Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Free Gifts: Part II

It was snowing, of course, and snowing fast and furiously, but when a torrent of snow flying by the window caught the corner of my eye because of its beyond-belief abundance, I stopped to cast a closer look. I saw two small children, neighborhood boys, working their way up our as-yet-unplowed drive. They heaved shovels full of snow to the side, into the air, onto each other, up onto the wall of accumulated snow that was taller than they were, and they were having a great time. I laughed out loud at their exuberance, their enjoyment of an often bemoaned task, and their gift to us as they rearranged the snow.

About two weeks prior, two snowstorms back, when my dog Dover was in his final illness and keeping very close to the house, I had urged him (to no avail) up the path to his old haunt by the back walk, for a change of scene for him and a hope of evidence of higher energy and a possible road to recovery for me; thus he would gladden my heart. Minutes afterwards, these same boys appeared at the back gate and asked to come in and play with Dover. Dover saw them and and immediately bounded up the path in top greeting mode, his unbridled joy overpowering any reluctance he had shown just minutes before. The boys had no idea he was ailing; they loved him and threw tennis balls for him, and he responded. 

The gift of their presence and Dover's response did indeed gladden my heart.  

Free gifts come in many guises, unbidden, and always as surprises. They reach deep down into places we sometimes forget we have and remind us that – in spite of many indications to the contrary – this is the way the world works. 

Life is short, and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who travel the journey with us. Oh be swift to love, make haste to be kind.*      

*Henry Frederic Amiel   

Thursday, December 18, 2014


There is not much one can say about gifts at this time of year. Most people are happy doing their own form of plotting, buying, hoping, delaying, ignoring, fretting, and wrapping - it's all about gifts. Or not. Some people give gifts to charity in friends' names. Some people wrap up last year's unused gifts and pass them on to – one hopes – not the original givers. The idea of a circle of gifts appeals to me, gifts given, unwrapped, puzzled over, and stashed away thinking inspiration will come with time. And it does! After many months of inspiring indifference, the gift on the shelf is taken down, wrapped once again, tagged, and proudly offered to a host in exchange for some social time and interesting small pieces of food. I wonder what the world record for the number of unique times a single gift traveled from hand to shelf to hand again? The gift that keeps on being given.

My dog Dover, of course, raises the giftedness quotient of the world every day just because he is an extreme meeter and greeter. He passes it on with no holds barred, to all comers (except, for some reason, German shepherds). He is an equal opportunity trinity of spirit raiser, peace maker, and tennis ball tender. And he definitely gets into the season. Good dog Dover!

News that we read, watch, or hear ranges from poignant to harrowing to horrifying, so it is hard to remember that giftedness is at the heart of creation. We receive and offer many gifts, every day, almost every moment. We take them for granted, which is okay, but every so often I find myself in the middle of a surprising gift that seemed to have an unknown, unnamed source.

This past summer, on a dank, dark, drear day at the beach, a loose scrum of over twenty people, aged two to seventy, watched and tended five kites in the sky. There was a dragon, a box kite whose parts rotated in opposite directions, a fighter kite, and, of course, the plain old variety. Kids took their turns and sat on the seawall to watch and kibitz. Others wandered by to see what was up and some stood at the ready to rescue and relaunch kites that crashed. The wind was the honored guest that day.

At the center were eighth cousins, perhaps with a once or twice removed in their relatedness. One had come from the east, bearing kites; one had come from the west, bringing interest. I am not sure where the kite-bearer had developed such a keen interest, but out west, the gift of playing with the wind had been offered by one, accepted by another, and shared on this otherwise raw day with a transient community which had wandered by and stayed a moment to watch or, better yet, to feel the pull on the line when taking a turn.

The giftedness at the center of this hours-long moment is hard to name, intangible and ephemeral. But think on it: people had taught and learned, tried and crashed, tried again and flew, and then – the learners become teachers. The children on the sea wall were absorbing the laughter and friendship, the soaring and the crashing and the relaunching of the kites – their beauty and how they worked with the wind. Gifts had been passed on through time and space and burst through the grayness of that day.

As the kites were reeled in, folded, and put away, participants and bystanders strolled off to home with a few more bits of laughter and relatedness stored up for times when they would be needed, recipients and offerers of gifts, from and to others

I can't help but be sure of that. Lines were invisible as they stretched from hand to kite, but we knew they were there.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The train to Washington and back

I went to Washington, D.C. last week, a trip I like to make at least twice a year to visit a friend. I take the train, of course, my preferred method of travel. The seven-hour trip goes by very quickly if I have a good book, a little time to sleep, a window seat, and no chatty seat mates. I get to see big cities like New York and Philadelphia, big waters like the top end of Chesapeake Bay, and interesting bridges, like the Hell Gate Bridge, which crosses over the treacherous waters where the East River and Long Island Sound meet up.

