Sunday, March 26, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 298: Biomythography - Note 48, Observing, Appreciating

Biomythography 48

Observing, Appreciating

"Look at the moon," Kate said in an awed voice. But she said it every night. 

During the first few weeks of the semester, her enthusiasm for ordinary things seemed cute. After a month, I rolled my eyes when she said it. After three months, I enjoyed the moon. A lot.

We met and lived in a small college. At that point in life, I'd never thought I would hear an adult express so much wonder about ordinary things. Of course, the moon is different every night. I hadn't appreciated the changes in it since I was seven. They were there, every time. Sometimes the sphere would glow bright and clear, every crater starkly visible. Sometimes it would be fuzzy.

On occasions, the moon was yellow. At other times, it had a rainbow around it.

Kate had a natural awareness built into her. She noticed so many changes in the world around her, the extent of her perceptions astounded me. Needless to say, she perceived more of the sensory world than most, especially visual cues. I was infamous for not noticing things even while I was working on improving my awareness. Kate came into my life and showed me how far I had to go.

"That flower is missing a petal," she would observe. I'd turn my gaze to follow hers and take a minute to find what she'd spotted at a glance.

With her in my life, I started actually looking at the moon and the flowers. And the dirt. And the cracks in sidewalks. Reflections in windows. Bugs in the corner next to a smear of grit that had worn off a cinderblock. The world had a different sensory influence while I was around her.

A couple months after we'd started dating, she took things to a different level during breakfast.

"I had a dream," she told me in the dining hall. And she told me her visions of the night before.

She did the same thing after the next night. And the next. And I started remembering my dreams. I didn't know you could learn it as a mundane skill. I certainly didn't know you could learn it without any intent. Recalling dreams while I was awake wasn't a super-power like observing things others don't. Still, my increased dream control lent itself to insights. First I remembered the visions. Then I had months of lucid sequences I could consciously influence. Then I could wake myself and return to the dreams. This was Kate's world. And a little more. Kate couldn't go back to the same dream and I could. The point is, maybe, she was so different that being near her changed me.

For years I had concentrated on disregarding the sensual world. Most especially, I'd given up expectations and desires. Now I was learning to appreciate ordinary things in life. In the process, I discovered it wasn't the opposite of giving up desire. And I had worried that it was. 


Appreciation may seem in some ways like the opposite of abandoning desire. But if you've given up attachments, it's not. If you can allow yourself a desire and then detach from it, even better. For me, giving up my expectations was the most important part of my personal development process. And appreciation didn't endanger that. Rather, it opened me up to gratitude for life's experiences. I hadn't understood how deeply one could observe the world. I'd dismissed the idea of appreciation as a trivial enticement of samsara.

In late June after my time with Kate, I went out running at about four in the morning. On a country road without street lights, I turned a corner and found a celebration of sorts.

I stopped running to stare at it. On either side of the road in the underbrush, there was a display of small, yellow lights on the ground. Cautiously, I moved closer to the lights. I couldn't believe the phenomenon was natural. When I got close enough, I saw one of the lights move by a fraction. It was just a twitch. I leaned closer. I put my hand into the thorns and honeysuckle. I moved the leaves of the bushes aside. My eyes adjusted.

Finally, I could see. On the ground of the slope in front of me were fireflies. They weren't in the air, although the weather was perfect. They were walking on the ground. Their lights didn't blink. Were these a species of bug I didn't know? Should I think of them as glow worms? They clearly weren't worms, though. They had the beetle body in the shapes of the fireflies I normally saw aloft in the woods.

After a long while studying them, I let the leaves of the thorn bushes and honeysuckle move back into place. I ran on. And I never saw anything like it again. 

You can learn to appreciate. It takes effort when you're exhausted and sore. But you can.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 297: Biomythography - Note 47, Breathing and Observation

Biomythography 47

Breathing and Observation

She had a beautiful face with an upturned nose and long, dark hair. Sometimes I caught myself staring at her smile. She flashed one at me as I helped her into the Mustang. 

When she sat, she grabbed the back of her hair and pulled it around to her front right shoulder. It was a move she made without thinking. I hardly noticed it myself, anymore. She had to make sure neither of us could close the door on any part of her waist-low tresses. When I walked around to the driver's seat, she told me how much she liked the color of the car. 

