© Copyright (2014) Randolph Harrison. All Rights Reserved.
Once upon a time, water vapors rose from the ocean and collected in the air creating a cloud. Droplets formed within the cloud and rained down into the sea.
The raindrops were terrified of the ocean. They feared it might swallow them up or come crashing down upon them. Because they were afraid, the raindrops dashed about constantly. The ceaseless movement kept them distracted and made them feel a little safer. However, there was one raindrop who, though afraid, wanted to learn about the sea. So he set off on his own to search for answers.
He traveled off far into the deep, beyond familiar territory. His journey lead to many strange and beautiful places. By and by, he came upon a black clam. The raindrop approached her and asked, "Clam, can you tell me about the ocean?" But the clam only smiled and went to sleep.
So the raindrop continued his journey, further and further from his home, until he met a great blue fish with yellow eyes. The raindrop asked, "Fish, can you tell me about the ocean?" But the great fish just laughed and swam away.
The raindrop became discouraged and felt very alone, but he knew that he could not turn back. Then, from the corner of his eye, he noticed an old sea turtle resting in some coral near a sunken ship. The raindrop drew nearer and timidly asked, "Turtle, can you tell me about the ocean?"
The turtle, who was very wise, chuckled kindly and rolled his ancient eyes, "Why the ocean is in you, and through you, and all around you. YOU ARE THE OCEAN!"
The rain drop could scarcely believe the turtle's words.
he began to understand.
And as he found understanding, he also found his own power. He no longer ran about in fear, but moved slowly, appreciating every subtle change in the current.
The raindrop lived peacefully in this way until he was very old. One warm summer day, he floated to the surface and was evaporated by the hot sun.
Water vapors rose from the ocean and collected in the air creating a cloud. Droplets formed within the cloud and rained down onto the ground.
And the raindrop found that not only was he the ocean... but also the sky and the earth!
Dim light from a street lamp outlines shadows in a gray hue against the far wall of my room. I turn and shift in bed searching for a position that will encourage sleep, but no sleep comes. Hours of wakeful, restless gloom. Wheezing damp dread as I sweat and shiver. Cold vapors pierce the blankets that bind me. Anxious fears refusing comfort whirl across my mind.
I've always paired any contemplation of death with careful rationalizations protecting me from full impact. But tonight the subject assaults me with horrid honesty. Not a possibility, but a brutal absolute. I will die. Tonight this truth is as hard and cold as steel. Sick fear envelopes me.
No experience. No thought. No life. Forever. There is no one who can help me. I have no lies to prop me up. The constructs my mind created to avoid this truth have fallen like a house of cards into the abyss.
Silent, eternal nonexistence. Nothing I do or think can deny it. All plans and intelligence whither before its dark emptiness. My heart races. Hands and feet are ice cold.
I close my eyes, clench my teeth and pray. I'm sure there is no God, but I pray in desperation. Desperate people always pray for a sign.
Feeling foolish and corny, I whisper, "God, I pray you are real. I pray there is meaning. I pray for a thread of hope. Please communicate your existence. Please give me some clue to prove anything beyond this realm. Just a tiny spark to let me know. I don't need fire in the sky, or angels, or water to wine, only an insignificant demonstration to give me a toe hold.
"There is a dry, empty bucket on the back porch, if it contains even one small drop of water when I wake up, it will be miracle enough to last the rest of my life."
I feel childish, but I am as vulnerable as a child tonight. Finally, I let go and sleep.
I sit up and take a stretch. Feeling very alive, I take a deep breath. Bright sunshine beams through the window over my bed. Rise without waking anyone. Walk through the kitchen and anxiously out onto the porch.
The beat up, tin bucket is overflowing like a fountain with clear, sparkling water!
I stand stunned, rooted to the spot, mouth hanging open. My mind reels. Dizzy with excitement, disbelief and wonder. Shimmering water runs under the screen door, down the back steps, and into the yard. I stare in awe for long minutes.
Slowly, the implications of this miracle seep in. Doubt and fear have been derailed never to haunt me again! My life is new and whole. The path I've traveled for so long has changed from sand and muck to solid earth. The energy of peace and stability courses through me. From this moment until my last I can reside in the weightless bliss.
Feeling lighter and freer than I ever thought possible, I break into uproarious laughter... The laughter and the scene fade to oblivion.
I wake without opening my eyes. Groggy and thick. A dull ache in my head. Tired blood dragging through my veins. My mouth is dry and pasty. I yawn and turn over. The room is cold. I pull up my blanket.
Reality is a harsh disappointment after dreaming of definite answers. I can feel Betsy beside me still and warm. Her presence is grounding.
I hear the thumps of two small feet hit the floor, then run full speed towards our bed room from the other end of the house. A tug on my shoulder. I open my eyes and help Harry into the bed. He cuddles in, grins, and sticks his thumb in his mouth. He gently rubs the tattered edge of his blankey across his cheek. I kiss his blonde head. His hair smells sweet. Our dog, Evie, is scratching on the screen porch door begging to be let out. I ease out of bed. Joints pop and crack as I hobble across frigid hardwood. I adjust the thermostat, move through the kitchen, and out on to the back porch. Cold air cuts through me.
I didn't really expect anything to happen. I was kidding myself. I'm going to have to somehow come to terms with the fact that nothing is out there. Life is meaningless. I am just another organism that will live and die like trillions of other organisms do every day. But the thought of this likelihood is terrifying.
Maybe my dream is significant. I asked for a thread of hope and a thread is clearly all I received. The psychologist, Carl Jung, believed that each human being carries within, a collective unconscious which contains memories back to the beginning of all life. Maybe the answers I'm looking for are locked in my unconscious mind. Maybe the dream was the answer to my prayer. I'm grasping at straws, but I don't have much choice.
Growing up, my questions about God and meaning had clear answers. Life was solid and definite. I lived in the midst of forty or so relatives on James Island, near Charleston, South Carolina, in kind of a family commune. The property had originally been a cotton plantation, but it was subdivided and passed down through several generations. Everyone I knew was an aunt, uncle, grandparent or cousin. We were Southern, conservative, and Presbyterian. And, that was that.
"Rusty, I want you to spend the night at Aunt Ella's tonight. This will be her first night alone since Unc passed away and she'll need the company," my mother informed me in a serious tone.
"Mamma, why do I always have to do this?" I whined, "I spent the night with Grandma when Grandpa died. I spent the night with Ma Ma when Pa Pa died. What am I, the death boy?"
"If you don't want to...," shaking her head and looking disappointed.
"Ok, I'll go," she could wield guilt with the movement of an eyebrow.
She'd already volunteered me, so my protestations didn't matter much anyway. Mom loved my great aunt. She admired the strong Christian faith which enabled Aunt Ella to remain stoic in the face of poverty, sickness, and the loss of three children. My mother also used to volunteer me to cut Ella's three acre yard for six bucks.
Under most circumstances, I enjoyed spending the night at Aunt Ella's. She lived in the original family plantation dwelling, which we called the Big House, located on a peninsula of land separating Clark Sound from the back creek. While the building was fairly dilapidated by time I came along, it was still wonderfully huge and interesting. Built nine feet off the ground on tabby pilings, the Big House towered above every other structure in the neighborhood. Under the house were fire places, a big sink, and a shower. We used the sink to clean fish and the shower to rinse off after swimming or sporting in the river.
Loose screen, which billowed when the wind blew, hemmed the back porch. Shrimp nets and rain gear hung in one corner near a rusty freezer stocked with seafood. Also occupying the porch was a large cabinet containing oars, fishing tackle, and dingy life jackets.
Inside the Big House, shiny, plaster walls painted in pastels rose to twelve foot ceilings. Floor length windows invited marsh scented breezes. The kitchen was small and clean, frequently smelling of fried fish and grits. There were two white, enamel sinks and a dish rack occupied by Dixie cups with the names of my cousins written in magic marker.
In the den were two overstuffed chairs and a leather couch where Aunt Ella and Uncle Zeke watched Lawrence Welk on a black and white console. A dark hallway lead from the den to the front porch. The hall was lined with book shelves containing volumes of yellowing pages. Two mounted deer head, dusty and drawn from years of silent staring, hung above the books. The stairway to the second floor of the house also entered the hall. The second floor was always closed off when I was growing up. If you climbed to the top of the stairs, you were in complete darkness. My cousin, Joey, and I used to dare each other to go up there.
The front porch to the Big House was grand. It overlooked the salt marsh, oyster banks, and waters of Clark Sound. The view was framed by two massive live oaks occupying either side of the front yard.
Uncle Zeke was something of a family folk hero. Childhood polio had left him with a deformed right leg. To compensate, he was a zealous outdoorsman and fierce athlete. He spoke with a Gullah dialect and his manner was often gruff and brash. He was famous for demolishing tools and machines that did not function to his satisfaction. But he had a keen intellect and a kind soul. Prior to retirement, Unc was a football coach and Professor of Mathematics at The Citadel. When I had trouble with my math homework, I would go to Uncle Zeke for expert tutoring.
Unc knew Clark Sound like a master. He was on intimate terms with every sand bar, oyster bank, and mullet hole. Years ago, the river had been a primary source of food for people on the island. For Uncle Zeke, the Sound provided not only physical nourishment, but emotional and spiritual sustenance as well.
Once, Zeke came back from the river with a bushel basket full of blue crabs. He left the basket under the house in the shade and went upstairs for a hot bath. Joey and I were playing and knocked over the basket. Crabs spread out all over the place. We shrieked in panic and ran out into the yard yelling,
"Help! Come downstairs! Help!"
Uncle Zeke ran out of the bathroom wearing only his boxer shorts, rushed down the back steps and under the house. The ground was alive with blue crabs, claws up in fighting posture. A crab pinched into the big toe on Unc's right foot.
"Gawddamn!" he screamed kicking his foot frantically.
The crab flew off, but the claw remained attached to Uncle Zeke's toe. Blood tricked out. Before he could get his bearings another crab grabbed his left Achilles tendon. Unc bent down and ripped the creature from his heel, then lunged desperately forward, and pulled the cord on the push mower. He wheeled the mower around and plowed furiously into the mass of angry crustaceans. The mower made a grinding sound as it splattered pureed blue crab in every direction. Joey and I screamed and cheered at the top of our lungs. Uncle Zeke continued the slaughter until no crab was left in tact. After the incident, we sprayed the mess down with a water hose, but it still stunk for weeks.
Uncle Zeke was a trip. When he was dying of cancer, he joked with Aunt Ella that he wanted her to run a pipe to his coffin and pour grits and fried mullet down to him every morning. Aunt Ella smiled through sad eyes and commanded him to stop such talk.
As I entered the house with my GI Joe suitcase, I felt very awkward. The place was strange without Unc there and I didn't really know what to say to Aunt Ella.
"I...I'm sorry Uncle Zeke died," I blurted out.
"I am too child," she nodded, giving me a hug. I started feeling teary and embarrassed.
"Could I have something to eat?" I recovered, asking a question from the limited social repertoire of a nine year old.
We went into the kitchen where a table overflowed with covered dishes relatives had dropped off. In my family, we always ate well when someone died. Aunt Ella was solemn and quiet. We ate and she asked me questions like "How's school?" and "Do you have a girlfriend?"
At bed time, we retired to a guest room furnished with only two twin, metal beds and a dresser which supported a portable television.
"Aunt Ella, are you afraid of dying?" My words reverberated in the sparse room.
"No, son. There are better places than this. Life is a test of faith. You just have to believe," she answered. I did believe.
"Is Uncle Zeke in heaven?" I asked in a soft voice.
"I have no doubt of it child," she said with stern certainty. I had no doubt of it either.
I turned on the TV and started watching a movie called The Real Frankenstein while Aunt Ella read the Bible. The Big House felt cold and empty. When the movie's plot began to unfold, I said,
"Aunt Ella, this is pretty scary isn't it."
I looked over to see her lying there, open Bible and reading glasses in place, eyes closed.
She was dead!
Well, actually she was asleep, but if she had been dead, the effect on me would have been the same.
I had childish fears then, but my belief in God and heaven was safe and sound. I couldn't have imagined at that time what fears my adult mind would create.
Ella never lost her faith, but she did abandon her stoicism. In years to come, she would grow to address the world in a very different manner. She would laugh and sing with the specters of her deceased family. She would scold my uncle for flying around her room on the ceiling fan. She would scream at the sight of her son swimming in a coffee cup and would tell everyone that she had to stick her head in a bucket of tar every morning.
Evie is running around in circles and jumping up and down like crazy. She knocks over the old bucket with a "clunk." I flip the latch and push the screen door. She jots out into the back yard, then turns around, and looks up at me expectantly. She always hopes I'll take her running even though we haven't run in years.
