Wednesday, March 22, 2017

QUESTIONS & ANSWERS

I think a thousand thoughts 
What ifs and if onlys?
I do not speak them
fearing the answers

Words have power to bring things into being

Do you believe it?
Then why are you silent, dear one?
Have you no thoughts?
Who silenced you?

I went to a meadow of tall grass and whispered
a prayer, a wish, a memory, a dream
The doves called—one to another

As the sun rose above the purple hills
I thought I heard you answer

But it was just the wind.

DITTY

Where will you lay your head?
Down in the meadow where the wood thrush sings
Where will you leave your heart?
In the high tower where the church bell rings
What will you leave behind?
Loaves and fishes for hungry poor
Where will you sail your ship?

Far away to a starry shore.

Monday, March 6, 2017

BOOK OF HOURS

The sign caught her eye. It was round and gleaming, reflecting the afternoon sun: TIME & TIDE ANTIQUE CLOCKS printed in black letters on an image of a white clock face with Roman numerals. She noticed there were no hands on the clock. Although the shop had been on the outskirts of town forever, she never really took notice of it in the same way she did on this day. She felt compelled to turn at the entrance next to the sign.
     Helen had driven two hours since leaving the airport.  She had been twenty years away from the sounds and sights of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Familiar to her, but in a dreamlike way, were the horse and buggies clopping along the roads, the makeshift farm stands with bins of pumpkins and squash and adorned with tines buckets of bright zinnias. Modest young girls in plain gingham dresses stood behind jars of relish and jam. She stopped along the roadside to buy a bunch of those zinnias to take to her mother. The sullen girl handed her the flowers and counted out change from a Ball jar and returned dutifully to her post without making eye contact. 
  She had forgotten how the sweeping fields of sunflowers turned their brown eyes to follow the sun’s arc through the sky. The variegated patches of fields stretched like a giant quilt over the rolling landscape toward the misty blue hills beyond. For all the quaint appeal and simple beauty, she felt she had been washed ashore on a lonely island as a stranger. She was not ready to come face to face with the past or the future.
  When she got the letter that her mother was dying she had to come, wanted to come. During all those years away, she had never thought to return, but here she was. It had never felt like home—why she never knew. She found her real home in the Mediterranean—bathed in light and warmth, wrapped in blue sea and sky. She would carry something of it with her into the cold winter ahead, which held the unwelcome promise grief. There would be this time with her mother before it was too late.  Time was of the essence; this she knew.
  Still she was drawn to make this one stop before going the short distance to that bleak farm house.
She drove slowly down the long drive, past an old white-washed mansion: the  ornate black iron fence, the brick walkway lined with hedge rows, lush shrubs and Victorian lamplights all seemed out of place. The elegance of the stately house gratified her finer sensibilities, distracting her from the otherwise austere landscape and plain houses surrounding it.
Ahead she spotted the long, grey building and parked in front of it, assuming it was the shop, though she saw no sign or markings on it. When she pulled open the high, church-like door and stepped inside, her eyes tried to focus in what at first seemed total darkness, having come out of the brilliant daylight. Soon, she saw small shafts of light entering from rows of narrow windows along the top of the walls, shedding a misty kind of light on the ticking clocks below. Such an odd place, she thought, as her eyes adjusted to take in the sight of hundreds of clocks on multi-leveled shelves set on long tables. Amid the odor of old wood and dampness, she saw no one, not even at the island desk far ahead that seemed to mark the middle of the gaunt space.
She walked an unhurried pace along the main aisle, then through several side aisles, taking in the vast array of clocks standing like old soldiers at attention, waiting to be inspected. She stopped here and there to admire the shapes and designs of the colorful ceramic clocks with their scenes of farmhouses and gardens. She shuddered at the sombre black cases of others. She smiled at the clock with the white marble base on which a brass horse and hound stood to one side, and on the other side, a bright yellow clock face covered with a glass dome.
Who had owned these clocks? Where had they been? What had they seen? She wondered. Where were the souls who had lived by the dictates of their ringing reminders of passing time and how did they live?
She was startled to hear a thin voice. “Can I help you?”
It had been a long time since she heard that unmistakable singsongy Pennsylvania Dutch intonation. She looked up to see the old man standing next to her.
“Oh, thanks, but…no, no, I just stopped in to see what you have. I grew up in this town, but I’d never been to your shop.”
“Oh, it’s not my shop. It’s my father’s.”
Your father’s, she thought, but whispered anOh? certain that his father could not possibly still be alive. The man was old and bent over, with grey, wispy hair, and eyes clouded over with a bluish film.
“You let me know if you have any questions, young lady.”
“I will for sure. Thank you.”
“Marchenmeister.”
“Excuse me?”
"Marchenmeister, I am Earl Marchenmeister, Jr.”
“Oh, right…yes, well, thank you, Earl. I think I’ll just take a quick look around if it’s okay.”
“Yep, I’ll be at the desk there,” pointing to it as he padded back to it. She watched as he made his way until he reached the dark wooden desk—an island in a sea of clocks. He sat himself down with some effort.
What a strange man! She imagined that over the years he had worked on and cared for each timepiece—maybe recognized their individual chimes and that he was the one who knew where they had been, who had owned them, and maybe even the fate of their owners. I’m being ridiculous; he’s just an old-fashioned man who’s been doing this all his life. He probably inherited the place and still thinks of it as his father’s who’s been long gone. I wonder if he has a son who will inherit the shop when time runs out for him. Now, why do I care? What does it matter? No matter!
Then she saw it: a clock exactly like the one in her island apartment on Lipari. It was elegant with a reddish wooden case embellished with gold leaf designs. On the glass door beneath the face was an image of the church of Santa Croce painted in thin golden lines, with the pendulum peeking through. The hands were silver filigree with a flowery red line around the perimeter above the hours on the ivory clock face.
I cannot believe this! 
 