"Oh yeah," I said. The comment made me pause to think. She'd told me once before. I dimly realized her father was a mechanic. She probably knew more about my car than I did. "The Mustang has been pretty great, really. The steering is kind of crap. But the engine has been reliable. The ride is going to be loud, this time. I need to replace the muffler but I couldn't make myself empty my emergency fund."

My budget was near enough to zero that I begrudged filling the gas tank. I'd been putting off needed repairs, as usual. To take a closer look at this particular problem, I'd shimmied underneath the vehicle to check the rust on the muffler. I'd seen how bad it was. Where the pipes connected and held the muffler to the frame, the rust had not only eaten through the metal from front to back but it had left holes. That was why the pipe sounded like a steamboat. I'd jiggered it with a wire coat hanger, which effectively became my muffler bracket. 

When I turned the key, the young woman's smile faded.

"That's pretty bad," she said. She had an educated ear, unfortunately. "You may need to spend the emergency fund."


"Probably carbon monoxide is getting in." She sniffed. For sure, all sorts of fumes were flooding us. 

"I'll crack a window," I replied.

"Okay." She settled back into her seat and beamed me another smile. Her judgments about me were probably as bad as mine about cars. 

I'd known her for a couple of years at this point. She was an old girlfriend who had decided to visit me at college. I'd expected the days with her to be awkward. Somehow, though, she made it friendly and romantic. She had arranged her visit while I was between girlfriends at school. It seemed like she and I were going to stay friends for a long while. 

"Why were you just sitting still this morning?" she asked. 

"I didn't think you noticed." I'd done it while she was brushing her hair, which took a while. 

"Well, you weren't doing anything." She gave me a concerned glance. "You looked like the Kung Fu show. Sitting like that, I mean. It was weird."

"I was meditating." I'd known it would look odd to anyone else. I usually meditated alone.

"Do you do it a lot?"

"A few times a day." Every morning, at least. The other times I chose were random. If I had time and I thought I needed it, I sat down to clear my mind. "Not during your visit, though."

"You didn't have to stop just for me." Her brow crinkled. "What is meditation, anyway?"

I tried to explain. My practice was my own, though. I didn't know anyone else interested. I'd started out with a method called envisioning. It worked well but I knew it was falling out of fashion. I'd moved to calmness meditation. In fact, I'd spent three years with a heartbeat-based method of clearing my mind. I'd learned to slow my pulse. I'd gotten pretty good. After that, though, I switched to breathing meditation, which was more popular. The breathing style had an opposite purpose to it, which made it hard at first.

At the start of breathing meditations, I found myself interfering with my breath. My awareness met with a conditioned reflex in me. I tried to try to control my breathing. After all, I had just been controlling my pulse. The whole point of the popular style, though, was to achieve naturalness. Breathing meditation encouraged self-observation including the ability to observe without exercising any conditioned responses. In the last year or two, I had partly tackled it. I could keep a clear mind for a long time. I could let my body work naturally despite my awareness. I practiced every day. Sometimes I got overly conscious and started affecting my breath or other parts of my body. But mostly I'd ditched my trained reflexes. I was observing my heartbeats and my breaths without asserting any changes. 

"You're looking flush," she said after a while. "Do you feel okay?"

"Yeah." She was looking pale, herself. We were both wondering about how the engine fumes were affecting us. 
"How long is the ride to Logan Airport?" she asked.

"Two hours," I sighed. 

"How long has it been so far?"

"Twenty minutes." I pulled onto Interstate 90. We headed east.

She had a good reason to be concerned. But the ride back was the part I dreaded more, since I'd be alone and bored. For now, maybe we were taking in some carbon monoxide but we'd be fine, a little woozy at most. She popped a Prince album into my tape deck. I listened to the music and to her descriptions of the problems she was having with one of her sisters. Sometimes she shared the dramas involving other members of her family.

Years in my future, we would go on similar drives. She would call to ask for a ride to a different city. She would accompany me on travels from state to state as groups of us went rafting or saw concerts. Once, she called at noon to ask me to come down to the courthouse to witness her marriage. She had been dating the guy for a week but they'd known each other for years and, to her surprise, he'd asked. Their ceremony was at three. My managers at the bar where I worked were so surprised, they broke their usual no-excuses rule and gave me the afternoon off to attend. 

