Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Rabbit and the Fox, The Teacher and the Painter, and Other Lessons

Excerpts from Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life

 

 Rabbits

rabbit-40646_640 A wise master and his student were walking through the countryside. The student pointed to a fox chasing a rabbit and said, “Oh, the poor rabbit.”

The master said, “The rabbit will elude the fox.”

The student was surprised. Maybe the old man’s mind wasn’t so sharp anymore. He said, “No, you see, the fox is faster.”

“The rabbit will get away,” repeated the master.

“What makes you think so?”

“Because the fox is running for his dinner, but the rabbit is running for his life.”

The first step is understanding we’re no different than rabbits.

 

Attention, Attention, Attention

 yoga-386611_640A layman asked a Zen master to write some words containing the greatest wisdom.

The master picked up his brush and wrote, “Attention.”

The layman was disappointed. He said, “I was hoping for something more.”

“More?” the master asked, picking up his brush and writing again— this time, “Attention. Attention.”

“That’s it?” asked the layman.

The master had been expecting that. This time he wrote it three times: “Attention, Attention, Attention.”

Your ability to choose how you will direct your attention–what you will think, how you will feel, and the best thing to do–is your most powerful skill.

 

Cherry Blossoms

cherry-blossom-254680_640The delicate cherry blossom has a very short life. It doesn’t last long in the wind that blows it from the tree. One minute it is there, then it is gone. All we have is a memory of how beautiful it was.

No getting around it: I’m a cherry blossom; you’re a cherry blossom.

 

 The Teacher and the Painter

paint-33883_1280My friend is a painter. The best teacher she ever had gave her the best advice she ever received. He looked at her as she painted and said, “You’re being too careful. Make bolder strokes.” He went away. She followed his advice. He came back and studied her work. He raised his voice and said, “Bolder.” Later he came back again and said, even louder, “Bolder! What are you afraid of?”

Our lives would change immensely if we said to ourselves most of the time, “Bolder! What are you afraid of?”

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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Beware Of Becoming What You Weren’t Supposed To Be: Your Two Destinies

Tailors and Generals

road-220058_640The story goes that a man died and went to heaven. Meeting Saint Peter at the gates, watching the crowds of people passing through, he said, “Saint Peter, I’m curious. Point out to me the greatest general in history.” Saint Peter gazed into the mass of people, spotted the man he was looking for and pointing, said, “There he is, that one over there.” The man was shocked. He said, “That’s not a general. That’s just Harry, a tailor from my old neighborhood.”

Yes,” said Saint Peter, “you’re right, that is Harry the tailor. But had he been a soldier he would have been the greatest general in history.”

My question is, “Why are so many people leading a tailor’s life when they should be generals?”

 The Urge to Grow and Flourish

 In the title of a radio show I was a guest on was the word “destiny,” and I started by saying, “I couldn’t be on a more appropriate show. I’m a strong believer in destiny. Here’s what I mean…”

The word “destiny” has the same root as “destination.” It’s where you’re headed. Your destiny is not a pre-ordained life that you’re forced to lead because it’s been laid out before you in detail by some master planner who has absolute control over you. Your destiny depends more than anything on your own free will and it is as much a part of you as your ear.

Every living thing has an innate urge to grow, to flourish, to realize its full potential. A maple tree “wishes” to become all the maple tree it can be, an ear of corn, an ear of corn, a lilac a lilac, you an actor, to discover, develop, refine, and put to use your full talents in performances before an admiring public, and you, a painter, to see your works adorning walls.

This inner urge–this impulse–pushes all living things to strive to become what they are equipped for and have the potential to become, no matter how harsh or unaccommodating the environment. Composers and musical performers who, like Claude Debussy, grow up in unmusical families, and poets and other geniuses of the language whose parents are illiterate or who themselves quit school at twelve–Mark Twain, who claimed that he never let schooling interfere with his education–and Walt Whitman, one day to make himself through his own efforts, high ambitions, and self-teaching into, rather mysteriously, America’s best and most expressive poet.

Denied water, a tree will send out its roots long distances in search of it. Hidden in shadows, it will twist its branches until they reach sunlight. Some people too, will do whatever’s needed to reach sunlight.

 You Have Two Destinies

You have not one, but two, destinies. One is your INTENDED DESTINY and the other is your ACTUAL DESTINY. Your intended destiny is the life you are fully equipped with the talents, gifts, personality, and intelligence to have. The other, your actual destiny, is what you actually became and the life you’re actually living. You know people who have all that’s necessary to become A, and actually became A. But most people’s intended and actual destinies are different. They should have become A, and wanted to become A, but became B instead.

