Putting our Heads Together

Putting our Heads Together
I don't think he sees me

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Feet of Clay

I explore my childhood from a distance.  Observing it from Colorado, from Greenville, from Charleston - anywhere but Orangeburg, cradle of my cradle. I am not sure why. There are no great traumas that I am hiding from. I am not claiming a perfect childhood, or some idyllic movie-like home town.  But growing up the pains were large enough to teach without deep scarring, and the smiles were not so bright as to blind.
Still as I sit at my mom’s home in Greenville, I reflect on my walk this morning and the shimmering echoes of the past that it brought to mind. I marveled at the woods, so unlike the woods of Colorado. In Colorado, the land has seemingly swelled to create the space that is there. Its forest are populated without density, the gaps in even the thickest areas may be safely penetrated by the casual hiker or by snow skiers going thirty miles per hours. To get through the woods here you have to want to. The trees gather and cluster and crowd, deadfalls are fences and briars are barbed wire. They are challenges no child can resist and no skier would dare.
Thinking of the woods, I cannot leave a reverie of them without nodding to the trees. Here there are pines, and oaks, and maples, and others that tower straight and strong, racing each other for the clouds. They push against roads, to hem them in by day, and to add reflecting power to the headlights on them at night. They keep watch over you at the same time they keep you from seeing too far, bringing you the horizon and  making it attainable. By contrast, I now live where trees feel like dwarves and protect you from nothing. They are unable to grow in sky-reaching enclaves and most of those that aspire to are gnarled in the effort. The exception is the Aspen with its white bark like some pure knight’s armor. They grow straight and true and tall after a fashion, but pretenders to the faith like cotton woods and elms have simply earned the reputation of trash trees. They grow fast, spread thin, and give into age with twisted forms that huddle bare in the winter reminding me of some desperate, Shakespearian hags.
Also as I walked, I could see the red clay of South Carolina wherever the grass thinned or some earth mover had just begun its work.  I could remember when I used to play with it, imagining that I could form it with my hands, becoming a potter. I would make bowls and rustic mugs and thick red plates, but I knew nothing of the firing process required to harden these creations into the real thing much less what a glaze was. These childhood makings would melt as the fantasies they were with the first addition of creek water. I didn’t spend much time doing this, but enough time to know the clay, to recognize it as something more than Playdough or Silly Putty. Carolina clay has heft, a plastic density, a gravitas that no man made substance could come close to. I could look at this clay showing through the land at every opportunity and remember the feel of it between my toes during a warm summer rain. In some primal part of my mind, I believe that the clay that covered my feet was a binding agent for my soul, that I could leave the land but the land would never leave me.
These vision and others tumbled to me as I walked among my kin on familiar ground so similar to the pathways and hideouts I had as a boy. All around me tendrils of fog-like memory lead back to the swamp at the end of my street, the playgrounds where we played tag football, the streets and trails I would run, the faces that crowded my youth. I feel their pull, but I also feel safety from them at this distance of miles and years.
I can rationalize this vantage point on my life by saying to myself that I wouldn’t know ten people still in Orangeburg. That the circle of friends that surrounded me as a boy have themselves spread to points well beyond the banks of the Edisto River. But I know if I were to go back, and walk her streets, somewhere I would run across someone who would say, “Aren’t you a Handal?” In my heart, I know that I will never be completely removed from my home town, and I can’t explain why I keep my distance and have never waded into the complete nostalgia of her. Maybe I am afraid Orangeburg has changed too much. Maybe I am worried that my woods are now all housing developments, and the pine straw trails I used to run are now sidewalks or paved streets. I think if I am honestly admitting, the thought of Orangeburg scares me now, because it can’t be what it was. And that’s alright, there are some things that can be best viewed without perspective or without the confusing context of the present. Childhood is one of those things.