Hell Gate Bridge under construction, 1915.
The trip down was a gem, as 99% of my trips on Amtrak are. The trip back - not so much. In Union Station, our departing train was posted as on time, even though the message boards ominously noted that both north and south trains could be delayed due to extreme cold weather. Indeed, the screen listing train departures was littered with yellow DELAYED notations; our train, however, was happily noted as on time. A half hour before departure, we were herded into the boarding area, where we stood massed together, while all eyes shifted between the clock and the door through which the conductor would arrive to start the process of boarding. By two minutes before departure time, the door remained shut, no conductor was in sight, and in a twinkling of an eye, the yellow delayed sign appeared where we didn't want to see it. We waited. Twenty minutes later, not a bad wait, in fact, all signs changed; the conductor appeared, took our tickets, and we were on our way after a frighteningly but gratifyingly short boarding time. Northward we went, only half an hour late. It was a sold-out train, so I had a seat mate then, and again, and again, and again.

Passengers have developed bold techniques to maintain an empty place next to where they sit. The main trick is to deposit coats and suitcases on the empty seat. The more the better. And - put a bottle of water in the pouch in front of the empty seat.Sometimes the passenger sits on the aisle seat, lowers the tray, and piles it with a computer, coffee, sandwiches, and cords,  while piling personal belongings in the inside seat, thereby erecting a veritable fortress that prevents another heavily-laden passenger from asking: Is this seat taken? But, one by one, each defended seat eventually falls to a wandering passenger. When directly asked, the person claiming both seats always appears totally dumbfounded that there is an extra seat by them, clears the seat, and one more roaming passenger is seated. One middle-aged man, tired of wandering the aisles, finally asked the young person behind me: Is this seat occupied by your coat taken?

Of course, I always hope that the unseated will take one look and consider me an unsavory neighbor, pass by my pristinely empty seat, and pursue a better offering in another car. However, I was taught by nuns, and  they would have considered it rude, if not downright stingy, not to offer hospitality to the wayfarers, so it never fails, I am always among the first to have a seat mate, which will make it difficult to get up and out for whatever purpose - a stroll, some water, or a visit to the (on this train) unappealing restroom.

Preserving open space.on the train

My immediate neighborhood was serially taken up with a variety of talkers: Two young professionals earnestly consulting across the aisle - he the mentor, she the eager learner;  they got off in Philadelphia.Two young people striking up a fevered new relationship, talking breathlessly for miles, exchanging telephone numbers and vowing to be in touch. They got off in New York. A very talkative middle aged man aiming to impress a sweet young thing, expounding on matters such as the pleasures of the French language vs Italian, a beautiful Italian women he knew who died of liver cancer, and trichinosis. She got off in Stamford and he was last seen entering a restroom. Somewhere along the line I spilled a whole glass of diet soda down my pant legs, while my bulky neighbor in a puffy winter coat sat imperviously, with her hands on her purse, staring intently at the back of the seat ahead of her.

And my fourth seat mate, a young, slim woman, spent miles reading a tabloid article titled "I have the bigggest butt in the world."

I won't even go into the last leg of the journey: a hundred passengers were disgorged onto a freezing platform to wait for a connecting train, which usually is ready and waiting across the platform but wasn't there this particular night. Short version: it came, we boarded, we arrived at our destinations.

All told, it could have been much worse, and the restrooms did actually work.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Hanging out at the interface

As an organic chemist, I know that when we are holding a container with two liquids that don't mix (think salad dressing) there is lots of action inside those two liquids. It is particularly interestng at the point where the two liquids meet. What appears to our eye as a smooth line separating the two liquids is everything but calm and static down on the molecular level. Molecules zip around, hit the wall, bounce back to stay with their own kind, maybe get through to the other side for a little while, then get knocked back where they belong. Maybe a few will stay awhile in the foreign territory. Maybe some will even react with a stranger and be changed forever into something new, a new molecule, that will then choose which space is home.

I love that we live at many interfaces. When I was walking a week or so ago with a niece and a great-niece, a puppy and Dover, we were taken by the juxtaposition of rain drops on the red maple leaves we were strolling through. Water drops of varying sizes beaded up into bright jewels on a leafy setting. Interfaces galore! Water on waxy leaf, solid color under transparent beads, reflections of the sky on the surface of the water, while its under surface rested on an earthy base. Signs of death and decline in the red leaves harbored the life-giving promise of water. 

In the extended warm weather this October, the morning glories on the front fence continue to flaunt their exquisite color on our curve of the street – well past their seasonal allotment. The weather is warm, but the days are short; now the blue flowers are outnumbered by the spent petals of yesterday, which in turn are outnumbered by seed pods in varying states of development. Yesterday's crumbling petals. Today's brilliant blue. Tomorrows' furled buds. And next year's promise of new life, new blue, new gifts.

