Tuesday, April 21, 2015


When Abby was in early middle-age she explored all kinds of ways to make sense of an increasingly senseless life. She had been married, had two children, and gotten divorced when they left the nest to search out their own destiny. She had watched her beloved mother die, resisting the curtain of death until the very end. And then she watched her equally resistive father struggle to make a life for himself when much of his reason for living no longer existed.  Where was this mythical mystical Zone where it all made sense? Where was this state where everything was easier and the brain flowed smoothly to a blissful and fulfilling state of mind?

In the past several years she had done yoga, meditated and gone to church. She had traipsed to the gym and done hundreds of laps in the tepid pool at the Rec Center. Her eyes were blurred with reading fiction, non-fiction, and self-help books. She turned on the TV and then she turned it off not wanting to be told by any talking head, left-leaning or right, what to think, or to soak her brain with marginal entertainment. She got massages, took long walks, talked endlessly with friends -- and she dreamed.

It was the dreams that most intrigued her. She had her waking dreams, to be sure; dreams of a body more disciplined and sleek, a beautiful perennial garden blooming in perfect synchronicity throughout the seasons, dreams of her children being comfortable in their own skin and finding happiness.  Other dreams were less defined; hovering in her subconscious, a tantalizing promise of enlightenment and fulfillment but the "aha" moment eluded her over and over again.

So she began to study the phenomenon of sleeping dreams to see what they meant. She had often joked that her dreams were full-length Technicolor Steven Spielberg epics. She loved her dreams and they were—fortunately -- rarely dark or scary. But what did they mean? If she studied and analyzed them, would they help her in her quest to move forward through her mid-life ennui?

She read about the Jungian theory of dreams and scanned the dream dictionaries on Google. She went to dream groups where she shared her dreams with knowledgeable and seeking fellow dreamers. Together they explored prophetic dreams and lucid dreams and dreamers whose brains cast them back to previous lives and ancient times through the nightly firing of synapses. But what she ultimately distilled from her studies, if she learned from her dreams at all, was that she and she alone could interpret the hidden messages. No one had her set of symbols and emotions and culture. What she did learn was to use certain tools to unlock some of the mysteries of her subconscious. Asking: “What does this image mean to you?” (For example, to one person the ocean may represent a relaxing vacation romp, to another a ship-wrecking threat.) “Why did you have this dream now?” “What are the archetypal symbols?”

Abby prepared herself for her nightly dream adventures by closing her eyes and letting pre-dream images roll like the crawl at the bottom of a TV newscast on the screen of her inner eyelids.  Skulls, dragons, starbursts, snowflakes, birds, trees, Salvador Dali forms dripping with distorted images all visited this twilight moment before she started to slip into a dream-filled sleep.

Abby soon learned to discard what were clearly "junk drawer" dreams with no emotional content for her. She also discarded the dream of searching frantically for the thermostat that she had somehow misplaced when her dwelling cooled on a zero night. She knew where the dream of rushing water splashing in her sink came from when she awoke with the urgent need to pee. Abby's questing and sometimes overstimulated brain cleared this excess material with barely a memory of having dreamed at all.

Oh but the dreams that lingered, demanding and insistent, wanting to be deciphered, wanting to be understood and of value. Docile, piebald horses clopping up the lane to her house became ebony-hued thoroughbreds, muscled and strong prancing and tearing up the sod in her dooryard.  A giant oak tree, a symbol of strength, was Swiss-cheesed with woodpecker holes and towered up and up until it erupted in pale green leaves. The dead awoke with smiles. Babies delivered speeches to Congress. Keys changed hands. Over and over again Abby saw change and growth and always she saw these transitions as a good and positive thing -- even if they were sometimes vaguely disturbing, like watching a birth.

By the time Abby saw and accepted the transitions, she was no longer early middle-age. She was approaching that age termed "senior."  Nowadays, she knew without a doubt what she did not like; she would never again dip her toes in the tepid pool at the Rec Center. Leave yoga to the lithe and inclined, not to her. She thought she would keep the massages and continue her reading, but more selectively. She had, in fact, transitioned into knowledge of some of the vicissitudes of life and she was, if not in the Zone, at least more content.

Still Abby wondered why in the world a random childhood friend of her son's came knocking on her door one night in a dream to demand that she hand over Benny Goodman's address book? Benny Goodman -- the King of Swing --  was not even of her generation. He belonged to a bygone era, peaking with his sweet licorice-stick clarinet before she was born. Yet the dream lingered and haunted her in its intensity and demanded her attention. What in the world was this lingering dream telling her? It tickled her funny bone in all its peculiarity and she and yet she was certain there was a message buried in this dream.

Aha, she thought, maybe the message was "move on" as the childhood friend had become a respected adult in real life and Benny with his sweet licorice-stick clarinet had moved on in death – both with accomplishment and with the sweet aura of humor that surrounded the images.

That night, after that revelation, Abby snuggled in her down comforter, welcoming another of her nightly Technicolor epics with great curiosity.  She sought what was there to find and marvel at as she awoke to another day.

