Eight Pieces: A Single Tree

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The best days happened when she stayed at the casita. Sunlight poured across the cleared jungle and over her south-facing front porch.

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When she was two or three, she played in dappled sun beneath an oak tree. She hadn’t known the word “lonely” then; her playmates were acorns, sun shafts, and crinkled brown leaves.

She hadn’t known loneliness until she’d been married for a decade. These last twenty years, the ache had become habit.

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For a moment, she forgot the meaning of the word “lonely” now, for the sunlight, the sunlight, the pouring warmth, the comfort, the yellow, echoed in the rising blooms of the kitinche tree outside the mission chapel, the sunlight spread into all, and into her, as well. And she wasn’t lonely, she was alone. She was all one.

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She rested in solitude.

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That particular ache would never be filled, the one that stirred when they stopped listening to each other. He would never listen to her again. She could never listen to him. That option had closed.

But she didn’t have to hold onto that ache. Though it had become habit, it could be unlearned.

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When they got married, she thought, “I will never be lonely again.” She would always have someone to listen to her, and someone to listen to. She’d stopped listening first, she realized. It was because it was the same thing. And he held a snobbery behind his socialism. He scorned those who wanted to buy things. That’s what had made her stop listening.

“Look at those little rats,” he said, as they passed Walmart driving to the university. “Scurrying to the cellar for crumbs! Hurry, little scruff-bums! Scurry! Scurry! The sale is ending! Get your plastic bags! You can’t live without ten bottles of dishwashing soap! Buy it! Buy it all! Buy it fast! We’re selling out!”

She looked out the window to see a young mom holding her son’s hand.

Besides, rats were graceful, intelligent, resourceful creatures. First, you don’t criticize other people, especially when they have to work hard simply to establish a comfortable life. He didn’t know struggle. And second, what would ever cause one to think that another creature, another living being, would be something to be used for an insult? What does this say about how he perceives other living creatures?

She tried to get past that day, for it was still early enough in their marriage that their ritual of jokes and what she liked to refer to as their “herd chatter” served to maintain their bonds. But then, not long after, he stopped listening.

“I took a long walk during lunch break today,” she said on an early spring evening. “The dogwoods are blooming–have you noticed? And when I rounded the admin building, I caught the sun, shining through a storm of petals! It looked magical! Like the fabric that was the petal had become filled with something so pure, so beautiful! Like liquid love.”

But he had turned away and was washing his hands. And after he dried them on a towel–she still remembered, it was that red checkered towel her grandmother had given them two Christmases before–he left the room. Her eager speech rattled through her mind and settled below her larynx in a hard knot.

She had thought once that when you were married, you always had someone who would listen to your innermost thoughts, and that was what loneliness was: the discovery that this wasn’t so.

The kitinche tree rose its golden branches towards the late afternoon sun.

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It stood, alone, by the chapel door.

If she were a young girl on her way to Mass, she would look up at it.

Let me lift my face to the light, too! She would sing to it, “O holy, holy! Bathed in sun! O holy, holy! Solitary one!”

She didn’t feel lonely when she painted. She felt alone. All one. The thoughts, the feelings, the tiny moment that opened into the immense expanse of life! It all poured out onto her canvas.

One chapel. One bell. One door. One tree. One me.

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Septemus 60

Singular Separation

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I miss my pagotogo so much. I didn’t think that this time of training would be hard for me. I thought that I would develop discipline, resolve, skill.

I suppose I have developed all those things–but at what cost?

I feel cut off. Alone. Mastikopo.

I have been trying to connect with the people in our neighborhood. It’s not going well.

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There are some exceptions. I met a new girl from school, walking along the promenade. She showed me photos she’d taken during her walk. Crooked branches of live oaks, draped with Spanish moss. The sun reflecting off the green water. A yellow rose petal floating in a puddle. It made me smile. She was so earnest, so enthusiastic. For a moment, I felt I was looking through her eyes and finding the world around me a place of beauty and wonder.

“You have an eye for color and composition!” I told her.

“You think so?”

I absolutely did.

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But some of my other classmates aren’t quite as engaged with life. They seem perpetually bored. I am never bored, and so, they seem to have decided that I am not cool.

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At least I have Octavius, my own little mopagoto. He has grown so much. He is walking and learning to talk.

I am teaching him Vingihoplo. Sokloboska was his first word. We mostly talk-inside, but when he speaks out loud, his tiny echoing voice is so cute.

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Somehow, Dr. Zest found out about Octavius.

“This brother of yours,” he asked me, “does he have these same abilities?”

