Sunday, December 28, 2014

Not Zen 142: Hoarding

"She gave me another 'Best Granddad' mug. That was sweet." He flipped it out of the box.

"Do you like it?" 

Morning light glowed through the kitchen window. It was their first day home after the holiday. He was glad to be back. The first thing he'd done on his arrival was stoke the furnace and turn up the heat. He'd brewed coffee, too, which she poured into their usual cups. While she sipped, she heated oatmeal, enough for them both. She stirred in brown sugar, raisins, nuts, and berries.

He slid the gift mug onto the table. 

"It's got a nice color." She eyed the canary yellow glaze from her spot in front of the stove. "It's not too tall for the cabinet shelf. But you don't use the 'Best Granddad' mug from last year."

He shook his head. "Nah, it's a weird shape. I'll never do anything with it. We've got too many mugs already. We can barely close the cabinet door. Put it in storage."

"You're not going to use it even once?" She kept stirring.

"I've got too many of these." He tossed the gift box into the trash.

"Why don't you throw it out?" She tapped her wooden spoon on the side of the saucepan to knock off sticky flakes of oatmeal. "Give it to someone who wants it. We've got enough mementos."

"Who would want it as much as I do?" He threw up his arms the way he did when he felt she'd said something crazy. "It was a gift to me, personally. That's why I want to keep it."

"But you only want to keep it out of sight."

"Put it in the attic like you used to do with my old thank you cards, souvenir glasses, sweaters, ornaments, and stuff like that."

"Ha." She resumed her stirring. "You never wore a sweater in your life."

"No, but I got some as gifts. I think your paste jewelry is up there, too, right? A lot of the stuff we got that was junk because we were poor went up to the attic. It was all sentimental stuff. I saw you pack up a lot."

Her gaze drifted from the stove, across the kitchen, to the hall outside the foyer. There lay the door to the attic stairs. She grimaced. The oatmeal bubbled next to her hand. That caught her attention. She tapped the rising surface with the wooden spoon. Then she grabbed the measuring cup of water next to her and poured in a splash more. As she stirred, she nodded in the direction of the high cabinet.

He followed her gesture and rose. He reached up into the cabinet and pulled down two pottery bowls, one green, one blue. He set them down next to his wife. They stood, side by side. She turned off the stove.

"Honey," she said quietly, still stirring "why do you want to keep the mug if you know you'll never set eyes on it again?"

"You keep trying to talk me out of it."

"There's only so much room in the house." She raised her eyebrow. He pushed the bowls to the edge of the stove. She raised the saucepan by the handle and began to pour. "What makes this worth keeping?"

"That my grand-daughter gave it to me. Nothing else." He pulled away the first bowl when she was done with it.

"So the gift is useless except that you associate it with someone you love." She emptied the pot. She started to set it down, spotted a few nuts and berries stuck to the bottom, and scraped them out into the blue bowl.

"Yes." He picked up both bowls. Quickly, because they were warm, he transported them to the kitchen table. "Yes, it's exactly that."

"You keep saying that we need to prune out our useless possessions, that we shouldn't be attached to them."

He sighed. He knew more conversation was coming. "I know I do."

"I've seen you throw out any number of other things. Just not gifts."

"You don't have to put it like that." He strode to the flatware drawer. His hand found the spoons. "Or maybe you do. It's true enough. I let go of everything else. But I don't like to see gifts thrown out."

"You don't even look at them. Honestly, you hardly ever go into the attic. You certainly never open the boxes there."

He cocked his head to one side. A moment later, he laughed.

"No, I don't." He pushed a spoon toward his wife. The other, he kept as he took a seat. "Who wants to look at crappy knickknacks a second time? It's enough to think about the people who gave them to us. That's what's important."

"You like to contemplate the affection. Got it." She took her seat. She glanced at the 'Best Granddad' mug between them. He blew the steam off of his first spoonful. She felt the breeze. "So it's okay for me to put this where I put the others. You don't care if you see it again."