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Who’s a Hero?

The week was young. It was only Monday afternoon, the Monday before Memorial Day. It was hectic trying to get all the orders done so that there would be plenty of First Prize hot dogs, Koffee Kup buns and Styrofoam coolers. Did we need to turn on the ice machine? Did we have a good supply of Frisbees and Whiffleballs? The coming three-day weekend would kick off the summer season and we had to be prepared.

With a familiar rattle and bang, an old blue pickup truck with a crumbling white cap and 20 years’ worth of bumper stickers pulled up right outside the front door. Old Gib unwound himself from the front seat and proceeded to the back of the truck where he rummaged and tugged until his arms were full. Tall and lean, he looked for all the world like something out of an Audubon print with his knock-kneed flamingo-like gait, pigeon-breasted chest and hawkish nose.

Gib had supplied the Wayside with fishing paraphernalia ever since we bought the store. We depended on him for the right size and type of Mepps, Zebco rod and reel sets, hooks, nets, swivels and other miscellaneous gear suitable for the worm fishermen who share the famous Batten Kill with their fly fishing brothers and sisters.

Gib was trying to get out of the fishing supply business but agreed to beef up our stock for the weekend. His assortment was a little more motley than usual. Some of the Rapala boxes were wrinkled with water stains, and he didn't have any #8 snelled hooks. But he brought in what he had, and he enjoyed his visits to the store, where he sat at the big round table engaging folks with fish stories. His arthritic gnarled hands, covered with liver spots, gestured woodenly as he told his tales. His mostly expressionless face was dominated by the most peculiar mouth, he teeth of which were yellowed and layered. Where the upper teeth met the lower, there was a perfectly round hole as if he had caught bullets in his teeth in a circus act. He would make a circle of his mouth as if he had anticipated someone's astonishment at the size or number of fish that used to be caught in Hopper Brook or the Green River.

We carried on our business between stories and interruptions until we wrangled out what of his remaining stock would be useful. We sealed our deal with a sales slip written out with a stubby pencil and added up the old-fashioned way without the aid of a calculator.

Gib was active in the American Legion, and someone had once mentioned that it was hard to believe looking at him that he’d been a war hero. I had been working on an employee newsletter and wanted to put a bit at the end about remembering the veterans. While we were concluding our transactions, I conversationally said: “I hear that you were quite a hero in World War II.”

Gib was hard of hearing and always slow to answer, so I was not sure he had caught my remark. Imagine my shock and surprise when I looked up from my paperwork to see those rheumy old eyes brimming with tears that leaked over the folds and down his leathery cheeks. “The heroes,” he said, “are still over there.”

Then he began an amazing tale of volunteerism and bravery, protecting our American tanks from Japanese bombs, landing on the beach at Randova, and going down on the US Army Transport Coolidge in 1942. My knowledge of history was so spotty that I could not follow the story in detail, but I did know that while I was talking to this old Vermonter in the worn shirt smelling of engine oil, fish and sweat, I was seeing what made this country great.

Gib was the only one of the squadron leaders serving together who came back alive. After 60 years the scars or were still visible on his psyche, like keloids bumping up the tender skin. Clearly, war hurt and toughened. But it also tenderized in a mysterious way. Gib came back and devoted himself to countless worthy causes: Boy Scouts, the American Legion, Conservation Camp and Hunter Safety. He wanted this to be a country worth fighting for. Each day we all pick our battles and decide “which hill we want to die on.”

Even constrained by the dictates of duty, we pick to do it honorably or not. There is no question about Gib’s choices.

Gib’s heroes are still “over there.” But one of Arlington’s heroes – indeed, one of America’s heroes – is still among us and drives a beat-up blue pickup with a crumbling white cap.

(This story, which originally appeared in my published volume of "Wayside Country Stories," is reposted today both as a nod to Throwback Thursday and in honor of Gib’s wife Ruth who passed away this week.)


Friday, April 3, 2015

Rabbit Tales

I am in my car alone.  I want to be alone right now. The funeral service for my Grandpa has just ended -- shovels full of dirt in the deep hole that will be his last earthly home. I am sad for the lessons that now have stopped. His passing leaves a hole in my heart and my life that's as big and deep as his grave.

I loved my Grandpa, though there was a time when I hated him. Not for long, but it was intense when it came to the surface.This was just one the many lessons he taught me: Love and hate are often very close.

From the time I came home from the hospital in a tiny pink outfit with rabbits hopping from the toes to the top, he called me "Bunny." Oh, he called me "Sylvia" too, and sometimes "Sylvie," but in our most endearing moments it was always "Bunny." It seems that traditionally grandfathers have been partial to their grandsons on account of the fact they'd be the ones carrying the family name forward into the future. Nowadays it doesn't matter as much since so many women keep their own last names when they marry -- but that's a different story for another time. My grandpa was partial to me.  We shared so much: deep sapphire eyes, an easy smile and a sunny disposition. When he looked at me, I knew he saw himself in the way that children just know those things.