Back in the house. Warming up now. Into the den. Take a pillow from the couch and place it in the middle of the big braided rug on the den floor. Grab my book. Sit on the pillow and read chapter twenty-two of the Tao Te Ching a couple of times. This is my favorite translation. It was done by Stephen Mitchell:
"If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up."
I enjoy studying Eastern philosophy. When I read the Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu (literally the name means, "Old Man"), for the first time, it blew me away. This ancient tome has been called the wisest book ever written. The other classic Taoist book is the Inner Teachings of Chuang Tzu. I'd heard that Chuang Tzu was to Lao Tzu what Plato was to Socrates. So, I rushed out and bought a copy. Chuang Tzu is basically a collection of parables and fables. I hopped in bed that night and flipped on my reading light anxious to dive in. After laboring through five or six of the stories, I decided Chuang Tzu must have been schizophrenic or something! The stories made no sense to me. They seemed to end in tangents before complete ideas had been formed. Paragraphs in the stories often stood alone bearing no relation to the rest of the text. Chinese philosophy often makes use of nonsense in order to help the reader make a leap from rational thought to enlightened thought which exists beyond logic and intellect. I've since read through the book and managed to glean some benefit. In the West we approach knowledge through logic. But the key to Eastern wisdom is to abandon rational thought and embrace wholeness.
I put down the Tao Te Ching and take a few deep breaths. I've been doing a type of sitting meditation off and on for about two years. The object is to experience the sensations in the environment without processing or attaching thoughts to them. Achieving this requires lots of practice. The mind processes thoughts like the gills of a fish process water. When removed from the water, a fish will frantically open and close its gills, even though it could survive longer if it allowed the gills to relax. My mind's first reaction to sitting is a similar panic.
Gradually though, my thoughts begin to quiet. I direct my gaze on the blue light from the digital display on the VCR. It looks blurry. Slow breath moves in and out of my body. I feel the weight of my right hand resting in the palm of my left. Warm air from the heat vent. Sounds of traffic outside. Refrigerator running. My mind clicks off thoughts, but I let them flare and disappear like sparks. Slowly, I begin to feel myself fade into the setting. Peaceful.
My leg tingles slightly and a thought attaches itself to the sensation, “My foot is asleep." Simultaneously, peace is gone. I need to change position. Frustrating. I unfold my legs and kneel on a pillow. The heater hums. Legs continue to tingle a little. Blurry blue light. Fire place and windows in my peripheral vision. Mellow smells of this old house, the rug, and heated air. Breath moves slowly in and out. Chest rises and falls. Heart beats. Long stretches of stillness. Twenty or thirty minutes pass. A thought rises and hooks me, "Time to start the day." I stretch stiff arms, legs and back. Throw the pillow back on the couch, and stick the book in my pocket.
I head to the bathroom for a shower and a shave. I'm going on a solo camping trip in the mountains, so I probably won't experience hot water again for a while. There's something spiritual about a hot shower. Relaxes every muscle. I wash, and then just stand under the water taking deep breaths of steam and thinking about nothing. Regretfully, I turn off the tap and step out on chilled tiles. Dry off, brush teeth, and put on my mountain clothes feeling pretty good.
Walk back through the den on my way to the kitchen. Lainey is sitting on a blanket on the floor watching cartoons.
"Good morning big girl." I bend down and give her a hug. Her eyes remain glued to the TV.
"Good morning Dad. Can I have some cereal?"
"Sure." She looks up and smiles a cutie pie smile like kids on television commercials, then resumes attending to Space Dogs.
Enter the kitchen and grab two bowls, a quart of milk, and two boxes of cereal. Froot Loops for Lainey and rice bran for me. Carefully select a couple of spoons. Lainey is eccentric about which spoon she will consent to use.
"Here you go big girl." I hand Lainey's bowl down to her.
Slip into the bed room. I flip on the portable black and white television on the dresser. A reporter on the morning news is interviewing a scientist who has discovered a meteor which may date back to the "Big Bang," the beginning of the universe. The researcher briefly describes his phenomenal findings. Findings which could have a profound impact on the scientific community and maybe on mankind.
Then, with the enthusiasm he might have if he were interviewing a guy who had invented a new salad dressing, the reporter interjects an unimpressed, "Hmm." A long stretch of silence, then with furrowed brow, "Well, how does this relate the biblical story of creation?"
The astronomer stares blankly for a moment then replies, "What?"
"The Bible. God creating the universe. The creation," the reporter clarifies indignantly.
The scientist wilts as his moment of professional glory deteriorates to tabloid squalor. He then responds apologetically, "I am an astronomer. Astronomy is my area of expertise. It is my
life's work. I'm not a theologian. I have no way of..."
"Uh huh," the reporter interrupts, "that's all the time we have Doctor. Thank you." The program cuts to a laxative commercial. Betsy is buzzing around frantically getting ready for work. I can tell she's a little angry. She resents my leaving her alone.
"Can you at least help get the kids ready?" She glares as she fastens her skirt.
"Yes Honey, and good morning," I answer with a mouth full of rice bran. I move to Harry's room and pull open his dresser drawer. "What do you want Harry to wear?"
"It's on his bed," she calls back from our bed room.
Scoop up green, ninja turtle sweatshirt, little blue jeans with elastic waist band, and white socks with red heels and toes. I grab a Huggies diaper from Harry's closet and go back to our bedroom where Harry still rests. Betsy's doing her hair and make-up.
"Betsy, I won't go if you don't want me to."
"Oh no. I know how you are." She knows I'm a sulker.
"What?" I ask incredulously.
"Nothing." She is ice cold. We are in the midst of an argument ritual established over many years. We continue this reserved interchange for several minutes. Tension builds in me.
"OK, forget it. I'm not going!" I say, continuing my role in the ritual. Betsy's countenance changes. Suddenly she softens.
"I'm just stressed out about having to take care of the kids by myself. I know this trip is important to you and I want you to go."
"Are you sure?" Inner sigh of relief. She nods yes and steps near me. Sweet hug and a kiss. The ritual is over. Betsy takes her car keys off of the table.
"Honey, I love you. Have a wonderful trip and be careful. Call Mom if you have any trouble on the road."
"I will." Another kiss and a squeeze. Sad wave as she passes out the front door. I hear her car door slam, engine crank, then hum away from earshot.
It's nice to be with someone for a long time. Betsy and I have shared a great deal. Our relationship has soared and crawled and nearly extinguished itself, but each high and low sewed deep within us the thread that keeps people together. Early on, we had a lot of fantasy expectations of each other. But fantasies always shatter and the commotion of real life moves in like a whirlwind. Sometime over the past ten years, the dust settled, and we found that more than friends and partners, we are a family. A family which Lainey and Harry make even more whole.
Relationships must always be give and take. Often this movement can be like a tug of war or a tractor pull. But as time goes by, the motion begins to feel more like a dance with the give and take flowing more rhythmically.
A wave of nausea passed over me as I dragged into the auditorium for my morning class. Although beer and tequila were responsible for my condition, I blamed the administration of Western Carolina University for scheduling freshman biology at eight o'clock in the morning. I rubbed my bloodshot eyes and shuffled to my seat. The only good thing about this morning was that I got to sit next to Betsy.
"Mornin'," I croaked, flopping into my chair.
"Good morning," she smiled looking fresh, and happy, and wonderful.
I wanted to ask her out for long time, but had always been anxious. On this particular morning, however, my hangover overshadowed all possible mental states other than fatigue and queasiness. Besides, my morning couldn't get much worse even if she shot me down.
"Betsy, would you like to go canoeing with me this weekend in the Nantahala?"
"Sure, that sounds great," she grinned, "I'll pack a picnic lunch."
"Cool," I nodded noticing that the professor was standing at his podium.
About three minutes into his lecture. I folded my arms in front of me, lay my head down on my desk, and drifted into sweet bliss.
I awaken to Betsy shaking me and telling me the class was over. I bolted straight upright in my chair startled. As I gained my bearings I noticed to my horror, that a stream of drool connected my bottom lip to a puddle I'd created on my desk top! I looked around to see Betsy waving goodbye, shaking her head and giving me a kind of queer look as she disappeared in the crowd of students pouring out of the auditorium.
I was almost surprised when she showed up for our date that Saturday. We did not speak of the drool incident until many years later, which was just fine with me.
I unloaded the car and placed everything in our canoe.
"Ok Betsy, step in carefully and kneel on the pad," I gently instructed.
I had planned this date to perfection. We would canoe down the Nantahala river and stop for a romantic picnic at about the halfway point. This would create a good opportunity for me to show off my skills as an outdoorsman. The April morning was beautiful. Yellow jonquils blooming everywhere. The Lavender fragrance of wisteria. Shades of pale green emerging from sleepy trees. Chilly breezes stirred a soft blue sky.
Betsy was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt. Her brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Even in a big life jacket, she looked pretty. She gingerly took her position in the front of the canoe as she stepped from the shore. Betsy appeared a little uneasy, but she picked up her paddle and awaited my instruction.
I patiently explained to her when to paddle left, and when to
paddle right, when to paddle backwards, and what to do when the water got rough. My tone was calm and reassuring.
"Alright, you ready to take off?"
"I think so," she smiled nodding.
We shoved off and moved slowly down the river. The pretty weather attracted a crowd. There were lots of other folks on the water rafting, and canoeing, and kayaking. Many people were also on the banks having picnics and watching the boaters. Families with fried chicken and red and white table clothes. Children chasing each other and tossing stones in the water.
Ahead of us were two rafts, each with a crew of six. Obvious beginners, the rafts were all turned around and the crews were in chaos. Betsy and I paddled up beside one of the rafts and helped get them pointed in the right direction. I offered a few tips. They thanked us and moved on ahead. The crew of the second raft managed to get straight on their own.
We floated down a slow part of the river and around a big bend. Gentle splashing sounds as we drifted. The water was clear and shimmering. Smooth, dark stones of the river bed were visible. As we traveled, we picked out pieces of trash which negligent had thrown in the water. I was certain by this time that I was impressing Betsy as an excellent water craftsman, as well as, an environmentally conscious guy.
There were some small rapids ahead. I guided us through without any difficulty. Rapids are always fun when you don't wipe out. I felt myself relax as the river slowed. Betsy took very quickly to maneuvering the canoe.
"You're getting pretty good at this."
"Nothin' to it," she grinned.
"Do you want to stop for lunch around the next bend?"
"Sounds good to me." She looked like she was having fun. This date was going well.
Betsy reached down, pulled a plastic soda jug from the river and put it in the boat. We continued to glide along slowly. A big, dead branch stuck up out of the water. As we approached, I patted the limb with my hand.
Suddenly, I lost my balance. The canoe wobbled from side to side, then completely rolled over, splashing us into ice cold mountain water! We both popped our heads out of the stream at the same time, sputtering and gasping for air. Luck for us, the river was only about three feet deep. We clumsily waded to the bank slipping on the slick rocks as we went. I looked up to see our lunch, canoe, paddles, and a boat load of garbage float down the Nantahala River. The beginners in the rafts, collected most of our stuff, and placed it on the river bank.
The rest of the trip was mostly shivering, wet silence. Betsy was sweet and polite, but it was clear that this outing was a complete bust. We wiped out three more times before we finally reached the taking out point.
Betsy and I had our second date a year and a half later.
My cereal's gone. I pick up the bowl and drink the remaining milk. I make a quick sweep through the house putting things away and making beds to help Betsy out. I packed my gear and put it in the car last night.
Harry is dead asleep on our bed. I change his diaper and wiggle him into his jeans. Little body takes a big stretch. He raises his eyebrows and smiles with his thumb still in his mouth. Socks and shoes over chunky feet and crooked toes. Pull off his night shirt and slip arms and fuzzy head into his sweat shirt. Harry grabs his blanket, crawls off the bed, and runs full speed to the den. I follow. Lainey is dressed and ready for school. Black sweats with flowers on them, black sneakers, and pony tails. She is holding a pink back pack with her blanket, pillow and teddy bear hanging out.
Alright you guys, let’s get rolling. I hold open the door as the kids trudge down the front steps. Mr. Shook, the school crossing guard is on the corner. He waves at them the way children wave, using only his fingers.
"Hey Mr. Shook!" Lainey yells.
"Hey Mi-Hook!" Harry echoes.
Close the door behind them and follow them to the car. I feel like I'm free falling in many ways, but my family life is nice and stable. Betsy is right about the camping trip being important to me. I've been on sort of metaphysical journey for many years trying to sort things out meaning wise. And I've always felt that if I could get off by myself for a while, things would come together. Last night's episode of existential angst and my bucket dream feel like a good prelude for this trip.