“And what abilities would those be?” I asked.

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Of course I know that Dr. Zest has been trying to investigate inside-talk. Pabatuotuo alerted me to him.

“You’ll find that all the Sevenses are brilliant!” I told Dr. Zest, hoping that my bravado would throw him off course.

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He left shortly after. I took a photo of him walking away. I want to send it to Pabatuotuo-maybe make a meme out of it: “The Retreat of Deceit” or something.

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It makes me sad to think that we have to keep our talents hidden. When I was a kid, I thought we all had this ability, that everyone could talk-inside, and that they chose not to, as part of a game.

I thought that one day, a grown-up would wink at me, to let me in on the game. “Oh, yes! We are all really aware! We simply pretend not to be!”

But now, I see that no one is pretending. Each person really is as cut-off as they seem.

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I saw Lucas for the first time since Octy was born.

He looked good. I felt the same softness open inside of me.

“Lucas?” I said. “You look happy? Life’s good?”

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“Not so much,” he said. “You know. Same-old, same-old.”

I don’t know what same-old, same-old he was talking about, but he followed me home, invited himself in, and now I’m recognizing my own version of same-old, same-old. His feelings are not hidden from me, no matter how impermeable my cone seems. He sits across the room, feeling all the same attraction and affection as I do. And he pretends it doesn’t exist. That’s same-old, same-old.

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I think it is time for me to come out of training. I think I need the connection of my gotogo. I’ve learned all I need to about being cut-off.

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Wonder 58

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I suppose all dads like to imagine that their sons are a lot like them. Tanner is not much like me.

“Ready for school?” I asked him in the morning before we heard the ferry horn in the bay, which is his signal to grab his lunch and book bag and race to the dock.

“Not,” he replied. “Can I stay home?”

He was in the middle of a drawing, and I know he always likes to finish his work.

“I think you’ll have a chance to finish your picture before we hear the ferry horn.”

“That’s not why I want to stay,” he replied. “I know I can finish later.”

“Then why, Tan?” I asked.

“No one will miss me if I don’t go,” he replied.

“Not your friends?” I asked.

“Nope. I don’t have any friends,” he said.

“Ah.” This gave me something to ponder. “Well, maybe today is the day that you will make friends, and you wouldn’t want to miss that!”

He agreed, reluctantly, to give it another try.

After he was gone, I pulled down a parenting book off the shelf.

Sure enough, there in the index: Helping Young Children Learn to Make Friends.

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The ability to make and keep friends doesn’t just make kids happy; it also provides a number of crucial developmental benefits, including self-esteem, companionship and peer guidance.

Well, that sounded logical. I remembered back to a day in my childhood when Mãe let me ride the bus by myself to the park. I ended up in the Willow Creek Park. I met some of my best friends that day–friends that have lasted a lifetime, Miranda and Jake the Gardener.

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Making friends has always come naturally to me. I don’t even think about it: Say hello, talk a bit, make a joke–we’re friends!

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Of course, it’s not easy for everyone. Tia Berry, for example, had few friends besides Mãe and me. Jake became her friend, but that only happened through the years, after Jake practically adopted me as a nephew and started coming by nearly every day.

I remember Tia Berry saying that the company of most people didn’t beat solitude. She’d much rather spend an afternoon painting in the garden than meeting a prospective friend for coffee or tea.

Maybe Tanner is more like her.

I did a search online and found an interesting article: Kids Who Need A Little Help to Make Friends.

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This actually sounded a lot like Tanner.

…there is also a difference between children who are shy and children who are simply more introverted and prefer spending their down time reading or drawing by themselves…

Dr. Rooney advises keeping things in perspective. “Kids need just one or two good friends. You don’t have to worry about them being the most popular kid in their class.”

Of course it’s OK for Tanner to have his own style when it comes to making and keeping friends. Just like Tia Berry, maybe one or two really is all he needs.

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I finished researching just as I heard the horn of the afternoon ferry.

“How’d it go, Tanner?” I asked him. “Did you have a good day at school?”

“Everybody hates me,” he said.

“Rough day, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you miss your old friends from the Willow Creek Center?”

“It’s not so much that I miss them,” he said. “It’s just that… it’s like when you’re playing a computer game, like team-kinda-game, and then all your troops get knocked off, and it’s just you. Just you and the monsters.”

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“Sounds kind of lonely,” I said.

“Oh, it is,” said Tanner.

I suggested we do something about it right then. The ferry hadn’t yet left the dock, so we raced down the hill, hopped back on it, rode across the bay, jumped on the light rail, and before sunset, we were standing at the entrance to the Willow Creek Park, in a circle of friends we hadn’t yet met.