Now Grandpa was a great hunter and loved the Vermont hills from which which he would procure venison and wild turkey for the family table. I knew that and I accepted that, even from a very young age, the same way farm kids know that hamburger comes from those bucolic-looking cows grazing so calmly in the lush green meadows.

What I didn't know about were the rabbits -- those endearing, charming, long-eared bunnies that inhabited my bedtime stories and provided the touchstone of our relationship. Often, when Grandpa went hunting he'd bring me back the soft white and brindle tails of rabbits. I loved them. They were a special gift and I used them as pretend powder puffs or ornaments for my hair. They were tucked every where in my room -- some beside my lamp, others in the corner of my mirror, and still others scented with Mother's perfume and squirreled away in my dresser drawers. Mother always had to check my pockets before she did the wash as most often a tiny bunny tail was hidden there, a soft and tactile reminder of my protector's love, a tangible wish for my good fortune.

This went on from the time I was four or five until I was eight. I was just starting third grade when we had a show-and-tell time where each student could bring something that they wanted to share with the rest of the class. One by one they would stand in front of the whole class and tell what it was and explain why they had chosen to bring it to school.

I brought in four of the fluffiest rabbit tails in my supply. Swallowing hard to get up the nerve to address my classmates, I went to the front of the room and charged, full speed ahead, with the story: My Grandpa was such a good hunter, you see, he could shoot the tails right off the rabbits in the woods-- without even harming them!

The silence was deafening. I had fully expected my classmates to cheer his obvious skill -- not to mention be envious of my treasures. Instead, what greeted me -- after the long silence -- was an unbelievable snickering.  We were, after all, a community of hunters and even at their young age, many of the boys in my class had already been hunting. Then one particularly grubby boy stood up.

"That there weren't no way that can happen," the boy said. "Them rabbits was in the stew you et.-- and you didn't even know it!"

My face reddened in response and tears sprung to my eyes as I realized that this was most likely true. The teacher, having seen the look of horror and betrayal cross my face, quickly came to my side and gently ushered me out of the classroom. Though teachers must be prepared for anything at "show and tell,"she clearly had not been prepared to witness my moment of truth or to deal with the resulting emotional fallout.

Young as I was, this was my first true awareness that all is not as it seems. A year before I had given up Santa Claus with barely a ripple. He was the spirit of giving, after all, and I still believed in that wholeheartedly. But to have Grandpa revealed in public as a liar and, even worse, someone who used my adoration and trust to perpetuate a falsehood, was more than I could bear.

After an hour in the nurse's office, my mother came to get me. My stomach ached and my eyes were red and swollen. I could not tell her what her father had done to me. I could not tell her how hurtful it was that he had slaughtered Peter Cottontail, defiled the Velveteen Rabbit and made the sweet characters of Beatrix Potter forever sour in my mouth. Truth had been revealed and it was such a bitter pill that my eight-year-old mind, body and soul could not digest it. But the teacher had told her what had happened. To Mother's credit, she remained silent, waiting patiently for me to speak. But I could not.When Grandpa came for supper that night I remained in my room. I could not face him. I hated him.

The class quickly moved on to other things, forgetting my "show and tell" in favor of papier mache globes and volcanoes, double-dutch jump rope, and the intricacies of math. They forgot, but I did not. I had been happy in my ignorance, my head in the sand like a grade-school ostrich, not seeing what I did not want to see. I longed for the hand-holding walks in the woods where Grandpa would point out the edible cinnamon ferns and help me gather the miniature wild strawberries. But I did not know how to go forward.

This lesson I later came to identify with the concept of "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." Was I willing to give up everything because of a single betrayal?  Grandpa had been told what happened and his sadness cast a pall over the entire household. He told my mother that he'd never said that he didn't kill the rabbits. Upon later reflection, I guess he hadn't. This I later came to identify with another concept: That there are sins of omission as well as sins of commission.

The bunny tails disappeared from my room and Grandpa never called me "Bunny" ever again. Eventually we established an uneasy truce. It happened while I was trying to ignore him at the supper table one night and he got caught slipping a bit of fried liver off his plate to the family dog who was forbidden table food. He blushed and laughed and then started laughing harder when he saw that I was laughing with him.  His merriment (or perhaps relief) was so great that tears sprung to his eyes and the moment rolled on, both of us laughing as the terrible past started to recede into the past. (Another lesson I learned through all this is the healing power of laughter.)

So, life went on. The shine of my hero may have been tarnished, but he was still my hero, my teacher, my mentor and my kin. In the kind of linguistic shorthand peculiar to families, we began to identify these kinds of half truths that abound in life as "rabbit tales."

We shared much in the next 19 years until, like in The Velveteen Rabbit, he was worn and frail having lived too much and loved too much.  So, today I just want to be alone and remember and think of all the times his lessons held me in good stead.

Nobody is perfect. And to expect that they are is probably the biggest rabbit tale of the all. My hate was fleeting but my love for him -- and his for me -- did not end with his death.

Just let me be alone for awhile.

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