My parents, sister and I moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina when I was fourteen. In this new environment my world began to change. Ideas that had always been certain and obvious began to shake and crumble. I don't know if my shifting view point was inspired by the move or by adolescence.
Three years later, when I went off to college in the mountains of North Carolina, I endeavored to question every conventional value. Dorm room debates would go on for hours. Still considering myself a Christian, I played Devil's advocate when we argued religion. During this process, I inadvertently reasoned away my own beliefs, sawing off the spiritual branch on which I sat.
David sat across from me in my dorm room. The place smelled of stale beer and tennis shoes. Throbbing bass riffs from stereos in the rooms above and below provided constant background noise. The windows of my cubicle were completely wallpapered with beer labels. A huge pile of laundry fermented in the corner. On the cinder block walls of the room, beside posters of women in bikinis, I had painted mural sized Japanese symbols that I copied from a balsa wood box my dad brought back from a business trip to the Far East. I thought the characters looked kind of mystical and hippieish. I had assumed they represented a saying by Confucius or some other such wisdom. A Japanese student later translated the symbols for me. They read: "Set of cups."
"Ok David, you say that God is perfect, all good, all knowing and the creator of all things." I tossed out the bait to my pious friend.
"That's what the Bible says," not sensing the trap. David was a bright guy, but very rigid.
I leaned back with my hands behind my head. "Does evil exist?" Continuing to draw him in.
"Of course," said David, a lamb to the slaughter.
"Who created it?" I asked innocently.
"Satan created all evil,"
"But you said God created everything," I am Socrates!
"He did, but he gave us free will to choose good or evil," he answered recovering nicely.
"Was God the first thing in existence?"
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God," David quoted sanctimoniously.
"Listen, if in the beginning, there was only God and God is all good, then even the possibility for evil could not exist. If all you have is apples, you can't make a cherry pie. If God is the creator of all things, then all things including hatred, wickedness and evil must have come from God. Either God is not all good; or God did not create everything; or there is no such thing as evil," The excitement of setting him up bubbled inside me. I am
"You have to accept God on faith," he said, anxiety and anger
showing. David reached into the cooler, opened a beer, and tried to maintain composure.
“It is ironic to me that the term ‘faith’ has such a positive connotation, while the term ‘gullible’ is negative. Both terms describe a willingness to accept ideas without supporting evidence.
If I am to accept one idea without evidence, am I not then open to accepting any such idea?
"Ok, forget that stuff. If God is all knowing, then he knew when he created him that Satan would become evil. He knows before baby's are born which ones will be doomed to suffer for eternity in Hell."
"God gives us free will to choose," he asserted defensively, his face becoming increasingly red. He began to pace around the room.
"If God knows what we're going to choose ahead of time, then there is no free will. He created us; he created the situation; and he created the outcome. There are no choices." I was obnoxious with condescension.
"I don't want to talk about this any more, man," snapped David, angrily walking out of the room and into the hall.
I pursued him. "You're afraid to talk about it, because you're afraid you'll go to Hell. It's a con David. You learn that you'll go to Hell if you question, because when you question you find out that stuff is bull!"
"Why don't you go to Hell, Rusty!" David stormed into his dorm room, slammed the door, and probably prayed for God to forgive him for doubting. I returned to my room, sat back, and relished sweet victory like a big philosophical jerk.
I had many such discussions with different people, covering every aspect of Christianity. Some of these folks were very good debaters and some were like David. But none made an argument for Christianity that held water with me.
Now I sort of envy people who never question their stuff. It must be nice to keep wearing the same comfortable beliefs you grew up with all the way through life. After I stripped my own religion away, piece by piece, I realized I had left myself in a bad place. Life is scary when there's no spiritual ground beneath your feet, and death is terrifying. Sorry David
Cold and damp and gray outside. Not my kind of day. Doesn't matter though. I'm still getting a rush anticipating the trip. The door of my tired, Buick LeSabre creaks and groans as I open it, load the children, and buckle their seat belts. The car's vinyl top is peeling off in strips and the rest of the exterior is rusty, faded, chalky blue. I used to rationalize that driving a junky old car was part of my interesting character. At this point I wish I could afford to be less interesting. The engine chokes and spurts as I crank it. Finally, a low gurgling idle. A hole in the muffler. If it gets me to the mountains and back, I'll run it through the car wash and shoot it some premium.
Pull out of the drive and pass through the neighborhood. No one outside on this gloomy day but Aunt Ella. She is immune to the cold. Strong smell of cat musk as I approach her place. She sold the Big House to a cousin years ago and has lived in this little brick ranch ever since. Most of the house is filled with garbage and cat shit. She has about fifty cats. Ella's only remaining living space in the building is a small path on the screen porch and an area in the kitchen where she sleeps in a lawn chair. The only heat Ella uses is the oven. The family has tried repeatedly to get her out of there, but she refuses. DSS said as long as she knows the date and who the president of the United States is, she can live however she pleases. Periodically, Ella will check herself into the hospital so the family can come in and get rid of the cats and clean the place up. When she moves back in, the process of collecting cats and garbage begins again.
Ella is sitting on the bench in her front yard. She is wearing a pair of underwear on her head as sort of a concept toboggan I guess. Cats infest the grounds. I roll down the window and wave as I pass.
The kids yell, "Hey Aunt Ella!"
She gives us the finger.
"Daddy, why does she wave like that?" Lainey asks.
The car perks along as we pass through country side approaching the day care. Lainey and Harry play Twenty Questions, only they call it The Guessing Animals Game.
"Okay Harry, I'm thinking of an animal."
"Is it a cat?"
"Is it a Dog?"
"Is it a cow?"
"Is it a Horse?"
"No, Harry ask stuff like, 'Does it have fur? Does it have four legs? Does it have antlers? Stuff like that. Okay Harry?"
"Okay, does it have fur?"
"Is it a mouse?"
"Is it a cow?"
"Is it a pig?"
"No, Harry ask me if it has antlers."
"Does it have antlers?"
"Is it a fish?"
"Is it a dog?"
"Is it a cat?"
"No, Harry it’s a reindeer! A reindeer has antlers! A reindeer!"
"Oh." Harry looks sheepish.
We pull into the day care parking lot and tromp to Lainey and Harry's classroom.
"Bye-bye Da Da." Lainey is going through a phase of using baby-talk when she's around Harry.
"Bye Squirt. Be good for Mommy. I love you." She gives me a kiss on the cheek and a shy hug.
"Bye Big Boy." Harry ignores me.
"Bye-bye Harry." I tap him on the shoulder and he turns around.
"Bye Dad." I give him a tight hug. He squirms. I pat him on the butt and kiss the top of his head.
"I love you buddy."
"I lub you."
I feel sad as I drive away. Pop a cassette into the player. Crappy car, good stereo. A friend of mine put together this tape for me. He calls it The Existentialist Hippie Blues. The first track is Its Alright by The Traveling Wilburys. The car heater is starting to warm up. Nice.
I drive to the business district and pull up to the automatic teller machine at my bank. I'll need to get some emergency cash for my trip.
Turn off the car and wait my turn. Wait, wait, wait. The woman using the machine is taking forever. I recognize the pickup parked next to me, and then the driver, Stanley Grimbal. He used to be our neighbor before Betsy and I moved back to the home place. The woman at the ATM is his wife Dana. Dana was born and raised in the mountains of Tennessee. She's an attractive woman, slight and petite with golden curls. Looks a little like a movie starlet from the twenties, only very roughhewn. Betsy describes her as being like a piece of uncooked meat. I read in the newspaper a few months back that Dana had been in an altercation over a roast with another customer in a grocery and ended up stabbing the woman in the head. I guess nothing came of it. I haven't seen Dana and Stanley in over a year.
"Alright, you know when the baby's head is just a pressin' on both sides of your twat?" Dana was in our den discussing her child labor experience with Betsy and my mother-in-law, Barbara.
"Well I told that doctor, 'I want some fuckin' valium and I want it NOW!' And, by God, you better believe he gave it to me!" Dana crossed her arms and nodded affirmatively as she finished her expletive.
Betsy and Barbara, clearly uncomfortable, exchanged glances.
I passed through the den and quickly into the dining room trying to look busy. I didn't want anyone to get the mistaken impression that I had any desire to enter the conversation.
"Hey Rusty! How are you doin'?" Dana called out.
"Oh, hello Dana. Good. How are you?" I dragged myself back into the den.
"Good. I saw you an' your little boy over to the mall the other day," she quickly engaged.
"Oh?" I always got the urge to squirm away when Dana roped me into a conversation.
"Yea, an was he ever throwin' a fit. You know what you need to do for that?" The fact that I worked as a child therapist didn't in the least inhibit Dana from providing me endless child rearing advice. "Well, first you catch 'em throwin' a fit at home and you just wear his bare behind out good. Then, next time you're at the mall, or drug store, or such, and he starts carryin' on, you just grab the back of his britches like you're gonna yank um down...and you see if he don't straighten right up!" She stepped back with another nod and awaited my response.
"Well," I began.
"Go ahead! I can see the but in your face," she interrupted.
"You see what?"
"I see the but in your face. Like you're gonna say,'Yea,
"Oh... well, I just think that there are usually alternatives to spanking," I said weakly.
"Uh huh, well I'll tell you one thing, you sure won't see my kid out at no mall carryin' on like a fool!" She stomped away.
I look up and see Stanley walking over to my car. I step out and shake his hand. He's always been a nice fellow. And he has a great deal of patience.
"Hey Stan. Long time no see."
"Rusty, what are you up to, Bud?" Stanley smiles familiarly.
"I'm going to the mountains for a camping trip."
"Man, that sounds great," Stanley looks wistful.
I chat with Stanley for a while. Finally, Dana finishes with the cash machine and advances toward us.
"Hey Rusty," she waves. I nod and strain a smile.
"What in the hell took you so long?" Stanley yells.
"Well that thang said I could only take out five dollars at a time."
"Dana, you can take out multiples of five. Five dollars, ten dollars, fifteen dollars, get it? Jesus Christ, what are you, some kind of cartoon character!?" Stanley is not as patient as I remember.
"Let me tell you one thing Stanley Grimbal, you better shut your goddamn mouth or you won't be gettin' yourself none for a long time! And I know you don't want no knife stickin' out of the top of your head like that bitch Edna Morris..."
Stanley and Dana bicker their way back to the truck and drive away.
I take out a hundred bucks and get back on the road. Grocery stores and stop lights. Passing over the Ashley River Bridge now. I love the view from here. Centuries old houses, churches, and shops behind the Charleston Marina and brown-green, murky waters. The paper mill fragrance of salt marsh fills the car connecting me with a thousand pleasant memories.
Off the bridge and creep through cross town traffic. Pass Hampton Park and the big duck pond. The birds are tightly packed together on a little island in the center of the pond. Their heads are folded under their wings for warmth.
It was an Indian Summer day. The golden, October sun illuminated the Point making Clark Sound sparkle and shimmer. I was to spend the morning with Aunt Ella while my mother attended to errands down town. Our mornings activities were already mapped out, as Uncle Zeke had shot and taken the heads off of two of the ducks from the flock that inhabited the barnyard, and Aunt Ella and I were to pick and dress them.
We climbed down stairs from the back porch and found the two birds on a work table near the barnyard. We talked and laughed as we worked, and soon flurries of down swirled across the yard. In no time, we had plucked and gutted the ducks and carried them back up to the kitchen. Aunt Ella wrapped them in cellophane and placed them in the freezer as I washed blood and feather fuzz off of my hands.
"Well, that was easy," said Aunt Ella, "and we still have the whole morning. What would you like to do child?"
"I don't know... Could we do some more ducks?"
"Hmm, I've never actually done the slaughtering myself before, but it would be nice to have a few more to put away. Tell you what, I'll call Agnes Rutledge. She does this sort of thing all the time."
While my aunt made the telephone call, I went back down to the barnyard and caught a big, drake. Unlike the cold, stiff carcasses we'd work on earlier, this bird felt warm and fluid in my hands. My insides churned with mixed excitement and sorrow. As Aunt Ella approached, I squeezed out the sorrow with thoughts of warriors and hunters and manhood.
"Agnes said that we should stretch the neck across something hard so the hatchet won't bounce back, then chop off the head on the first blow."
"Can I do it Aunt Ella?"
"Are you sure you want to?" she asked looking over her glasses.