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But we met them before we left. I grilled up some veggie burgers and the gardener and a few kids joined us. Tanner started talking about video games, and before we knew it, the kids were laughing, and Tanner was joking, and we were sharing supper with friends. As easy as that.

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Forgotten Art: Norman – Newt 1

A response to: Newt’s Profile

newt101

Hey, man.

I saw your profile on the Pen Pal Project.

Looks like we’ve got a lot in common. I’m running my dad’s business, too.

You know what that’s like: it’s great except when it’s not.

newt102

You ever wonder how much of your life is yours and how much was just handed to you with a note that said, “Take this, or else”?

Yeah. That’s pretty much it.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it is that I like to do. You know, apart from all that was handed to me on the silver platter I didn’t know enough to refuse.

I’ve been cooking. Do you cook? Living alone, I’m guessing maybe so. Unless you go out to eat. Which is cool.

Well, I’ve started cooking. Guess what? I like it!

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I’ve got to be so freaking serious all day at the office, and that’s not really me, so I discovered that when I come home and immerse my senses into chopping, stirring, mixing, and tasting, it brings me out of that Srs Bsns mode. I always did like to play with my food.

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I’m just not crazy about eating alone.

You ever look at the empty chair next to you and imagine who might be sitting in it?

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Yeah. No. I don’t really have imaginary friends.

I think it’s cool that you’re doing this project because you have to, as part of your therapy.

I’m doing it to avoid therapy, frankly.

I’ve been heading down a road I’m not too crazy about. I started talking to my kid sister about it. I was thinking I was seriously messed up.

Then, my genius of a sister said something brilliant: “You’re not depressed, Norm. You’re lonely.

So this is me, trying not to be lonely.

Hey, it’s OK if you don’t want to be my pen pal. I’ll survive.

But I’m hoping you do. I could use to write to somebody who’s got so much in common with me.

newt103

Have a good day, or however the plum I’m supposed to end something like this.

Cheers, as my uncle likes to say.

–NMcC

Norman’s Next Letter >>

Forgotten Art: Norman’s Profile

The Pen Pal Project Online Application

Please complete the following questions as accurately and honestly as possible. Your sincere responses will help us match you with the applicants most suited to correspond with you.

normanprofile01

Name: Norman McCumber

Select your age bracket: 25-32

Profession: CEO, Windenburg Wind and Sun

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How many pen pals are your interested in acquiring? Two

What qualities do you seek in a pen pal? You’d better know how to laugh, buddy! Life’s too short to moan.

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Do you have a desire to meet your pen pal face-to-face? Awesomely yes, and most doable.

Please describe, in as much detail as possible, your reason for wanting to join the pen pal project:

You’d think, making all the lists every up-and-comer in my locale wants to make (Windenburg’s Top Ten Eligible Bachelors and Bachelorettes; Who to Watch at the Top; Up and Coming and Headed Your Way; Who Everybody Wants to Be), that I’d have it made. I mean, I’m “the guy that everyone wants to be.”

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I live in a quaint restored cottage in Old Town Windenburg, a bike-ride away from the company headquarters. This part of town is “the place to be.”

We run an eco-friendly business in an eco-friendly town and my life is all about eco-this and eco-that. It’s even eco-nomically advantageous.

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The thing is, I’m busy. I’m running the energy company my dad founded, a wind farm that’s expanding into solar.

I’ve got employees to manage, books to balance, stock-holders to pacify, R&D to oversee, and marketing campaigns to approve. I must talk with and email a hundred people most days. You’d think that would satisfy my social needs.

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But I’m lonely. All those associates, and hardly a friend.

My closest thing to socializing is heading to the park near my home on Sunday mornings and catching a game of chess.

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My sister and uncle have been talking about the friends they’ve made through the Pen Pal Project.

Uncle Jasper is always scheming to get me to write more, so I resisted at first.

But the other day, my sister brought up the app on her phone and showed me some of the profiles.

OK. I found one I really like. I mean, really, really like. Have you ever seen eyes that contain the whole universe? Yeah, it’s like that.

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Heck. I don’t even know if she’ll accept me as a pen pal. But it’s worth a shot. Like I say, “Life’s too short to moan.”

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After you have reviewed your application and made any necessary revisions or corrections, please click “Submit.” Only click once. Do not click “Refresh” or the back button on your browser.

The Pen Pal Project will notify you by email within ten days of any suitable correspondents we find for you. If you notice profiles of participants with whom you’d like to correspond, please feel free to write them.