Friday, November 28, 2014

One Foot after the Other

Lao Tzu was a pain in the butt.  He was a key philosopher for Taoism.  He said (among countless other things), “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”  He knew what he was really saying with this one seemingly innocuous statement.  Lao was taking our focus from the daunting distant dream and placing that focus at our feet and the path.  He was reducing the great effort to a single step.  Loa wasn’t challenging us to our dreams, but mocking us for not already moving toward them.  It is perhaps the biggest Double Dog Dare in history.
My pen is heavy and my spirit weak, but when I hang my head in shame of this, I see my feet and am compelled to take a step, and then the inevitable next. One foot in front of the other, pacing my way to a blog, an essay, a story?, a collection? – who knows? This collection of small efforts leading to larger ones simply because a Chinese philosopher with a wry smile and evil wit called out mankind twenty-six hundred years ago, six hundred years before Christ showed the full meaning courage of beginning with a single step.
I just finished a book recommended by Jan Henry, Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. Dr. Frankl was a brilliant psychiatrist, closet philosopher, and survivor of WWII Death Camps. He writes of what it took to survive the camps and what it takes to not survive life, but to thrive in life. He writes that joy in living is not in pleasure but in meaning. That is to find meaning in life’s moments and ultimately meaning in one’s life fully. One little moment of meaning to the next, the sum of which total to a meaningful life. Viktor Frankl, did you read Lao Tzu, or did you simply and naturally yield to the pull of that particular gravity of truth to share it with the world through your life and your meaning?
This the day after Thanksgiving, and I carry not just the warmth of food in my belly, but all I have to be thankful for. Then I look down and seem my feet. I look down and take my next step. I look down and I smile, not for all that I am thankful for, but for whatever I will be thankful for from this moment to the next. So now it’s my turn to be a pain, what will you be thankful for tomorrow?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Flying in my Car

I think most of us have a dream of flying, not just in first class from New York to Paris, but to be in the cockpit at the stick. I still occasionally have dreams of stepping into a small jet and taking off from a grass field, fear rising in my belly as the plane yearns for the sky. I wage an internal struggle between the dueling ideas of “I don’t know how to do this!!” and “I got this, no problem.” Once airborne, my spirit soars with the plane and I am tuned into the sky forgetting the hard reality of landscape below. Intuitively I sense not only where I am going but how to get there. The fear doesn’t re-enter my belly until the inevitable thoughts arise - “I may know how to fly, but I don’t know how to land!!” and “Landing’s the easy part.” Sometimes these returns to earth in my dreams have been accomplished Fred Flintstone-like with my feet as landing gear, most times the landings are much more conventional – and I always make it. These dreams color my perception as an adult in the only place they can, behind the steering wheel of my car. Each time I put on my seatbelt, a small part of me is strapping in for instrument check and take off.
This reminiscence came about today as I was driving and I pulled into a merge lane. I looked in my rear view mirror and an SUV suddenly slipped in close behind me, a bit too close. The driver appeared to have taut Aryan features, short blond (almost white) hair, and he wore reflective sunglasses. He seemed ageless. The name Richtofen sprang to mind as I kept a wary eye to my rear while looking for space to maneuver. It was a tight chase for half a mile before I shook him by slipping into the lane to my left. I toyed with the idea of sliding in behind him as he flew past, but I had proven my mettle and the game was over.
I stay observant as I drive, and the pilot mindset helps to always keep my mind fresh and my eye sharp. It is not always dog fights and evasion out on the road. Quite often it is keeping a watchful eye out for amateurs and show offs who compromise traffic patterns when their egos are writing checks their bodies can’t cash. This evening my wife and I were making our way to American Furniture Warehouse on a cargo run. We were hoping that the third time would be the charm for the new armchair we were to exchange. When I got the chair home on Monday and unboxed it, I found there were no legs. On Wednesday when I was able to pick up the legs, we found out that the legrest when at full extension was prone to a sizeable roll (invigorating in a positive “g” banked curve, but very disorienting for stationary activities). About halfway there, we were in a holding pattern at a stop light. The two lanes to our left were designated for turning onto the highway, and the car in front of us decided to make our lane into a turn lane as well. The car roared to life into an aggressive maneuver from its standstill and abruptly shot around a truck and made a perilous dash for the ramp. Even though the maneuver was successful, I think I have shown it as something not to do.