     She had first settled in Florence, across from Piazza di Santa Croce on via di san Giuseppe. Later, she moved to the Island off Sicily.  She thought it a coincidence when she saw the clock on the mantel above the fireplace in her little sitting room. When it chimed, she sometimes closed her eyes and felt she was back in Florence with her lover lying beside her, warm on the daybed by the fire with his kind and shining eyes looking upon her—the smell of espresso and wood fire smoke drifting in the side window and all the city’s church bells resounding through the room. 
A bit disoriented, she crossed the aisle to gaze at the clock in reverie, for how long she couldn’t be sure. Thoughts of her Mediterranean home warmed her in the cold space where she stood. She had been a wayfarer ever since she could remember—first in thought then in her wanderings. For years she traveled the Greek islands, spent a year Florence until she finally settled on Lipari. Its grandeur still surprised her each day. Has it been twenty years now? Vaguely, lines from a long-forgotten poem came to her—something about two paths diverging and “how way leads on to way” and doubts about ever coming back—back to here, back to there?
She turned to make her way to where the old man sat, dozing with his arms folded across his chest. “Excuse me…excuse me, Earl,” she whispered, so as not to wake him too abruptly.
He opened his eyes and looked up, “You want to know something about one of my clocks?”
  “Yes, I guess…I mean, I saw a beautiful Italian clock down the aisle there. At least I think it’s Italian. I had one exactly like it. I mean… it wasn’t mine. It was there in my apartment…in Italy when I moved in.”
“This is one of a kind, Miss. There are no others,” the old man said, as they walked together to where the clock rested. As soon as they stopped in front of it just on the hour, all the clocks began a fugue of chimes and bells, so neither of them could speak until the ringing played out and faded into uneven ticking.
“This is a special one, Miss.” 
“Helen…my name is Helen. One of a kind? But it’s exactly like the one I….How long have you had this clock?”
“Oh, this one’s been here a long time, maybe waiting for you, no? 
“Can you tell me about this special one?”
“The clocks will tell you about themselves.”
“What do you mean? How do you mean tell about themselves?”
“When you have the clocks around and you love them, you hear what they know.”
“Well, then you must know what this clock has to say, right?”
“I do, but it’s different for different people. Yep, different, Miss Helen.”
“Really? That's very strange,” she said. 
Earl turned from the the clock to Helen again, “Yep, different for different people, but not so strange. You will see.”
"See?" I’m feeling a little strange myself, realizing he was not going to tell her a thing about the clock. “I will think about it, thanks. It’s lovely, but I should be going now.” She thanked the old man again, but was looking longingly at the clock. She turned toward the door feeling the need to get into the fresh air. As she moved away from the clock, she felt she was abandoning it, silencing it somehow.
“Aren’t you going to take it with you?” he called after her, the last syllable rising in his raspy voice. “It will have things to tell you.”
She did not look back. Who is that man, some kind of Gepetto of clocks? She laughed as she picked up her pace nearing the entrance. She pushed hard on the heavy door, expecting a burst of light. Outside, the sun was already low in the sky and at the horizon when she arrived at her mother’s house. 
The Hospice nurse answered the door, holding out her hand in greeting. “Helen? Nice to meet you. How was your trip?” 
“Oh, good, yes…good, thanks.  Nice to finally meet you, Mary. How is she?” 
“She was very restless today. I wanted to wait until you got here. She’s asleep now. She’s had her meds. I told her you would be here when she woke up; that made her smile.”
“Thanks, Mary, for keeping in touch and for all you’ve done. Do you think I could wake her? I should have gotten here sooner, but…”
“No worries, really, but I know she is looking forward to welcoming you home. She’s just had some morphine, so she may not rouse, but you can try.” Mary showed Helen how to administer the morphine for anxiety or pain and how to set up the nebulizer. “I’ll be back day after tomorrow, but now you call me if you have any questions, will you?”
“Yes, will do.” Helen walked with Mary to the door and thanked her again, “Good night.”
“Good night, Helen, and welcome home.”
Home. Walking back through the entrance hall, she looked around. Nothing has changed. She went to the kitchen, put the flowers in an old jar she found on the window sill, then took the gift she had brought for her mother out of her bag. She entered the quiet room where her mother lay. So thin and frail, oh, Mother, I should have come sooner. She placed the flowers on the bedside table, leaning over to put her hand on the slender arm and taking up the blue-veined hand in her own, she quietly murmured,
       “Mom… Mom, it’s me. It’s Helen. I’m here now.” 
“Helen?“
  “I’m here now.” 
“I’ve been waiting.” Her eyes drifted to the ceiling, fluttered a moment and closed again.
  “I know…I know, Mom. Look, I brought you something.” 
She placed the gift under the lamp on the dresser across from the bed, so her mother could see it: a mosaic tile on a stand with a scene of Lipari in the sea. Vibrant colors of red tiled roofs, golden bell towers and tall green cedars on the azure hills shone under the lamplight. 
“Look, Mother, isn’t it lovely?”
  The old woman opened her eyes and looked at the tile for a long time. She smiled, “Bring it closer to me,” closing her eyes, as if exhausted from the effort. Her voice drifted off in a whisper as Helen picked up the tile and set it on the table next to the flowers. She sat at the bedside gazing at the slight figure, holding on to the limp hand of the woman who had been so strong, so severe, so demanding.  She did the best she could. That’s all anyone can ask, isn’t it? The weight of an apprehension of grief about to descend, she went into the hall, picked up her bag, and went to the little room at the top of the stairs.
She was taken aback, but not entirely surprised to see that, there too, everything was as it had been when she had left at age nineteen: high school banner above the mirror, jewelry box on the dresser, faded pictures of Einstein and Leonard Cohen on the cork board over the white and gold provincial desk, her bed under the dormer, still covered with the quilt her mother had made for her sixteenth birthday. She took down the board, slid it behind the dresser and stuffed everything else into one of its empty drawers.
She switched on the lamp in the shape of a sunflower, hoping its warm light would fill the dreary room and the empty feeling within. From her bag, she took a small embroidered pillow, a silk melon flower and a book of hours she always carried with her. Though she was not religious, she often opened it and read the designated prayers when the bells rang out, as they did across every Italian town and village. She took the book to the window, opened the sash and read the prayer for vespers into the silence, with the moon rising above the darkening fields below, and cried.
  When she finally lay on the bed, her thoughts turned to the clock shop, imagining everything had disappeared when she left: the stately house, the warehouse full of clocks and the odd figure of a man inside. She smiled at her imaginings and at the old man’s claim that the clocks stood ready to tell what they “know.” She did feel that, at least, the Italian clock would remind her of her island home, and though she could not believe the clock would tell her anything, she didn’t entirely disbelieve it either.
She dozed off and on throughout the night, getting up several times to check on her mother, but was in a deep sleep when she heard the sound of coughing early in the morning. She bolted out of bed and down the stairs.
     “Mother, I am here,” leaning down to kiss the old woman’s cheek, she again took her hand. The coughing was so intense and lasted so long that it frightened her. She went for the morphine, took some up in the dropper, opened her mother’s lips with one hand and with the other emptied the few drops onto her tongue. The coughing subsided; the old woman opened her eyes and seemed to focus on the mosaic tile and the bright zinnias. She looked at her daughter and smiled again,  “Helen?”
“I’ll get some water for you and get you started on your nebulizer treatment. I came in last night, Mom, do you remember? Mary told me you’re doing well,” Helen lied, “and what I needed to do to take care of you. Here, let me fluff your pillow.” She straightened the sheets and set up the nebulizer. “I’m going to make you some hot tea and toast.”
When Helen got back with a tea tray, she removed the inhaler. Her mother turned her head, opened one eye and tried to form words. Helen heard them only as unintelligible whispers. “What are you saying, Mom?” Again, she heard only whispered sounds. On the third attempt to interpret her mother’s wish to be heard, she whispered back, “I love you too, Mom,” choosing to believe her mother’s words had been, “I love you.” She sensed the old woman drifting off to somewhere further away than sleep, her breathing becoming a watery sound.
  She took the tray into the kitchen and returned to hear the breathing had become a loud gurgling. A call to Mary confirmed it, “It may be the dying process has begun,” she had said.
    Dying process…no! She did not want to believe the hour had come. This is what I came for, but not so soon, not already. Mary offered to come over, but Helen refused.
She thought if they had more time together, her mother would have said, “I missed you, Helen,” and asked, “Why did you stay away so long?” She remembered hoping on the plane that they would not have the familiar conversation again, but now she wished they had been able to talk about it—or about anything.
“I told you before, Mom,” she would have said. “I…I just found a home in Italy, and my work is there.” Was there. Even if I go back, I have nothing to write, nothing to say. She felt her inspiration had gone, with no idea how to get it back. She thought of what she had once heard a successful novelist  say, “I have a million stories in my head, and will never have time to write them all.”
Helen had not one, and felt she never would again.
All through the day she read prayers and verses to her mother at the appointed hours from her book—to the sound of that breathing she knew she would never forget for the rest of her days. She would also remember how her mother’s smiled when she saw the gift of the mosaic tile. Helen thought of it as both a welcome home and a blessing on the life she had chosen, if not forgiveness for having left her mother alone.