Thank you for your wishes to participate in this project, and happy writing!

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Shift 3: Others

A bunch of days passed. I don’t know how many. I lost count.

I sort of forgot about everything except picking saguaro fruit, prickly pears, and cactus barrel fruit. I thought of catching crickets, too, and eating them for protein, but I decided not. One evening, I was playing my guitar, and I noticed that a cricket was chirping in tempo with me. I kept varying my speed, and the cricket kept matching it. When I’d stop, it would stop. I’d start, it would start. So I decided against eating crickets.

I picked mesquite pods and ground them with a rock onto another rock that I used for a mortar. Then I mixed the ground pods into a paste and dipped the grilled fruit and nopalitos in it. It was delicious.

At one point, I found that I had to roam further and further to get the fruit I needed.  It took all day of walking to find enough to eat.

I remembered how, when I camped here with my dad, we returned to the main lodge sometimes. They had a fridge there, and whenever there were events, like barbecues, people would store the leftovers in the fridge with a big sign, “Eat Me.” One day, Dad and me had been hiking all day. We were starving. When we checked the extras fridge, we found some steaks and corn on the cob. That was the best meal.

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When I got to the lodge, I held my breath and closed my eyes as I opened the fridge. When I looked, there was a box of veggie burger patties. The expiration date was for December, and I knew it was still fall. They smelled fresh enough. I found a package of buns in the pantry, too.

While I grilled them, I thought about how stuff shows up when we need it. Not always. But sometimes. And when it does, it feels really, really good.

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I took my meal inside. There was a gardener there, reading a joke book.

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“So,” he said, “how’s the research going?”

I was confused. I hadn’t met him, I didn’t think. But I’d seen him around a few times.

“I overheard you telling some tourists you were studying the saguaros?”

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I launched into telling him about what I’d observed on my treks. I was developing a theory about how higher elevation saguaros seemed to have greater chlorophyll.

He listened attentively.

“You’re probably onto something,” he said, and I started feeling really happy. I was happy to share my ideas, and I was feeling really happy that I was able to pull off my cover so well.

Then he said, “You’re kinda young for a university student. What are you, fifteen?”

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“Fourteen,” I confessed.

“I was going to guess fourteen,” he said. “You look really young, if you don’t mind me saying so. But you’re so smart about plants, you seem a little older.”

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He didn’t ask me anything about myself after that. Instead, he launched into a long story about his own background. He ran away when he was not much older than me. Abusive home. Alcoholic step-dad. He called it “that old story.”

He said he lived all over–in cities, in the mountains, on beaches.

“It was tough going,” he said, “but I learned a lot. I learned about myself and I learned about others. Picked up some good skills. Eventually, I got my GED, went to community college in horticulture, and now, here I am, working for the parks.”

I felt like he was trying to give me hope.

“I’ll look out for you,” he said, “while you stay here. You know you can’t stay forever. One thing about this life, you gotta move on, eventually. But while you stay, I won’t rat you out, and I’ll let you know if there’s anything you got to watch out for.”

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I don’t know if I can trust him. I want to. He’s been where I am. And he’s got a really nice smile and his voice is warm. If I listen to my gut, it says, trust him. But my brain says he’s got rules to follow, as a government employee, which he is, working for the parks, and one of those rules probably says something about not letting people live at the park, while another one probably says something about reporting kids on their own to the authorities.

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“I appreciate that,” I told him. I decided I wouldn’t completely trust him, but I would partway. So that’s what I’m doing.

For example, I didn’t tell him my name. I told him I was called Jazz. I wasn’t going to tell him where I was staying, but he knew already. He’d seen my camp when I was out walking.

I asked him about the campsite, about whose it was.

He said that last year, and the year before that and the year before that, back for quite a ways, some old guy lived there in the winters. He always left come spring, heading up north, most likely, and then before the snow arrived up there, he’d show up down here.

“So, I guess I can stay until it snows up north?” I asked.

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“Fine by me,” Deon said. That’s the gardener’s name. “Maybe longer. That fellow was getting pretty old, and for years now, we’ve been expecting a winter when he wouldn’t show.”

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“How come you let him live here in the winter,” I asked, “instead of reporting him?”

“What good would reporting him do?” Deon said. “He’s not hurting anybody or anything. We kind of like looking out for him.”

“We?”

“Me and the other gardeners.”

“You won’t tell them about me, will you?”