Six months later, she called me in tears from three states away. She wanted a ride to get rescued from her husband. 

That morning in Massachusetts, though, she mostly talked about her family. The topic of my car kept us busy, too. The muffler noise ramped up. It started to rattle. She said I had turned from flush to pale. She rubbed her head like she was getting a headache. For my part, I had to admit I was feeling dizzy. I rolled down the window another inch. 

"These car fumes can't be good for you," she commented. "Are you going to be okay for the drive back?"


A minute later, we felt a thump. I glanced at my rear view mirror. I saw my muffler in my limited field of vision as it went tumbling along the highway behind us and off onto the shoulder.

I rolled down the window some more. 

"I'm already feeling weird," she complained. "And now I'm cold."


I was right about us being fine with the window down, though. We made it to Logan Airport with twenty-five minutes to spare. At the terminal, we hugged and kissed a little. 

"Make sure you stay awake the whole way home," she warned me. "You had me to check on you. Now I won't be there."
"I'll be fine."

Before I got in the car, though, I took a look at myself in a bathroom mirror. Given it was the early 1980s, I thought I was fine. I had tight jeans, a dark t-shirt that women seemed to like, and my hair was cropped tight on the sides in a lazy, partial mohawk. My skin looked a little pale, maybe, but nothing worse. Fine. I looked healthy.

If I was getting carbon monoxide, it all came down to math, didn't it? I'd breathed it for two hours. Obviously, it had been only a little per minute, far below the critical dose, whatever that was. I was going to have about a forty-five minute break from it. That was time enough for my body to heal up. Next, I had to breathe more carbon monoxide for two more hours. 

Deep in the garage, I turned on my car. Three other people in the concrete enclosure spun around in alarm. I smiled and waved. My window was already down.

As I pulled out of Logan, it occurred to me that I hadn't driven for long in this car with a broken muffler. I'd kept the windows open every time, too. Truthfully, I didn't know how much carbon monoxide was adding up in my system. 

I decided it was time for my new form of meditation to come to the rescue. Even before I got to the highway, I eased into better awareness. To my surprise, it wasn't harder to drive. It was different. Maybe my reactions were better. Unfortunately, right away I started breathing harder. My intense awareness made my desire to control each breath kick in. When I started getting light-headed, I had to wonder if I was simply doing it to myself with strained, shallow wheezes. I had to fix the attempt to control my body. 

Can you meditate better if your life depends on it? Of course you can. At least, my decision then was to improve. Why not get better at meditation at this very moment? 

Previously, I had been able to keep my awareness without accidentally invoking my self-consciousness for what seemed like a long time but was probably less than a minute. I'd lose the correctness. Then I'd adjust my mind. I'd achieve another half-minute. And so on. The state of my process wasn't good enough to keep my head above water, metaphorically, but I could keep getting back up to the surface for a while. Already, I'd developed the ability to turn attachments on or off (mostly keeping to the off because I was concerned about my lack of control when allowing re-attachments). Now it was time to exercise the same ability with my observational powers.

The problem was that my observational powers were crap. I felt intensely aware of it. 

After half an hour, I felt my breathing reverting to a natural pattern. My awareness remained. I felt different. I knew some of it might be carbon monoxide. My hands and face tingled. Even with normal breathing, I could feel the fumes dragging on my body. I pulled over to adjust the windows, carefully hand-cranking all four to the give me the coldest breeze I thought I could stand. Then, back on the highway, I remained in my aware, relaxed, meditative state. 

A few years later, I would discover new realms of observation. I'd come to feel it was its own thing, an important aspect of life. During the carbon monoxide drive, though, my extended moment of practice merely opened the door. For two hours, minus a second stop to adjust the windows for maximum air and minimum cold, I subsisted on awareness meditation. My body felt sick. But I felt good. Very good, very aware. My nose rebelled at the strong odor of burnt oil and other fumes. The tingling in my hands and face worsened. My light-headedness meant I had to concentrate a bit more. My body didn't care for the cold air, either. But my spirits improved. I accepted the freezing temperatures without shivering. When my lungs seemed to slow almost to a stop on their own, I pulled over and got out for a minute. I walked away from the car. I felt better. I got back in and drove the last half hour from Springfield to South Hadley. 