     During Vespers, the breathing faded into silence as Helen read:
What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he      lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbors, saying unto them: Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.
   
    Phone calls were made, a funeral arranged, a memorial service planned, a burial endured. Then there were the legal and financial obligations—and the emotional days of sorting through the things in the house and the things in her heart. There were the family papers, the little mementos her mother held dear: a ceramic rose candy dish, a glittery angel, which had never meant anything to Helen—until now. There were pictures, cards and letters she had sent to her mother over the years. She thought of the ritual she had read of in a poem,“…the sweeping up the heart and putting love away, we shall not want to use again until eternity.” She burned them all in the fireplace and prayed in her own way that any resentment remaining in the house over those many years would go up with the smoke into the clean, cold air above.
Helen was alone with her memories of her early years, of her mother’s love and loneliness. She tried not to think about the looming fear that her creativity was gone forever—that which had always sustained her and kept her from despair. The following weeks were spent in that room at the top of the stairs—in the house she thought she had escaped, amid those Lancaster County fields under the grey skies of approaching winter, an ocean away from the light and blue. 

When Helen returned to the clock shop months later, she walked the long aisles, stopping at the spot where she thought she had seen the Italianate clock. It was not there. She walked half the length of the shop to the little island desk, expecting to find the strange little old man napping. Oh, it’s here! At the counter behind the desk was the clock with its pendulum gently keeping time. A calm came over her and, at the same time, a feeling as if awakening from a long sleep.
Seemingly out of nowhere, came a voice, “You’ve come for your clock, then,” more a statement than a question. “It’s ready to go.” When she turned toward the voice, she saw, not the old man but a younger one about her own age. He did not look like he belonged in what she had since thought of as a fairy tale of a magic shop.
Oh, yes…actually I did come to see if the clock was still here, but where is the old man, Earl? How did he…how did you know I’d be back?”
“I’m Earl, Earl, Jr. It’s just me now. My father died a few years ago. I am trying to keep it all going, but there isn’t much interest or sales these days.” He went behind the counter and gently put the clock into a box. “This is a special one.“
A few years ago?  No….it was just….Helen felt as though she would melt away—light-headed and confused—the tranquility she had at first felt dissolved all in that instant.
     “What…I mean, when I was in here before the old man told me about this clock. I can see how he thought I might be back for it, but I don’t understand…that was only a few months ago.”
The young man smiled, “That was me, Miss…Helen, right? You spoke to me that day. We talked about the clock, and I knew you would be back because you loved it.
Well, no matter! Here you are now, and you will have what you came for.” 
     No matter? “Am I dreaming or what? It was not you…it was…the old man. He said it was his father’s shop…and…”
“We are all dreaming, no?” he interrupted.
“Yes…no, not now, but…I…”
She noticed the man did not have the local accent as the old man had. She felt very drawn to him and stood for a moment, their eyes meeting. It’s all strange…everything, but in a way familiar. All seemed familiar now, his smile, his kind and shining eyes and the clock. She said nothing, not even a “thank you” or a “good bye.” She picked up the box and felt again as she had when she first came here—which felt like a lifetime ago— to this dimension or whatever it was—and imagined the shop would disappear into thin air the moment it was out of her sight.
She held the box close to her and slowly walked away and out into the overcast day, into that silent stillness before a snow. 
 