“Honey,” he said, “you can’t keep yourself a secret from them. You may have yourself convinced that nobody sees you, and sometimes, nobody will see you. But you got to learn that everywhere you go, there are people like me, who’ve been there, who will notice. Stop trying to hide, and you’ll have better luck blending in.”

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I wondered if he was right. I mean, he’d been there.

So that day, I decided I’d spend the whole day there at the park center, not hiding. I played my guitar, right out in front of the lodge for everybody to hear.

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And then at suppertime, I ate my meal with a family in the picnic area.

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The dad and his daughter were on a vacation, just the two of them, driving through the Southwest gathering fossils.

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When his daughter ran off to play on the space ship, I wondered if she had any idea how lucky she was.

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When I was falling asleep, I felt really sad for some reason. My cricket was chirping, and the moon was out, and millions of stars were shining, and I’d made a friend that my gut told me I could trust.

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But inside, I felt like a little girl, alone in the world.

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Whisper 2.22

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Dear me,

Now that Shannon’s said she doesn’t want me to write her, I don’t know who to write.

What I want to say, I don’t want to share with anyone, except Shannon. But she says it’s silly for me to write, since she’s right here. If I’ve got something to say, say it.

Only how do I say it when I don’t know what I want to say?

That’s the beauty of writing: I can explore, shift around, pose it one way, pose it another, and maybe, on the fifth run through, I’ll stumble upon my truth.

I can come upon what’s true for me through painting, too. I wonder if Shannon would let me give her my artwork?

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While I was back home, I felt so close to Shannon. Through my letters, I felt we’d found a new level of intimacy. I shared things with her that I’d never shared with anyone. I let her see my inmost heart. Sure, her replies were often single words–but I could feel her through the writing, as if each stroke of her pen carried her to me.

Now she says don’t write. And I have a feeling I’ll hardly see her while I’m getting this degree.

I’m confused about what we are.

I’ve decided while I sort out our relationship–what it means to me, what it might maybe mean to Shannon, and what’s going on to create this weird distance between us–I’ll meet some other people. It never hurts to make friends, right?

There are some neat people at campus this year. I like the guy Kenyan. He’s got a rad Afro and a really intense gaze.

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He came over for a bonfire party we threw, and I found him out watching one of the squirrels. Reminded me of the stories Mom used to tell about Uncle Shea.

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Melvin Moon is pretty cool. He says his uncle Anoki knew Mom.

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Jaclyn in still here. She’s still working on her phys ed degree. I’m really happy that we’re in the same degree program now. We have classes together, and we’ve been talking about squeezing in some extra workouts. I’d love to train her.

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I’ve been hanging out with all my dorm-mates, too. Campus life feels so different to me, this time around. I’m actually meeting people and doing all the typical college things.

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Like soccer.

I met this interesting-looking older guy who reminds me a lot of the famous artist Harwood Clay. This guy’s not an artist, though. He’s another phys ed major, back for a second degree after a long career as a pharmacist.

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He knows Shannon. Everybody knows Shannon, it seems. I invited her over to our bonfire party, and she spent the entire time out at the bonfire, talking to all my dorm-mates.

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And that brings up what I don’t get. Wouldn’t you expect that she would want to spend time with me, even if we were part of a group? But she doesn’t seem to. I never see her alone.

I don’t get it. I really thought that we were something to each other. I knew not to ask her to go steady–I mean, she was always really clear that her freedom is the most important thing to her. But I thought we enjoyed being with each other. I guess I sort of thought we were maybe in love with each other.

Now, she seems to be talking to everybody but me. And she asked me not to write.

I wish our social lives could be as simple as the squirrels’. They race around, chattering in their little squeaky clucks, and play tag and steal each other’s acorns and generally have fun causing mischief. And obviously, their attempts at romance work because back when Mom was a student there were only two, and just tonight, I saw five of them.

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If I were writing Shannon–which I’m not, and probably never will again–I’d write something about charm. I’d write about how I feel when I’m around her, which is that I could spend every moment with her, listening to her stories, looking in her eyes.

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She has this way of looking past my shoulder when she laughs that I find completely and utterly enchanting. I’m charmed.

Since I’m not writing to her, I’m left circling around my own feelings of disappointment. If I were more more interesting, or more of a rebel, or more intelligent, or better read, or less naive, or more adventurous, then she’d be charmed by me.

whisbi22015

But as it is, I can blow my pungi all I want, and the snake remains in the basket.

I’m trying to work my way around to something positive out of all this, but all I feel is bummed out and confused. What did I do wrong?

I guess I’ll just end with what Mom used to tell me when things were tough:

Hang in there.

Love,

me

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