"Sure. I mean, if you've got the energy to go up there." He tested his first portion. It wasn't too hot. He took a bite and spoke with his mouth full. "If not, I'll find another space."

She took a minute to let her breakfast cool. When it was ready, she took a few bites in silence. He scooped up half of his share in that time, a dozen mouthfuls. 

"Honey," she announced. She put down her spoon. "I cleaned out the attic twenty years ago."

It took him a moment to understand. He blinked.

"Even the cheap jewelry?"

"Everything. I love you, honey." She reached across the table and put her right hand over his left. "I like to think about how hard we both worked in those days so we could have a few trinkets. But it's done. I don't need them."

Slowly, he nodded. Then a thought came to him. "The broken ornaments from my grandmother?"

"Listen to yourself. They were broken." She tightened her grip. "When I cleaned them out, I did it with a hand broom so I wouldn't cut myself on the shards. And you still remember her the same way."

"Yeah. Okay." He gave her hand a squeeze and let go for a moment. He grabbed his coffee cup to take a drink. "I may pretend that this mug is in the attic, though. When I talk to the kids and such."


He put his glass down. He rubbed his chin.

"I'll still think about it," he announced, "when I see my grand-daughter."


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Not Zen 141: Logos

He spent the holiday with his older sister and her family. In his first decade as a university professor, he'd had no time to start a family of his own. Instead he'd concentrated on his teaching, publishing, and achieving tenure - a satisfying event. But the university had come to feel claustrophobic in the past year. The visit promised to be an escape from academia.

He'd always loved his sister, a gentle soul, but she'd chosen to live on a farm. He found that he didn't like the roughness of his sister's husband or her children. He didn't care for the lewd sense of humor she'd picked up. What had seemed to be a simple, ideal existence from afar looked noisy and complex from inside her home. And outside her house, there sat rural squalor. The area went unnamed, deservedly so in his opinion. It held eight or nine houses together if, by together, one meant quite far apart but within the sight of a careful observer.

The gravel road and dirt paths looked traversable for a man determined to hike. He excused himself from breakfast.

"I'll go for a walk in the morning air," he announced.

His sister and her husband exchanged glances. The corner of her lips turned up.

"There isn't much to see," she warned.

"Sounds fine to me."

He closed the door gently, wondering if he could have handled that better. But as soon as he was alone, he more at ease. The sounds of the home faded in the gentle wind. The sky lay overcast, the sun a greyish-white glow to the east. He thought it was fortunate that the breeze wasn't too harsh. The morning felt brisk enough already. Frost lay on the grass and on the thinnest branches of the trees. Wisps of vapor trailed from his mouth as he slogged up the trail.

His shoes twisted in ruts of frozen mud. The ground felt unforgiving. Undoubtedly, he would be sore if he hiked far.

In time, he spotted a grain silo in the distance. There was a house beside it, much less impressive than the silo. Even from afar, he could tell the sides of the home needed paint. Patches of it had peeled away.

As he grew close enough to see the frozen garden in front, the lumps of leaves not cleared, the ivy sprawled along the front yard in a patient battle with the grass, a boy burst out the front door. He ran, wailing, into the yard. He couldn't have been more than eight or nine. He continued to cry and swing his bare arms.

The child looked half dressed. He wore boots and heavy pants but his shirt had no sleeves. The material looked stained and ripped like a castoff undershirt. Blue and black bruises, small ones, decorated the young fellow's body, a dozen or so in total. There were more on his left arm than his right. A larger bruise swelled on his left cheek.

The professor raised his hand to speak. He was close enough to shout something. But what would he say? The boy continued to rage, cry, and shudder with every breath, although whether his body shivered from the cold or from emotion, it was hard to tell. Finally, the boy grabbed a stick.

The professor stopped. He put down his hand.

The boy stalked, cudgel in hand, to what had seemed to be a lump of leaves next to the garden. It was a dog. The animal showed no fear. It rose in greeting and walked to the end of its short chain. The stake for the chain had been pounded into the soil at the corner of the garden.

The boy screamed something. He hit the dog.