     She placed the clock above the fireplace in the front sitting room. It was beautiful. She ran her fingers over the case, touching the glass gently, but she would not set it into motion just yet. She had moved her bed and few belongings to this room, where the southern exposure allowed the light to linger most of day—so short were the days now in winter. Here she spent all of them in reverie, not even thinking of what she would do, where she would go—back or forward. She didn’t know, but for now she had the company of the silent clock.
     On the threshold of spring, she awoke as if she were preparing to sail out on a faraway adventure. She took the key, wound the clock and set the pendulum into motion. She took her book of hours from the place it had remained since the night her mother died. In the following days, when the clock chimed, she read the designated prayers in the hours of daylight, and sometimes the hours through the night. After a time, she would begin to drift into another place, another time, another world—a place that was not a place—a time that was not a time. 
In this realm she existed, waiting in silence and at peace until all manner of dark and light beings began to flash and flutter before her—some in images like holographs, their voices heard in whispers and secret thoughts. When they came, they came like a swift, incoming tide, surreal, filled with beauty and sadness, old regrets and new life—all muddled and intertwined as in a dream. Were they ghosts lost in time—the tales of those who had once owned the clock? Were they conjured out of her own imagination? Or did they truly emanate from timeless sprits—the minds of men and women who, like the Greek hero Odysseus, had found within themselves ways of contending with the trials they encountered—wandering on their way home— to the place of rest?
     There was the image of a man coming back to the childhood home he had abandoned to tell of his wanderings to an empty room, and the voice of a woman obsessed with the beauty and peace of the starry sky then brought back to earth through the suffering of others. There was a shadow of an enlightened soul who became a truer form of herself. She heard a mother grieving for her lost son on sacred ground, and a husband left alone to endure the memory of all that was lost to him. She felt the confusion of a young actress who was “tricked by flying too close to the thing she thought she loved.” There thought the thoughts of a therapist whose saintly lover left her a gift. There was a vision of a teacher whose broken, irreparable things became her strength.
  Were they ghosts lost in time—the tales of those who had once owned the clock? Were they conjured out of her own imagination? Or did they truly emanate from timeless sprits—the minds of men and women who, like the Greek hero Odysseus, had found within themselves ways of contending with the trials they encountered—wandering on their way home— to the place of rest?
  Not each day, nor all at once, but over the course of the following year, she saw them, heard them, felt she had become them. She understood them, loved them. She dreamed their dreams and was in the dreams—hundreds of them, maybe enough to last a lifetime.
She would speak as them and for them.

When Helen returned to her azure island home, she was at peace, coming to rest through the weight of her love for the beings and the truth of the stories she had inside her now. She sat by a window from which she could again look upon the turquoise sea and began to write them down one by one.
Epilogue 

Two Years Later
     When Helen completed her first collection of tales, The Book of Hours—each one a prayer, she felt she had set the beings free, had given them voice. There were many more waiting to be heard—that she was sure of. It was not lost on her that the beings and their tales had found her—and not in her island home, but across the ocean in a house that was not her home, in a town devoid of the kind of beauty that had become part of her, in a place she had not loved as she loved Lipari. 
     Yet, it was there they had found her.
Or had she found them? No matter! 
She held the book lovingly in her hands, opened it and wrote a note of greeting and gratitude to Earl Marchenmeister, Jr., carefully wrapped it and sent it off to Time & Tide Antique Clocks. She was not surprised when it was returned to her “Address Unknown.”