Gary has all that it takes to become a fine architect, but never finished school and settled for being a draftsman. Erin has musical talent and was intended to write popular songs, but works as a sales clerk in a novelty shop and never gets around to writing. Neither put themselves on the right course, or seeing they were on the wrong course, never took it on themselves to change course. They are intended generals who became actual tailors.

The Ideal Is Very Possible

 You’ve reached the ideal when your intended destiny is your actual destiny. Then you’re converting what you hold the promise of being into what you actually are. If you were equipped to be A, and not B, you would be A. Gary would be designing buildings; Erin would be producing songs.

Deep down you and I know that there is a most suitable life for us, more suitable than any other. We can feel that that it’s a specific life. Even if we don’t yet know exactly what it is we feel it and we spend part of our lives—possibly most of our lives—looking for it. To become clear as to what your intended destiny is and to say to it, “I devote myself to you,” is to feel an unstoppable drive toward its due fulfillment and to spring to life. Once you know you’re moving in the right direction and feel strongly about it you fly through your days aflame with energy and determination. If there are obstacles in your way you overcome them, particularly the fear of taking risks.

There’s a part of you that asks yourself, “Why are you here in life and not there? Account for yourself.” If you never start that novel or never start that business that you are equipped for, your conscience won’t let go. From time to time all your life you’ll think, “I should have written that book,” “I should have my own business” and you’ll feel regret, and you’ll never know what might have happened or what your life would have been like.

 The Need to Finish What You Start

Sometimes what we put aside a long time ago but haven’t forgotten is a clue to our true destiny. Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik’s professor Kurt Lewin noticed that a waiter remembered orders only as long as the order was in the process of being served. When it was served, he forgot about it. From this, Zeigarnik developed the theory that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than they do completed tasks (now called “The Zeigarnik Effect”). People who suspend their work and get involved in unrelated activities (such as playing games) will remember material better than people who continue working without taking a break.

As applied to a lifetime it means that you will not forget important things you started even long ago, but did not complete—such as that painting in storage in your basement, or the project you intended to get back to, or the degree you started but never got. Not getting back to them causes a tension that brings repeated thoughts of the unfinished business that doesn’t end until the job is finished. It’s human nature to finish what we start and to feel uneasy until we do. As long as the task is uncompleted your mind continues to work on it, and it will not stop pestering you until you finish the task. I have a novel in a nice bright red binder that I started 35 years ago that has been on my mind ever since. What have you not forgotten that may indicate a direction you should follow?

It’s not unusual for people who distinguish themselves and feel fulfilled to discover the direction of achievements they will have later in life foreshadowed by the interests and preoccupations of their childhood. Quite early in life they became interested in an activity that they later pursued seriously, at times to the exclusion of almost everything else, and at times after pursuing other things that diverted them, often going down a fruitless path and coming to a dead end. The deepening of their interest over time became what guided them to their careers and largely determined their success. So, it could be a turning point when you feel yourself drifting away from your true destiny to ask what interested you when you were a child and haven’t forgotten: “When I was little, I liked especially….”

Timing

You may reach your intended destiny by a rapid jump, a quantum leap, even without any hints beforehand. It seems inconceivable that Joseph Conrad, born Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski, a Polish seaman who spent twenty years on ships and never took a writing class and didn’t learn English until he was in his twenties, should suddenly emerge as one of the greatest and most innovative stylists writing not in Polish, but English. He said later than when he started his first novel one day after breakfast, “I had written nothing but letters, and not very many of these. I never made a note of fact, of an impression or of an anecdote in my life.” His emerging full-blown into a master of the language is one of the puzzles of literary history and human development. But it happened.

You can never say that it’s too late to reach your intended destiny, however roundabout your journey to it has been, or however long it’s taken. Having set out in one direction, you are free to turn and set out in another like a fish in a stream that changes direction any time it wishes. When you overcome past mistakes, false starts, and failures and set out for your intended destiny you feel a sense of rightness, of confidence, of being in complete charge. You think, “This—this—finally is what my life was supposed to be.”

Your true destiny may appear at any time: in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, or late adulthood. Many people enter new paths later than others and they “catch up” quickly and often surpass the others. Duke Ellington’s career was undistinguished until he was forty. Authors Tolstoy, Turgenev, and William Faulkner showed little promise in their youth. They did their best work considerably later than others novelists. Paul Gauguin was a successful Parisian stock broker for years before he turned to art and became a great painter.

Jean Paul Sartre wrote that people exist first and only afterwards define themselves. “They are what they will have planned to be. They are what they conceive themselves to be.” A Japanese adage says, “Irrigators guide water, fletchers straighten arrows, carpenters bend wood, and as for wise people, they shape themselves.”

