This for That

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A few weeks ago I was in the kitchen, singing along with Emmylou Harris, mixing up a batch of muffins, popping them in the oven, filling the house with cinnamon-apple aroma. Twenty-three minutes later out came my creations: poor, diminished little edibles. That’s what happens sometimes if a baker interchanges ingredients. This powder for that soda did not work.

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Exchanges on any level can prove tricky. One example plays throughout William Trevor’s short story “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil.” Miss Nightingale, the dreamy, idealistic teacher, knows her shy, delicate student is a musical genius, capable of “symphonies unwritten.” She continues to teach him even when she discovers that after each lesson, a personal possession goes missing. Snuff-box. Swan figurine. Rose-petal paperweight. But for her, the exchange is worth it. As long as he enriches her life with music, she lets him be thief in her home.

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The Scripture asks, “What would you exchange for your very soul?” In Robert Bolt’s award-winning Man for All Seasons, Richard Rich exchanges perjury for a promotion and thus ensures Thomas More’s death. And his reward? Attorney General in Wales. The doomed Thomas says to him, “Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. “But for Wales?”

When I ask myself the question of profit and exchange, what comes to mind is the inexorable stripping accompanying old age. Now, there is nothing worth my soul.

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Last night I re-read Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” a poem I link to my father. Seventy years ago, the words were his life lesson to us (my sister, brothers and I were so young). Strange how I just noticed that while the poem challenges the reader with the “If” of endurance and humility, the poet waits until the very end to describe the resulting dignity and honor that makes the exchange worthwhile.

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds worth of distance run—
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.

My father used Kipling because he wanted us—his sons and daughters– to recognize what comes before the final interaction. He wanted the words, their rhyme and rhythm, to teach us children about decisions and free will. Each time he recited this poem, he let the words ask the question, “What are you willing to do to be the best human being you can be?” This for that. A noble exchange that remains ours for the taking.

Oxymoron

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Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long, brown path before me . . .
     —Walt Whitman                                                          

I’ve wanted to write about pathways, not as some mundane idea, but in sentences wise, maybe even soul-stirring, like the Whitman quotation. I like Shel Silverstein’s promise to children: where the sidewalk ends is a new world of grass, birds, minty air, and oh, adventure. In meditation, with my room darkened and candle lit, I reflect on Proverbs and Aristotle, writers who insist on the narrow, winding, and sometimes treacherous way lit by right choices.

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Yet that is not my everyday experience of pathways. I push my small cart to buy grain-free “Taste of the Wild” and on to Winco for tangerines, broccoli, peppers, bananas, bagels, milk, and (sometimes) low-salt potato chips. I walk to Kohl’s for a sale on socks. And every morning I bundle Angel, my eight-pound Shih Tzu, in her red-plaid jacket and trek through the neighborhood.

The psalm tells me God’s pathways are peace, but in actuality, mine are usually concrete.

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A few days ago, with leash in one hand and camera in the other, I documented my open road. At this time of year, a January morning, it is no fun to rise and shine, especially when the shining comes from rain. Even with a break in the clouds, beige twigs and gray branches dominate, except for berries the color and shape of red-pearls. My task, however, is not for the enjoyment of nature, but the health benefits afforded to one human and her canine companion. We walk straight ahead in our predictable circle: along curved sidewalks, past a pocket park, follow a tangent towards a gentle giant, and then head home.

Thinking about this predictable ritual, slivers of insight cut through: life contains an oxymoron of linear circles, going forward and roundabout. Unbending tedium and spiraling energy converge. A walk can give me circles of laughter from an open window, or the straight ahead surprise of a young woman walking her cat. Coming back home is as familiar as the round plush slippers inside my front door.

Enough grand thoughts. Tonight, hearing rain slash the window, I’m not eager for the morning nor the sidewalk that does not end, though my east-west direction is clear. Like all the winter mornings through the years, I will repeat the cycle: crawl out from warm covers, put on my poncho, attach the plaid coat to Angel, and both of us, jaws set, travel forward until circling back to the place from where we started—one paw, one step at a time.

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Bygones

whmsShould auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

In the New Year’s scene from the movie When Harry Met Sally, while “Auld Lang Syne” plays, Harry asks, “What does this song mean? My whole life I don’t know what this song means.”

As often as I have hummed the classic melody, I never bothered memorizing the words, but liked the sound of “tak a cup,” and “pu’d the gowans.” If Harry had asked me, I would have answered, “Glad to have the past over and done with.” And New Year’s Day? I was glad to have survived 2018. Let those bygones be bygones. However, to link willful forgetting with “Auld Lang Syne” is to miss the point of the song.

Remember Sally’s answer to Harry’s question? “It’s about old friends.”

In these first days of January, I’ve taken time with Robert Burns’ version of the old Celtic song. Each verse is memory’s celebration: walk into the pubs of the past, hear the fiddle play, let the keg’s drink flow.

And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet
For auld lang syne!

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Where kindness thrived this past year, celebration involved food and drink. My sister Mary and I enjoyed tea in her small garden shared by gnomes and clay squirrels. Panera’s booth and Fehrenbacher Hof’s table were perfect places to rekindle old friendships. At my home, friends gathered for foamy coffee and blueberry muffins. This autumn, neighbors and family brought Gala and Granny Smith, Honeycrisp and Fuji apples to my niece’s home for a Cider Mill Party, and together we watched fruit churn into tart juice. For sure, my brother Michael never fails to raise his glass at every holiday meal and say “Cheers.”

ireland-2We twa hae ran about the braes,
And pu’d the gowans fine,
But we’ve wander’d monie a weary fit
Sin’ auld lang syne.

My photo albums chart the miles I have walked: braes of Nova Scotia and trails near Lake Louise. In mountain meadows, the gowans—daisies and wildflowers—tempted me, but I left them unpicked. In early September I will once again visit Ireland, not to Galway, my grandfather’s land, but to the Glens of Antrim, my grandmother’s home. May the time be filled with “monie” a mile and with the spirit of Mary McElheran. The New Year, 2019, will be a good time to raise a cup of thanks for old roads traveled and new ones right around the bend.

lamplight-2On an evening walk, I noticed the lamplight ahead shone steady, while at a distance a light flickered in a window; a symbol, perhaps, of the diminishing past and the brightening future. “Auld Land Syne” asks something more from those of us who sing along: don’t forget auld experiences and memories—no matter what form they take. Think of them as embers to blow upon. The flicker becomes a flame and the flame becomes a torch, guiding us from bygones to beginnings.