airports. Purses on carseats. No worries.

And time for a walk there was. An hour or so and we walk the airport three times back and forth, seeing the same sights again and again noticing how much, how little, changes in fifteen minutes.

Back to our seats. We pull out an MP3 player. I have a video, “The Blue Buddha: Lost Secrets of Tibetan Medicine,” we had been wanting to watch and, being a narrative the sound quality was such we could easily share headphones, Lee gets the right and I get the left. I had meant to pick up a headphone splitter but that trip to Radio Shack simply never happened.

As we get ready to listen, a portly woman with a badge walks up to us and asks if we’d mind taking a survey and hands us each a form about a third the size of an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. It has questions and check-boxes.

“Why is there no public Internet?”

“There is.”

“Then how do we get to it?”

“The username is Guest.”

“And the password?”

“That depends on how many people are using it. It only supports twenty people at once so it can be anything from 01 to 20.”

I didn’t even ask how we’d know the difference between attempting to log-in if it were over the twenty person cut-off and simply not knowing if we were logging-in correctly.

“How are we supposed to know this.”

“Yes, it would be nice if there was a sign.” She agrees. Good for us.

We fill out the surveys. Handing them back, a look at the badge tells me she is the airport manager. It would be nice.

But consternation and the surveys have taken a bit more than a quarter hour and it is quite near time to board. We walk the forty or fifty feet to the door and wait in line. It isn’t long before we are seated, by sections, and we’re putting our things in the overhead compartment. Our seats are the two inside seats, row 32 of 45. Lee next to the window and me in the center seat. I put my hat and messenger bag on the aisle seat. Within the bag is my wallet, other documents, maps, MP3 player, scarf and gloves.

We sit and wait. We wait. I fumble with my bag and take out the MP3 player, open my earphone case and unwrap the earbuds. Tiny and white, they shut out all outside sound. I use them with my Nintendo DS when I study Japanese or listen to my MP3 player in public. I rarely do either in public. I feel it impolite to shut the outside world out. Or, at least, to appear as though I am. I’d rather just do so without appliances. Even when walking I use open earphones that allow the outside world in. All the better for not getting hit by cars.

Around me, people are fumbling with bags, removing other’s luggage, rearranging backpacks belonging to people they have never met. Placing bags in overheads far behind them over as yet empty seats. Arguments break out sporadically, grow, arc, die.

A flight attendant walks into the cabin, up the aisle and to the center of the plane about five rows shy of us. “The plane should have departed fifteen minutes ago. The sooner you all get seated, the sooner we can think about departing.”

She does nothing about the arguments. Moves no bags. Stops no rearrangement. She is part stewardess and part superego. Part attendant and part schoolmarm. She is here to facilitate travel and, perhaps, for our safety, but certainly not for our comfort. And if we don’t take off because of our own shenanigans, she gets paid all the same. She is tapping her foot.

She turns to go and ducks into a row of seats to allow a woman to pass. This woman, to really pass in comfort, would need a row of chairs removed as well. I lean over to Lee.

“She’ll be sitting next to me.”

“Are you sure? Of course you are.”

“Positive.”

She checks her ticket. Looks around, down to me. Waddles forward, targets her spot, stands next to me. I move my hat and messenger bag, place them below the seat in front of me.

She sits in her seat. She also sits in my seat. She also sits in the aisle. I move closer to Lee.

The flight attendant is closing up shop and readying for takeoff. She has told several people to find space for their bags or to hand them to her to have them checked. She has removed one bag that was obviously too large for the overhead compartment when a passenger was removing several other passenger’s bags to mash his into place. She’s asking us to take seats. She’s tapping her foot again. She looks in my direction. Walks over.

“Ma’am, I believe there is a seat you would be more comfortable in over here.” Bless her. She moves her to a pair of empty seats a few rows forward. I can move my right arm again.

“You need mountain-time, don’t you?” Lee asks in a rhetorical whisper. “How far are the Poconos?” Not far from Allentown. Not far at all.

The engines whine louder, higher. We are told to shut our electronics off. I put my earphones in. The hope is I can pay attention to a lecture by Watts while we are taking off. It is a hope. I turn the player on.