Keeping a weather eye out and not simply relying on instrumentation, helps keeps me safe, but has on occasion provided me a good laugh. Several years ago, I was driving our van back from a wedding delivery. It had been a long day, and I was anxious to make it back to the deck and catch some rack time before I had to return later that evening to pick up the rentals. However, traffic was tight, and it was not time to be a slacker. Suddenly, there in front of me were two small sedans filled with even smaller elderly people. They were slow and overly cautious, with one following the other. What tipped me off to potential danger (besides their slight swaying motion in the lane) was that the lead car had on a right turn signal, and the trail car had on his left turn signal. I tapped my brake, giving myself room for the unexpected – anything could happen. Hesitantly the trail car drifted right and pulled beside his wingman. His wingman then made a sudden and stuttering left hand turn! I stared in amazement, foot poised to pound the brake if necessary, and hands tight on the wheel as from the right hand lane the other driver jolted left to follow his wingman. These events executing in the slow motion only very old or very young drivers can accomplish. Meanwhile, in the back seat of the car turning left from the right hand lane, I could make out a little old man with his hands hard on the roof, his eyes wide as saucers, his neck craning around crazily to see if anyone was about to ram them. He looked to me for all the world like Slider (Iceman’s rear) trying to follow and find the two Migs that just executed a supersonic flyby. I couldn’t help but smile at the image even as I cringed and hoped that God really did watch over fools, drunkards, and Americans.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams (or Another Richard Cory)

What was it like to be you, Robin Williams?
Were the unrelenting crashes of ideas,
Like the rising surf to a man tied to the beach,
And being drowned by the voices that eventually consume him?

Were you wracked by the ceaseless pains of labor,
The thoughts full in your distended belly,
Each pressing to be first, each fighting to be first to the light,
Each demanding to be first down the birthing canal of your mind’s eye, born fully formed?

Did your body and spirit cave to the pressures
Of being not a person, not an identity, but a conduit
Of pure expression, pure thought, pure word, pure chaos?
Were you eaten whole by them, your soul the last gift you could offer the ravening horde?

Was it lonely never being alone from your thoughts,
Never being separated from your gift, your curse,
Never having respite from the demons of creativity,
Never being able to fully love, because your love was shredded and fed in bits to those demons?

Do you find heaven a more peaceful place,
Lying in repose, tanning in the unbearable light of God’s being,
Touched with the blessed gift of one thought at a time?
I hope so.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Time of Our Lives


