Crux

Think of the slow trickles of change: water dripping on sandstone. The sun arcing between horizons. The moral arc of the universe bending. Little squabbles getting louder, little silences stretching longer. The nagging ache tugging at your attention. The sapling inching up and out, year by year.

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Water. Sandstone.

And then the onrush—of change, awakening, realization: the sudden sum total of incremental movement. The stone gives way, and waters rush through the gap. The calendar flips (where did the time go?). An old paradigm crumbles, and you wake up to new, fairer laws; divorce; chemo. Hatchlings peep from a nest in the tree high overhead.

The onrush is the stuff of drama. By that I don’t mean emotion—I mean of stage and screen, the dramatic arts. A story, enacted around a moment of crisis, catastrophe, or awakening, when you look up and know the world will never be the same. Drama— serious or comic—comes from that turning point and the question, “Now what will you do?”

The themes of turning are archetypal. Love. Betrayal. Loss. Wonder. Overcoming. The speed or forcefulness of the action has little correlation to the depth of the crisis, the strength of the awakening. The same human can be reached as deeply by a touch as by a tsunami. A car chase, earthquake, or explosion could just as easily be a lifted eyebrow, a gasp, a turned page, a quiet resolution.

Or even a walk through a garden.

The view toward Civilization, November 2016

A garden tells a story around primal themes: civilization and wilderness, safety and adventure. My own garden, as tiny as it is, journeys from indoor ease to the patio’s domestication to a Western “wild” land beyond.

I’m not particularly good at garden design. I cannot envision a “look” of particular plants with heights and colors and bloom seasons all carefully coordinated. But I can picture a mood, an ambiance, and use it to craft a tale.

Lately I have resorted to something simple: naming the garden beds. I used to name them things like “that one bed” and “that other bed.” The garden did tell a story, but more the kind one hears from eager eight-year-olds, with lots of “um-um-um”‘s and tangents and no coherent plot, but plenty of bonus super-heroes. And trains. Endearing, but more because you love the eight-year-old than because the story hangs together.

Focusing the names has helped me to focus the story. (A rough draft of it, at least.) The names themselves are not romantic. They’re embarrassing enough that I never thought I’d put them into print:  the Hot Bed of Intrigue, the Bowl of Sunshine, the Wayside Picnic Area. But they provide the discipline I need when I’m pruning or planting or wandering a nursery.

The Threshold, the Bowl of Sunshine, and the Wayside Picnic Area, November 2016

And isn’t that the biggest difference between a good story and a bad? Or between a story and real life? The disciplined choice of details. No drama includes every moment, every sensation, every thought that led to its heart—to the crux of the action. It weeds out all the chaos and dust and trips to the bathroom. Everything that distracts from the archetype’s particular manifestation in story gets cut away.

 

A few weeks ago I was wandering my garden, coffee cup in hand, thinking of ambiance and story and detail. A slow mosey one direction; a slow mosey the other. A peek at the buds fattening on the sand cherries, the little bluestem’s winter plumage, the seed heads of blue grama grass fluttering. And then I saw it—the tiny counter to expectation, the unexpected blip on the radar. A moment I almost overlooked.

The crocus.

A crocus!

The first one of the year, blooming two weeks early. On a day of drifting clouds, with winter breathing down my neck, a crocus bloomed.

Why was that dramatic? We know it happens every year, as surely as we know the lovers in a rom-com will kiss. It is in the very essence of the thing. We know about change; we believe in it and have hope in it. We clock the extra minutes of daylight after the solstice. But deep down our experience is of sameness. Today is much like yesterday, which was much like the day before. Something in us whispers, “As it is now, so will it ever be.” When hope and continuity are at odds, which one wins?

And then—the sandstone gives way. The paradigm shifts. The flowers bloom. The first crocus is proof: no demon ex machina will come to whisk our springtime away.

With that one exquisitely chosen detail perspective changes. It telescopes out from the tiny to the vast, from immediate concerns to something exponentially beyond your ken. Suddenly you know: the earth moves. And you find yourself clinging to a tree for dear life.

I ended up laughing wryly at the carefully orchestrated paths and discoveries of a garden, at the carefully orchestrated tension of stories. Departure, journey, climax, arrival—what a small drama a story is, to be told once and then considered over. The big drama lies in repetition—the journey yet again around the sun, the pulse of life in response, the heartbeat of the years. The drama is not that a heart beats once but that it beats over and over and over. The magic lies in the cycle, the return.

In the opening, once again, of a flower.

Meeting

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The light on a Sunday morning is always cool and soft. Indirect, from the north and west windows of the Meetinghouse.

It bathed the circle of chairs: Howard, his walker planted squarely in front of him. Gina, chic and trim and tan. Rose, her thin cardigan showing vertebrae beneath her shoulder blade, the S of scoliosis stamped on her spine. Rick, jiggling one leg—a runner’s body protesting inaction. Dozens of Friends more.

