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. What was wrong with that girl, pulling them off like that? They had been her mother’s—four strands, with a tiny crystal between each rose-colored iridescent bead, with 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,” which left her in a constant state of confusion—wondering: Where did he go? How long will it be until he returns? Does he even realize he is missed, or that he is expected back at all? Doesn’t he remember that he intended to finish the job he started at home, 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. She wondered—they found 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, which he did not wish to continue.

What worried her most was the his dental patients showing up for their appointments when, more often than not, he wasn’t there. One day the few remaining appointments were cancelled, and he “retired” from a dwindling career. That was more than 20 years ago now. Then there came Ann Marie’s struggle to reconcile her resentment with acceptance, to be more tolerant, to be more understanding—the contraries!

Sometimes life’s problems are like that—irresolvable in the end.

These are the thoughts that randomly arose for her as she carefully searched for and collected the scattered beads. When she no longer could find another bead, she put the ones she had found back into a silk drawstring bag. She got up and looked around. The students were to hang their costumes, put accessories on the table beneath the clothing rack and move the props from the stage. As usual, they left everything in disarray, and slipped out the door, leaving the clean up to her and a few loyal students.

Ann Marie had always brought some of her mother’s jewelry and other items for the plays she directed each year. She liked finding use for the rescued items. This year the carefree girls wore her mother’s beads, pins and earrings for their roles as high society Victorian ladies. Then one of them carelessly tugged at those strands of memories, sending them into the shadows behind the stage curtains. The treasures, she had always kept in silk drawstring bags, and a small carved wooden chest in her dresser drawer. She had salvaged them from her childhood home in a forlorn, upstate New York town, along with a yellow Bakelite clock in the shape of a teapot, ruby red wine glasses, a few sets of dishes, hand-painted Italian bowls, and some old letters she found in her mother’s desk after the funeral. These were touchable memories to take comfort in when her husband wandered off.

Driving home this night, she kept thinking, Things are breaking, coming apart, irreparable. That very morning, as she dressed for school, she had brushed against the small plate hanging on the wall—the one her mother had given her before entering the hospital that last time. On the sky-blue and white memento, written in silvery script was: “Baby Ann Marie, born November 10, 1964, 7 lbs. 4 ozs.” 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 still lay ahead 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 couldn’t, it was time to flee.

She would pack up the car and head west with her two small children to visit her father and her stepmother—the woman 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 a motherless bride.

Once, during one of those spontaneous trips, that awful woman had called her selfish and disrespectful when Ann Marie 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 put 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: one 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 comfort thinking of her mother’s thin-stemmed, ruby-red glasses in her own kitchen at home. Can people just be replaced like broken china?

After everyone was asleep that night, 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,” lines she had quoted from Hamlet to her husband on the day of what she called her father’s “unholy union” with that woman.

Lingering with that thought after she had parked car, she shuddered at that incident. Hurtful as it was, she also remembered that when her father had come home that evening, he 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 the long day was over, as 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. With more effort than she could muster, she made the stairs to the front door, then up the staircase to the second floor landing. She stood facing t 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 dancied 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 box of 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 for a 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 all seemed different as she knew what would be.

They had read about karma and considered it a more sensible alternative to heaven/hell, or nothingness. They agreed that everyone seems to have an identifiable life theme with recurring questions, challenges, and an individual destiny, but also there are choices to be made, hopefully informed by increasing self-knowledge. They neither entirely believed, nor disbelieved that our life experiences are chosen by us before birth in order to live that karma.

Still, she felt that for her friend to have suggested that anything was good about Ann Marie’s 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 her at the cluttered room.

Her husband shuffled in and stood in front of her. He was hardly ever there to greet 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. “I’m going back to bed.”

“Okay, I’ll be there in a few minutes,” wondering if he would really be around to go with her tomorrow, 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, but then closed her eyes, listening to Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn banter. 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, and 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. 