"Hey, this really works," I thought. I had been practicing in my dorm room, yes, but not with any urgency. This was the first time my awareness had seemed to be a practical skill. I was surprised to discover that, when I felt my life depended on it, I could improve. When it was important, I could be aware and natural. 

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 296: Biomythography - Note 46, Forced to Notice

Biomythography 46

Forced to Notice

At six in the morning, a mile into my run, a monster passed over me.

The shadow's wingspan looked twice my size in the weak morning light. It was an unmistakable shape. Anyone who has seen a great horned owl in flight knows. Owl wings are built differently than those of other raptors. The beast crossed a dozen feet above my head. It dove across the road and came to rest in a tree. 

Then it was gone. As large as it was, the owl became invisible to my glance when it folded its wings. Logically, I knew it had perched on the high bough of an oak tree. 

It was one of the things you see when you're alone at an unusual hour. Most of the uncommon sights are wild animals. They are going about their usual business at their customary time. There are no humans in their landscape. Then you blunder in. You catch a glimpse of their life.

At three in the morning, on a similar run, a herd of deer ran alongside me. You can forget how large they are until they're an arms-length away. I was sprinting down the middle of a dark, lonely, country road. The herd of twenty deer ran by on either side. A barrier of brambles kept most of them away. A few large males danced through and back over the underbrush as if to make their point: I was slow; I was outnumbered by powerful beasts in the dark; they were many and they stayed together. They thundered by for half a minute. A dozen crossed in front of me as the herd veered away from its parallel path with the road on their way to elsewhere. In twenty seconds, the sound of them had faded.

Not every strange event is an animal. Once, while hiking across a wide-open field, I spotted a flicker in the sky. I marched toward it. The object in the air turned over and over. It half floated and half fell until it hit the ground a yard in front of me.

It was a piece of white bread.

The bread was perfect, not a bite taken out of it. There wasn't a condiment in sight. Nor was there a crow in the sky, nor an eagle. There was a plane above in the distance, a jumbo jet. It had taken off from Dulles to my west. White contrails streaked out behind it. Otherwise, there was nothing above besides the sun and a few clouds. I saw no indication of the origin of the bread. It simply arrived.

These are the facts you don't expect. When I was a father, I cut down a tree in my yard. Months later, I returned to chop and pry out the stump. When I started removing pieces, I discovered a wonderland of small tunnels. Beneath the roots of the willow-oak I unearthed a labyrinthine colony of bright, golden ants. I'd never seen golden ants before. They are rare, apparently. I don't dig up the ground very often, either. Maybe I'll never see them again. Right in the middle of my life, they made their home where I discovered it.

But I'd exposed the colony. I covered the divots over, trying to make their situation good, but nonetheless, by the next afternoon they were gone. Naturally, I checked.

Some of these opportunities may not be available to everyone. I have often been happy to wander far from other humans. Even when you think there's no one else, though, sometimes you meet other stragglers. That can be uncomfortable. I've run into drunk marines. I've talked at length with homeless men at their campsites. Once as a young teen I ran into a tall, middle-aged woman early in the day. We were each hiking a few miles inside the borders of the Seneca Creek State Park in a section without rangers or visitors.

She put her hand to her chest when she saw me. It was clear she was more surprised than I was. At least I lived close enough to feel the park was mine. My proprietary sense had drawbacks because it didn't match what anyone else thought but, still, I was aware that the forest, from time to time, bore trespassers upon my solitude. She was one, another in an unfortunate list of them.

For her, it had to seem strange to walk alone in an abandoned state park, deliberately as far as you could get from anything, and discover nonetheless there was someone else.

"Do I know you?" she said.

"No." I stopped and frowned at her. She persisted.

"I'm sure I do." She wore sensible hiking clothes and a hat to keep off the sun even though we were in a forest. "Do you go to Sidwell Friends?"

We were thirty-five miles from my school, a private school.

"Shit," I said.

"Excuse you," she replied. "I think I've seen you with my son."

We talked for a few minutes. As it turned out, I did in fact go to school with her son. He was a year older than I was but a nice guy. We didn't hang out much because he wasn't in my year. Her impression of her son, I came to understand, was that he felt insecure, which might have been true. But I felt violent and insecure myself, so he was the target of my reserved sense of friendship. Because he was nice. And fairly smart. She was, too.