This meeting was a quiet one. No ministry was offered. Just chairs creaking, a sigh, a few snores, a phone hastily shushed. And then, after most of the hour had passed, the hush of real stillness: a “gathered” meeting resting in communion. A few minutes later, hands were held, greetings given. Eyes shone with soft light before the circle broke. I left before pot luck in a bubble of peace and love.

Outdoors: the glare of noon on concrete, asphalt, stucco. Broken glass in the alley behind the diner. Drifts of dirt and October leaves in the gutters, a Budweiser bottle, some dingy rags. This isn’t exactly a skanky part of town, but that’s the faintest praise I can damn it with. In Chicago the scene might have passed for noir. Under bright desert sun it was just faded—a B-movie western. Sunglasses on, window open, I eased around potholes in the alley to the street.

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Across the way an SUV with Kansas plates was parked with its side and rear doors open. Two men sat inside. A third was outside rummaging through suitcases and coolers in the back, while a fourth looked on from the shadows. A gallon jug, a backpack or two, and a gas can sat on the sidewalk.

A gas can. To be out of gas and stranded on a Sunday, even in the era of cell phones—that’s no fun. I spared a sympathetic thought as I prepared to drive past. Then I heard the voice in my head:

“So, kid, what do you think all that peace and love are for?”

To be honest, I don’t normally think they’re for helping four strange men when I’m on my own. But the nudge was there. It poked me in my complacency, hard. What are all that peace and love for? I took a deep breath, stopped, and got out of the car.

“Can I help you with anything? I hate being stranded.”

After a surprised minute, one of the passengers said, “Hey, thanks, but we’re OK. This guy could use a ride, though.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Ride? We’d gone from a wink to a wedding in 5 seconds flat. I hadn’t planned on giving anyone a ride. I’m not sure what I had planned on. Filling the gas can, maybe, or picking up sandwiches and sodas while they waited for Triple A. Disembodied, feel-good help. Not help in close proximity to an actual stranger in my actual car.

“We’re getting out our extra water and some clothes for him, and we’ve given him some cash.”

The man in the shadows stepped into the light. I don’t remember details of his appearance—not the color of his clothes or his hair; his age. Just the dingy gray aura of the streets, as if dust and rags had come to life. He was smaller than me, bent, trembling. He looked at me with pale eyes that faced different directions.

“He needs to go to Fourth and Menaul. We’d give him a ride, but we’re headed the other way.”

This wasn’t what I’d bargained for. But the man didn’t seem drunk or drugged, just weak and shaky, perhaps ill. If he did threaten me, I could mosey away to safety.

“Would you mind putting out your cigarette?” I asked. It was a test question: was he aggressive? willing to accommodate?

“No problem,” he said. I offered him a ride.

The men in the SUV stowed their gear, shut their doors, and took off. “Have a blessed day,” they called, waving, as they turned up Fourth Street—toward Menaul.

I turned extra-polite, distant, in the ridiculous way of “good girls” who trust their manners to protect them. I opened the passenger door and rolled down the manual window while the man stubbed out his cigarette. He eased slowly (painfully?) into the seat.

As I opened my own door a cop car pulled up. Another uncertainty. Would this be a cop who thinks anyone not sitting with both hands flat on a table is committing a crime? Or a cop who wants to ensure everyone is safe and well? He got out of his car: a Safe and Well cop, the cavalry. Officer Friendly, with an easy bearing, easy voice, easy smile.

“Hey, Ben, how’s it going?”

(Ben. I hadn’t asked his name. I hadn’t offered him mine.)

“Are you headed home from work? Can I give you a ride? We could let this lady go about her day.”

After a minute Ben sighed and struggled out of my car again, with the deep patience of someone used to being other people’s parcel. I knew then that I had not done this well.

“How was work this morning?”

“Waste of time,” said Ben.

The cop laughed as they drove off, and I, the would-be rescuer, had been rescued.

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Five minutes of my life—not much time, but they coughed up a heap of perplexity. I drove home unsettled, wondering, analyzing, exploring. What risk had I just taken? What risk had I not?

Nothing had actually pushed my fear buttons. I had assessed the situation as well as I could and had not sensed a particular danger—just the general, potential danger of the unknown. Surprise had led me to treat Ben in a way I wish I hadn’t—as an object of mixed fear and charity. When surprise ebbed I would no doubt have seen his humanity and been human to him in return. My history tells me that, so while I regret my slowness I don’t castigate myself for it. I can even tell myself that the cop was better able to see to Ben’s needs.

What unsettled me was the nature of the surprise: the visceral realization that peace and love are not feelings. They are actions that bring risks and have consequences. They may germinate in soft, indirect light, but they do not grow up to matter in niceness. They mature in noonday glare, on concrete and pavement, where the rubber meets the road. They exist physically, body to body, face to face, between people with curved spines and runners’ calves and chronic illnesses and misaligned eyes. They are enacted amid uncertainty, confusion, and mess. And I’ve never been good at those.

I wish I had taken the risk well: that I had counted the cost before offering help and then offered it with a whole heart.

“So, kid, what do you think all that peace and love are for?”

What good is it, to run a risk halfway? Is safety always the most important thing?

What risks am I willing to run for kindness?

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(Names have been changed to protect privacy.)