Shaping yourself into the person you conceive yourself to be—that’s what this post is about.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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A Centenarian—Most of the Time

headstone-312540_640I don’t remember ever coming across the ubiquitous Rayburn Stoddard’s name until five years ago last April, but a lot has happened to him since. Although as far as I know I have never met the man, I would certainly like to and have read or heard about him at intervals during the last half-decade in various cities I have visited on business, and now I feel familiar enough with him to call him by his Christian name. Rayburn has witnessed the cavalcade of American history, and in fact, as you’ll see, has been an active and significant part of it. The following is a record of what I currently know about the man. I’m hoping you can add to it.

I have made every effort to assemble as much pertinent information as I am aware of about this extraordinary man and to paint as complete picture of him as I am able. Although I have tried to eliminate any information of a dubious nature, unfortunately I cannot vouch for the veracity of my sources, their being newspaper features and television broadcasts which as you know tend to have a rather cavalier attitude toward factual truth and accuracy and are prone to pilfering stories from one another and then trying to top each other by puffing them up with embellishments so they have a more sensational ring to them. On average, a Rayburn Stoddard story in itself can be counted on to boost ratings or readership by four per cent.

Early that stormy spring evening five years ago, I was in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport browsing through the Chicago Tribune when I saw the following obituary:

Rayburn Stoddard–died peacefully in his sleep in his home in Skokie at the young age of 104. In perfect health at his untimely demise, Mr. Stoddard was seen racing a half block in just three and a half hours the day before on his way to a 7-Eleven for a pack of cigarettes. A bugle prodigy, Mr. Stoddard played that instrument at the inauguration of Warren G. Harding at the age of ten. He fought in many battles and distinguished himself as a tank commander under George S. Patton in World War II and found great enjoyment listening to Jack Benny on the radio some years ago. An amateur historian of note, Mr. Stoddard was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for what is universally considered the definitive biography of George Armstrong Custer called Wake Me Up In Time For The Attack. He is the same man who last winter at a youthful 103 was sighted in his yard tossing a snowball at his shadow.

Why this obituary struck me as remarkable I don’t know. But I had a hunch there was more to this story than meets the eye so I tore the clipping out, put it in my wallet, and boarded a flight to St. Louis. It seemed odd to me at the time that the following day as described in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Rayburn–now a resident of Missouri–was alive again and had aged three years overnight.

 OLD MAN LAUGHS IT UP

Prize winning author Rayburn Stoddard, formerly of Skokie, Illinois, now a resident of University City in perfect health, celebrated his 107th birthday last night at a party given for him at the Improvisational Comedy Club in downtown St. Louis where he played “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” on the bugle and had an audience of well-wishers in stitches with his hilarious “Drunken Plumber on the Moon” comedy routine. Asked to what he attributed his longevity, he replied, “I like throwing snowballs a lot.” Mr. Stoddard fought in many famous WW I battles, and was present at the swearing in of President William McKinley. He fancied listening to The Shadow, a popular radio show some years ago.

Being an experienced business traveler who reads as many newspapers as menus, I was certainly not surprised by the obvious discrepancies between the two reports, although it seemed apparent to me that the man was either alive or dead, and was probably not 104 and 107 both.

In the days to follow those news features would ring a bell, for some months later while lying in bed in a hotel room in Dayton, Ohio I watched a human interest story on the ten o’clock news about this same Rayburn Stoddard–although his name was given as Stoddard Rayburn. He was still alive, but was now a long-time resident of Dayton. More youthful now at 99, he was in robust health, vividly recalled attending the inaugurations of Woodrow Wilson, Abraham Lincoln, and Herbert Hoover, had helped out his Dayton buddies the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, was a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor and a literary prize, had commanded General George S. Patton in World War II, and spent countless hours running down streets, practicing his bugle, and tossing snowballs. For years he had worked with his friend Jack Benny on the radio and in vaudeville, and was the originator of the role of Lamont Cranston on The Shadow, a popular radio show some years ago, but now held a job at a 7-Eleven where he sold cigarettes.

Business was going well, and frankly, although my curiosity about Rayburn had been piqued, I was too busy to have much time for the media. I temporarily lost track of the man, but could only assume that he was alive and well in twenty-five or thirty other cities my travels would eventually take me to, and that as he approached 110 or 120 or stayed in his nineties or went back to his seventies or eighties I would have the great pleasure of coming across him again, unless, that is, he had passed from this earth again–and it turns out he had–at least temporarily.