The hardest thing was telling her family about her diagnosis and prognosis—seeing their sadness and the apprehension of grief after she was gone. There was 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—that, 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, 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, into sleep.

At the hospital the next day, as she sat waiting, she stared 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 with a bright red liquid in it. 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. It had nothing to do with the rest of the beads now. It was beautiful and perfect all on its own. She loved its smoothness.

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 had once 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 that 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 lot of 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,” I snapped, trying not to laugh out loud, or cry. I felt bad that I had been sarcastic, but I don’t think he noticed. “Let’s see what I’ve got here," looking at my calendar. “Next Tuesday at 2 p.m. 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 already formulated in those few minutes—some of the same ones I’ve had since I last saw Kenny. I knew it would be kind of 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. That’s what I do. I am a therapist, and 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 was 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.” 

That 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 could not be found.  The city is a big place, but it was incredible to me that a person can not 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 wanted to create 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. Whada ya 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.”

“Really, why is that?”

“Well, 'cause I didn’t even know he had any money.”

"Oh, I thought you meant that you weren’t you surprised to see him homeless? Were you? I mean you were fiends, right?”

“Not really good friends or anything, but 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 not 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 invited me to his place that one night—probably on the worst night of my life. After I told him my sob story, that’s when he gave me the fifteen hundred and told me to call you. Then I went back to his place to thank him again a couple a days later, and they told me he was gone. I saw him on the street then, and he told me he was homeless. He really gave me two thousand 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 all this money and then gave 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.

I offered to charge only half the amount for the sessions, so that 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. It felt strange--taking Kenny’s money for my services. 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 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.

“Yeah, I get that.” 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 psychologyIt was love at first sight you could say. I was amazed to realize there was such a thing as love at first sight— 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.

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 in such beautiful images, precise analogies, lofty metaphors and clear logic. 

 Who cared if it was only hormones or pheromones? It 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, but 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 seemed.

It was becoming more obvious that the relationship 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 that’s the way 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 that 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, 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 do 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 that I was him trying to get out, and he was me trying to get in. 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 guess made me shallow. And, 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 that 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 that dream house. I guess I made a big fuss about it. I told Kenny I could see us living a 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 were 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 set up a practice here. You could write and 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 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 that. I am 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 doing 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 that dark room, thinking and writing. He did some work in a library, earned 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 really mattered 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 a wino.

"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 him that.

“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, 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. That was a long time ago. We parted ways, and that, as they say, was that. I eventually came to accept it was for the best. Kenny was right. I did want him to live like I do, because I didn't want to live without him, and I 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 act on that new knowledge. He had been in a rut, but was easily budged out of it. I would miss him, and realized that 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 just 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—swirling around and blaring full blast in my head and heart. 

That was two years ago. I am settled into my new practice on Martha’s Vineyard. That letter Sam brought from the law firm was a shocker: Kenny willed Aunt Molly’s house to me! When I met with the attorney, he said he had only met Kenny once, and didn’t really 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 stuffed with papers—all there for me to live with--alone. 

Today, I found the 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 part of a poem I knew:

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. 

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


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

Sunday, April 17, 2016

MOSS ON STONE - An Excerpt

an historical novella based on the diary of 
Susannah Norwood Torrey (1826 ~ 1908): Publication Fall ~ 2016


To have a dream is to remain hopeful—a vision of some future time when all will be well and worry ceases. I have found that when dreams fade, there are other ways, if not to cherish thoughts of the future, or to reflect upon regrets of the past, then to sustain us day to day with a small measure of light—mine were things of beauty—moss on stone.
Now, from this distance of space and time, indeed, the absence of those illusions that do not exist here, I linger, preparing to return to life anew. What did I leave behind? A portrait for others to look upon, a scrapbook of moss designs, a diary, and a stone cottage by the sea. I review my life as one would a colorful tableau, and find that mine was a life worth living. I will tell you something of that life—of dreams,, and dreams fading; of time passing; of dear family and friends, loved and lost; and of people and places changed. Through it all, there were the immutable gifts of nature to renew my soul with unequaled joy, asking nothing in return.