I nodded affirmatively. As we pulled the duck’s neck across a big log, his eyes looked up at me sideways. I raised the hatchet over my head, closed my eyes tightly, and brought it down as hard as I could. The hatchet sprung back towards me with an equal and opposite force. The drake screamed and awful screech, his body struggled wildly to escape! Feelings of panic and sinking sickness swept over me as my second blow met with the same response as the first. Again and again I chopped in fevered desperation, but each time the blade bounced away from its rubbery target! The other ducks in the barnyard encircled us, flapping their wings, and peering at the heinous sight. They seemed to be murmuring to one another, accenting my own guilt and shame. Cold sweat soaked my hair and shirt, and I felt the color drained from my face. Tears blurred my vision and I became weak with fatigue. The mutilated animal continued to shriek and fight. Aunt Ella, equally affected by the gory scene, reached up and took the hatchet.
"Stop child. I'd better do this myself," she said in a shaky voice.
A wave of nausea overwhelmed me. I ran to the fence and disgorged violently. When I returned, I found Aunt Ella repeatedly delivering unsteady, ineffective strikes to the tortured bird. I ran up to the kitchen and retrieved a sharp, serrated knife. Aunt Ella held our victim's neck in place, and I sawed through bone and cartilage finally completing the grisly decapitation.
Emotionally and physically drained, Aunt Ella and I stumbled arm in arm up the stairs nervously laughing and crying uncontrollably. We cleaned up and composed over a hot cup of Russian tea. The tea was delicious and Aunt Ella's comfortable den was all the more so in contrast to that barnyard abattoir.
After some time, Aunt Ella spoke. "I hate to say it, but we better finish taking care of that bird."
"Do you want to bury it?" I asked in all seriousness.
She smiled ruefully. "No, we have to go clean it."
"Ok," I said bravely.
As we neared the repulsive site of the slaughter, we both grabbed our stomachs, ran to the fence and vomited in unison.
Subsequently, Aunt Ella called Mrs. Rutledge offering her the duck as a gift if she would please come remove it.
Exit to I-26, kick back, and enjoy the ride. I zone out for a while. Time passes. You can get in some good meditative states when you're driving on a long trip. Its probably not very safe, but I always snap out of it when I see brake lights in front of me.
Everything is shades of gray. Gray trees, gray sky, gray mud, gray mist against the windshield. I flip on and off the windshield wipers a few times; nineteen seventy-five Buick technology for delayed wipers. Road construction ahead. Traffic slows down to a crawl as we merge and go single file past a mile or so of orange cones. I feel sorry for the fellas working out there today. They look rough, smoking cigarettes and clenching against the cold. Exhaust pipes from a grimy, yellow dump truck full of rocks. Pass the last cone and traffic begins to spread out and speed up. Some college kids are driving in front of me. The driver and the passenger each have one arm out the window flapping in unison. Looks really funny. I appreciate the entertainment. When I was a college kid, I was either searching for the meaning of life, or getting intoxicated.
"Are you ready yet?" Annette yelled.
"Hurry up Rusty!" Lynn added impatiently.
"I'll be out in a minute," I called back from the bedroom.
I laughed at the image in the cracked mirror above my dresser.
I was wearing lime green, double knit, polyester slacks, a silk shirt with a floral print, a yellow tuxedo jacket, platform shoes and greasy slick hair. I had rings on every finger and gold chains around my neck. We were going to a "Pimp and Whore" theme party at Tim and Jean's. Crisp, autumn gusts rustled the bedroom curtains. The beginning of my junior year I left the modern conveniences of my rat hole dorm room and moved into this run down, rat hole farm house with two other Grateful Dead, hippie types.
The house had no closets and no heat other than a wood stove. In cold months the water in the toilet would freeze solid. My room was on the opposite end of the house from the stove. There were no electrical outlets in the room, so I ran extension cords down from the overhead light. I hung my clothes on a broomstick suspended from the ceiling. During the winter time, my room created it's own eco-system. Moisture would accumulate on the ceiling, then rain down on my stuff. By the time
I moved out, all of my books and shoes supported healthy colonies of furry, green mold.
I went outside and strutted around my pimpish attire exchanging whistles with Lynn and Annette who were appropriately dressed in the classic prostitute apparel of feather boas, spiked heels, and fishnet hose. We decided to walk to the party so we wouldn't have to drive drunk. Tim and Jean lived in the next rat hole farm house down the road. The mountain air was fresh and cool and the countryside blazed with yellow and orange and red. Fall always sparked a sense of adventure in me. As we walked, I smoked cigars and we passed around bottles of Champaign. By the time we got to the party, I was lit. The house was filled with smoke and loud music. I walked up to a bunch of guys who had congregated in a circle to shoot the breeze.
"Hey Rus man, what's happening?" Jacques shook my hand as I entered the group.
"I'm alright, man. How's it going?" I nodded.
"Copasetic Rus," Jacques eyes were red and squinting.
"What a sleazy lookin' bunch of rogues!" I shouted, greeting the other pimps in the group. We laughed, ragged on each other, and said things like "Hey, man," and "Whatcha been up to, man?" and "I'm hungry, man," and "You look stupid, man," and "Did you see that chic, man?"
Within minutes the room started to spin and I felt sick on my stomach.
"I'm in bad shape fellas," I said. "I'm gonna go get some air."
"Yea, you're looking rough, Rus. Walk it off," said Jacques slapping me on the back as I stumbled out the door.
I staggered down the street, then turned down a side road and traveled a good ways. Feeling nauseated, I got down on my hands and knees. When I looked up, a bright light shined in my eyes.
"Freeze! Sylva police!" a voice sounding like Quick Draw McGraw called out from behind the light. Two hillbilly police officers grabbed me, threw me up against a squad car, and frisked me. They put me in the back of the cruiser and drove to the station. My knees pressed hard against the Plexiglas divider between the front and back seat. The driver glanced back at me, shook his head, then rolled his eyes. At the time, I was too incoherent to remember that I was in costume. They must have thought I was a serious weirdo.
"Where were you going, son?" asked the driver.
"I don't know. I was at a party," I slurred.
"Where was the party?" Quick Draw was stern.
"Tim and Jean's," I answered barely able to attend to the question.
"Tim and Jean who?"
"Tim," in an inebriated whisper.
"Where do Tim and Jean live?" he persisted.
"Tim and Jean," I muttered.
"Tell me where the party was," ordered Officer McGraw in frustration.
"I feel sick," I said burping.
The officers continued a blur of similar questioning as they escorted me to a locked waiting room and left me there. The room was empty except for a bench and an ash can. I started feeling nauseated again and took the top off of the ash can to throw up in it. I reconsidered and replaced the top. The officers were apparently observing me because one of them immediately burst into the room and started stirring around in the ash can. They thought I was trying to hide drugs or something.
Eventually, the cops drove me to my house and dropped me off warning me to stay off the streets. I must have given them directions, but I really don't remember. I crawled into bed and puked on my bed side table.
When I was in college, I tried to induce non-stop happiness by partying. It only took eight or nine hundred times for me to realize that for every hour of fun I had partying, I spent four hours the next day feeling like crap.
I bought into the two unspoken false assumptions of our culture. Assumption number one is that life is supposed to be a continuous stream of happy events. Assumption number two is that you can achieve assumption number one by getting the right stuff i.e. the right car, clothes, mate, beer, soft drink, etc.
The assumptions are fueled by commercials. Commercials always show beautiful people having some type of key experience like getting married, having a party, attaining some goal, or engaging in some type of adventure. The happy scenario is paired with whatever product they're selling. After watching millions of commercials, you begin to develop a kind of skewed perception of life. Sets you up for guaranteed disappointment.
When I started consciously making my assumptions about life from life itself rather than from the media and popular culture, I learned something interesting. A great majority of my time is spent doing boring activities like getting dressed, driving to work, and carrying out the garbage.
Exciting positive events come only occasionally, and then they tend to fall somewhat short of my expectations. If I continued to focus all of my energy on anticipating the climaxes in my life, I would spend most of my existence waiting. I would also be in for a lot of frustration.
I came to the conclusion that living by the unspoken assumptions is wasteful. Its like ignoring the ball game by being preoccupied with the half-time show. Most of life is the daily grind. If I could enjoy the process of washing dishes, cutting the grass, and brushing my teeth, none of my life would be wasted.
I roll down the window and experience the weather a little bit. It's getting icier as the altitude increases. Heat from the car mixes with the frigid air. I take a deep breath through my nose and roll up the window. I'll get enough of experiencing weather by the end of this trip.
There's a hitch hiker up ahead. He looks very odd. A black man no more than four feet tall wearing only a light jacket. Salt and pepper dreadlocks. Lines of age on his face. He's got kind of a half-smile. As I pass him, I look straight into his eyes. They are open and empty reflecting nothing. Serene as still water. I look in the rear view mirror to watch his image begin to fade from sight and I see my own eyes. Very different from his, narrow and wary, disclosing doubts and fears.
I never pick up hitch-hikers, but I can't stop the impulse to give this guy a ride. I pull over and come to a gradual stop, then throw the Buick in reverse and start backing up. The little man runs up to meet the car. He climbs in panting, shuts the door, and buckles his seat belt. Paradox, a safety conscious hitch-hiker. I pull the car back out on to the highway.
"Thank you, my friend," he says in a Cockney accent.
"No sweat. Where you headed?"
" 'pears to be Northwest now doesn't it?" he smiles, "but I'll only be riding a short ways."
"Ok by me," I nod, then, "Aren't you cold, Buddy?"
"Never seen fit to wear more than a waist coat. I like to experience the weather," he chuckles and hums a little tune as he leans down to tie his boot.
"I do... too," I look at him quizzically. Strange he should say that.
We shoot the breeze for a while and I find this odd fellow to be quite amicable. Suddenly, with a voice as pure as milk, he bursts into what sounds like some Gaelic folk song. The verses sung slow and stretched out, the chorus faster with more energy.
"I have searched the earth and sky
I have pain, but find not why.
M-y life is cold or hot.
Sinking low or rapid beats my heart.
A flower blooms from a withered branch
sweet peace woven by the awakened hand.
Answers clear as a crystal sky
seen only by the awakened eye.
Joy and sorrow villains each
twisting and tearing truth from reach.
To forget all that I seek
Would be wisdom oceans deep.
A flower blooms on a withered branch
Sweet peace woven by the awakened hand.
Answers clear as a crystal sky
seen only by the awakened eye.
Destination seems quite dire,
but the journey is the fire.
Time, a wicked mistress she.
You must deny her to be free.
A flower blooms on a withered branch
Sweet peace woven by the awakened hand.
Answers clear as a crystal sky
seen only by the awakened eye.”
He repeats the chorus and motions for me to sing along. I join in trying to harmonize as we step up the tempo and build crescendo.
"A flower blooms on a withered branch, sweet peace woven by the awakened hand! Answers clear as a crystal sky seen only by the awakened eye!," we howl over and over again, me banging rhythm on the side of the steering wheel, him stomping his foot on the floor board.
Finally, out of breath, we end the song laughing and slapping hands.
"That's a great song man. Where did you learn it?"
"A home grown Buddhist hymn my friend," he smiles.
"You made that up?"
I share with him my ideas about the unspoken assumptions and the importance of attending to process. He listens intently, but I sense that this guy has no need for philosophy. There is a calmness about him which gives me the impression that his wisdom is in his bones rather than in his head.
"Your discussion reminds me of a story. Would you like to hear it?" he asks without looking at me.
"Yea, sure. Shoot," I agree.
He turns to me and begins,
Once there was a herd of wild ponies. The ponies lived happily, caring for their young, grazing in the meadow, and drinking water from the cool brook. They slept when they were tired and ate when they were hungry. Sometimes in the winter, snow covered the ground and the ponies had to work hard to find food. But even in such hard times, they came and went as they pleased, and it was their nature was to enjoy life.
One day a sorcerer came down from the village and placed a trough filled with enchanted feed corn at the edge of the meadow. When the ponies came out to graze, they approached the trough, sniffed, then tasted the corn. It was delicious, sweeter than anything any of them had ever tasted. The corn was so good that the ponies ate all of it in a matter of minutes.
Late the next day, when the ponies came back to the meadow, they found that the sorcerer had refilled the trough. Once again the ponies ate ravenously and devoured all of the magic corn.
Eating the sorcerer's corn was intensely exciting. But while the feed tasted sensational, it was neither nourishing nor filling. So no matter how much the ponies ate, they were always hungry for more.
So it went day after day, month after month, year after year. The sorcerer would refill the trough each evening and the ponies would gobble down the feed corn.
