True, true, not true

220px-pelican_with_open_pouch1Have you ever played the game True, True, Not True? (If that is indeed what is called. You sit around and take turns telling two things about yourself that are true, and one that isn’t, and the others in the circle – best played around a campfire – guess which is the untrue thing.)

This is a variation, in which I list some of the things I saw yesterday, down here on the forgotten coast. Everything on the list is true except for one. And which one is it?

A brown pelican, gulping down a large fish and then flying in a prehistoric, cawing way low across the water in search of another.

An old celadon-green sink, rusting at the base, propped outside a junk store.

A very old woman in a black pantsuit and a black hat, escorted into the raw bar by her crimson-faced, pickle-brained middle-aged alcoholic son, who, every time he rose to pull himself another beer from the tap on the wall, found something new to salute: a wooden Indian, a photo of a football team, his own reflection in the window.

A bald eagle circling high over pines on an island, maybe looking for prey or – more likely, from the way he drifted back and forth – enjoying the steady breeze off the ocean.

Two alligators, one sunning his eight-foot body next to a pond, the other barely submerging and floating along lazily.

A hunched woman of indeterminate age, wearing a pink Piggly Wiggly t-shirt and a pair of men’s sansabelt pants, her eyeglasses mended with what looked like a popsicle stick and duct tape, trying to sell several used copies of “The Shack” and one copy of “Slim for Him” on the street corner of a tiny Gulf town.

A large man enthroned on a golf cart, putting down the dirt street of a trailer town, his two dogs – one a black pit bull, the other a shepherd mix – cantering a block behind him.

Two enormous jellyfish, beached and no doubt dead.

A handsome, wide-shouldered man, crouched before an abandoned yellow one-story home overgrown with vines, two enormous pink wooden crab legs extending from either side of the front door, taking a Polaroid photo.

An unsteady wooden sign pointing the way to the Love Fellowship Church, three blocks that way.

Two large black-bristled wild boars charging through a palmetto grove.

A bubble of saliva dropping from the trembling mouth of a hungry dog crouching on the floor waiting for his bowl of food to be lowered before him.

A wizened potato, many times microwaved, being used as a bedwarmer, just as they did it back in the Laura Ingalls Wilder days (only without the microwave).

A man wearing a New York City subway #7 cap – Manhattan to Queens – hunched before a glowing computer screen in a many-windowed round house on tall stilts.

A partially-knit scarf trailing a ball of rust-colored wool, which upon closer examination reveals its knitter to be incapable of remembering when to knit, when to purl, and how to keep a stitch count constant.

A folded piece of scrappish-looking paper which, when opened, is covered with the names and nicknames of various people, below which is written, in capital letters, THANK YOU.

Is it too late to give something up for Lent?

girls-at-kayuta-lakeA week after Lent began and although she’s not Catholic and never was, that whole Catholic Lenten thing seems to have filtered down through the air and water so that it’s a part of her. The idea of it anyway, the idea of giving up something for six weeks.

Each year she carefully considers giving up something, something that means something to her, but has she?  Ever? Honestly, she can’t quite remember.

Way back when that photo was taken – she’s on the left there, in the baggy bathing cap – she was more committed to the idea. Six weeks isn’t a long time and it seems entirely possible to give up virtually anything or 42 days, doesn’t it? And yet did she?

Consider for a moment the little girl in the upper right, one of her sisters, the one in that cute plaid bathing suit. That little girl did indeed follow through one year on a major vow: Give up all desserts. For six straight weeks not a bite of dessert touched her lips. And yet on Easter day the stone was rolled away from the freezer, and from the freezer did issue forth 42 days’ worth of desserts, carefully tinfoiled away and frozen until the day of dessert resurrection.

Can that possibly count as a Lenten sacrifice? She thinks not.

It is already one week into Lent and once again she is mildly tormented by the thought of sacrifice and what, if anything, she should give up. Because there is so very much to give up.

Refined sugar, that’s always a big one among her friends. She herself doesn’t crave it enough to make it seem like a big enough sacrifice, though.  Her one small cup of strong coffee with heavy cream in the morning, that would be a true sacrifice. But she doesn’t want to give it up. Therein lies the problem. She may be too wedded to her vices to give them up.

Is one small cup of strong coffee with heavy cream in the morning a vice, though? A vice implies harm, and is the coffee truly harming her? She thinks not.

She could give up painting her toenails, but that wouldn’t work because she almost never paints them anyway. She could give up Milky Ways, but they’ve gotten too sweet lately, so that wouldn’t work.

She could give up her Wednesday Powerball purchase, but then she would also have to give up the many dreams that accompany the weekly purchase, and that would be a sort of death-in-life, would it not, which seems antithetical to the nature of the sacrifice. Besides, she won $3 in last Wednesday’s Powerball, which must mean that she is inching ever closer to the pot o’ gold.

She could give up her dream of being an Olympic speed skater, but that wouldn’t work either, for too many reasons to go into here on this humble blog.

Maybe a sacrifice can mean not the taking away of something for 42 days, but the adding in thereof. She could do yoga for one hour every day for the next six weeks. She could practice meditation – focus on the breath, return to the breath – for one hour every day for the next six weeks.