The beast wuffed and backed up. But the child pursued. There was no easy escape. The professor stood frozen in horror, then anger. Finally, when a yelp from the dog sounded like it had taken a mortal blow, he rushed forward. He almost fell along the way. There were ruts in the road and in the yard. But he closed the gap. He leaped between the child and his dog.

The boy screamed at him, furious. It was an anger without words. Fortunately, the lad didn't swing. The stick in his hand looked lethal when seen up close.

"Stop. Please stop," the professor said. He put up his hands.

The boy stopped yelling. He panted.

They stood, staring at each other for a moment. The professor heard the dog whine behind him. He studied the bruise on the boy's face. It was a bloody one. Carefully, he crouched and extended his arms. He startled himself with the gesture. He was hugging the boy before he thought about it.

"What? Hey!" The boy pushed away but he did so with a gentle touch. "Why are you being nice?"

"I don't know." He felt bewildered. "You were beating the dog. I was mad. But then you seemed sad. I couldn't stay angry."

"I've never seen you before."

"No, I'm just visiting." He rose to his feet. How could he explain his position to someone so young? "I'm a teacher at a university."

"Why aren't you angry, then? Everyone else is."

His mind spun for a moment with all of the logic he used every day. Obviously, he could point out that not everyone was angry. But maybe less confrontational approach would be better. He thought back on his recent lectures and the reactions of his students.

"There's a greek word, logos," he said. He pronounced the word carefully and watched the boy's face for a reaction. "It stands for logic and also for spirit. It's way that people are joined together."

"So it's like a soul, then." The lad seemed unimpressed.

The professor always told his students, 'No, not like that,' but he didn't think an admonishment would go over well.

"It's more like the secret connection between souls."

"Oh." The lad sniffled. He wiped his nose on his bare forearm. "Is that how it works? Is all our stuff connected? Then that's why I get sad and angry when someone else is sad and angry."

"Yes, I think so. Like that." He turned his attention to the bruises. His fingers reached for one but he pulled back without touching. "Is your father here?"

"Not for years. Don't remember him."

"Oh." That shattered the notions that were started to take shape in his mind. "Well, why are you so bruised? Where's your coat?"

The boy glanced to his left, toward his house. He opened his mouth to speak but stopped. Then he gazed down at his feet and started to cry.

The professor turned. The house looked mundane and unimposing. There was no one at the front door. He spotted a face in the window, a woman. Her visage seemed marred by an enraged expression. Then she was gone. She'd noticed him looking and moved away. He watched the darkened pane of glass for half a minute in the hope that she might come back. He half-wished and half-feared she would come to the door.

In time, the dog crept up next to him. The beast rubbed its shaggy body against him, as if for the warmth. Next, it approached the boy, who had fallen quiet. It licked the boy's face.

The boy's hand fell to the mutt's neck. He didn't push it away.

"What a nice dog you have," he professor said. "He forgives you."

"Hey." The boy brought up his left hand to shield his face from the animal's tongue. He'd stopped crying, perhaps from annoyance.

"Dogs must have the logos stuff too," he boy announced. "Because he's connected. See?"

The professor raised a finger. He started to say no, that only humans had the connective spirit, but he closed his eyes and looked inward to his definitions. He saw himself in the classroom, giving his speech about the greek logos. It always ended with students debating one another about its existence. The professor sided with the doubters. Most of the time, there seemed to be no real connection between any people at all. There didn't even seem to be pervasive logic that people followed. But then he opened his eyes and looked at the dog. The ancients had believed in the connections between other creatures and that those tendrils of spirit extended throughout all of nature. In ten years of teaching the subject, he'd never taught that part.

"Why are you crying?" asked the boy.

"What? I'm not." He wiped his eye. A chuckle escaped him although it felt forced. He patted the dog. It kept trying to lick the boy. "This dog of yours is just amazing."

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Not Zen 140: Little Surprises

He let his horse amble along. Hot breath steamed from the beast's nostrils.