Gradually, life began to change for the ponies. Eating the enchanted corn was so wonderful, everything else they did paled in comparison. The ponies still carried out the same activities as always, but they no longer enjoyed themselves. Their minds were constantly preoccupied with thoughts of the enchanted feed corn. When they grazed, they longed for the magic feed. When they drank from the brook, they schemed of how to get a larger portion of the corn. When they cared for their young, they became annoyed because they didn't like being distracted from their fantasies about the enchanted feed. Activities which once gave them joy, they grew to despise. With the exception of the brief period each day when they fed at the sorcerer's trough, the ponies spent their lives in desolation.
One day, much to the ponies’ surprise, they noticed that a fence had been built around them. No one had seen the fence being constructed, but there it was just the same. While desire for the feed had already greatly restricted the ponies from traveling very far from the trough anyway, the fence now made leaving impossible.
Years went by and many of the older ponies died off. Eventually, few in the herd could remember a time when the magic feed corn was not a part of their lives. Most assumed without question that the enchanted feed was the most important thing in the world. However, one very old stallion refused to gorge on the sorcerer's corn. He would enjoy only a small taste, then go back to grazing.
A group of young ponies noticed that the old one always seemed content and always wore a slight smile. The leader of the group asked him, "What makes you happy when the rest of us are so miserable?"
"Why are you miserable?" asked the old stallion in return.
"We are miserable because we hate our dull, boring lives," answered the young leader.
"And I am happy because I love my dull, boring life," said the wise one with a sly grin. Then he passed right through the fence as though it were made of smoke and walked to the brook for a drink.
Some of the young ponies left the trough and followed him.
"That's a great story. I'll remember it," I comment with admiration.
"Good. Now, if you'll pull over here, I'll be getting out," he winks.
"There's nothing here but highway. The next exit is twenty miles down the road!"
"Yep," he says without expression, " 'preciate the ride."
I pull over and shake hands with the little man as I let him off. Wave goodbye, then rejoin the interstate traffic. Interesting guy.
Neil Young is singing The Thrasher on the car stereo. Nice traveling song. I turn up the volume. The car is overflowing with Neil. I soak it up. This song is so good makes the hair on my neck stand up. I sing along.
"They were hiding behind hay bails.
They were planning in the full moon.
They had given all they had for something new.
But the light of day was on them.
They could see the thrashers coming
And the water shown like diamonds in the dew.
And I was just getting up.
Hit the road before its light.
Trying to catch an hour on the sun.
When I saw those thrashers rolling up,
Looking more than two lanes wide,
I was feeling like my day had just begun."
I love this part of the drive. There's a sharp incline that goes on and on. When its clear, you can look back and see miles of flat land behind you. Looking back today, just gray low hanging clouds. There ought to be a sign here that says "Now entering the Blue Ridge Mountains." The Buick is straining up the grade. There's a line of transfer trucks. My speedometer doesn't work, but I'd guess those guys couldn't be going more than ten miles per hour. I whiz by them doing about forty.
I crack the window and hear a shrill screech. There are two red tailed hawks gliding in circles high above the road ahead. Black shadows against gray skies. Suddenly, one pulls in its wings and drops like a rock. Outstretched talons grab a small animal from the grass. Big wings flap awkwardly taking predator and prey away over the valley and down into the fog. The other hawk continues to circle.
Hawks completely consume their quarry. Fur, bones, everything. They later regurgitate whatever cannot be digested. I tend to pull for the rodent in this type of situation. Life comes and goes fast. My fears begin to creep in.
Life is magical and wondrous when attended to, yet I find it so easy to ignore. I get stuck in my head. I'm like the ponies, too caught up in worries and fantasies. There's no planning for life, no dress rehearsal. This very moment is it. Need to embrace it!
I take a few deep breaths and think about this moment. Move along quietly for a while taking in the experience.
The fuel gauge is near "E" (the fuel gauge works). I turn off at an exit with a Race Track gas station. Pull in and fill up with regular. The handle to the pump feels like its made of ice. Lots of activity here, truckers and travelers. Cap it off for twenty-three dollars. Inside the station is warm and smokey. There is a group of handicapped kids buying sodas and snacks. Its interesting to see how folks react to them. Some stare, some avoid them, some are overly friendly. People freak out when they encounter folks who are different.
I was working with a student on the use of his communication board, when I looked up to see Joey enter the front door of my classroom.
"Hey big Joe, what are you doing out this way?" I asked, pleased and surprised to receive a visit from my cousin.
"I had to go to the hardware store and thought I'd stop by and check out your work place."
"Alright man, you want to help me transport these guys?"
"Yea... I guess." Joey looked around uneasy at the class of multi-handicapped adults.
I must admit I felt the same apprehension on my first encounter with my students. When I began working as an adult education teacher at the Palmetto Residential Center, my supervisor took me on a tour of the facilities. Over eight hundred people with mental retardation and multiple disabilities resided at Palmetto. The center was almost a community in itself. The grounds were laid out like a college campus. In addition to residential units, there was a hospital, a chapel, a recreation hall, a media center, a cafeteria, a school, and a vocational workshop. Palmetto offered services in the areas of music therapy, psychology, physical therapy, occupational therapy, adaptive devices, recreational therapy, art therapy, and education.
Upon exiting the administrative building, a naked, man burst through the doors and bolted across the campus. He was being chased by a security guard, a nurse, and a psychologist. They tried to put the streaker in the back seat of a security vehicle, but he opened the door on the other side of the car and set off again. They resembled a weird Keystone Cops scene. I felt extremely uncomfortable. I didn't know if I should join in the chase or what. My supervisor completely ignored the incident and continued the tour.
When I entered the residential cottage that day to meet my class, I had difficulty masking my shock at the appearance of the occupants. There were people with physical deformities of their extremities, many in wheelchairs. Others had misshapen heads due to hydrocephaly and microcephaly. Some drooled constantly and some, unable to speak, made strange guttural noises. I witnessed a man trying to slam his head into the wall as staff members attempted to restrain him. The atmosphere was chaotic. I would be teaching nine of the forty-eight who resided in this residence.
Most of the students in my class had cerebral palsy. This condition affects the neurological system causing muscular rigidness and poor coordination. All of my students were in wheelchairs and unable to independently carry out self-care tasks like eating, bathing, dressing, or going to the bathroom independently. The CP also caused profound communication problems.
I transported my students to the classroom and began to teach. I babbled, juggled, told jokes, and basically made fool of myself. When class was over I had no idea if any of them had understood a word of it. I later discovered that most of the people in my class were quite bright and had excellent receptive language. I had students who read the newspaper every day, wrote poetry, and watched 60 Minutes.
In the past, children with cerebral palsy were institutionalized because they were assumed to have mental retardation. My students may have originally been of normal intelligence, but being raised in an institutional environment resulted in intellectual deficits. There are developmental periods in childhood during which there is a window of opportunity for a child to acquire certain cognitive skills. If the child is not exposed to an environment rich in learning experiences during these periods, the window closes and the resulting gaps in intellectual functioning may not be filled.
"Joey, could you hold open that door please?" I asked.
"Sure," he shrugged.
Joey opened the door to the classroom and an army of electric wheelchairs buzzed outside and down the walk. After class, I generally helped transport two groups of students back to the residence. I grabbed the back of Rene Davis' wheel chair and talked with her about the weather and such as we ambled back to the cottage. Joey agreed to help Eddie Hill stay on route as he peddled his tricycle to the residence. Eddie was a middle aged man with dwarfism, deafness, slight cerebral palsy, and severe mental retardation. He looked like a perfectly proportioned, miniature gentleman. Eddie was not in my class, but I knew him well and liked him. He could not walk independently due to the CP, but could ambulate short distances if he held someone's hand. He used the tricycle when he had to cover a lot of ground. This always appeared demeaning to me, but in actuality it was just practical, and much less restrictive than a wheelchair.
I got to know Eddie when I accompanied him to the fair. Every year, Palmetto Center got three "fair days" when the county fair opened exclusively to handicapped residents. Each staff member had to be responsible for escorting one resident. The first day, I was unfamiliar with the selection process and allowed the recreation staff to assign the resident I would escort. I later discovered that I had the option of choosing who I wished to escort. At any rate, the recreation crew put me with Frank Jenkins. When I told a colleague that I was going to the fair with Frank, she warned me to be careful because Frank was prone to episodes of extreme violence. Frank was twenty-two years old; same age as me. His physical appearance was perfectly normal. He had a GI haircut, because if his hair were allowed to grow, he would pull clumps of it out and eat it. He was non-verbal, with severe mental retardation and pica disorder. Pica meant that he would eat non-food items like hair, cigarette butts, and anything else small enough to fit in his mouth. Frank was also hyper-vigilant, remaining in constant motion. I had to hold his hand as he pulled me from one end of the fair grounds to the other and back again time after time.
At one point, the World's Largest Cow escaped from its pen causing something of a stampede of handicapped people who were frantically trying to get out of the way. This posed no problem for Frank and me, as we were already moving at a considerably quicker pace than any other human or beast attending the fair that day. When we stopped for a hotdog my tongue was dragging on the ground. I was grateful for the opportunity to rest for a minute. Unfortunately, it took Frank less than a minute to stuff the entire hotdog down his throat in one bite, gulp down his drink, and re-engage me in a continuation of the torturous fair ground marathon. By the time we returned to Palmetto Center, I had determined that I would never allow the recreation staff to choose anything for me again.
The following day, I chose to escort Raymond Smalls, a big fellow with an electric wheelchair. Raymond was high functioning and had a great personality. He did have one character glitch, but the problem never presented itself when he was around me. Raymond had a sexual fetish for stuffed toys. Sexual deviance is fairly common in institutions for the mentally challenged, as residents are provided no appropriate sexual outlets. Anyway, Raymond would sneak around and steal stuffed animals from the other residents and use them to masturbate with. He had his own toys, but he wouldn't touch them. They remained pristine and virtuous. The center's Chaplin was a ventriloquist and frequently used a dummy to help spice up his sermons. One day Raymond was found in the chapel on top of the dummy. The chaplin never made comment on this incident, but his preachment was subsequently delivered without gimmicks.
During our visit to the fair, the stuffed animal issue was not a problem. However, I nearly broke my back loading and unloading Raymond and his electric wheelchair from the van.
When I picked Eddie on the last fair day, I figured I had found the perfect choice. He was a pleasure to hang out with and he only weighed about fifty pounds. He used a manual wheelchair at the fair, as his tricycle would have been too slow and cumbersome. I wheeled Eddie around and he seemed blown away by the carnival sights. He motioned that he wanted to ride the merry-go-round. This didn't seem like a very age appropriate choice to me, but Eddie was an adult and had the right to ride what he wanted. I helped him up on one of the horses and away he went. He waved, and laughed, and pointed as he circled around. When the ride was over and I went to get him off, I felt moisture seeping into my clothes. Eddie had peed all over himself. Nobody told me that Eddie wet his pants when he got excited. This was one of many personal encounters I would have with human body fluids as an employee of Palmetto Center. We didn't have a change of clothes, so Eddie and I left the fair early and drove back to the center in my car. Not a pleasant experience. In spite of his tendency to wet himself, Eddie was a pretty good guy. He was almost always in a good humor and he had friends everywhere. During fair days the following year, I called in sick.
Eddie tended to be easily distracted when riding his tricycle outside, but Joey did a good job of redirecting him and keeping him on task as we made our way back to the cottage. We arrived, and I took Rene inside. I made small talk with the attendants and residents for a few minutes then went back out with Joey and Eddie. Joey appeared kind of pale. He took me to one side and looked at me earnestly.
"What's going on Joey?"
"Rusty, when you went in there, he got off that tricycle and grabbed my leg. A cold chill ran down my spine.
"I didn't know what to do, but I figured I could take him if I had to." Joey was solemn.
Joey is six feet tall and one hundred ninety-five pounds. I laughed till I couldn't breathe. Eddie, who would laugh at anything, start laughing at me. Eventually, Joey joined in too. Tears streamed down our faces. When I get the chance, I still give Joey a hard time about the incident.
I learned a lot about people when I worked at Palmetto Center. The folks there had good days and bad days, just like me. They fell in love, had lifelong friends, and enjoyed a good joke. They had likes, and dislikes, and personality quirks. Some of them were friendly and some were belligerent. By time I left the center to return to school, their disabilities had faded to insignificance.
I walk down the aisles of the convenience store and pick up some sunflower seeds, grape juice, and an apple. There is a middle aged lady working at the counter. Deep lines and platinum hair. Tinny sounding country music is coming from a portable radio behind her.
"That'll be twenty-five thirty-two," she says with a strong country accent. She speaks out of one side of her mouth and holds a cigarette in the other.
I hand her twenty-six bucks and she gives me the change. "Thanks," shoving the change in my pocket.