I was on the west coast to attend a Laugh-A-Minute-Funny-Business-Sales-Seminar when I saw a feature on the morning Los Angeles news that caught my attention. It began, “Legendary movie producer, historian, musician, aviator, and former vaudevillian Rayburn Stoddard, one-time resident of Dayton, Ohio, died in Hollywood yesterday afternoon at the young age of one hundred and thirteen, and the film industry is in deep mourning. His companion, super-model Cinderella Baudelaire, was at his bedside.” It continued, “This close adviser to many presidents, and the producer of such gems as Gone with the Wind, The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane, and Zombies on Broadway was in perfect health at the time of his untimely passing.” The report was quite complete, referring to Rayburn’s renown as a snowball marksman, his having been present at the Little Big Horn with General George Armstrong Custer where he had died valiantly fighting off the Indians with his bugle, his other past deaths, and his famous, “Drunken Plumber on the Moon” comedy routine that he had performed for President Chester A. Arthur and all the crowned heads of Europe.

I was not saddened by the report since I had the feeling Rayburn would spring to life again in the foreseeable future. I was not, however, prepared for his next death which occurred in Virginia approximately a year later and was reported in all the major news services:

 WITNESS TO HISTORY LAID TO REST

Died peacefully in his home in Williamsburg, Virginia on Tuesday last, a youthful 427, Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Stoddard Rayburn (nee Rayburn Stoddard), the lone survivor of the Mayflower crossing. Dr. Rayburn was in perfect health at the time of his unfortunate demise. His mind, a rich storehouse of historical reminiscences, was sharp and clear to the end. After serving as governor of the Bay Colony, Dr. Rayburn next appeared as a delegate to the Continental Congress. As a personal favor to his boyhood chum, Thomas Jefferson, Dr. Rayburn provided leadership to the Lewis and Clark westward expedition. He was particularly handy with the tomahawk, which he invented, and taught that skill along with playing the bugle to the plains Indians. It was while on the Missouri River–which he nicknamed “Big Mo”–that Rayburn developed his side-splitting, “Drunken Plumber on the Moon” comedy routine that was a particular favorite of the Shoshone tribe. Following a stint as a Civil War cavalry major with his West Point roommate George Armstrong Custer,  Rayburn passed away at The Little Big Horn and then emigrated to New York City with his literary mentor Mark Twain at the turn of the twentieth century where he invented the movie projector, refined his proficiency with snowballs, authored the Encyclopedia Britannica, teamed with W.C. Fields in vaudeville’s Ziegfeld Follies, and like millions before and since disappeared into oblivion. When it was pointed out to him that he had lived a remarkably long life, Dr. Rayburn replied, “Methuselah was older.”

I was surprised that Rayburn had aged from 113 to 427 in a matter of months, and at first had doubts that such a feat was possible. 427 years old! How could a person possibly live to 427? But then it struck me that he would have to have been approximately 400 or he could not have arrived on the Mayflower, so I concluded that here was one newspaper report that was accurate.

Months of hard work passed and I lost track of Rayburn. Then while stopping for a cup of coffee at a diner in Cambridge, Massachusetts I saw in a Boston Globe article entitled “Celebrated Patriot Returns,” that this “well-traveled former super model, famed movie producer, historian, comedian, airplane pilot, and one-time resident of Skokie, Illinois, University City, Missouri, Dayton, Ohio, Beverly Hills, California, and the Bay Colony” had sprung to life again. He was in perfect health, this existence residing in a boarding house in East Patchogue, New York, but had been in town the day before to commemorate the Boston Tea Party which he had engineered and led. He was now a robust and more reasonable 275, having decreased in age by 150 years since his untimely Jamestown death. At the Boston commemorative ceremony he reportedly talked about his experiences with drunken plumbers and sang “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling.” with the Righteous Brothers. He carried a tomahawk for the event and was dressed in the authentic Indian garb which he had worn in the raid of the colonists on the British tea ship, and which had hung in his closet in mothballs for more than two centuries.

The last I heard of Rayburn was a feature on Topeka, Kansas TV where it was stated that “a young 122 and in perfect health, this founder of the 7-Eleven convenience store empire” had left this life in a suburb of Kansas City, where he had long resided after relocating there from Skokie, Illinois where he worked as a plumber. He had also passed away three months earlier in Waco, Texas at a youthful 97 while in perfect health and on location producing a documentary film about the Lewis and Clark westward expedition. But judging from his history I am confident that Rayburn has not left this life permanently and irrevocably, but will reappear between the ages of 90 and 500 in some American city in the near future. All that we can say for certain is that we have seen the last of Mr. Rayburn Stoddard–Stoddard Rayburn–until he turns up again.