They took their time. He guessed that the gelding beneath his saddle enjoyed the foggy morning as much as he did. For him, it had been three years since he'd this kind of work. To get the job, he'd hitched a ride on a train from the coast. He'd hired on to the ranch as its lowest-paid hand. Naturally, since he'd had experience, his new bosses were happy to send him out at dawn to patrol the fence line.

Lots of things in the wild knocked down fence rails. His job was to find out where they'd done it. Then he stopped and fitted the rails back into place. It was a mindless chore. He liked that. All morning, he rode, worked the fences, and walked his horse. When he reached the northwest corner, he turned back toward the ranch alongside the western border.

He'd eaten his breakfast from a wax wrapper. He'd drunk water from his canteen. He'd repaired three rails.

As he neared the end of the border, he crested the hill that overlooked the ranch house. There, he and his horse paused. They took in the view of the cattle below. There was a herd fenced in to the east, a smaller herd gated to the south. The large, north barn lay low in his view, near his knees. Farther away lay the main house, then the stables. Between the house and the stables sat a horse corral. Behind it, the small, south barn was a mere bluish dot.

From his vantage, he saw a pair of men approach the corral. They should have been carrying loops of rope, he thought, but their hands looked empty. The darker fellow had to be the Shawnee medicine man who acted as a sort of low-paid veterinarian.

The ranch had struck a deal with the Shawnee reservation. The cowboy didn't understand it and no one had bothered to explain it.

The other man was, on second glance, a woman. Despite her lack of a dress, he knew from her long, light-brown hair. She was the rancher's eldest daughter. She opened the gate of the corral and, as if she did it all the time, motioned for the horses to come out.

The half-dozen mustangs sauntered into the north field of the ranch. They cantered around, called to one another, and played for a few minutes. She let them run free. Beneath him, his own horse whinnied and pulled at its bit. He tugged to hold it steady. The gelding itched to join the herd even though, presumably, it was more free to travel while it was with him.

"Right, boy." He couldn't deny what his horse saw. He patted the beast on its flank. His fingers loosened their grip on the reins. The gelding began to trot downhill.

Below, the ranch horses drank from a trough usually reserved for the longhorn bull. They nibbled the grass around the trough. Soon, the lead mare returned to gate of the corral, where it approached rancher's daughter. The young woman put her arms around the leader's neck. She spoke to it. The mare nuzzled her and pushed its thick mane into her delicate face. Then the horse pulled away. It turned and trotted into the corral. The others followed. The girl stepped in behind the last one. She swung the gate shut, dropped the latch, and took what she'd been eating out of her mouth. It looked like half of an apple. She held it out for the lead mare, who accepted it carefully between her front teeth.

The girl turned towards the barn to get oats or some other feed for the rest of the herd. The medicine man merely sat down on a bench next to the gate and watched the horses.

By the time the cowboy reached the corral, the girl had passed out of sight.

"Shawnee, right?" He waved to the medicine man. "I'm new here."

The middle-aged fellow turned to look at him as he dismounted. He wore stitched leather clothes and a blanket over his shoulders. His eyes seemed so dark and so reflective, they glinted of silver.

The cowboy tied his gelding to a fence post by its reins. Then he stuck out his hand to shake. The medicine man made no move to respond. But the cowboy wasn't sure if the Shawnee people understood the custom. He put his hands on his hips.

"So, does that happen often?" he said to renew the conversation.

"Every day, white man." The fellow spoke with an accent but a clear voice. He nodded. But he hesitated and tilted his head. "Maybe. I don't really know what you're talking about."

"I mean, you and the girl let out the horses." He smiled. "But the horses came back. It looked like they were talking to you folks. Can you understand what the horses are saying?"

"I see. Well, I've spent most of my life around horses. So has the ranch lady."

"I have, too. But I haven't seen that before. The horses in this corral have been looking to bolt. They run from most people. I've seen it. So is she a witch? How about you?"

"Only me. The woman would not like to be called a witch and she is not wise in the way you mean. She does ordinary miracles."