Monday, December 26, 2016

Broken Beads Blue Sky

The beads had broken and scattered. Ann Marie stooped to gather them as they rolled over the backstage floor. They had been her mother’s—four strands, with a tiny crystal between each rose-colored iridescent bead, and a silver filigree clasp. She remembered gazing at them, touching them, rolling them over in her small fingers, as she sat on her mother’s lap. That was so many years ago.
When she was 21, her mother said, “Don’t marry that man,” but she did. On her wedding day, only a few months after her mother had died from an aggressive cancer, Ann Marie had begged her father, “Don’t let that woman sit next to you where Mom was supposed to be,” but he did.
  On her honeymoon, under a clear blue sky on Wingaersheek Beach, she lay on her tie-dyed shawl. She called to her husband as he walked along the waves. “Don’t be long,” but he was. She waited until the sun was going down—alone, with wind off the ocean chilling her to the bone. The once-clear blue sky looked more like her transparent shawl, now wrapped around her shoulders—fading blue, streaked with gray and yellow, which made her cry.
Since then, he had been “disappearing,” leaving her to wonder and worry: Where does he go? How long will it be until he returns? Does he even realize he is missed, or even that he is expected back at all? Doesn’t he remember that he intended to finish fixing the door today, that he was supposed to meet me for lunch, that he is going to miss dinner with the family—again? Whenever she tried to figure out the how and why of it all, her thoughts raced to a vanishing point, and she told herself it really didn’t matter after all.
What worried her most was her husband's dental patients showing up for their appointments when, more often than not, he wasn’t there to receive them. One day the few remaining appointments were cancelled, and he “retired” from a dwindling career. Later they learned there was very good reason for her husband’s scattered, seemingly inconsiderate antics. Finding the reason did not change things much, even with medication and therapy. It only remained for her to adjust to the new reality; It could not be helped; it could not be fixed. Then came the struggle to transform denial into acceptance, impatience into tolerant, and resentment into understanding—the contraries!
Sometimes life’s problems are irresolvable in the end.
These were the random thoughts that arose in her as she carefully searched for and collected each scattered bead. She would have it repaired, put the beads back on their strands and it would be like new. What was wrong with that girl anyway, pulling it off like that? Ann Marie had brought in some of her mother’s jewelry for the carefree, high school girls to wear in their roles as aristocratic, Victorian ladies: the beads, broaches and earrings. One of the girls carelessly tugged at those strands of memories, sending them into the shadows behind the stage curtains.
     She liked finding use for items she had salvaged from her childhood home in a forlorn, upstate New York town. Besides the jewelry, she had a yellow Bakelite clock in the shape of a teapot hanging above her stove, ruby red wine glasses, a set of dishes, hand-painted Italian bowls kept in the glass cabinet in the dining room. Most cherished were old letters and cards she had found in her mother’s desk after the funeral. All were touchable memories to take in her hand, hold to her heart, and take some comfort in when she could not be accepting, tolerant or understanding.
     Driving home this night, she kept thinking, Things are breaking, coming apart, irreparable. That very morning, as she dressed for the long day, she had brushed against the small plate hanging on the wall—the one her mother had given her before entering the hospital for the last time. On the sky-blue and white memento, written in silvery script was: “Baby Ann Marie, born November 10, 1964, 7 pounds 4 ounces.” She left it shattered on the floor.
Almost home now, she loosened her fingers on the wheel as she drove down the tree-lined street. She recalled that sense of freedom she once had felt, driving along the Massachusetts Turnpike to her uncharted life—to all that was still ahead her, singing to herself, “Boston, you’re my home.” Later, she found herself having to get away from her new home when, one too many times, her husband didn’t show up for dinner, or she had to make excuses to angry patients, or he had forgotten to call for heating oil, and she came home to a frigid house. Then there were those maddening, one-sided conversations—he constantly interrupting her with unrelated questions and non-sequitur comments, until she had to laugh or go insane. Who am I living with anyway, Salvatore Dali? She usually laughed, but when she could not, it was time to flee.
She would pack up the car and head west with her two small children to visit her father, but that also meant she had to tolerate the woman he married—the one who had seen fit without consideration to take her “rightful” place as new wife next to Anne Marie’s father in the church pew—the one who ever-after resented the futile request of the motherless bride.
Once, during one of those spontaneous trips, that awful woman had told Ann Marie she was selfish and disrespectful when Ann Marie had simply said, “I’d like the children to eat before Dad gets home from work. They usually are in bed before 7:00, and it’s been a long day with the drive and all.”
“Well, your father won’t be here ’til 8:30, so they will just have to wait. It won’t kill them to not get their way for once.”
Ann Marie had already laid a crisp white cloth, as her mother always had and begun to set the table with the china she found pushed to the back of the cabinet. It was the set her mother had used for family meals—pure white plates with a border of green ivy. “I don’t think he would mind if the children ate early, Charlotte,” she tried to reason. She called the children to come to the table, but before she had the words out, there was a sharp sting of Charlotte’s hand across her cheek.
“You never could show respect. Well, you don’t get your selfish way around here anymore.”
Ann Marie dropped the plate she was holding, put her hand up to her face and blinked back the hot tears welling up, so the children wouldn’t see, but they heard Charlotte’s harsh words. They saw the plate broken and their mother reaching down to pick up the pieces.
Charlotte pulled the shards out of Ann Marie’s hands and tossed them into the trash can. She went to the cabinet, took out the rest of the china set and threw it away too. “I’ve been meaning to throw those old things out for the longest time.” Then she returned to the cabinet and handed Ann Marie a set of drab brown plates and pointed to mismatched glasses on the shelf: a Coke glass, one with Peter Pan and the Darling children flying away, and three with painted watermelon slices. “Now, finish the job, and we’ll wait for your father to come home!”
Ann Marie mechanically made her way around the table with dishes and glasses. She took solace in thinking of her mother’s thin-stemmed, ruby-red glasses on the shelf in her own kitchen. Can people be replaced like broken china? After everyone was asleep, Ann Marie took the plates out of the trash and put them in her suitcase, intending to fix the broken one when she got home. She loved her father deeply, despite his betrayal and “o’er hasty marriage” where,” the funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables,” the lines she had quoted from Hamlet to her husband on the day of her father’s “unholy union” with that woman.
Those thoughts lingered as she parked the car, and she shuddered at the memory of that incident. Hurtful as it was, she also remembered her that when her did get back that evening. He smiled and hugged her and said he was glad she had “come home.” It never felt like home again without her mother. Home, home, is it a place or a feeling?