If you or a family member or acquaintance have news of other lives and deaths of this elusive man I would appreciate you contacting me care of this blog. I’m hopeful that in that way, working together, with contributors from across the globe, eventually we will be able to piece together a satisfying and complete biography of the man. I am particularly interested in learning about Rayburn’s first nine years on earth, about which at present I know zilch. And frankly I have my doubts that throwing snowballs increases longevity, although that’s what the man said. And who should know better than Rayburn?

© 2014 David J. Rogers

 

 

 

 

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Days End: A Story of Courage and Love

sunset-190922_640Far below me, a woman as tan as tree bark lay on her back on the sand. White-tipped frothing waves came in from the ocean, and life went on down there.

I was looking down from the high balcony of my sister Sharon’s hospital room. Sharon was in bed in the room behind me–not asleep, yet not fully awake, but in a dazed state between because of the morphine they gave her all through the day and when she called for it at night. Her pain was very bad.

I watched as a few hundred feet away people in white outfits played tennis on green courts on the roof of a tall pink hotel. I knew they should not be blamed for their happiness, any more than Sharon for her misery. But I was thinking that somehow it was unfair that they were running so, graceful and strong, close enough to wave and smile at me while her disease had spread through everything. Everything was gone.

I had seen on the floor of her kitchen the scale that was there to measure the dwindling of her existence, and sheets of paper on a clipboard hanging from a nail on the wall that recorded it: ninety-eight pounds, ninety, eighty-eight…, and a calendar that had Xs on days she wasn’t healthy enough to work that in recent months had become all Xs. Against a wall was a full-length gold-framed mirror that had once held her face and her shape as she turned to adjust a blouse or straighten a skirt. The mirror was dusty.

All that remained now was the steady withering of her small, faltering body, the daily indignities, the terror and inconceivable loneliness of dying, the sorrow of leaving this world. When I stood over her bed that late afternoon she looked at me with shamed eyes and said, “I’m a mess aren’t I,” and my heart broke. What could I do but tell her she was still beautiful? How will I ever remember without pain her looking up at me so gratefully and saying “Thank you brother,” as I handed her a glass of water?

Her mind was in a tangle because of the morphine–sensations and floating dreams blended together like a band of swallows swooping and falling and words from the voices of people slipping in sideways, echoes of words, as words spoken in a museum closed for the night might sound, or a murmur, or just splinters of sound descending like coins in a pool. Images were loose in her mind of such memories as that of an ironing board, a dress with a faded floral pattern, a photograph of her sitting at a desk smiling, then the suddenly remembered sensation in her finger tips of peeling an orange or pulling strands of hair out of a brush. And all the while she was a sponge soaked with emotion: love and despair and courage and fear.

At times she felt she was merely a body beyond repair, but there were moments of great clarity when she realized she was truly a person. Then she became suddenly proud and triumphant: “I am alive. I am a human being. I am still of value.” And then shortly the dreaded thought returned: It will end; soon it’ll end. It was all so sad, she thought: the sun would last, the earth would last, and there would always be stars, but not she. She was greedy for life–another day, another hour–but didn’t a person so young have a right to be? Only thirty-seven. There should be more shouldn’t there? Above all she mustn’t lapse into self-pity, mustn’t wail, “Help me please, I am suffering.” That was all there was to it, she thought, the only victory, as outside in the priceless world flamingo clouds drifted by.

The room was regaled in yellow chrysanthemums. Sunlight spread across the balcony and the warm breeze thronged in as visitors arrived to pay their respects. Sharon wasn’t resentful or jealous of their good health, that irresistible glow they had, that incandescence, and looked forward very much to their bringing their good cheer and love, smiling like children, she knew, to keep her spirits up. Someone told a joke that was followed by laughter. How hungrily a person’s thoughts swarm over joy among sorrow.

When visitors were talking among themselves she lay back, listened, and felt one of those hundreds of emotions for which there are no words. She knew some people thought compassion was a useless emotion, but she thought it the kindest. It didn’t alter the fact that soon her life would end, but yet there were glimmers of light just knowing that one person could care so much for another, asking nothing in return, opening a secret door and entering on the private island on which the other person lived, and then you and they weren’t so lonely, if only for that time. A nurse slid a thermometer between Sharon’s lips business-like, glanced at her briefly and impersonally and with cold, gray, restless eyes gazed out at the sky while she waited for the thermometer, took it out, looked at it, and said, “One o one, not bad at all.”

How do you explain life? What does a person live for? Sharon wondered as she was turned over, grimaced, and was sponged. You expected the answer to become clear if you lived long enough, and to be profound: the meaning of life was X or Y, perhaps Z. It was a question worth asking. It was probably joy. Yes, that was it all the time: the joy one feels. And she had known joy. No one could say she hadn’t known exquisite joy.