"How's your English? I don't reckon we mean the same thing. That girl, she talks to animals. And they talk back."


"I'm shocked. That's a big deal."

The Shawnee shrugged. "The medicine man before me could do it much better. I don't know that it was related to his wisdom. Maybe a little. The young lady seems wise for her age. But I hesitate to say so if you think it's shocking."


"Wisdom should not be associated with special powers."

That set the cowboy back a step. All of his life, religious men had talked about holy power as if that were the point of holiness: to be powerful.

"Then what good is it?" he asked.

"At best, a wise man learns to see things as they are. That is, we can see as much as flesh and blood creatures like us can perceive the true way of things. Much still remains hidden." The medicine man hunkered down with his blanket around his shoulders.

"That doesn't sound special."

"No. But it is surprising."

"That's your wisdom? Every tent-flap deacon around here promises more, I bet. You've studied your medicine for years. And you say that you're still surprised to see things as they are?"

"Better the countless little surprises," the fellow said as he shook his head, "than the one big shock."

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Not Zen 139: Small Gestures

At the side door of a large city building, a man struggled with a cart.  He was a short, muscular fellow.  On his chest, he wore a uniform shirt.  On his head, he had a cap with an emblem.  He'd gotten the door open.  But his handtruck was a tight fit.

The cart bed wasn't too wide but it had been laden with boxes, large and small.  The lightest ones at the top jostled.  Every time he tried to push his cart through the available space, its wheels bumped against the handle, the mortise joint, the frame, or the raised door sill.  With every bump, one of the lightest boxes fell off.  He had to stop.  After each halt in progress, he shoved the door open with one arm, grabbed the cart handle, and tried again.  But each time, he lost a box in the process and had to replace it.  Dozens of people passed by on the street outside.  A few passed through the door, outside to inside.  They ignored him.

Eventually, a tall man in a suit rushed up.  He'd seen the struggle from a distance and ventured over to hold the door.

"Thanks, buddy," said the shorter man.  "My boss overloaded me.  Kind of tough here."

He put both hands on the cart handle and eased it through.  This time, the door handle didn't hit him.  Nothing endangered his boxes until he paused to ease the wheels over the raised sill.

"I'm probably just like your boss," the newcomer said.  "I give a lot of orders to a lot of work crews and most of the time I don't really know what I'm doing."

"Huh.  At least you help."

"I try."  The man in the suit waved off the complement.  "But really, my job makes me act like an ass.  I order people to do work they don't like. Then I have to fire the poor performers. That's the worst.  But what kind of an ass wouldn't hold open a door for someone who needs it?"

The worker shrugged.  The other fellow was someone's boss and, by his own admission, not the best.

After he eased the cart onto the sidewalk, he had to make his way through the pedestrians, the cyclists, and the car traffic.  He crossed the street with the signal, but slowly.  Cars honked.  He dropped a package, picked it up, and held it down on the cart.  The thumb of his left hand kept a tall stack steady as he eased up the ramp at the curb.

His destination was the corner building, as close and as convenient as it could be.  The place had glass double doors.  It should have been easy.  But the entrance had been paved with cobblestones.  Their uneven surface knocked his packages off of their stacks.  The threshold rose above the stones so that, once again, he struggled to get his cart through.  There were two security guards behind the front desk.  He could see them watching him.  Neither got up.

People strolled by.  Employees from the building passed in and out of the doors. No one offered to hold a door open for him.  No one came to lift the front wheels of the cart.  A woman with a heavy purse and a fur collar passed behind.  She scowled at the inconvenience of walking around him.

He paused for a moment, hands on hips.  After half a minute, he wandered around to the front of the cart to try to lift the wheels.  Then he noticed a man striding his way.  It was the same tall fellow who had helped him at the previous building.

"I guess I caught up to you before anyone else could step in."  He put his hand on the cart handle and pushed down as the smaller man lifted.  Together, they levered the cart over the threshold.  "This is a surprise."

"I wish it was, buddy."  The workman tipped his cap.  "I wish it was."