"Thank you. Yuns come back and see us." A crooked smile.
The bathrooms are on the outside of the building. Cold and dirty. I can see my breath. Back out to the car. Forgot to check the oil. I pop the hood and pull the dip stick. Two hundred and fifty thousand miles (or there abouts; the odometer doesn't work) and still doesn't burn a drop. This car ought to be in a Buick commercial.
"When I check my oil I pull away from the tanks so other people can get their gas!" A skinny, goateed guy standing half in and half out of the station wagon behind me shouts sarcastically. He's pissed.
"I'm almost done!" then under my breath, "asshole." My heart rate quickens a little. I'm pissed too. It doesn't take much to throw me off center. I hate that. The guy lays on his horn startling me. I bump my head on the underside of the hood.
"What in the hell is your problem!" I yell, rubbing my head and wanting to kill him.
"My problem is I want some goddamned gas!" He gets back into his car, locks the door, and lays on his horn again.
I drop the hood and get back into the Buick very slowly and deliberately. Pull the car away from the pumps at a snail’s pace. This passive-aggressive behavior feels good. The skinny guy is flashing his lights and cursing me from behind his windshield. I flip him off and drive away. Jerk.
Back on the interstate. My mind keeps replaying the incident over and over. Thoughts about what I should have said and done. It takes me a long while to get calm. I take a few deep breaths and gradually get caught up in the mountains. Exit onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. Even without leaves and sunshine it’s beautiful. Layers of dark rock painted with water and ice. Barren trees holding a blanket of fog in their branches. Deep, hazy gorges. The mountains are mystical. I enjoy the beauty. But I can never fully enjoy anything. There is always a faint, gnawing fear about my own impermanence and the transient nature of experience.
I become kind of mesmerized by the road. My mind shuts down for a while and my hands and feet do the driving. Miles pass under me. Through my peripheral vision, I notice a tall, dead tree in a gorge. In the top of the tree is my bucket over flowing with water! I look again and see only a squirrel's nest. Weird.
Up a grade. Very cold at this altitude. The trees are coated with a thin veneer of ice. The forest looks like its made of glass. Turn into the parking area for the trail I plan to follow. Completely vacant. I guess people aren't very interested in February hiking. I feel a little rush of excitement. Slip on my gloves and toboggan, then lock up the car. Nice to stretch and move around. The air is thin and crisp. Strap on my pack and slam the trunk.
Everything is still and silent. I'll get in a couple of hours of hiking before dark. This trail forms a big loop. I should be able to complete the circle in a few days even if I take my time. The only sounds are my breath and my footsteps. The air is thin and damp. Feels very strange to be this alone. I hike for an hour or so quietly enjoying the trail. The activity warms me. Mountain laurel, fir trees and moss add green to the gray and ice. Small saplings bend to the ground under the mass of frozen water. There's a straight, green limb on the ground. I knock off the ice, cut away the small branches and smooth it up. Walking with a stick makes me feel like I'm in a Tolkien story or something. Also makes me feel a little safer. The weight of my pack seems to increase with every step. My back and shoulders ache, unaccustomed to the burden. I find a fallen tree, get down on my haunches and allow the log to support my back pack. I rest for a few minutes and look over my trail map. It’s very difficult to estimate distances when hiking. This forest has few signs and markers making navigation very challenging. I take a sip of water from my canteen and slowly rise to my feet. The pack feels slightly less cumbersome and I plod on.
The sound of rushing water. Much of this path follows a stream. Down through the brush I can see it. I travel parallel to the gurgling for a time. There's a clearing in the creek bank. Looks like a good place to set up. I walk down to the clearing, take off my pack, and strap it to a tree so it’s off the ground and I can access its contents easily. My back relaxes and I feel lighter than air. I work quickly to clear off a spot, lay a ground cover and set up the tent. Untie my bedroll from the pack and throw it inside. I forage through the surrounding area collecting dead wood for fire. Everything is saturated with water and ice. I drag, break and stack sticks and branches for nearly an hour. It is dirty, tiring work. My limbs struggle with tree limbs leaving me scratched, beat up and soaking wet. The temperature is dropping and I can see my breath. I amass a huge pile not wanting to run out after the sun goes down.
I take a small piece of wood, whittle down to the dry part and put the shavings in a pile. Starting to get dark. I light the shavings and gradually add some sticks. A nice little fire glows. Steam and smoke rises from the wood as it burns. The warmth feels good. As the fire grows and some hot coals accumulate underneath, I take a small grill from my pack and lay it across the fire. The sides of the grill rest on some rocks. I pour water into my big steel cup and put it on the grill. I used to use a mess kit, but the steel cup holds more and there's less junk to keep up with. When the water boils I break up a package of Oodles of Noodles and drop it in. I wolf down some peanut butter and crackers while I wait for the noodles to cook. The forest is dark and getting colder. Kind of scary. I remove the cup from the fire and take a sip. Hot, feels nice going down. After dinner I rinse out my cup and replace it in my pack. Take out my flashlight and find my way down to the stream. I submerge my hands in the water and they become instantly numb. I wash my hands and face. Back to the camp and dry off with a towel. Bank the camp fire and crawl into the tent. Its freezing and smells like mildew. I strip to my toboggan, long underwear, and wool socks. Get in my mummy sleeping bag and zip it up to my face. Tired, I drop off easily.
I am standing in a huge building like a cathedral or ball room or something. A flock of pigeons flutter above and perch on a resplendent, crystal chandelier. Colored sunlight beams through stained glass. The walls reverberate with the sound of a low, drumming chant. The words to the chant are indistinct. I know I'm dreaming. Suddenly there is silence. Lainey and Harry appear in the center of the room. They are in their bathing suits splashing and playing on either side of the tin bucket pouring over with water. Lainey walks over to Harry.
"Harry, I'll be Dorothy and you be the scarecrow. Ok?"
"I don't want to be the scarecrow. I don't want to be the lion. I don't want to be the tin man. I don't want to be the witch..." Harry speaks with staccato diction. He looks around the room as he continues,
"I don't want to be a bucket. I don't want to be water. I don't want to be Daddy. I don't want to be a cathedral. I just want to be Harry." As he finishes this expletive, he takes a step backwards and splashes bottom first into the bucket. Arms and legs flail as he struggles to get up. Lainey and I help pull him out. The three of us laugh for a long time. The water continues to flow. Lainey looks at me.
"Daddy, Harry doesn't understand, does he?"
"Understand what?" I ask.
"He doesn't understand that he's already all of those things," she answers.
I look at her quizzically.
"I understand now though Lainey," Harry says in a teasing voice.
"You do?" I ask.
"Yea Daddy, that book you're reading left something out." Harry has become quite articulate since the last time we talked.
"What's that, buddy?" I'm intrigued.
"It should say, ‘If you want to be you, let yourself be everything'."
"Hmm. What are you guys a couple of oracles?" I ask playfully.
"It's your dream Daddy," Lainey and Harry giggle.
(End Dream Sequence)
I wake up stiff and cold. Darkness persists. Good to see Lainey and Harry even if it was only in a dream. I feel around and find the flashlight, then go through my pile of clothes and get the Tao Te Ching and a pencil. At the bottom of chapter twenty-two, I write in "If you want to be you, let yourself be everything." Let yourself be everything. That would be a neat trick. What separates me from everything in the first place?
My muscles, sore from yesterday' abuse, hurt even more as I tighten against the cold. Hands and fingers feel big and awkward. I struggle to get dressed and roll up my sleeping bag. Unzip the tent flaps and look outside. The air is filled with snow and about four inches have accumulated on the ground. Nothing but snow and darkness out there. Beautiful. I bundle up, climb out of the tent and kick around in the snow a little. I knock off the snow from where the camp fire was and stir the ashes with my walking stick. There are still some hot embers underneath. I do the whittling bit again and start a fire. Oatmeal with dried apples for breakfast. The area is faintly lighted now, but the sun is buried in clouds. Snow continues to fall. The cold is numbing. Walk down to the stream and fill my canteen. I take an eye dropper filled with Clorox and put two drops in the canteen to kill any microscopic critters.
It’s interesting that I sometimes have trouble motivating myself when I'm home. Excuses like not getting enough sleep, or having a stressful day, or not feeling good will sometimes come between me and the work I need to do. I worry about life and health and others, all the while spinning my wheels.
I think there is too much distance between many of my required daily activities and how they relate to the survival of myself and family. My work is only faintly connected to basic needs such as sustenance and shelter. Primitive man had to first make tools from raw materials like rocks and sticks, then hunt, kill, gut and skin his prey. Build a fire, again using raw materials, cook the food and finally eat.
I never appreciated the immensely labor intensive lifestyle of primitive man until I went in the woods with Lainey and Harry and tried to simply make an arrow. We bought an arrowhead and I already had string and glue and a saw and a knife. However, finding feathers and a suitable shaft, straightening the shaft (using heat from the oven), and doing the necessary carving, tying and gluing took nearly four hours. However, after much time and effort, my arrow... really sucked! No man, primitive or otherwise, would want to depend on that arrow for survival!
To make the same arrow, primitive man would have had to fashion an arrowhead from a stone, use animal gut for string, make glue by boiling down tendons and hooves, make a bowl to boil the glue in, and use bones, rocks and sticks to make a knife and a hatchet.
On the trail there are no options. Regardless of my mental or physical state, there are things I absolutely must do in order to survive and get back home. In fact, nearly every activity I engage in on the trail has to do with survival. There is no quitting. Only action and purpose. Meaning at every turn. I love it!
Dowse the fire with snow and break camp. Back on the trail. Snow and ice make balance challenging. A huge flock of black birds move across the sky in a dark, fluid mass and land simultaneously in a single tree. They look like black foliage. A clambering of squawking and chatter. I look and listen for a while. Its good to have some company. Eventually, the multitude takes flight and moves on. I move on too. The snow is beginning to let up some. I hike until past noon covering several miles.
"Hel-lo!" I hear a high pitched voice hailing me from behind. Turn around to see a man of very small stature waving and hustling up the trail. I wave back and wait for him. He draws nearer and I am shocked to recognize him as the little hitch hiker. As he meets me, he smiles at my disbelief and nods another greeting. I nod in return and we walk along together for a while without saying anything.
"My name is Rusty. We never really introduced ourselves in the car," I break the silence.
"Mine is Shorty," he says casting his eyes to the ground and simpering. "The name attached itself to me in grade school and I've not been able to shake it."
I smile to myself.
"Why I have my name is obvious. But tell me, at what are you rusty, Rusty?" he asks with a gap toothed grin.
"I guess I'm rusty at life, Shorty."
"Oh?" raising his bushy eyebrows.
"You know, death, search for meaning, that kind of stuff."
"The existential dilemma," he shakes his head with understanding.
"Man, I've studied philosophy for years. I've tried yoga, health food, exercise, therapy, and a million other things. I know that time is limited and I feel a sense of urgency, but the harder I try, the more the answers elude me." I am making myself depressed.
Suddenly, Shorty sticks a stubby hand into his back pocket, pulls out a harmonica, and squeals out a blues riff. Then, he begins to sing and intermittently blow out accompaniment on the mouth harp.
"I've been a Taoist, a Hindu, a Christian, a Buddhist, and a Jew
Just hopin' for a little bit of clarity to come shinin' through
But the water stays muddy and my soul it just stays blue
I've practiced yoga, transcendental meditation, and self-hypnosis
Just tryin' to find some peace of mind and gain some focus
But while I studied in earnest, frustration is my only diagnosis
I ate an all organic diet s'posed to revitalize and renew me
Bean sprouts, tofu, sunflower seeds, and sushi
Got so goddamned skinny, you could almost see through me
Got holes in my shoes
No direction to choose
The enlightened man's blu-u-ues"
I clap and whistle. "You're a talented guy, Shorty. And I think you have a handle on my problem."
"Aye, been there lad. Would you like for me to share with you a bit of folk wisdom?" he asks tilting his head and looking at me from the corner of his eye.
I shrug, and nod ok.
"Get your head out of your ass, Rusty! You're going about this all wrong. You think you have to buckle down, beat yourself into shape and tighten your grip, but that's bullshit. All you actually need to do is open your hands and let go.
"You don't find enlightenment, man. It finds you!
Once there was a poor boy named Jack who lived on an isolated farm with his parents. The farm was very primitive, having no modern conveniences. Each morning when the sun rose the family began their chores. The boy worked side by side with his father milking the cow, feeding the animals, and tilling the fields. As they worked, his father would make observations which drew the Jack's attention away from his thoughts and back to what was at hand. The father would comment on such things as the texture of the soil, the labor of an animal's breathing, and the color of the sky before it rains. The family worked steadily until dark when they went to bed.