A doctor she didn’t know then came into the room to see her, and looked at her, looked at her eyes, and jumped back as though he had been punched, and said, “I feel your power coming out to me. You have a very strong will.”

 

It was the silence that settled as softly as pollen on the hospital room when toward evening everyone went home that I will recall. “I remember once when,” Sharon said, thumbing through her stack of memories. Suddenly she said, “Do you remember that summer day at the lake the wind was so wild and the waves were as tall as buildings, the library when I was looking for a book?”

That day when as children—she eight, I ten–we inhabited our bodies with inexpressible joy, she on the sand holding my hand, laughing. Suddenly a wind picked up and into the air flew a thousand birds. Clouds raced each other headlong across the black sky, and wave upon wave –a procession of liquid walls—rose and rose and rose majestically, ascending one after another like great hills of water that then lunged and plunged like a field of gray-green wheat bowing under the wind, shattering on the shore into a multitude of broken stars. Hills of water that seemed to pause for a long moment at their fullest height and then to crash to earth with the sound of artillery, our hearts beating with excitement, with awe, with fear, with terror. Just a moment before there had been not a breeze, not a breath of wind, but now all the wind in the world seemed to be concentrated on that strip of earth– a lion of a wind, unleashed, untamed, cool, cold, with a bite and sting, bringing–pouring in to us–the odors of water, of fish, and of the wind itself, the steady hoarse roar of the foaming waves filling the air like thunder, my losing then all sense of physical existence, being liberated and free. Behind us bathers took their children’s hands and dashed for the shelter of the beach house, and strong men dragged rowboats higher up onto the beach away from the surging water, leaving behind ruts in the sand. Nothing was the same; everything in motion, everything in flux, everything changing: wind, waves, sky, everything. That same day she stood on tip-toes on a stool down the aisle in the stacks at the library, reaching for Little Women, and watching her I realized in that instant that she was irreplaceable; I could not do without her.

How fast life goes” she whispered weakly. “It isn’t much longer than a mosquito’s life. Why does it go so fast?” The world is such a huge, well-traveled place; yet when the end of a life nears, all distances collapse and it comes to that: a little room, a little bed, a pair of eyes looking on, someone weeping.

The pain had flecked Sharon’s black hair with white and it was short from the treatment and no longer long and flowing. Her once-pretty face was gaunt, her cheeks gray, her body tired of suffering. Her long pianist’s fingers were so thin that her ring had slipped off and was lost. But there in her gray, lonely, fading beauty there was still about her that same gentleness you could ruffle with your breath, the same fury in her fierce eyes, the same poise, and the same mystical elegance.

Night came; the day was gone. Over the city shone a blue light and the chrysanthemums stood in a black vase on the table. Beyond the glass door and beyond the stars was darkness upon darkness. The faintest light lay on her face, and on that face was neither pain nor resignation nor fear nor sorrow, but peace. I placed my hand flat on her chest–she could feel pain no more–and she opened her eyes and looked into my face with a gentle sweetness. And then looked down at my hand and placed her left hand lovingly upon it.

 

I only regret that I was helpless to shape into words all that I was thinking of her and hoped she understood how I loved her and how I would carry with me and cherish the memories I have of her, that every year I would commemorate her birthday; that whether I am bending to tie my shoelace or asking for a fork she never leaves my thoughts. In my mind all my life I will see her long black hair flaring in the wind that day with the wild waves bursting, our lives passing, changing, and flowing like those waves; her dying young.

I felt such tenderness toward her that could I, I would have died for her and was so regretful that I could not suffer her pain for her, and was powerless to help her, and that she is now gone entirely from my life and from this world. Until I die I will feel the immense weight of grief for her and now I ask her forgiveness for any sadness I ever caused her through thoughtlessness or selfishness; and wish her somehow to know that I intended no harm and am so terribly sorry.

 

In the parking lot I saw Sharon’s favorite nurse and called to her and caught up with her and told her of my gratitude to her for the great gentleness and goodness she had shown my sister. I told her I would never forget her kindliness and thoughtfulness, and that I would think about her in the future and would never forget her. She told me what a good patient Sharon had been, how she had never complained and was always so nice and had good manners, and how it made her very sad to say goodbye to her.

I did not know as a boy that memories of that day at the lake, though intangible, would persist through all the successive years, nothing as real. Or that our lives would change so immeasurably as had those waves under that wind.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Days and Nights of Youth: An evening in August, years ago

“And if I were standing in the middle of my people
Age would go from me and I would be young again.”
(Translated from the Irish by Lady Gregory)

Days and Nights pic_copyChicago’s Sheridan Road ran parallel to Lake Michigan, as it does today, and when you walked down it in those days you heard the sounds of the traffic mingling with the lapping of the waves on the beaches. From the beaches on clear days you could see on the horizon’s edge the western shore of Michigan to the east, and out on the lake low in the water turgidly-moving barges carrying loads of ore down from Minnesota to the steel mills of northern Indiana.