The times we live in seem to be dominated by confusion, hatred, and mayhem, while the world seems more than content to push things along rather than step back from the brink.  Three commercial airliners in five months will never see radar again (one still missing reasons unknown, one shot down by a civil war, one possibly a victim of weather). The Middle East has never been a more desperate region. Afghanis die as readily by the same hands that killed them before the US invaded and freed their land. In Iraq monsters that were held at bay by the monster the US removed are set free to wreak their own monstrosities. Gaza is once again a land of rubble and blood, and Egypt, Syria, and Lybia smolder and blaze and rot in varying degrees. Eastern Europe plays out in microcosm in the Russian sponsored breakdown of the Ukraine. And the US is not to be outdone as Republicans and Democrats argue about what is the best way to turn our backs on babies at the borders. Politicians corrupt the honored labels of liberal and conservative into the new "spic", "kike", and "nigger". Guns have become the default expression of the disenfranchised as school children in classrooms become the target of choice, and only a year ago a young African American high school student in Valdosta, Georgia, was beaten beyond recognition, stuffed dead in a hole, and the “incident” ruled a self-inflicted accident as if it were the punch line to the oldest of racist jokes.
In less than 120 years, the world has been mobilized in cars and then planes, moved from hand calculations to slide rule to tablet, carry voice and social connections in the palm of the hand, and enjoy never before available educational opportunities. Since the dawn of man, people have fought and struggled for the higher ground, for a better life. Shouldn’t the better life be here? Shouldn’t we be able to care for ourselves, to feed each other, to put a roof over everyone’s head?
Apparently not. We the sheep in order to form a more perfect union turn a deaf ear and a mute tongue to be blind followers of the purveyors of power who need only scream epithets and sling labels that stick all too easily with the paste of ignorance in order to get us to ignore the man behind the curtain in favor of the Great and Powerful Oz. The most action that we as a nation seem able to accomplish is to point fingers back and forth, to blame that person for our woes and that party for our discomforts, to fear beyond reason that we will only be allowed to fire one bullet at a time rather than the fifty rounds per second we deserve.  Meanwhile fear, starvation, and revolution are more alive than ever out our back door, in the third world, and beyond.
I have long since given up reading the newspapers. Since 9-11 I have stopped watching CNN and all cable news. I can no longer listen for any length of time to news on NPR. My hands are over my ears with my eyes shut. I have to cruise news stories on my own, melt them down using the alchemy of atomic and genetic similarity shared by mankind to distill the vapors for what might be the truth. But it is a world where people retain power by preaching hatred (a pastime older than Genesis and still we know no better, we eat it up, our piggy-persons belly up to the trough for our daily slop of lies because that is what works for us). What good is truth in small hands? How can I stand up and say to the Ukraine that ethnic Russians can still be Ukrainians? How can I turn to those same ethnic Russians and say that blood and country are interchangeable, if you can’t understand that then leave your home and go home? How can I stare down a nation and say, “They are just children. They are the future of the world. If we treat them as garbage, as undesirables, what position does that put the future in?” How can I stand on the mount and shout to the land of my father’s fathers and say, “Stop! For God’s sake Stop! You live in the cradle of religion, and you behave in the least God-like way imaginable!”
I am just one voice, and these times make me feel so small. I am infinitesimal next to powers I do not understand, in the face of atrocities that I understand all too well. There is no word, no spell, no magic phrase I can utter to get the world to stop spinning its wheels, to stop the engine of self-absorption and corruption from devouring humanity. I can only take a breath, focus, and try to believe that if enough small people can come together, a large difference can be made.

Saturday, July 5, 2014



In the mind of a young man, a thought like a burning bush flares and a dialog between God and boy that explores the universe begins:

young man: God, how big is infinity?

God: Young man, how many numbers are there to count with?

young man: An infinite number of counting numbers, God.

God: Good. Using those numbers, how many negative numbers can you count?

young man: There are just as many, Lord. I would use all my counting numbers to count the negative numbers.

God smiles and the boy’s mind lights with a rainbow glow. Such a smart boy, the Lord of Hosts thinks.

God: Young man, do you know what a fraction is?

young man: I do, God. We have had them in math already. I made a C+ in fractions. Sometimes they can be tricky.

God: I know, I made them that way, but there are no tricks here. How many fractions are between 0 and 1?

young man (concentrating a little harder now): An infinite amount I think. If I count backwards starting at 1/1 and keep working down, there is one counting number for every number on the bottom of the fraction.

God (impressed by the lad’s application of logic): Exactly! So if those fractions live between 0 and 1, and that is the first “gap” between our counting numbers, how many other gaps are there to be filled with fractions?

young man (sweat now breaking upon his brow trying to work this out): An infinite number of gaps?

God (more pleased than ever): Just so. There are infinite gaps between the counting numbers. How many fractions fit in each gap?

young man (smiling as he gets a handle on this): There are an infinite number of fractions in each of the infinite gaps between the infinite number of counting numbers!

God (grinning ear to infinite ear): And if you include negative fractions, and the gaps between the negative numbers?

young man (suddenly feeling more annoyed than excited): There are an infinite amount of gaps between the infinite number of negative numbers with an infinite number of negative fractions filling each of those gaps to add to the infinite number of counting number gaps each filled with an infinite number of fractions. But how does this tell me how large infinity is?!?

God (grinning): Sssshhhh, I am not finished yet.