She was glad it was day’s end. She gathered up the bags in the back seat and looked up the front steps with a sigh The chestnut tree at the curb’s edge rustled its leaves—a welcome in the balmy night air. She was worn out and on edge, she felt one weight had lifted with her director duties over for the year, and with much effort she made the steps to the front door, then up the staircase to the second floor landing. She stood facing two doors, one to the living room, the other to the abandoned dental office. The-antiquated equipment loomed inside, the streetlights casting dark reflections of branches and leaves dancing on the ceiling and walls, like a crazy light show in the useless room.
She pushed open the other door with her foot and dropped the plastic bags containing a plaid smoking jacket, a blue chiffon dress, brown suede heels, a silver cigarette case, a blonde wig, a straw handbag, a bunch of yellow paper roses, a wooden box with jewelry and a pink satin bag containing the broken beads.
She had intended to go straight to bed, but the sofa looked inviting, and besides, she was too tired to walk the extra few feet. She flopped down, grabbed the remote and found an old movie. Staring at the TV screen, her mind drifted to what her friend had said when they met the week before to walk on the beach at Nahant, the tide rolling in over the narrow shore.
On the worst day of Ann Marie’s life, her friend had said, “If we could see things from the highest perspective, it would all be good.” It was thoughtless and rude of her to say that. Hadn’t she just heard the bad news Ann Marie brought from her doctor’s office? For many years, the women had confided in each other, pondering whether life had any meaning, and, if so, what could it be? Then they would look at each other and say, “It is what it is; it will be what it will be.” But now it was all different. She knew what was to be.
They had read about karma and considered it a more sensible alternative to heaven/hell, or nothingness. They neither entirely believed, nor disbelieved that humans chose the circumstances of their existence before birth—ones that would provide the context to live out their karma. They agreed that everyone appeared to have an identifiable life theme with recurring questions, challenges, and an individual destiny, but also there were choices to be made, hopefully informed by increasing self-knowledge.
Still, Ann Marie thought for her to have suggested there was anything was good about her diagnosis was just wrong. Is this my destiny? Did I choose it? Can I change it, fix it, get well? She didn’t know what to believe. 
Is the highest perspective heaven? And why do I have to sink so low to get there? As thoughts crowded in, she looked around at the cluttered room.
Her husband shuffled in and stood in front of her. He hardly ever greeted her when she came home late. Sometimes he was on the sofa asleep. After 25 years of marriage, she knew there was no predicting what she could count on him for, yet he loved her and she loved him—that was never in question. He was not unfaithful. He was not unkind, and he always wandered back home to her. It had just taken a lifetime of adjusting and lowering expectations to realize that she could depend on him only for the things he was able to do, and not always for those she wished for or needed. Is that part of my karma, or of his? Her mind fogged over with the mystery of it all. She was happy to see him and grateful for those things he could manage.
“How’d it go?”
“Oh, the kids did a great job. Everyone loved it, but I’m glad it’s over.” Though she was still upset about the broken beads, she didn’t have the energy to tell him about it.
“Want something to drink? There’s some leftover pizza.”
“No, I’m fine. Hey, are you coming with me tomorrow?”
“ Ehh…what time?”
“My appointment is at 2:00. I’ll be home around 1:00.”
“I’ll go with you,” he said, padding back into the kitchen.     He came back with a glass of cranberry juice and a cold piece of pizza.
“I…I don’t think I can eat….”
“I’m going back to bed,” he interrupted, as he walked away.
“Okay…I’ll be there in a few minutes,” she called back, wondering if he would be around to go with her the next day, or if he would be AWOL, as the family referred to his absences. 
She leaned back against the soft cushions to focus on the movie. She closed her eyes ad listened to banter between Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn. When she opened them again she saw “THE END” in big white letters on a grainy black background. She roused herself, and, though exhausted, she dreaded another sleepless night. She sat up staring at the bags on the floor, thinking again about high perspectives, low places, broken beads and dishes, karma and cancer treatments.
She undressed slowly, put on her favorite nightgown, looked down at the shattered plate still on the floor, then eased into bed as quietly as she could. She stretched out, then curled up, edging her back over toward her husband, as was her habit. Tomorrow is another day, but not an ordinary one, she thought, closing her eyes. 
Images of her children’s faces appeared. It was the hardest thing telling her family about her diagnosis and prognosis—seeing their sadness and their apprehension of grief after she was gone. There had been a long silence. Then her daughter was in tears, and her son said, “I want you to get well.” Her husband just put his head down. The oncologist had told her she would not get well. At the very least, she would be in treatment for whatever time she had left. Since then the family talked only of practical matters: treatment options, medical appointments, the details of “getting things in order.” She shielded her children from most of it, taking on the burden of their pain as well as her own.
Still, she had hope; she had the will to live, if not the strength to face whatever treatment she had to endure in order to even get the chance to live—however long or short a time. She wasn’t sure how miracles fit into her life’s theme, her free will or her destiny, but she believed in prayer and miracles.
It was all new to her—being caught between hope and despair.
“Out of everyone I’ve ever known,” her friend had said to her, “you are the bravest, strongest, most positive person.” Funny though, she didn’t feel strong, positive or even like a person—but rather like a shadow of the self she tried to build and sustain in this lifetime. She felt parts of herself were missing, wavering, like the quivering branches on the ceiling of the abandoned room at the top of the stairs--a shadow of something real, but not real.
“You love life and live life,” her friend had said, as if she needed a reminder, especially now, and “it’s not over until it’s over.” She closed her eyes, listening to her husband’s quiet breathing. Every thought, feeling and image of the day swirled together, then faded into the dark future and then into sleep.
At the hospital waiting area the next day, she sat staring out the window at the vast, clear blue and cloudless sky. 
“Ann Marie,” a nurse called and came over to stand in front of her— blocking out the blue. “We’re ready for you; come on back.”
Ann Marie stood up on trembling legs, looked at her husband—lost child—not even pretending to be strong for her. He smiled and lifted his hand. She carried his smile with her down the long corridor and into the sterile room.
The nurse got her settled on a bed turned up to a sitting position and prepared an IV drip of a red liquid. Ann Marie was grateful to be opposite a window with a view of the bright blue sky. In the closed palm of her hand, she lovingly held one of the rose-colored beads. She loved its smoothness. It had nothing to do with the rest of the beads now. It was beautiful and perfect all on its own.

  She closed her eyes and imagined being bathed in the soft glow of its color and felt herself to be looking down from a very high place—a place where she could see everything exactly as it was.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Matter of Time