On certain afternoons in July and August the sun bore down on the sand so intensely that it was painful to walk on it, so men dashed to and from the tumbling waves carrying their squealing little children in their arms. One by one all the great industrialists’ mansions that lined the street were torn down and the beaches were filled in and replaced by closely-packed massive and towering apartment buildings with hundreds of verandas which were far more impressive architecturally, but far less beautiful.

Few people remember the mansions or the beaches, but most believe that the high-rises have stood there forever. Now when you walk down Sheridan Road, the traffic is so heavy and the water so far away behind the buildings that you can no longer hear the waves.

Three blocks to the west was Edgewater, a miniscule street slung like a hammock between a quiet street to the east and a busy street to the west. There I lived quite happily in a moderately dilapidated apartment which I shared with my parents, two sisters, one brother, two blue parakeets, and a dog.

Along the street stood nearly identical sturdy brown brick two and three-flats with large, clean lace-curtained windows in the front and small open porticos decorated with terra cotta flower pots of various sizes. Inside the apartments the ceilings were high and the rooms were laid out more or less the same as ours. Those buildings were interspersed with squat, frail but fearless homes of families of two, five, or eight children and were concealed from the late morning or afternoon sun by tall trees. In the back yards and on the front lawns stood shady poplars and towering American elms whose profusion of leaves, singed and curled by the blistering summer sun, hung parched and brittle, and shook like tinsel when the leaves fluttered in the wind.

The morning sun revealed rectangular lawns that, except when snow obscured them, were always closely cropped and tidily trimmed as though meticulous angels appeared every night to care for them. The hedges that hid modestly in the shadows were as neatly shorn as boys’ fresh haircuts, and the flowers in the beds were tall and brightly-colored. In late autumn the brilliant orange, crimson, and yellow leaves that had been liberated from the trees by westerly winds scampered wildly, crisply, and noisily along the pavement and adorned the lawns like jewels.

On no particular schedule—or none we were aware of—from down the alley emerged the gray rag man sitting high atop a complaining horse-drawn, creaking wagon, his voice preceding him as he called “Rags, old iron.” As the wagon neared, you heard, faintly at first, and then more purely, the rhythmic, hollow clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp of the shod hooves of the old gray horse whose head hung low and swayed slowly to the rhythm of its gait. Then you heard it snort as it struggled futilely with its bit, and saw its huge protruding brown eyes glazed with an expression of weariness and sorrow, and the sunlight shimmering off the sweat that coated its flanks.

In the early evenings as though all in unison, the regiments of gray, strong, working men, pensive, plain, godly men—the fathers—passed down the street in orderly array, returning to those of us whose entire universe extended no further than the ends of that block. After dinner when the weather was good the fathers–some in gaudy suspenders, to a man seeking peace–left their families and went alone outside in the yard to smoke. The glowing tips of their cigarettes or bowls of their pipes hovered like red ornaments suspended from invisible strings in the darkness. The men nodded cordially to one another, but only rarely went to their fences to speak.

They stood stationary and solitary in the middle of the yard gazing up at the dazzling field of glinting stars, being reminded of their own inadequacy, their own insignificance, feeling in themselves the overwhelming rapture and wonderment of being alive on this earth on this night that they would try to convey to another person, but would forever be unable to. After a little they shredded their cigarettes or tapped out their pipes on the soles of their shoes and watched the tiny embers drift to the ground. Then they went back inside where the light was bright and the rooms were noisy with happy children.

On especially sweltering summer nights one by one my family evacuated the stifling apartment and sat together in a little cluster on the wooden front stairs. There every summer evening without exception I fell under the spell of our little street. I watched the flight of night hawks circling high above chimneys and sweeping down like kites. My eyes settled too on the entwined strands of ivy on the trellis next door, on the blinking traffic lights and long beams of headlights spread like cream on Ridge Avenue, the yellow-glowing lamp lights in the windows of neighbors, and the demented boy who rode the street at nights with his little dog in a paper bag in the basket of his bicycle. And if our luck was good, down the street came what we were all wishing for: a breeze. Then the multitude of closely assembled leaves trembled on the trees that were tinged with moonlight.