And then there is Dover. He keeps watch; he lies in thresholds, in doorways, keeping a quiet lookout for change. If one of us moves rooms, he silently rouses and repositions so he stays between us; he knows that's where the action might be. Perhaps we will reach for a tennis ball, or perhaps . . . a treat? Perhaps one of us will bend down and touch his head, or – sadness – someone might be leaving. He establishes his space between our spaces – at the interface. Therein lies his – and my – belief that that is a place of transformation, from the apparent stillness of a moment to the promise of adventure and joy, both of which are already forming in that apparently quiet, in-between space.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Free gifts

Dover and I were on our three-mile, early-morning stroll a day or two ago and as we walked past the college chapel, the tower bell suddenly rang out over the still sleepy streets. Dover gave an initial start and then kept on his nonchalant way, always on the prowl for garbage in that high student density part of the walk. I added a little skip to my gait; I knew the bells announced Mountain Day, a day to suspend classes and meetings so students and faculty (alas - not staff) could bicycle out into a beautiful fall day to enjoy the New England countryside. I have always regarded Mountain Day as a free gift, much the same as snow days. Neither plays a direct part in my life now, but I always see the announcement, by bell or radio, as a recognition that schedules and routines are made for interruption and surprising turns.

Some faculty complain that Mountain Day makes a hash of their teaching syllabus, and some students complain that they would rather Mountain Day be a known holiday - for better planning - and that it preferably be scheduled on Friday or Monday so they could depart for other cities or campuses for long weekends. But - Mountain Day drops uncontrolled into their lives, and, frankly, I think it is great. I wanted a Mountain Day when I heard the bell that cool and crisp morning, but I didn't think the dentist would understand that excuse.

Just looking around, there are other free gifts close at hand. The morning glories on the front fence are my free gift to the street; Dover's belly-up, groveling greeting to his walkers is his free gift to them, college students in search of dog company. One day a few weeks ago, I was out of town at a meeting and despondent at a surly turn one session had suddenly taken. That night, as I checked the email one more time before before turning out the light, I received news that in my absence, Dover had invited friends over for a party. The pictures that came with the message lifted my despondency and sent me into uncontrollable hilarity. In that one moment, I received free gifts of relief and laughter - relief that Dover was okay in my absence, and laughter at the irrepressible exuberance of dogs, who with infinite good nature, will submit to any article of clothing to have a good time with friends, good eats, and  and exciting party games. 

Go dog, Go!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The unknown sower

Driving the shortcuts that get us where we want or need to go, we get used to our routes and concentrate on getting there rather than taking time to admire the passing scenery. One such shortcut I take daily, if not two or three times a day, involves getting out of town and over the bridge with an emphasis on avoiding the deep and varied potholes and high-rise pothole patches which loom as equally destructive to tires and various bits and pieces that hold my car together.

Back in the dawn of digital camera time, however, I did notice an extraordinary floral display taking shape on the verge of this otherwise uninteresting (to the determined traveller) route. A wild flower garden began to bloom, and I looked forward to seeing it develop over several days. Blues, yellows, reds, and subtle whites and pinks, became unavoidably part of my morning and afternoon commutes. I looked forward everyday to seeing this display, and one day I decided to stop and take a few pictures.

It was lucky I did, because a day or two later, this little garden, perched between the poorly-tended road and a seldom-strolled sidewalk, was gone, mowed down in its prime. It presented itself as a stubbly crewcut of brown stalks and weedy grasses, just like its neighbors.

Who planted this little gem? And - who mowed it down, and why? The next year, and the next, and the next, I kept hoping to see the garden rise again, but it didn't. I am glad for that day when I remembered to take my camera and to somewhat self-consciously stop and take the photos, because words can not express the beauty of that little patch of land. 

So blessings to the unknown sower; who, for that week or so, bought daily pleasure and thanks into at least one comuters life.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Naming of Dogs

When we knew a puppy was in our immediate future, we made lists of possible names. First was the list of names we liked, but, as it turned out, each of these was already claimed by a child or a dog already on the block. We eventually settled on Joey, and shortly thereafter, a big lumbering Newfoundland hove into view - and his name, alas, was Joey. We had gotten far enough along with Joey that I even had the name tags for his collar - little ones, as would befit a puppy; they sit on the shelf, unattached. I loved the name Mungo, but we had already had two Mungos, and the second one lives in infamy because he ate absolutely everything in sight - from grandchildren's sandwiches (low hanging fruit for Mungo), to pens, pencils, lemon tarts, boxes, homework, and, of course, socks.

Next I went through lists of saints names. Nothing appealed. I went to the internet. Boys names meaning light, hairy. sweet, speedy, and peace. On to fauna and flora, earth, air, fire, and water. Water. That's where I found it. Dover is a Welsh boys name meaning water. The name suits Dover to a tee. And there are no kids on the block called Dover, although there is a dog up the hill named Dozer. Dover and Dozer are friends.

Dover will gravitate to any water he can find - rain, the shower, the hose, the spigot, the sea, the pond. So it turned out to be a very fine name. It sounds great, people like to say it, it sounds soft and sweet, and when I announce supper time out the back door, no extraneous kids, dogs, or cats come running down the street to see what's on the table in our house. Only Dover ambles in from the fence up-back for his evening gruel and yogurt, with maybe a little egg or cheese added in as a special treat.
Dog-paddling with a friend.