The young lad hated this laborious lifestyle and continuously complained. He complained about having no household appliances, about having no modern farm equipment, about having no TV. But mainly he complained about having no clocks or calendars and no address for their homestead.
"How can you stand to live like this?" Jack would carp to his father.
"You don't know what month this is or day of the week. You don't know the time of day. You don't even know where you live!"
At this, the old man would simply smile and say, "The time is exactly right now and where I live is precisely right here."
The boy grew to be a young man and moved away. He found a good paying job which kept him traveling from place to place and he bought house at 31 Elm Street. He filled the house with clocks and calendars and TVs and every modern, time-saving device and appliance he could find. Jack maintained a tight schedule to keep up with when he was going to do this and where he was going to do that. He made deadlines for his work and for his personal life. He planned, juggled his agenda, then planned some more. But he found that, somehow, the more he tried to be in control of his time, the more time seemed to slip through his fingers. Years flew by.
One day a telegram from Jack's mother came informing him that his father was very ill and that Jack should return home immediately. Jack traveled the familiar dirt road to the old farm house and thought back on his days of working on the farm. When he entered the house, he found his father on his death bed. Jack wept as he thought of how the old man had wasted his entire life living on this shabby farm.
His father raised a feeble hand and patted Jack on the shoulder.
"Ask me the time, son," the old man whispered.
Jack said nothing.
"The time is exactly right now, and I'm right here in the midst of it. Come closer and I'll tell you a secret."
Jack leaned over, and his father continued, "Time is a joke man plays on himself. Whether you're running or standing still, living a lifetime or traveling to the moon, you're always right here, right now. You never move one inch nor one second away from this very moment." With that, the old man passed. Jack kissed his father's forehead and walked away. As he left the room, he slipped off his watch and dropped it in the trash can.
"Rusty, life is vast and open. Stop trying to reduce it to a package of answers and just be it," Shorty concludes.
I remain silent for a good while, considering his advice. We trudge up the trail. When my thoughts are collected, I turn and open my mouth to speak, but Shorty is gone! I look back to see him in the distance running and skipping down the grade. He whistles and clicks his heels singing,
"Row row row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily merrily merrily merrily
Wake up from your dream"
He gallops away. I shake my head, look again and he's gone from sight. Very unusual fellow. I return to my journey in solitude.
There is a magnificent water fall near the top of the incline. The sound of thousands of tons of water crashing down on itself fills the forest. As I come closer, I can see an icy mist created by the fall's violent movement. The air tastes wet and sweet. There is an overhanging rock creating a small shelter which overlooks the falls.
I collect wood, build a fire and set up camp in the shelter. Huge handfuls of cashews and dried apples with hot tea for lunch. At home I usually sit for meditation between fifteen minutes and half an hour. Today I won't limit my time. I take a seat on my bed roll and get comfortable. The sound of the falls helps clear my mind. Slow deep breaths. Wet and cold intermingle with warmth and smoke from the fire. I can't hear my heart or my breath, only the roar of water. Thoughts drift away with the sound. I visualize myself opening my hands and letting go. The world turns to white. Hours pass. Suddenly, the red tailed hawk lands in front of me, a field mouse is in his talons. To my shock, I see that he is standing beside my old bucket which is overflowing with water. The hawk mechanically tears away pieces of flesh from the mouse with his beak and swallows them down. He then perches on the side of the bucket, takes a sip, and stares at me with fierce yellow eyes.
I've read about this type of apparition. Zen masters call them makyo and consider them a distraction from true practice. Zen students are instructed to ignore the makyo and focus on their meditation. In Native American cultures, however, these visions are often considered spirit guides.
I believe hallucinations are a bleeding over from the unconscious mind. We generally have very little access to this part of ourselves except through dreams. I'm surprised that this situation is not alarming to me, but I don't feel at all threatened.
"Hello hawk," I say to the imaginary bird.
"Hello," the hawk answers with a harsh, screeching voice.
"Why did you kill the mouse?" I realize it’s a dumb question even as I ask it.
"I was hungry and I saw food," he answers flatly.
"Does it make you feel sad to kill something?"
"No," he explains. "You see, I'm not burdened by conceptual thought like you are. I'm a wild animal. I don't have concepts about the past, or the future, or life and death. I don't have a way of processing ideas about this mouse losing his life; or the impact his death will have on his family; or the fact that one day I will lose my own life. I act only on my natural impulses. My actions are like the movements of the tides, and the winds, and the planets. There is no morality in nature and no separation. It simply is as I simply am."
"What do you mean by no separation?" I ask.
"I have no concepts to separate me from my experience, from God. Your thoughts constantly come between you and your real life. My thoughts and my real life are simultaneous," the hawk grooms his feathers as he explains.
"You converse pretty well not to have conceptual thought," I say with a smile.
The hawk rolls his eyes.
"So, I have conceptual thought which separates me from my real life. Is that bad? What am I supposed to do about it?" I ask.
"What you have can be a blessing or a curse. You decide which and act accordingly."
With that the vision vanishes.
I continue to sit for many hours. The fire fades. Periodically, I feel myself integrate with the water, the rock, and the cold. No boundary line where I stop and the rest of the world begins. Before thoughts congeal, they are vaporized. Peace solidifies within me for minutes at a time. Eventually, my concentration weakens and I become tired.
I lay back on my sleeping bag and fall dead asleep.
I am in a green pasture with horses and flowers. The sky is blue and there is a warm, sweet breeze. I inhale and feel immersed in well-being. Turn around and see the bucket overflowing with water suspended in midair. The skinny jerk from the gas station is standing near in his bath robe shaving and rinsing his razor in the pouring water. The sight of him causes my anger to reemerge.
"What are you doing here?" I ask crossly.
"I'm here to help you," he says, calmly pulling the razor across his jaw.
"Help me what, learn about ass holes?" I ask sarcastically.
"In a way." He rinses the razor again, then continues, "I'm here to teach you about yourself."
I eye him with mistrust.
He smiles amused, "Rusty, each of us is born with a full range of human personality characteristics. For whatever reasons, life events, or genetics, or what have you, we choose at different times to express some of these and repress others. We are all made up of the same stuff. There is part of me in you and you in me. If you look hard enough, you can see it. "
"So when the situation calls for me to act like a jerk, I just express the characteristics that I share with you."
"Well, yes, depending on your perceptions. We all tend to act on our individual perceptions and there are as many different ways of perceiving as there are people." He rinses his razor.
"Are any of these perceptions right?" My anger begins to neutralize as I look to find myself in this guy.
"They all are. They are also all wrong. Its completely subjective." he wipes his face with a wash cloth.
"I'm sure there are some folks I couldn't see myself in," I say skeptically.
"Sure you could, but you have to let go of your own perceptions to do so. You can also find yourself in other things. Your physical body generates heat like the sun, and is made up of minerals and water like the earth. Your breath moves the air like the wind. Fluids move through your body like the tides. Your moods change like the seasons. It goes on and on." He is on a roll.
"I think you're carrying this a bit far. But it does make some sense." I step nearer to put my hand in the water, but the guy and bucket disappear. I lay back in the green field and stare up at the blue sky.
(End Dream Sequence)
When I wake up, my face is numb from the cold. Day light. Sit up and look out at the water fall. The sight and sound of it is spellbinding. I'm very hungry. Rekindle the fire and cook instant grits with a couple of snack packs of tuna. James Island food, anything and grits. It's warm and sustaining. The clouds have cleared some, so a little sun gets through. The forest is covered with a thick layer of snow. Everything looks clean and bright. My back and legs are stiff from sleeping on rock and sitting for so long yesterday. I walk over to the falls with a wash rag and clean up a little. The frigid wetness refreshes me. This is an enchanting place. Hard to leave.
I clean up the area and break camp. Strap on my pack and continue the journey. As I travel away from the falls, the world becomes quieter. The trail steepens. I appreciate my walking stick.
Gradually the trail becomes indistinct. Apparently, there must have been a severe storm in this area recently because downed trees are all over the place. The obstacles force me to navigate around through thick brush and undergrowth. As I cover more and more unfamiliar territory, a growing uneasiness settles in my stomach. I stumble to a lower elevation trying to pick up some semblance of the trail. The brush just gets thicker. Rubbery laurel branches swat my face and hang up on my pack. My boots wobble on rocks and roots as I batter my way through the brush. Heart rate and breathing pick up. Fragmented, fearful thoughts of being lost in the wilderness whiz through my mind. What if I can't find the trail again? What if I run out of food? What if I die out here?
I console myself with memories of other times when I successfully survived crisis on the trail.
"This sucks!" complained a pimply felon named Ed, one of twelve juvenile delinquent boys in our wilderness treatment group.
"Why don't you shut the Hell up, dork?" answered Jake, a serial pedophile with a mustache that looked like a smudge of dirt.
Ed walked over to Jake and stuck his bony chest out like a rooster. "Why don't you shut me up, you sick fuck?"
"Alright guys, that's enough!" Joey commanded sternly separating the boys. My cousin Joey, a green horn named Stephen, and I were the counselors/expedition leaders charged with rehabilitating these young thugs through the wholesome, responsible activities of trail survival.
"Gross! What in the hell is that stink?" a kid shouted. "Oh my God!"
"Jesus Christ!" other boys chimed in.
Apparently, Snowball, our pack lama, had eaten something that disagreed with him and was relieving himself of some very foul excrement. Within minutes the poor animal began to vomit violently bleating in misery and rolling his eyes. We called for the group to take off their packs and help unload the gear Snowball was carrying. Before this could be completed, the lama fell to his knees.
Stephen unexpectedly burst into tears. "Snowball is sick!" he cried, "He's gonna die!" Some of the teenagers started laughing, holding their noses and making the noises of flatulence and nausea.
"Quiet!" Joey's voice silenced the group, "Now this is what we're going to do, its getting dark anyway so we'll make camp here. I'll hike back to the nearest phone, contact a veterinarian and get advice on treating Snowball. I should be back by early morning. Rusty will be in charge of the camp and Stephen will look after Snowball." With that, Joey set off.
"Ok fellas, let's start setting up. Get to it," I instructed. The kids grumbled and continued to quietly cut up as they made camp.
Stephen seemed oblivious to the rest of us. "Snowball you're my friend," he sobbed convulsing over the lama's large frame, "Poor, poor Snowball. I love you Snowball. I love you." Tears poured down his face as he sniffled and whimpered, completely incapacitated with grief.
"I wuv you Snowball, " chided Jake in a mocking wail, "but you smell like shit!" Other boys laughed and joined in the taunting. "Oh Snowball, you're going to die! Boo hoo hoo! You are my friend! boo hoo hoo!"
"Just shut up and leave us alone! Shut up!" Stephen lashed out in tearful rage. "Its ok Snowball, they're just stupid."
With Joey gone, Stephen a basket case, twelve restless pubescent outlaws stirring up trouble at every opportunity, and one very sick pack animal, the evening went as one might expect. Total anarchy! Eventually, after many hours of fun and games, the group burned out and went to sleep.
The next morning I awoke to a shrill scream from Stephen, "Stop it! Stop it!" Snowball's carcass was buzzing with flies. Jake and a young skinhead named Roy, were sitting on a boulder a few feet away amusing themselves by throwing rocks at the corpse. "Look a here, I hit 'em in the eye!" Roy bragged. Jake gave him a high-five, before hurling a rock the size of a loaf of bread which connected with the animal's abdomen in a loud "thud." This sound seemed to drive the horrified Stephen over the edge into complete mental collapse. He just lay back against a tree with glazed eyes peering off into space. I felt sad about Snowball and I felt sorry for Stephen, but there was no time to grieve. I worked with the boys packing up gear and preparing to break camp.
Joey returned a while later holding up a big bottle of mineral oil, undoubtedly for Snowball.
"The vet said that mountain laurel and rhododendron are poisonous to lamas. Hell, there's practically nothing else growing along this trail. No wonder he got sick."
"Too late man," I said pointing to the deceased.
"Oh damn... Well, what's up with Stephen?" Joey nodded toward the bereaved's quivering form.
"Post-traumatic stress disorder?"
"Yea man, he is seriously traumatized."
"What are we going to do with him?"
"I don't know. What are we going to do with the lama?"
"We'll have to carry Snowball out of the woods. Park regulations won't allow us to bury him here."
So, we fashioned a long pole from the trunk of a small tree and tied Snowball's front legs to one end and hind legs to the other. With a man at each end of the pole bearing it on his shoulder, we took turns carrying the dangling pack animal back to the ranger station.
