A Friend Closer Than Memphis

 

The long drive from Chicago to Memphis, past corn fields and silos and renewable energy turbines on both horizons, gave me a chance to reflect on my friendships. As I drove alone I thought of times shared with friends. As I travel alone I wonder who my friends will be when I get where I am going. My circumstances are on the move.

From childhood I have known who I would become friends with. There was immediate symbiosis – a shared our-street language. Words of approval or disapproval about things outside the proposed friendship became our spittle handshake. And sure, there was a back and forth to test the ‘waters’: “Do you like that?”; What about this?”. But, the questions were mainly asked to see what reference points were used. And so, there was plenty of note comparing to determine the ties that bind, the ones that won’t, and the ones that don’t matter.

With my growing friendships came growing elbow room. I could be silly, stupid, and sorry and still remain friends. Between the two of us there was a give and take of silly, stupid, and sorry. The balance of give and take would change from day to day and from friend to friend. Early on, because I was not worldly wise, I relied heavily on my childhood best friend. A later adult friend, who was much too worldly wise, relied on me heavily. The elbow room of friendship reminds me of God’s grace – room to be human with all its foibles and sins and room to return, ask forgiveness and receive it.

A friend means well, even when he hurts you. But when an enemy puts his hand round your shoulder – watch out! Proverbs 27:6

One who has unreliable friends soon come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. Proverbs 18:24

In a way, friendship is like a parable. Jesus used parables to teach his way of looking at things in his kingdom. Like the parable’s parallels, friendships alongside you draw out greater truths. For one truth there is the fact that you are not alone, and for another, there are others exposed to the same reality. Walking with my friends and they with me, through the gamut of folly to faith and sometimes back again, has taught me to see from another perspective and to care about another perspective. (Walking in the Paraclete has given me a perspective and a counselor alongside.)

An honest answer is the sign of true friendship. ~ Proverbs 24:26

Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm. ~ Proverbs 13:20

What I like about friendships: they do not have the urgency or contingency of sex. Rather, that energy is used to add new meaning – to add more ties that bind – to the friendship. That energy is exerted in new adventures.

I also see friendship as a type of love that is evocative of the Trinity relationship. The Father and Son and Spirit are in constant communication (except at that moment of Jesus’ death). Their sharing is intimate. Friendship’s focus roughly mirrors that of the Trinity as it is both inward directed toward the other and outward directed at the same time. And though the Godhead does not need grace from us and cannot gain experience, the Godhead, as revealed to us, desires to favor creation with grace and to gain friends who have their own experiences. It was Jesus who invited us into the dancing embrace of the Trinity when he said…

You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.

When the disciples heard Jesus say this they understood the term “friend”. They knew about David and Jonathon. Philip had introduced his friend Nathaniel to Jesus (John 1:43-51). The disciples could not forget about ‘Our friend Lazarus who has fallen asleep’ (John 11:11) and was raised from the dead. They had heard a parable about the ‘friend of the bridegroom…” John (3:29) They had heard Jesus being called a ‘friend of tax collectors and sinners’ (Matt. 11:19). They certainly understood the term ‘friend’ when Jesus prefaced the above words with Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. What they did not yet understand was the extent of love Jesus would go to for his friends. Closer Than a Brother

The disciples understood that a friend was not your enemy. They knew that a friend wanted what was in your best interests. A friend went along with you and did what was required of him or her to remain friends and did so without a lot of hemming and hawing. You are my friends if you do what I command.

As close friends of the Lord we become privy to the Father’s communication to the Son. We are no longer servants (those tasked with household responsibilities and no place at the table) but we are brought into the main house and given a place at the table alongside our Friend. The Lord asks his friends to eat with him, to communicate with him, to learn from him, and to share with him the adventures of life in His Kingdom on earth.

Traveling alone from there to here I know there is one Friend who sticks much closer than Memphis.

St Andrews Collierville

Any friend of Jesus is a friend of mine.

Corkeys Collierville Brisket

Friends have to eat together.