It didn’t matter that he had given away every last penny of an enormous inheritance—fifty-thousand here, ten-thousand there. He was homeless, but that didn’t matter either, only that he missed not being able to help others, as he once had done. I found this out when a stranger called me and said Kenny had given him fifteen hundred dollars and told him to see me for as many therapy sessions as the amount would cover. I remember thinking at the time: Inheriting a fortune is everyone’s ultimate fantasy, and Kenny just handed his out like cupcakes at a birthday party!
So, Kenny must have gotten the windfall from his Aunt Molly who had never married, and, as I remember, there was no other family. I met her once when we went to stay at her place on Martha’s Vineyard. And what a place it was! I guess he gave that away too.
“Wait, now let me get this straight,” I said to the caller. “Kenny is broke and homeless, and you are using his last $1500 to get help from me?”
“Oh…well, yeah…I guess… I mean, he said you’d be able to help me. I wasn’t sleepin nights since my dad died, and a lota other things happened too—lost my job, that kinda thing. Kenny said you would help me, and I believe him. He gave me the money before he was homeless though.”
“Then that makes all the difference,” trying not to laugh out loud, or cry. I felt bad for being sarcastic, but I don’t think he noticed. “Let’s see what I’ve got here," looking at my calendar. “Next Tuesday at 2 pm, is that good for you?”
“Sure thing, Doc.”
I jotted down his contact info. “Okay, see you next week.” After we hung up, I was sorry I hadn’t asked at least a couple of the million questions I had formulated in those few minutes on the phone—some of the same ones I’ve had since I last saw Kenny. I knew it would odd asking my new client questions when we met for the first time. He was the one looking for answers, but I figured I would get at least some of them answered over time—that is, if he even showed up.
Not that I didn’t want to help the caller; Sam was his name. It’s what I do as a therapist, and I’m a pretty good one at that. But, I already resented him in a way for taking Kenny’s last dime. I was looking forward to finding out what had happened to my lost friend—lost in every way it seemed. We hadn’t seen each other in a few years, and we didn't part on good terms. Everything got too bizarre and too complicated to deal with—even for me.
I told him he needed therapy, but I wasn’t going to be the one to help him sort his life out. That’s when he said, “There’s nothing to sort out, so fuck off.”
It was the last time I saw Kenny. I left in a huff never wanting to see him again. When things had simmered down, I tried to get in touch with him again (and again) over the next few months—texting, calling, emailing, and even writing a good old-fashioned letter—no response. Then I got up enough nerve to go to see him; I really wanted to see him, but he had moved and couldn’t be found. The city is a big place, but it’s still incredible to me that a person can’t be found—even if he didn’t want to be found. He obviously did not want to be found.
So, Sam did show up at the appointed time. We shook hands, and I invited him into my inner sanctum—a quiet room with big cozy chairs, muted colors, the right amount of diffused light coming in the windows in the day time, and warm, soft lighting at night. I had created a place where my clients would feel comfortable and safe (I despise those words, “comfortable” and “safe.”), so they would tell me their life stories, or at least the part of the story before the turning point, or after it as the case might be.
“Hey, Sam, before you tell me about yourself, I’d like to ask something about Kenny. Do you mind?”
“No, Doc, no, I don’t mind at all. Whadaya wanna know?”
“Well, you said Kenny gave you money before he was homeless, but how do you know he is homeless now?”
“Well, I saw him a few days after that night I was at his place...the night he gave me the money. Boy, was I surprised when he did that, but I wasn’t surprised to see him on the streets.”
“Oh? why was that?”
“Well, 'cause I didn’t even know he had any money.”
“No, I thought you meant that you weren’t surprised to see him homeless. Were you? I mean…you were fiends, right?”
“Not surprised, no, and not really good friends or anything like that. He hung out with us at the shelter downtown, so we all knew ‘im, and he was always so nice to everyone. But when I saw his place, it was a mess, and I kinda felt I was in better shape than he was, and he didn’t look good."
“So, you are homeless too, Sam?”
“Oh, no, no, just kinda down on my luck these days. I have a place, but went to the shelter for meals sometimes after I lost my job, and that’s where I met Kenny. He talked to us…never seemed like he belonged there though. I kinda told him my sob story, and he took me back to his place that one night—probably on the worst night of my life. That’s when he gave me the fifteen hundred and told me to call you. Then I went back to thank him again a coupala days later, but they told me he was gone. I saw him on the street later, and he told me he was homeless. He really gave me two thousand dollars cash, but I used five-hundred of it for my rent. I asked him to take the rest of the money back cause he needed it more than me, but he wouldn’t. That’s when he told me he inherited money and was giving it all away. He said he only wished he had more to give. He said he didn’t need it.”
“Why didn’t you keep the money and not come here?” I asked, sort of wondering out loud.
With an almost child-like innocence, Sam said simply, “Well, Kenny told me to come to you; that’s why he gave me the money. He said you would help me.”
“I will certainly do my best," and we began the session.
It felt strange—taking Kenny’s money for my services. I offered to charge half the amount for the sessions, so Sam could go beyond the fifteen weeks it would cover at my regular rate, but he wouldn't hear of it. As the weeks went by, I didn’t learn more about Kenny, but I learned a whole lot more about Sam. He was a simple soul and honorable. I knew I would keep Sam on when the money ran out and hoped he would agree if he felt he needed more time. He was making progress though and had found a job to keep him afloat, so he didn’t have to go to the shelter for meals, but told me he stopped by there from time to time to see the old gang, but there was no sign of Kenny, and apparently no one else had seen him either.
“He just disappeared.” Sam said.
“And how did you feel about that? I asked but was thinking, Yeah, I get it. That’s what he did with me too—just disappeared.
Kenny and I met when we were at Columbia, finishing up our degrees—his in philosophy and mine in clinical psychology. It was love at first sight you could say. I was amazed to realize there was such a thing—unexplainable—that kind of attraction. He was intriguing, quirky, quiet mostly—not the small-talk type, but I liked that. I thought later, if I had wanted “normal” I would have looked for “normal.” No such thing anyway. I know that for a fact!
His hair was dark, curly, and his eyes were kind--a soft, misty brown. His skin was clear and smooth, like a boy's, but it was his hands that really got to me. They were perfection—a monk’s hands was my impression—made for writing on parchment with a feather pen dipped into a pale blue glass ink well. Later, I saw that his handwriting had a grace and elegance about it, reminiscent of those Medieval illuminated manuscripts.  And he did a lot of writing— everything by hand. He wrote on various, obscure and abstract subjects—scholarly critiques on philosophers or theologians. He was intrigued with the lives of saints.  All those original ideas and imaginations he had, and expressed them in such beautiful images, precise analogies, lofty metaphors and clear logic.
Who cared if it was only hormones or pheromones? The attraction was real, and I knew he felt it too. I don’t know how he would have described me, or what part of my body he thought was perfection, if any, but the attraction was mutual, passionate, intense—and ultimately doomed. Looking back, there must have been a genetic code for disaster in the nature of our relationship, despite the attraction. We were too different, and he gradually ascended, or descended, depending on the way you looked at it, into an unreachable place, intent on becoming a saint himself.
It was becoming more obvious. It wasn’t going to work. His mind was like a black hole—sucking everything into it—and nothing could escape—all the facts, knowledge, ideas, probabilities and possibilities. Mine was more like a sieve, holding only what I needed to get through each day—the rest sifted through. Anyway it’s how I came to think of “us"--opposites, with an undeniable attraction--the kind that eventually has to come crashing down.