Between the thicket and the wood, lay the sought for valley covered with rocks piled one about another….and these rocks were covered with the most beautiful mosses that I ever saw. 
(Oct. 17, 1849)

Sunday, April 10, 2016


Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state…. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not. (David Whyte Poet/Philosopher)

I love these thoughts by poet, David Whyte. They remind me that vulnerability is partly what allows us to be fully human and feel a sense of belonging. Our tendency to try to remain invulnerable prevents us from taking the risk of connecting with others. We are vulnerable when we share our creations in any of the arts; when we are committed to relationships with others, when we empathize with the pain, sorrow, grief and joy of others. We are most vulnerable when we hold ourselves accountable to our highest ideals.

David Whyte suggests that vulnerability is our natural state, because no one of us is in control. We all must face the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” So, it would seem we must change our tendency to remain invulnerable and choose to fulfill our potential to become fully human.

We are the only part of creation able to choose to BECOME.

Does the Biblical verse which says we are made in image of God partly mean that we have the capacity to participate consciously in and contribute to the creation by being creators ourselves--even of our own being? I believe so.

The rest of creation becomes what is meant to be without choice or consciousness: a seed becomes a flower; a larvae becomes a butterfly. All things fulfill their nature without choice or reflection. Humans have the opportunity to choose consciously in small and large ways throughout a lifetime to be better, to be more than we are, to be more whole, to become more true to our higher selves.

We are capable of bringing all manner of new things to creation--first through our unique individuality, then through evolving and transforming, which always involves allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. There are many times when are vulnerable through no choice of our own. Then there are many opportunities to make the decision to allow ourselves to be vulnerable through living fully, loving unconditionally, taking risks and trusting that all will be well.  

Thursday, December 3, 2015


Hamlet pertains to everything--everything in life that is most essential, if we are willing to look beyond our ordinary existence into the "extraordinary."  Hamlet is only one of many tragic heroes in the history of drama, but unique in so many ways, not the least of which is that he speaks anew to each generation.  Both the nature of his mind and his dilemma are contemporary and universal. 

In all other tragedies before Hamlet, each tragic hero has a clearly identifiable "flaw," which Aristotle, first literary critic, says contributes to a downfall--a feature in all tragedies since the birth of Greek drama. Macbeth’s is ambition; Othello’s is jealousy, King Lear’s is pride, and so it goes—until Hamlet. All other tragic heroes before Hamlet could have changed their fates by reflecting on their situations and themselves, thereby acquiring a bit of self-knowledge, with which they may have been better equipped to make different choices and thus avoid tragedy. Hubris, a kind of pride or inability to even imagine they have any flaws, prevents them from doing so. Not so with Hamlet.

Hamlet, however, exhibits a great deal of self-knowledge, as he thoughtfully examines both himself and his situation. He finds he has only two choices, revealed in that most well-known of soliloquies in all of drama.  His fate comes not from his own ego, his subconscious or hubris. It is dictated from beyond the grave by the ghost of his father, King Hamlet, who comes to seek revenge for his “murder most foul.”  He reveals that he was killed by his own brother, Claudius, who lusted for crown and queen. And so Hamlet questions: “To be or not to be." Is he to ignore his father's command to avenge the murder and “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” or is he to “take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them”? He will, of course, choose the latter, which means he will also die. Killing a sitting king is treason, and who will believe a ghost told him to do it? 

Hamlet is presented with “outrageous fortune”: an unexpected development not of his own making, not due to a flaw or a wrong action.  The task is thrust upon him, and so he agonizes, “Oh, cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.”