We arrived thirteen hours later a wretched, stinky, miserable cluster of unfortunates. Stephen, who had traveled a considerable distance behind our entourage in silence, never spoke another word to any of us. He simply walked to the parking lot, got into his car and drove away. Joey also resigned from the wilderness program that day and incidentally took a ten year hiatus from camping of any kind. For me, the trip marked my all-time worst backpacking experience, a yardstick against which I will forever compare any unpleasantness I have to deal with on the trail. I don't know if the adventure was of therapeutic benefit to any of the teenagers, but we all got a lesson in group suffering. Unfortunately, many of those kids had probably endured more horrific individual suffering in their own homes.
I take a rest leaning on a big boulder. I survey the area around me, below is a thicket and a stream, above and to the left I can see a fir tree with a blue spot of spray paint marking the trail. With a huge inner sigh of relief and a bit of self-reprimand for allowing myself to get flustered, I hike up and rejoin the path. I move along at a leisurely pace enjoying the surroundings.
There is a rustling sound in the woods. I stop and listen. Two does step out onto the trail and stop. They prick their ears and stare into my eyes. We stand motionless for long minutes. I try to look for myself in them. I try to experience the moment fully, without concepts. My self-consciousness spoils the attempt. The deer eventually re-enter the forest and travel away. Perceptions are difficult to separate from. I continue up the path.
Two loud blasts echo through the air! I look back to see the two deer charge back across the trail. One is injured. Her movements are wild and frantic. I drop my pack and run down through the brush. The fortunate animal continues her flight. The other crashes to the ground in an explosion of snow. Blood drains from shots to her neck and back. I carefully walk around her. Steam pipes from her nostrils in labored bursts. Her eyes are wild. I try to swallow my emotions as I watch her become still and quiet. I wait solemnly for a long time expecting the hunter to emerge from the woods, but he never comes. I can't imagine anyone venturing out this far away from everything to hunt.
I sit and contemplate the incident. Why was I here to witness it? I turn over questions about life and death in my mind until the absence of answers silences the questions. In the silence, understanding creeps in. I start to feel a connection to the doe and to the hunter who killed her. I hear the sound of water and look up.
"You are sad because her death is real to you." Betsy is in a white dress kneeling beside the deer. She immerses a cloth in the bucket of flowing water and washes the animal’s wounds.
"Of course it’s real to me. I watched her die. How could it not be real?" I resent Betsy's insensitivity.
"Reality is relative, Rusty." she explains, "It all depends on your perspective."
"What are you talking about?" I ask impatiently. When did Betsy get so philosophical anyway?
"Once there was a man who had been blind all his life due to severe cataracts. He found a doctor who said that he could operate and remove the cataracts and give the man sight for the first time in his life. The man was elated and underwent the surgery. When the bandages were removed from his eyes he could see! The doctor placed a cube and a sphere in front of him and asked if he could identify which object was which without touching them. What do you think happened?"
"He was obviously able to identify them," I say flatly.
"Your answer is obvious to you because you see the situation through the eyes of one who has always had sight.
"This man was unable to identify the objects. From the perspective of someone who has never had sight, there is no frame of reference for interpreting visual images. He would have to learn things that we take for granted. He would have to learn about angles, straight lines, curved lines, depth, shade, and how these concepts relate to the sense of sight. He would already know how these concepts relate to the sense of touch.
"When the man was allowed to touch the objects, he identified the cube and sphere without difficulty," Betsy patiently explains.
"Ok, I understand." I say, still a little confused, "But what does this have to do with reality and death?"
"For this man, the visual world was not real. It sprang into existence when his bandages were removed. If we had no eyes, visual concepts would not exist. We lend visual images reality when our brains interpret and give them meaning.
"If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, it does not make a sound. Sound is an interaction between a brain and an ear and vibrations in the atmosphere. All three must be present. No brain and ear, no sound. Sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch cannot exist independent of an experiencer. We are part of the definition of all of these phenomenon. We give reality to them and they reflect it back to us.
"We perceive the physical world as real, because we have eyes, ears, mouth, nose, skin and a brain to interpret it as real. We lend reality to everything we sense. If there were no one here to interpret it, the universe would not exist. There is no external reality apart from us. The existence of anything is relative to someone being there to experience it.
"Rusty, you have to stand in the shoes of the man who had never had sight in order to understand his reality. Now try to stand in the shoes of someone who has never had any of the five senses and tell me what your perceptions of the world would be," she prompts me in a teacherly voice.
I puzzle over it a minute.
"Nothingness. Not even any thoughts. Every thought we have originates as a means of explaining sensory experiences. Our thoughts just conceptualize our physical experiences. Without senses there could be no thoughts, no feelings, nothing. No experience," I say surprised at my own understanding.
"Right! Everything is relative to perspective. Everything and nothing are permanently fused together. They exist simultaneously. Just depends on your perspective as to which one you perceive. If you had taken a different trail, would this deer's death be real to you?" She smiles.
The doe jumps to her feet and gallops away. Betsy, the bucket and the deer tracks fade to snow.
"Wait! Where do I fit into this? What is the purpose for my perceptions? Where is the meaning?"
There are definitely parts of this trip I should keep to myself if I want to stay out of the state hospital. Hmm, everything and nothing are permanently fused together existing simultaneously. Betsy is delving in some heavy stuff. She must be one of very few existential Southern Baptists.
I pick up my stuff and head back up the incline. Hours pass as I hike and ponder bizarre recent events. The sun is shining and the snow is beginning to melt. The light is wonderful. Water drips from the trees and, occasionally, big hunks of slush drop from branches to the ground. The trail is muddy and wet. Little gullies trickle through the dirt and rocks. When the breeze is still I can feel the sun's warmth. The trail takes me up a ridge which leads to a huge, stone bald. The bald covers the top half of the mountain. A three hundred degree panorama is before me. The view is spectacular.
I take off my pack and sit in the sun. I allow my thoughts to drift away. Gradually, I reach equilibrium and my mind finds clarity.
David walks across the bald and stands in front of me. In his right hand, he is holding the bucket flowing over with water.
"In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God," he quotes.
"David, come on, not this again," I assert, becoming all too comfortable in conversing with visions.
"No. You don't understand. Think about it. In the beginning there was only God. Nothing else existed. Just God stretching out in every direction into infinity. Only one place and one substance,
God. Nothing that was not God. No space unoccupied by God.
"Try to create a visual image of this and tell me what you see," he instructs challengingly. Water pours continuously from the bucket to the rock.
"It looks like nothing. Just infinite space. Infinity."
"I'll refer to God as if God were a man for convenience, but gender and person don't really apply here. OK, now God creates the universe. From what does he make it?" David asks encouragingly.
"There is only one substance. He must create the universe of himself! The universe is composed of the substance of God," he explains answering his own question.
"Damn," I interject, astonished by David's logic.
"Now, where does God put the universe?" he asks.
"There's only one place. He must put the universe in the midst of himself!" I answer excited by my own comprehension.
"Yes. Now create a visual image of God and tell me what it looks like," he urges with great energy.
"The universe?" I'm catching on.
"Right, the universe occupies the same infinite space as God and is made of the substance of God. They are one in the same. Now tell me how many things are in existence?" David inquires knowingly.
"Basically, still just one. Everything is part of the wholeness of God." The tumblers in my brain fall into place.
"That's right. Everything and nothing are permanently fused together existing simultaneously. The product of this fusion is God.
"The universe is God. That means everything that occurs in the universe is a function of God. The movement of galaxies, the movement of atoms, the weather, the food chain, earth quakes, evolution, birth, death everything that happens is a function of God. Everything is part of the perfection of God," he explains with patient enthusiasm.
"How do you explain good and evil?" I am hoping for continued clarity.
"You may conceptualize the universe as pairs of opposites such as everything and nothing, matter and energy, dark and light, form and substance, life and death, or good and evil. But ultimately the pairs must blend together into oneness. No matter how you choose to break everything down, whether it is by galaxies, solar systems, molecules, or atoms, every particle and absence of particle is God. Every movement is God.
"For the sake of argument we can call God good. But since there is nothing against which to compare God, the concepts of good and evil can't really take root. Because God is the only thing in existence, there is nothing against which he could be good or evil. God just is. Anyway, we will say that God is good. If we agree on this, then everything in the universe must also be good because God and the universe are one," he says calmly.
"What about serial murderers and child molesters? Are you saying these people are not committing evil acts?" I ask. It will take some serious mental stretching for me to change my perspective and let go of my belief in good and evil.
"What separates you from your real life?" he answers with a question.
"Well, if you believe what hawks have to say on the subject, which would be conceptual thought," I smile.
"That's right and there is a master concept that houses all the others," he states.
"Your concept of self. This concept causes you to believe that you are separate and unique from God, from the Universe. Because you believe in the self you expend most of your energy protecting, pleasing, improving, and providing for your self. Self is self-perpetuating. By its very nature self is also self-ish. Self prevents you from realizing your intrinsic connectedness with the universe and with your own true nature."
"So you're saying that when you act on this false belief in self, you are being evil and separating yourself from God?"
"No. Regardless of what you do, your actions are always a function of God. They could not be otherwise. Self and all concepts are illusory. When you act on your belief in self, you simply act in ignorance and rob yourself of experiencing your real life and who you really are. Good and evil have nothing to do with it.
"The natural behavior that arises when you extinguish your concept of self, tends to be behavior which is self-less. Selfless behavior is neither good nor evil; it is simply what naturally occurs. When you know that your true self extends to everyone and everything in the universe, how could you commit an act that harms another? Knowing who you really are results in sympathy and benevolence toward those who do not have this knowledge," he explains.
"Sympathy and benevolence is what spiritual leaders have taught throughout history. Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, and Gandhi all demonstrated these qualities," I interject, feeling the impact of what I'm learning.
"Imagine that," David says with a smile, "You want to know who you are. You want to know your meaning. The answers are simple. Who you are now, who you were before you were born, and who you will be after you die are all the same. You are always everything, an expression of God. You never deviate from wholeness. Meaning is living in this knowledge." he says.
I stare with my mouth open, dumbfounded by this revelation.
An ocean of understanding crystallizes within me.
"David, how can I live in this knowledge? How can I keep it real to me?" I ask.
"Practice, Rusty. Practice seeing yourself in everything. Practice letting go. Practice being in the moment. Life is already perfect and whole; it requires nothing from you. Be everything. Use meditation, prayer, flexibility, and patience as your tools.
"Part of you has always known the truth. Where do you think I came from?"
David raises the bucket up and abruptly dumps it on me.
The universe is suddenly bathed in light. It radiates though every cell in my body. Its brilliance permeates the essence of all things. The light fills me and empties me as I merge into one and into none. Without a thought, I understand. I understand completely and totally. The experience transcends thought and emotion exposing these as impotent clutter. I expand into infinity. One with God. No self. No separation. My breath blows across time and space, moving the planets around the sun and the galaxy around its center. My eyes are the stars beaming power and light for millennia. My heart beats life and energy through the universe. Simplicity and perfect wholeness. An eternity passes...
The light dissipates instantly, as though someone flipped on and off a switch. I look around dazed by the incident. I don't know how much time has passed. I view the mountains and valleys before me and take a deep breath. The experience seems more acute. The air feels crisper, the visual images more defined. I stand and stretch appreciating every nuance of touch and sound and sight and smell. I open my pack and eat the remainder of my food. Delicious. Each breath I take further magnifies my love for the miracle of being alive. Pack up my gear and set off to finish the last few miles of trail between me and the Buick.
The snow is gone and the sky is clear. Bright sunshine floods in stirring thoughts of spring. As I scan the stark scenes around me, I can sense the green within patiently waiting to come forth. I imagine thousands of years of nature's cycle in these mountains from gray, to green, to red and gold, and back again. Perfection. My heart feels light. For the first time since I can remember, that ever present fear in the back of my mind is quiet. I travel the last leg or my journey in peaceful silence.
I arrive at the parking lot and unload my stuff into the trunk. Get in the car and turn the switch. Cranks easily and chugs as it idles. In a few hours I'll be back with my family. I can get a hot shower and a hot meal. I look up to see Shorty sitting on the hood of the car! He hops down, steps near me, and stares into eyes which mirror his own. He tilts his head, smiles slightly, and nods understandingly, as though I had told him every detail of my unusual journey.
Finally, he speaks, "Before we part company for good, I'd like to share with you a bed time tale that you can tell your children tonight."
I smile and gesture for him to proceed.
"Once upon a time, water vapors rose up from the ocean and collected in the air creating a cloud. Droplets of water formed within the cloud and rained down into the sea.
The rain drops were very afraid of the ocean..."
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