"I'm here to look at the orchids," she announced.

"Are those flowers?"

Her mouth pressed tight into a line. In retrospect, she had to feel I was being deliberately dense and trying to get rid of her. She was right. But my desire for solitude battled with my sense of politeness.

"Do you live near this park?" she asked.

"In it."

"How wonderful for you." She gave me a hearty smile.

"No." When I caught the stern look on her face I backpedaled my emotional response. But only slightly. I was still a teenager in the midst of a teen life. "Not really, ma'am."

"There are orchids in this park that exist nowhere else in the world." A breathless tone crept into her voice with the revelation. She clasped her hands together with an emotionally-collected sort of pleasure.

"Flowers." At thirteen, I couldn't fathom why anyone would find such things interesting.

"Yes." In an instant, she made up her mind that I was both harmless and in dire need of an education. "Come with me."

Now it was worse than running into a stranger. I had spoken with a friend's mother. If she grew comfortable, she would try to take me back to my house for a friendly chat with my parents, who weren't actually at all friendly this morning, or she would dragoon me into a chore she thought was fascinating. As we walked together with me a half-step behind, I mulled over my excuses to leave. 

She led me a tenth of a mile to an unimpressive purple flower growing out of a bed of moss. I'd seen spiders with more color. She made hushed gasping sounds as she stared at it from afar.

"Do you ever pick up plants here?" she asked with an appropriate sense of suspicion.

"All the time." I destroyed them out of a sense of boredom, mostly. I didn't want to say so at the moment.

"Please don't hurt this one."

"Okay." It was important to her, I could tell. I crouched next to it. "If it's the only one in the world, why not save it? Transplant it. Take it home."

"It's not that type of flower, I'm afraid." For the first time, her expression turned grim. Most of the time, she was so determined and cheerful I thought no one could stand it. Yet I found myself liking her fortitude. "No one knows what makes it live and bloom, not precisely. It seems to need other plants. Or perhaps certain animals in the soil. Or something. If I dared to transplant it, I'd likely kill it. Others have tried. They've killed the only specimens they could find."

"Take a yard of dirt around it." I'd done it while transplanting bushes for my mother during my chores. It almost always worked, even when I tried in my lazy way to ruin the bush so I'd never be ordered to transplant it again.

"That fellow who killed the last one? That's what he tried."

She remained standing, staring at the plant and its partners for a while. I stayed crouched not far from it, a couple yards closer than she was.

"I'm glad I showed this to you," she announced.
"Thank you, Mrs. Wirth."

She regarded my sullen politeness with her hands on her hips. I'm fairly sure she thought something encouraging about me, like perhaps I would come to appreciate plants eventually. Or I would remember some part of what she said.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 295: Biomythography - Note 45, Cycling Through the Clouds

Heron and Bicycle by Metro Centric, Wikimedia Commona
Biomythography 45

Cycling Through the Clouds

I was told to go out and play although, in my neighborhood, no one my age was allowed to come out that day. Their families were all busy. My solution was to get on a bike.

After I pedaled around Acredale Park for a while, I headed east on Metzerott Road. At the end, I reached a one lane bridge. I had to walk the bike up the last few steps of the bridge incline because it was too steep to pedal. When I finished, I came out on Route One. The road is known as Baltimore Avenue to some folks but to my parents it was always Route One.

Cars whizzed by along it and on University Boulevard nearby, on Greenbelt Road, and on the other thoroughfares around College Park.  The streets were always busy. They had sidewalks alongside them, though. As I regarded the bowling alley, which got boring without money, I vaguely remembered that Vit Babushka lived somewhere in Berwyn Heights. My mother always drove me. But I thought I knew how to find Vit's house on my bike. It became my goal for the day. I was sure I could find Vit wherever he was and get him to play outside.

I knew the direction. I was pretty sure his home wasn't any more than five miles away, maybe eight at most. I would recognize the neighborhoods my mother drove through to get there. So I headed off along Greenbelt Road until I got to a sign saying Berwyn. The sign didn't look quite right. I looked for another that said Riverdale. That was a road I needed. I was pretty sure my mother had taken a shortcut through Berwyn before, though, so I took the right into the Berwyn neighborhood and hoped I'd figure it out.