Some literary critics, feeling compelled to find Hamlet's flaw (since Aristotle said it must exist) have determined that Hamlet "thinks too much," which prevents him from action.  While this is true, he has much to think about, doesn't he? He is in grief over his father’s recent death and his mother’s “o’er hasty marriage” to his murderous uncle; in confusion at the appearance his father's ghost, in dread of fulfilling the command to avenge his father's murder; and in sorrow at the rejection of his lover, Ophelia. He must contemplate it all to try to sort it out. Yet, he thinks logically and determines that, before he kills the king, he must have proof “more relative” than a ghost’s appearance (which may be the devil’s trick).  All of this thinking takes time, is necessary, and is not a flaw at all.  

Although we may never be in such clear and present danger as is Hamlet, we too, at some point, (and maybe at many) face a seemingly irresolvable dilemma not necessarily of our own making. We too must either bear a crisis in silence, or “take arms against" it. These are always our only two logical choices for life's problems--large or small. At first, however, we may wish we could somehow, in some way, escape our fate, as does Hamlet: 

     Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt
     Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
     Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
     His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!

We too must struggle to understand what is at stake, and must make decisions which have grave implications. For Hamlet, it becomes foremost to find the truth--admirable!  He thoughtfully and creatively arranges a visiting troupe of actors to put on a play which involves the murder of a king by a brother who has also seduced a queen, and in the same manner described to Hamlet by the ghost--ingenious! Hamlet will watch the king during the performance to see any evidence of his guilt when a similar bloody deed is reenacted before him. The play will be “the thing to catch the conscience of the king.”

Throughout Hamlet, there is a many-layered motif of observation. The guards observe Hamlet when the ghost appears. Rosencrantz and Gildenstern observe Hamlet to discover the source of his “antic disposition.” Polonius and the King observe Hamlet and Ophelia. Polonius spies behind the curtain in the queen’s chamber, and Hamlet observes the king watching the so-called "play within the play." Also, Hamlet begins and ends with keeping the watch.  In the first scene, the palace guards keep watch on the battlements. In the last scene Prince Fortinbras (the next ruler of Denmark and foil to Hamlet) gives orders to, “Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage,” where he can be viewed and honored.  

The character of Hamlet in Shakespeare's time was unconventional, to say the least, which is only one of the features of the play that accounts for its universality and continuing relevance. I believe Shakespeare speaks more fully of the human condition in Hamlet than in any other of his plays.  Hamlet is the existential "everyman" in an absurd situation—LIFE, which has been said to be “a rock and a hard place.” Hamlet is representative of humanity, and Denmark is a microcosm of the world in which we observe, “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts…accidental judgments, casual slaughters…deaths put on by cunning and forced causes…and purposes mistook.” Sounds like the evening news! 

In all dramatic works, as in life itself, there is a turning point.  Hamlet clearly states his pivotal moment (although often overlooked by critics as such) when he accepts life and death on their own terms: “If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.” He does, of course, accomplish his mission impossible, kills the king, and is himself slain, but not before he asks his friend Horatio, the only person who can bear witness, to tell his story aright to the world.

Here, I am reminded of James Baldwin’s insight: “…while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell; it’s the only light we've got in all this darkness.”

The play, and specifically this play, IS the thing that catches our conscience, challenging us to find in the characters and situations LIFE writ large, magnified through its ritual and pageantry so that we may observe and recognize our own reflections.

I am Hamlet; You are Hamlet.

Sunday, August 9, 2015


Addition: January 2016:  Donald Trump recently said, if he shot someone in Times Square, his numbers would still go up. The implications: He believes he has total and ongoing immunity for his behavior/statements, and that most of his followers have the twisted mentality to sanction random murder to see him as president.  These are the makings of a dictator/tyrant:  ignoring such implications in blind devotion is prerequisite for tyrants to rise to and to stay in power.  Of course, it is uncertain whether he really would have such immunity and the current level of devotion in such a situation or that he would be a dictator.  He does, however, say whatever some people apparently  want to hear, which further confirms not only his arrogance to do or say whatever his ego blurts out without a thought to any consequences, but also exploitation of some of his followers worst tendencies. There is something amiss here with the will to be divisive and a refusal on the part of his supporters to see the danger of a Trump coming to power.  Some will say whatever he says is "just a joke," and not really a big deal. Maybe, but, at the very least, it says a great deal about his judgement--if anything more needed to be said!