The six of us were frugal with words on those evenings, parceling them out sparingly, as though they were precious things that needed protecting. When we spoke among ourselves it was not of topics momentous or memorable. Serious subjects were best saved for visits to our stairs of my father’s family–Welsh of course, with musical accents and exotic names, all of them worldly enough to speak on most any subject with some professed expertise. They always came bearing a vast stock of stories and bits of song and strong opinions that differed markedly from one another and were bickered over turbulently, but in a generally agreeable and forgiving manner. Sometimes too, other visitors came to sit with us.

Whenever anyone on those stairs spoke, I listened intently to the words, the silences, and the breaking of the silence, the short sentences and the longer, the soliloquies, the jokes, comments, stories, exaggerations and wild tales of utterly impossible events that there was an unspoken agreement to play along with but not for a minute believe. Sometimes I understood what was being discussed or commented on or observed, but often I did not. When I did not, my attention drifted and the words dissolved into a hum and became merely sounds.

Then I thought that perhaps when I was older and my time had come I would understand everything or most everything of which these people spoke, that meanings to which I, as a little child, was not privy, would then become clear to me, and I too would be able to speak fervently of them. At times the words the adults uttered came accompanied by a gravity or sadness that frightened me—talk of war and defeats and death and deepest sorrows. But soon someone usually said something that brought laughter all around, and I laughed with them, not knowing what brought them that flash of joy. But I shared in it, knowing that it was good and that when they were happy I was happy.

Too soon the deepest darkness arrived–imperceptibly, as if we had been inattentive and without our knowing it had descended stealthily from its source or risen from the earth to wrap itself around us. Street lights, old and sunken into the ground and standing precariously like drunken sentinels wearing metal caps, then lit and cast yellow cones all down the street. Swarms of flitting fireflies carrying their little lanterns behind them appeared and hovered like tiny intermittent airborne embers that speckled the night like the amber tips of matches. Once aloft on their nocturnal flight like winged magnets the fireflies drew their tormentors–my brother and other giddy children and me. Powerless against our quick hands, soon they were assembled like congregants in a glass jar which glowed like a church in the night.

 

The twilight sinks and the evening wanes and the intense heat cools and the street becomes warm and peaceful. Soon from our visitors emerge the end-of-evening yawns and “oh-my-goodness-how-time-flies,” and they pack up and leave for home. We say goodbye and they are gone. My family is alone now, all of us speaking in drowsy tones. We hear the nightly chants of the sleepless crickets from under the porch and in the hedges and see neighbors hurrying home. It is the end of this day.

My mother flutters her fingers and says, “Well, it’s getting late” with a sigh that conveys that she is weary, and my father says, “Now heed your mother children.” While still able to, I cast one last long look at the people who share this place with me. Somehow out of God’s grace and for reasons I will never fathom, they have been sent to dwell in this house for a time and to be the objects of my love forever. We children moan as pathetically as we can to be granted a few minutes more of wakefulness, but despite our protests we are ushered inside.

I lift the window shade slightly and see, overhead, a splinter of a moon and protective stars attending us. There with me in that bedroom is my brother sleeping, and there are my sisters sleeping. I am sheltered there in that sanctuary of my youth, safe in the protective hands of my parents and the Lord. My life will never be as free of complications and contradictions as then. There is no need yet to try to muddle through a life I do not fully understand.

It is now a time of resplendent picnics and sunny beaches, a blessed period of my life when pain is a stranger to me and I am immune from suffering. I lie remembering the day as I will remember it forever–a blistering journey to the cool of evening. And trying to peer forward into time and see how I will be as a man, I wonder what this life holds in store for me and if I will live mine creditably enough. I study my hand suspended in air like a gray and familiar bird. I whisper, “That is me, me,” and with that thought something stirs deeply in me that all my life will be inexpressible. And then I make a wish that things will never change, but will stay as they are forever.

 I am told that my mother and father are deathless, my brother and sisters are deathless, and that I am deathless too; that there really is no death and we endure everlastingly and that time is an illusion. But I know that my life as it is now will end. I know that we in my family are seeds that will be cast on separate earths, that we will be drawn apart to live our lives there to the end. And that too soon those people I intend well toward will pass away and leave no trace but in my memory. That the day will come when I will never again sit on those stairs with my beloved family on an evening in the heat of summer.

After a while the faint sounds of spoons against coffee cups and the low drone of speech floating from the kitchen cease and my parents go to bed. Of my family I think in my child’s way–they are all of them–each of them–good people, devoid of malice, and I am blessed to be among them. Why, I wonder, have I been so favored? “Dear Lord, keep these people safe, and please treat them kindly. Spare us please from pain or so apportion it so that none of us is asked to bear more than one should be required to.”

Silently I pray, as always fast, “God bless Mom and Dad and…” and I fall to sleep beseeching God. The day ends then, and I dream, and in a moment another dawn breaks.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

 

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