“Please remove your headphones for takeoff.” She is talking to me. I nod. I pull the earbud from my left ear. When she walks by again, I tilt my head, still listening to Watts in my right.

The plane is moving. My plan becomes quite academic as the talking in my right ear falls into the far background. I want to yell for everyone to peddle. Seriously, I do not believe planes can get of the ground regardless of my understanding of the physical laws and properties involved. Peddle. Peddle. I am gripping the armrest. Shaking. Rocking. Tilting. Up. Up, Faster. Climbing. Losing, gaining and losing my stomach. This is not good for my nervous system at all. Not at all. I grab Lee’s knee and fear I have left a bruise. The plane levels out and I begin to breathe more calmly. More evenly. I am exhausted. Spent. Wrung out. We have been in the air fewer than five minutes.

Drink carts go by. I take nothing and shut off my MP3 player, put Watts away with the earbuds so I can hear Lee. Looking through the papers in the seat-pocket in front of me, she and I spend a few minutes laughing at the Allegiant Air goodies for sale.

A flight attendant walks into the cabin and, holding the microphone, tells us there is to be a raffle. While another attendant walks up and down the aisle taking money, she explains how it works. A fifty-fifty raffle. Some tickets win prizes. What prizes? The same die-cast planes, hats, can cozies, Mickey keychains and junior pilot wingpins we had just been laughing at with such contempt.

Five tickets for five dollars. Ten tickets for eight dollars. Twenty tickets for I stopped listening. This seems so absurd, I can only laugh as it moves forward. The tickets are going into a trashbag. Why not a barf bag? I go to offer mine but Lee stays my arm.

As the attendant comes through with the tickets and bag, people paying less attention than even I am are putting their plates and cups into the bag along with the tickets. Reminded again, over the speakers, the trashbag will be coming around later, this is the ticket bag. The next person deposits her crackers.

The attendant with the mic lambastes us for not buying enough tickets. Other flights had nearly one hundred percent participation. Why not us? Do we not understand a fifty-fifty raffle? A few more tickets sell. Lee is reading and I put my earphones back in, resume listening to my lectures.

She comes by and, pretending my ears are hermetically sealed, toss in Lee’s cup and can.

On and on she talks, berates until the tickets are pulled, one by one. With each kitsch distributed, she asks us to cheer. “Cheer like you won the lottery.” Why? To impress the people outside the plane listening? The fifty-fifty won (one hundred and forty-five dollars) and finally it is over.

The window is becoming more reflective. I can see more inside behind me than outside as we travel north and the sky becomes darker, darker.

The woman in front of me has a book full of diagrams. My imagination takes over without so much as a simple “May I?” and the diagrams detail methods of Satanic worship. They are devices of torture. I stare harder and harder between the seats until, finally, it clicks – they are diagrams for creative ways to make one’s bed.

Staring past Lee, the window supplies me with an overlay for the sky behind it. Courtesy of Google Maps, it details what I am looking at – what cities, what geologic features, what main roads. Touching the window, I call up information on the map such as population, elevation, sites, factoids and ephemera. None of it is correct, of course, because it is all in my head.

The cart comes back around for the refuse, cans, cellophanes, cups, paper plates. The light comes on to tell us to buckle the seatbelt I never unbuckled. The plane begins to descend. I press the floor heavily feeling for brakes, hurt my fingers on the armrest, let slip an audible series of heavy panting and a small yelp as the plane touches the ground. We have landed.

Off the plane. In the terminal at Allentown. I am immediately struck that the people look normal. Not normal as in I expected they’d look different than those back home but look, surprisingly, the same. No. They look different than the people at home and appear in a way my mind registers as normal. These people look real. They look right.

We grab our luggage and rent our car. Not the subcompact I had requested but an “upgrade” to a car I don’t want. A Pontiac G6. Too big, too low, too fast and too fancy. We walk outside to get it and, before we even get to the door, I wish I had gotten out my gloves. I toss the scarf around my neck. Lee is smiling. It’s cold. It is blissfully cold.