She could give up cussing – not one single swear word will issue from her lips for the next six weeks – but she knows damn well (see?) she wouldn’t be able to follow through, and how self-defeating to attempt something you know you will never succeed at.

She returns to the photo at the top and gazes upon the little girl with the baggy swim cap drooping off her head. Tell you what, little girl: Let’s give up swim caps! Let’s give them up not only for the next six weeks, but for all eternity. Now that is a sacrifice not only worth making, but possible.

We applaud you. Go forth and be bareheaded, my child.

A line from a faraway friend's email

deepest-portrait-of-the-visible-universe-jpg“Sometimes I feel that I am not living so much as being lived.”

She’s been mulling this for days, that line above that came shimmering up from the middle of a faraway friend’s note in her inbox. It’s reduced itself in her mind to I am being lived, and she thinks about it in her waking hours and when she’s going to sleep.

She’s thinking about it now, from a chair in front of tall windows that open onto a narrow balcony. The balcony looks out over a driveway made of small white rocks and crushed oyster shells.

A cage where three parrots perch, gazing about and squawking. Where did these parrots come from? If someone opened the door to their cage would they fly out and make a life for themselves here on this forgotten beach, among the tall pines and stubby palms? She doesn’t know.

Now she’s thinking about the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. She saw a documentary about these parrots once, and when she went to San Francisco she kept a sharp eye out for them, but they were not to be found. Although, given the non-sharpness of her sharp eye, they were probably perched all over Telegraph Hill, watching her watch for them.

Is she living or is she being lived? She will sit in this chair, looking out at this pine that, were she a child again, she would build a treehouse in, and she will write down whatever comes to her.

A bookshelf, maybe three feet across, in the small blue-green room so far away. Forty-nine desk diaries, filled with scratchy angular half-script half-printing. Two years in which each desk diary is only half-filled: hard years. One desk diary for each year of each child’s life.

Now that the oldest lives so far away, in that city by the sea, should she stop? She thinks of her mother, who raised her to be fiercely independent. She once asked her mother if it had been hard at all, when she went away to college. All she herself remembers is the station wagon pulling away, nosing down the hill, her mother waving goodbye out the car window, smiling – and the sense of her own life, horizons lifting and opening all around her.

I cried the whole way home, her mother said, all those years later. I realized that I would never again know what you were wearing, never again watch you eat breakfast before school.

She thinks of the red one-peck apple basket under her desk, again back in that small blue-green room with the small orange couch. Little squares of paper inside, dozens of them, hundreds, one for each day, the names of those she loves written on them.

Now a blackhaired girl appears in her mind, posing in the doorway of that small blue-green room, smiling, embarrassed. Should I wear the black ones or the blue ones? Don’t just say they both look good. I don’t want you to think like a mom. I want you to tell me the truth.

Now a small square table, wooden with green vinyl inlay, appears. This is a table from long, long ago and far away. This table sat in a tiny kitchen, a kitchen sprayed weekly for roaches, a kitchen with a small gas stove, a single sink, dark and ugly but she and her sister don’t care.

A man, lean and quick and handsome, sits across the table from her. They are eating crackers with pesto and limburger cheese and other smelly foods full of flavor, the kind that they always ate together because they loved them and no one else did.

I’m thinking of ending it all, he says, and she stops with a cracker halfway to her mouth and looks across the table at him, a distance of a couple of feet and the abyss of space. She can’t think. Did he just say what she thought he did? Then he says it again. I’m thinking of ending it all.

Violin strings come to her now, violin strings on a violin held in the crook of a man’s neck, bow in his hand. He draws the bow across the strings and plays. Classical music, which she, being a child and ignorant, doesn’t recognize. This man is her grandfather. He came to this country when he himself was a child, from Europe, from a land with shape-shifting boundaries. He will die when she is seven years old, and she will never know him, but she will think about him throughout her life, shadow man, holding that violin, standing in that dark apartment in Manhattan.

A night comes to her, a night in southern Florida when she stands outside in the dark at a pay phone trying to hang on, but the person on the other end of the line doesn’t want to hang on, and hangs up. She is alone in the darkness, trying to breathe, and a blob of putty falls from a tree and lands on the pavement next to her. A frog. An albino frog.

Now here is another night, long after the night of the albino frog and the pay phone. She is in a hospital, alone in a quiet lamplit room, a television muted above her head and a tray of hospital food on her lap: chicken, green beans, two slices of limp toast and a small bowl of red jello.

Next to her bed a small new being is asleep, a seven-pound small new being. War is happening on the mute television, bombs are being dropped, and ordinarily she would hardly be able to breathe at the sight, but now she eats and breathes and puts her hand on the head of the small new being to feel that soft spot pulsing up and down.

This, she recognizes, is a respite. She is not herself. Tomorrow the worries will come rushing back.

She is right, but she is also wrong. This is the moment she will remember, always, for the rest of her life, when she thinks of the word peace.

Noon is approaching. She has been sitting in this chair a long time. Her muscles want up and out, want to uncramp themselves. Out there in the trees, the parrots are hopping about in their cage, watching and waiting. Am I living or am I being lived? Is there a difference?