“You know what your trouble is, Kenny?” I said during one of our increasingly heated arguments. “Despite your knowledge of philosophy and religion, you don’t really believe in anything, do you?”
We were sitting on his bed in the little room he was living in then, piled high with books, empty wine bottles in every corner, half-written papers on his desk, and ashtrays everywhere crammed with cigarette butts. He stood up, bare-legged in his white boxer shorts. I was already sorry I said anything, and wished we were still in the bed together, so I could put my fingers through his dark, matted hair and wrap my legs around his. He put his hands on his hips, made a half turn away, then back again, glaring at me with those eyes, always shining with an unearthly—maybe even heavenly look. Quietly, almost in a whisper and a look on his face as if he just had a revelation, he said,  “It’s not that I don’t believe in anything. I believe in everything!”
It was hard to have a saint for a boyfriend, as it must have been hard for him to have me, a born therapist, analyzing him in a way no therapist would if she wanted to keep her client. But I wasn’t his therapist; I was his lover, and his anchor—I believed that. I had this weird thought—I was him trying to get in, and he was me trying to get out. I needed his ability to soar above it all—to what he might have called the “world of ideas” which encompassed the whole of creation--the only reality to speak of, according to Saint Kenny.
If he needed me at all, maybe it was for my ability to focus on one thing at a time, to plan and to follow through. Kenny said we complimented each other. He said I thought inductively— from the specific to the general, and he thought deductively—from the general to the specific. Boy, was he deep, which I figured made me shallow. I guess I was shallow in my ambition for my own practice and to make a good living, shallow in my wish to own a piece of real estate in some remarkable location, shallow for my need to take a vacation now and then. My desire for and my pleasure in material things, and all the rest of it, was in direct opposition to all Kenny stood for.
Like I said, we were doomed.
That became clear after those few days at his Aunt Molly’s. To me, it was paradise—all of it, the island in the sea, the blue sky above, brilliant sun pouring through a dream house. I made a big fuss about it. I told Kenny I could see us living life there. I was like a mystic in ecstasy, but not the kind Kenny read about in his Medieval texts. I knew he could have been just as happy in one of those remote, monastic beehive huts on Skellig Michael, off the coast of Ireland —happier most likely.
I snuggled up to Kenny on our first night there. The ocean breeze was cool, the full moon over the ocean—visible from our bed. The fragrance of beach roses and hedge wafting in, and our bodies warm together. I put my head on his chest—which I also thought was pretty perfect.
“What do you say, Ken? Let’s live here. I’ll set up a practice. You could write too, maybe finish a book in the quiet of this place—that book you’ve been working on.”
“It isn’t a book; it’s my theories and my musings.”
“You’ve just been musing all these years, really? Didn’t you ever think of sharing what you’ve learned, what you know?” I’d been wondering about where he was going with his work for a while, along with a lot of other things I didn’t dare mention.
“No, I haven’t thought of it!. I’m happy doing what I’m doing, and I don’t want to leave the city. I like the noise and the grit of it and the people—all of them coming and going, even the ones lying on the subway grates. I’ve been thinking about doing something else too, instead of living only for myself. There is so much need out there.”
“You mean like I do—live for myself.” I thought I knew where this was going.
“No, I didn't mean that; you do help people, and that’s a good thing. I wanna do that too.”
“I didn’t know you thought of me as helping anyone. I mean, I certainly try.” I was touched by his comment, as if he needed me for an example of “good,” as he called it. “But, I don’t think I am the greatest example of good, that’s for sure.” I reminded him, “You’ve read, and know so well, the best of the best for inspiration on that score: Socrates, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, I mean…”
“Well,… I have their ideas, yes, and now I feel like I need to do something with them.”
I silently agreed.
When we got back to the city, at first he continued to live in his dark room, thinking and writing. He did some work in a library, earning enough to subsist—subsidized by me, which I didn’t mind. I admired his ideals, and I loved him, which meant I made sure we could both live the life I wanted—dinners, plays, weekend getaways—none of which seemed to matter much to Kenny.
Soon he took to walking the streets at night encountering all sorts of people who needed help. I began to question his judgement when be would bring back a bag lady or some other disheveled person with wild eyes.
"You may be giving these poor souls something to eat or a coat to wear, but are you effecting any real change in their lives?" I had to ask.
“It doesn't matter if they change their lives,” he almost shouted. “That’s your goal, not mine. I’m happy to help in small ways in a moment of need. You manipulate people and want them to live as you do.”
“You said I did good before, and I thought you meant it. Why are you being so hostile now?“ That’s when I said he needed a therapist—the last thing I ever said to him—a long time ago. We parted ways, and that, as they say, was that. I eventually came to accept that it was all for the best. Kenny was right; I did want him to live as I did, because, I didn't want to…couldn’t live as he did.
Exactly on the fifteenth week of the sessions with Sam, he told me it would be his last one. It kind of took me by surprise, but I had to agree he was in a good place. “Well, you let me know, Sam, if you need to come in, and remember what I said—no charge, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, sure thing, Doc,” he said in his usual matter of fact way.
I had come to look forward to our sessions. I liked Sam. He had a natural kind of wisdom about him, and it didn’t take much to get him to think about things in another way, and then he was able to act on it. He had been in a rut, but was easily budged out of it. I would miss him; having him around made me feel close to Kenny, strange as it seemed.
“Okay, Sam, you take care, now."
Sam hesitated, then pulled an envelope out of his pocket and handed it to me. “What’s this?”
“I dunno, but Kenny said to give it to you when we had our last meeting, so here it is.”
I still can't remember Sam leaving the office. I stared down at the envelope in my trembling hand, and fell into one of those cozy chairs to open it. So much time had passed, but no love lost on my side. Was it a suicide note? I found myself thinking all sorts of crazy things the moment before I opened it, desperately hoping it was the impossible—an invitation to meet him somewhere, anywhere. I wanted to look into those eyes one more time. All those old feelings and memories had been stirred up over the past weeks—rushing in and swirling around flooding my head and heart.

That was two years ago now. I am settled into my new practice on Martha’s Vineyard. The letter Sam brought from the law firm was a shocker. Kenny willed Aunt Molly’s house to me! When I went to see the attorney, he said he had met with Kenny only once, and didn’t know that much about him, except that he had been sick, even before the inheritance from his aunt. That explained his giving it all away, but why will the house to me, after all that time?
I may never know, but I was and still am hoping to find some clues here among his papers, all left in the room we slept in overlooking the sea: the desk piled with his writings —and shelves full of books, boxes crammed with papers—all there for me to live with--alone.
Today, I found that letter I had written to Kenny all those years ago. When I unfolded it, a small piece of parchment fell out. On it, in his beautiful handwriting, he had written:
I cannot live with you
It would be life,
And life is over there
Behind the shelf.
Wasn’t that the truth! But it wasn’t really a clue; it was just a confirmation of what I already knew.


      But now I can’t get that thing out of my head.

Acknowledgement

“I cannot live with you…” - excerpt from Emily Dickinson