Donald Trump, an arrogant, immature and egotistical celebrity, has been able to influence and attract many potential voters who must confuse bravado and the privilege of power and wealth with the capacities required for presidential leadership.  Pundits note that people like him for his honesty. They say he is “genuine," says what he means and means what he says. He doesn't care what anyone thinks, apparently another characteristic able to stir the masses. He is charismatic in an anti-hero kind of way, with an ability to articulate for his followers their deep-seated resentment toward the present administration and all others who are scapegoats for their discontent, which is all understandable, and maybe inevitable, for a certain American imagination--that of the attraction to the cult of personality.

And he has captured that imagination, at least at this early date, with his independence, self-reliance and the attainment of the American Dream, but not in the sense once described by Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose thoughtful definition of self-reliance had more to do with inner strength and character than appearance.  Appearance is what celebrity is all about. There are more than a few reasons to believe that a Trump presidency would perhaps be a point of no return for America. 

Currently there are many who believe his approach would be a successful one, (if they have thought that far ahead). Others question: Would he ever be willing or able to work with his own cabinet, let alone the Pentagon, congress, states and other nations with any amount of tact, diplomacy, effectiveness or respect over the long haul? The Donald (a moniker which may be an indication of...something!) doesn't come off as interested, or even able, to build consensus, cooperate or compromise (that being a liberal quality, or flaw, depending on what so-called "side of the isle" you sit on). It seems he'd rather build walls (and not just ones to keep immigrants out). So far, he has not significantly addressed specific issues, or laid out substantial, workable policies and strategies. Apparently, then, people are not enamored with, or seem to care about the content of his platform (if, in fact, he has one) and are more interested in his tweets defending himself at even the slightest criticism (thin-skinned is not a recommended trait for a president).

Donald has not only lowered the bar for national civility and decorum, he has done away with it altogether His "bluster-effect" and permanent facial expressions of disdain and anger have further revealed America's under-belly, with its juvenile, vindictive and snarky sarcasm--the norm on social media. He has insulted whole groups--Mexicans, as well as individuals-- Senator McCain, Rosie O’Donnell, and, recently, Fox News's Megyn Kelly, with his off-the-wall, crude and vulgar remarks. Yet, his followers see him as eminently fit to represent America--to be our face to the world?  Are we to believe he is a “patriot,” (a neo-con catch word), and will be “phenomenal to women” (whatever that means), as he has recently proclaimed?  It seems there are those who stand in awe of his hutzpah, while others cringe at the hubris.

Observing the "bread and circus" of his candidacy calls to mind the aphorism: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time," especially those who rely on critical thinking to make judgements. The opposite of critical thinking has raised Donald to popularity--emotionalism.  Logical fallacies abound in all political campaigns; in Trump's they reign supreme.   

His opinions may sound like facts. They may feel good to those who have the same ones in private, but have been discouraged from revealing them in public (because someone might call them on it, or be offended).  Now, however, offending people is entertainment, and serves as a cathartic for many.  Donald's delighted followers can say, along with Donald, “If you don't like it, too bad!" Demeaning and randomly diminishing anyone and everyone is what he does to the great approval of many.  