After a few turns, I got frustrated. The houses had started out seeming familiar but then they became strange. I couldn't find my way back to any right-seeming place. When I tried to take a cut across the development going further east, the road circled back almost all the way around. It didn't lead me to where I'd thought at all. The suburban landscape was turning out to be a maze of small switchbacks and streets ending in identical-looking cul-de-sacs.

At some point in my drive, I noticed a boy playing alone in his yard. He was about nine. I was nine, too. He watched me cycling from behind his backyard fence. A few minutes later, he watched me pedal by him again. 

The third time I showed up, he came out from behind the beam-and-chicken wire fence. I paused my bike and put my left foot down to wait for him. 

"What are you doing?" he asked. He had a wide-eyed face. He seemed remarkably unathletic with no muscle tone visible anywhere but he wasn't fat. Mostly, his body looked like he stayed indoors a lot and his hair looked like it grew flat and black in a natural bowl cut.

"Trying to bicycle to Berwyn Heights," I said.

"That’s a long way from here," said the boy. His eyes got even wider.

"Yeah." I slumped a little. I knew I'd wasted a couple miles of effort. But I had hope. I wasn't off course by those miles because I'd gone roughly in a circle.

"Are you gonna go play?"

"Where I'm going? Yeah."

"Why don’t you play here?" He turned and swung his arm toward his back yard. "You’ll have to stay outside, though. My mama don’t let strangers in the house."

I parked my bike next to his backyard fence. We talked for a while and I decided I might as well take a break in his yard. He seemed quiet but friendly. His yard had a standard set of toys in it, all of them too small as if his parents didn’t understand how old he was. He had a doll next to his sandbox. The sandbox had no sand in it. His baseball bat wasn't real, only hollow plastic. He had a baseball glove but it was tiny, meant for a first-grader. 

We played for a long time anyway, mostly games that didn't need toys like freeze tag, hide and go seek, marco polo, tic tac toe drawn in the dirt, and others we made up like long-jumping contests. The other boy moved slowly. He managed to seem lazy even while jumping. He got tired fast, too.

After an hour or so, we got to lunchtime. Sure enough, like the boy had said, his mother wouldn’t let me in to eat. She wouldn't even come to the screen door. She wouldn’t fix food for me. And she wouldn’t leave the house to meet me in the yard because I was a stranger. I hadn't ever met an adult quite like her except I wasn't sure I'd met her. I'd barely heard her quiet, firm voice from a distance.

"I know how to do it," said the boy. "Stay right here. It’ll take a minute. Don't leave. Please don't leave. I’ll have her make me twice as much for lunch."

I played on his swing set for a little while. I laid down to wait on his side-yard stoop. He came out with a sandwich and two apples. He started on his apple and I ate the rest while he talked.

"My momma is praying," he said. "Do you think there is a God?"

"No, I guess not." The sandwich was dry. It was like a peanut butter and chalk sandwich. 

"You’ll go to hell then." He took a bite of his apple. The apples were sort of mushy. He didn't seem to enjoy his much. 

"Maybe," I allowed.

"Aren’t you worried? Don’t you believe?"

I shrugged. Sometimes, of course, I wanted to believe. Most of the time, everybody said I was good. I was the best behaved of boys. It would be nice to think I'd be rewarded for being good. But I didn't believe it. 

"My grandma is mad," he continued, "because she says there is no heaven, not really, not like she was taught when she was a girl."

"Why is your grandma different?" I asked. It had become plain over these hours that his parents were very religious in a hushed and fervent way. 

"When she was little, they said heaven was up in the clouds. But then people could fly. People flew in airplanes."

I nodded.
"They could look down on the clouds. And they didn’t see no angels."

"I hadn’t thought of that," I said. I wouldn't have, either.

"All grandma's brothers and sisters and everyone she knew was mad like her," he said. "The preacher lied to them. There weren't no angels in the clouds."

"Did she really think heaven was in the clouds?"

"Uh huh." His big round eyes seemed entranced by a vision. "She said everyone did. I do, too."

"You do? What about the people who can fly?"

"I don’t know. Maybe flying isn't right." He frowned as he considered his next thought. If flying wasn't right, it would still be hard to stop people flying.
After we finished eating, I asked for a glass of water. I needed it even more than the food. It had been a long morning of cycling and playing. 