It has been said, and not only by conservatives, that political correctness is now taken to the extreme, as it seems to pander to "overly-sensitive" minorities, and prevents us from "telling it like it is," not to mention throwing a wet blanket on our sense of humor. The reason political correctness came about in first place was that “telling it like it is” (or like people think it is) is mostly rooted in stereotypical perceptions which do not take individuals' or group experience into consideration. Some people still think/believe that a particular group (religious, ethnic, racial, etc.) can be defined in a few words (good or bad). Is this another reason Donald has endeared himself to many? Keeping it simple, avoiding nuisances works better for the masses.  It seems so. The thing is, not only does he avoid political correctness, he blurts out whatever comes to mind at the moment about a person or a topic, which is not the same as "telling it like it is."  No, he describes the world according to Donald--but not the world most of us want to live in.   

We have heard his promise of "going back." I would like to suggest that we might at least want to go back to a time when a presidential candidate--say, Thomas Jefferson, would not have called Martha Washington (or any other person) a “fat pig,” or a president--say, Abraham Lincoln, would not have (for the fun of it) diminished the legacy of a captured Union or Confederate soldier. It's a given that there are many problems to be solved, issues to be worked on, legitimate challenges to the present administration's achievements and/or failures, and alternatives to be explored.  

Mostly what we've heard from Donald are shallow, adolescent  responses and off-handed remarks which play to his audience, like a side-show carnival act, portraying everything in the world as a "disaster, the he can fix single handedly.  We don't have to worry about the "details." He knows more than Isis, the generals, experienced civil servants, diplomats and certainly much more than you and I do. He will take care of everything--trust him! What other  president has ever done all that he has promised, even if he intended or tried to, but no other leader, except for tyrants have claimed to know everything and will take care of everything if we just trust them. Heads up, folks! 

Presidents do not have (should not have) the full power to do anything they wish, but can certainly change the conversation and direction of the dialogue nationally and internationally to our detriment.  In Trump's case, it seems to be going in the direction of an irreversible uncivil and dangerous divisiveness of the American people. Whereas someone like Bernie Sanders suggests unity of all Americans against the greatest threats to our democracy (which is alway fragile, despite what we think--read a little history). 

Some admire, cheer on and approve Donald’s lack of political correctness. They would like to "go back" to the days when everyone wasn't so "sensitive," a time when they could "call a spade a spade," which, by the way, was also a time when all manner of discrimination and racial, sexist and ethnic slurs were the norm which inevitably leads, on the part of some, to acts of violence. Certainly, those who abhor political correctness are not okay when lack of it targets them. With the tables turned, they are quick to protest that they were being "persecuted," (e.g. "angry, white males" or "evangelical bigots" and would attribute it to political motivation). 

At its core, political correctness is common sense and common decency, with emphasis on the "common" good. Although it has swung to the extreme in some cases, and deteriorated in some cases  to focus on "micro-agressions" (petty complaints). Essentially political correctness can be understood as consideration for others and respect for an individual's or group's situation and experience.  Isn't it also based on a certain decorum among civilized human beings, use of polite references, awareness and thoughtfulness of our words and deeds. These attributes are the tools for and the means to peaceful interactions across the board, the creation of good will, and can even reflect kindness and compassion, or in another catch word “values" (and even virtues). 

Donald’s tone, language, demeanor and intent can not be taken for other than mean-spiritedness by those who are his targets. His attacks are approved of and applauded by some who may see themselves as victims, some who undoubtedly get a great deal of their "news" from narrow main-stream media, (all other sources are seen as corrupt), ranting radio talk show hosts or publications whose vitriol creates divisiveness, resentment and conjures up conspiracies and takes extreme positions, ignoring facts in favor of fiction and false claims.  

 “Let's take our country back.”  Does that mean back to how wonderful it was when George W. Bush left office?  or back to the pre-civil rights era in the early 60’s, when the Confederate flag was first hung at the state house in North Carolina as a protest against those liberal, bleeding-heart “crazies” who dared to support the newly instated law of the land--civil and human rights. Yet their is the pretense that it stands for nobles oblige.  What "side" has ever lost a war gets to hang a their flag of protest (except in swastika graffiti)?