"Let me see," he said. He headed back in with a sandwich wrapper to throw away. When he came back, though, he said,"Mama won't give me a glass of water for outside. I'm only allowed to drink inside."

"That doesn't make sense."

He raised an eyebrow. He felt he and his mother were very sensible.

"I thought of something while my mama was talking," he allowed after a few seconds. "We have a hose. You can use it."

"Okay, yeah." 

We struggled to use the hose, though. He had turned it on by himself only once before and he got in trouble for leaving it on. So I did it while enduring constant checking from his watchful eye. Even after I wiped off the nozzle, I found the drink from the hose was bitter. It didn't taste like the stuff at home. There was a lot of liquid ice, though, and that was the main thing. When I ran it for a minute, it was cold. 

"Don't have too much," he warned. "You'll get sick."

My grandmother said things like that all the time. I knew to nod and agree but I made sure to feel full of water before I stopped. 

We spent the afternoon playing. And fighting. 

"You have to let me win because it's my house," he said as he tried to sit on my shoulders and hit me. The argument worked on me for a few seconds. His punches weren't as forceful as slaps from my younger brother. But I got tired of lying there. I rolled him over, grabbed his bowl of hair, and slammed his head into the ground a couple of times.

"Is that enough?" I asked. I let go of his hair. 

"Yeah, I guess so." He had been sullen when he started the fight. He seemed fine with losing it, though. "Let's get on the swings again. That was best."

"Want me to push you?"


Later in the afternoon, though, he started to get anxious.

"You have to leave now," he said. 

"I suppose so." My parents might worry. Reluctantly, I had to acknowledge how biking home was a good idea. I didn't relish the long trip, though, or the prospect of finding my way to Greenbelt Road again. If I could only find that main road, I'd be fine.

"No, I mean, you have to leave before my father gets home."

Both of his parents didn't want me, then. After I slurped another long drink from the hose, I walked through the gate. I kicked up the stand and hopped on my banana-seat five-speed. Part of me thought it was amusing how the other boy watched me in awe. 

As it turned out, though, I ended up back at his house. 

"I wondered," he said. He was standing in front of his gate as if he hadn't moved for ten minutes.

"Do you know how to get out of here?" I rested my forehead against the chrome-painted spider handlebars. I'd pedaled another two circles through the neighborhood. "Does your mother?"

"It's mostly just my daddy what knows, I guess."

So I met his father. He pulled up while we were still talking outside the gate. 

Although I don’t remember what the man looked like, I recall his concern. In a stern way, he seemed genuinely alarmed that I had come so far from home and gotten lost. His son did most of the talking and he painted me, somewhat unjustly, as a brave and noble figure. His father gave me directions out of the neighborhood and, if I'm remembering correctly, he also followed me in his car for the first turn or two to make sure that I wasn’t getting lost again. Pretty soon I was on Greenbelt Road. 

There’s no reason to remember any of this. The day wasn't special. I had other one-time meetings with boys my age. But I do remember. The story the boy told about his grandmother stuck with me. 

He had been convinced that everyone once believed heaven was in the clouds. Heaven was angels standing on puffs of wet air. Literally. As I grew older, I tried to rationalize the memory of his grandmother's disappointment. I tried to tell myself almost no one but her believed. After all, it wasn't a popular delusion that showed up in history books. I tried to rationalize it even though I'd met some of my relatives and Pennsylvania and the older ones had told me about angels in the clouds and other beliefs of their generation.

As I grew older still, I realized I should take my relatives' testimonies at face value. They had believed heaven was literally on the upper side of the clouds. Practically everyone had. The boy with his troubled grandmother had been right.  It was weird to keep believing it after airplanes got invented but he was a kid.

My own relatives in the Pond and Light families of Pennsylvania had fallen for evangelical movements in their youth. They had believed in the presence of heaven in the clouds. At least one of them had refused to use the telephone (for her whole life) because it was a tool of the devil. A handful of them thought planes were sacrilegious.  From them I also heard how, in the generation before, others of my ancestors believed the world would come to an end in 1869, 1872, 1874, and 1881. The world kept not ending but they kept believing. 

A lot of Americans, maybe most Americans, believed in angels standing on the upper side of the clouds. It's not a part of history that gets written about. I'd say it's forgotten. Yet we're not far removed from it.