Some conservatives speak of a lack of values in America today (and it appears to be true if one takes media for reality), but is most often referenced in response to the granting of human/civil rights, as if only they understand and employ values rightly. Is respect, compassion and understanding among these values?  I don't see Donald's followers talking much about values. The truth is some individuals and factions (not limited to party or religious affiliations) are selective about values--about how they behave toward and speak about others not like themselves. Unfortunately, this behavior and language is also based on stereotyping, judgement and may include angry responses, unfair accusations, sarcasm, insults, threats and sometimes worse. These are apparently some of the "values" embraced by Donald Trump and his followers. 

If we could think of national and global contexts as analogous to the smallest common context we know: that of our closest relationships and associations--the people with whom we live and work--we might change our perspective a bit. The approach that has been shown to be most effective and successful within these  contexts involves the following: inclusion of its members, effective and civil communication, mutual respect and appreciation, as well as support and help. Isn't this what is needed for getting along in everyday life with our spouses/children; for getting a job done at home or in the workplace; in addressing any disagreement and/or conflict; for organizing events, and in many other situations?  

Getting along and surviving in our everyday relationships requires listening and compromising, not one person imposing his or her will on all others, or blaming, shaming and name-calling.  It requires an awareness of how our words, behavior and decisions may affect others; mutual cooperation; concern and care for all members--a display of kindness and often a generosity of spirit.  As members of a family and in group association we need the recognition/ acknowledgement of our abilities and contributions, and appropriate reciprocation to other members. We need support to strengthen whatever weakness exists or with difficulties that arise.  

Yes, this approach may be the ideal and desirable (not always the reality), but isn't that what we want for ourselves, our children, families and friends? If we said to members of our family, bosses, civil and church leaders, as Republican leadership expressed first think in Obama's administration:  that we will block and undermine at every turn their endeavors, will be uncompromising, will demonize (as in Trump's birther myth), and to bring under suspicion their every motive, thought, word, deed or action, then how would life be for us? 

Of course, there certainly are instances when firm decisions and actions must be taken by a person in the group for the good of group, which may hurt, offend and/or cause resentment. However, these actions, hard choices and decisions have to be well thought out, dispassionate, for the right reasons, and certainly would not involve red-faced scowls, angry shouting, vulgarity, hurled insults, blame and defensiveness ala "The Donald." This approach results only in more conflict, escalation and divisiveness--whether within a family, workplace or a nation. Critiques and complaints without suggestions for alternatives to problems are counter productive. If this approach does not work in our everyday lives and situations, how would it be effective in politics and global situations? 

While politics has always polarized people, used mud-slinging, rhetoric and negative strategies to win or win over, to divide and conquer, there is something a bit different in Trump's approach. There has, at least until recently, been a certain stature to the office of the presidency and a respect given, despite party affiliation.  In the president, we have looked for a demeanor of thoughtfulness, not impulsivity; maturity, not adolescence; global awareness, not isolationism; cooperation and compromise, not unilateral actions; consideration of the many, rather than the few--or in his case, the one!  

Some think Donald will "take our country back." But what country are we taking back?  If we could go back to at least what existed of the civility toward and respect in public and private life; if we could go back to aspiring to behave, speak and carry ourselves in a more dignified manner; if we could go back to thinking of ourselves and our leaders as role models for the young. If we could go back to thoughtful debate and exchange of ideas and ideals. If we did not see people who don't agree with (or don't live as we do) as enemies and demons--meaning treat others as we would want to be treated (Golden Rule and Biblical teaching) then, by all means, LET'S GO BACK! 
I would rather hear Donald, and every other presidential candidates say,  "Let’s take our country forward.” Let’s look to the future, not the past. Let's go forward with civility, aspiration, dignity, courage and a little touch of humility. Let’s go forward with those needed attributes we would ideally use within our own families, in our work places and in our places of worship. Let’s go forward toward realizing the potential envisioned by our founding fathers (and believe) that we are all created equal, with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.