 

One is Not the Loneliest Number When Divided by Two

 

“When so many are lonely as seem to be lonely, it would be inexcusably selfish to be lonely alone.” Tennessee Williams

 

“…guys like us, that work on ranches are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong to no place”-George Milton, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men

 

“Social dislocation can easily breed a reactionary form of nostalgia.” ― Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone

 

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” ~David Bowie

 

~~~

If the recent movies Revenant and Martian are any indication, the topic of man alone requires your attention. Such red-in-tooth-and-claw-and-planet-solo-man left-behind-against-tremendous-odds loneliness reminds me of each New Year’s social landscape just ahead of me.

I have encountered bouts of loneliness during my many years. These bouts have occurred during extended business trips across the globe and even at home within relationships. During such times and now as I live alone, I find myself talking to myself, interrupting solitude with human voice accompaniment. (Sorry Henry the parrolet, your tiny voice doesn’t supply the needed effect.)  Henry the Parrolet

Loneliness, like the universal force of gravity, pulls down on our demeanor and our hopes. This has been so since first man Adam.  God spoke to the condition: “It is not good for man to be alone.” And modern man is no different. He wants to be “Liked” on Facebook. Our frowning loneliness beckons for someone to put a smile on our Facebook.

Accompanied by your imagination, written fiction I believe captures loneliness better than any in-your-face movie could ever do. So take a brief look with me at John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

The drifters of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men depict the loneliness of the dispossessed. Using a backdrop of the Depression era 1930s, jobless migrants, lonely people, as Steinbeck’s short novel reveals, find ways to deal with their loneliness. Most will try to find comfort in their situation. Lonely bindle bums carry their dreams with them from relationship to relationship.

of-mice-and-menLoneliness’ antidote, camaraderie, is also conveyed in the story Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck had a special appreciation for friendships. His empathy toward others and a life shared comes through in his writings as you will see if you should read this short novel.

Lonely people’s lives often intersect with others who are lonely, whether it is with a fellow laborer or a passing stranger. Several characters in the novella depict loneliness. Let’s look at two briefly: George Milton, a migrant farm worker, and Crooks, a stable hand.

The nagging loneliness George Milton deals with is due in large part, as he relates, to his constant travel in search of work. His relationships are subsequently transitory, except for one. Along the way George gains a travel companion, Lennie. But the caretaker relationship George has with his traveling partner also isolates George. Lennie is a mentally feeble adult who is unable to have an adult relationship with George. Lennie’s nature, as described elsewhere by Steinbeck (The Pastures of Heaven), is “one of those whom God has not quite finished.”

Loneliness makes strange bunk mates. In the beginning of chapter 3, Slim and George, both hired ranch hands, sit down in the bunk house. Slim, the ranch’s top skinner, notices the oddity of two men traveling together:

“Funny how you an’ him string along together.” It was Slim’s calm invitation to confidence.

“What’s funny about it?” George demanded defensively.

Oh, I dunno. Hardly none of the guys ever travel together. I hardly never seen two guys travel together. You know how the hands are, they just come in and get their bunk and work a month, and then quit and go out alone. Never seem to give a damn about nobody. It jus’ seems kinda funny a cuckoo like him and a smart guy like you traveling together.”

“He ain’t no cuckoo, said George…”

At this point George doesn’t go into Lennie’s recent troubled past which prompted both of them to run away from the “bad things” done in Weed. But while playing solitaire George does tell Slim his reason for his relationship with Lennie:

“I ain’t got no people. I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. That ain’t no good. They don’t have no fun. After a long time they get mean. They get wantin’ to fight all the time. . . ‘Course Lennie’s a God damn nuisance most of the time, but you get used to goin’ around with a guy an’ you can’t get rid of him”  

For George, Lennie is a make shift friend. Lennie, both a bane and blessing to George, is coming along for the ride. For now George’s dreams of a normal life are put on hold until he makes some cash. But his desire for friendship is not on hold.

~~~  OMAM

Let’s turn to Crooks. Crooks the African-American stable hand could be described as the loneliest man in this story. Though surrounded by fellow ranch hands he remains an outsider. Shunned by the rest of the ranch crew because of the color of his skin Crooks is told by them in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t belong with them. Because of this exile from the others Crooks is not able to establish a relationship with anyone.

Along comes trouble in a skirt. The bosses’ son Curly has a wife, who is also lonely. She, the jealous type, barges into Crooks’ private space looking for her husband. Crooks tells her she has no right to come into his private space. She then retorts her hostile insecurities toward Crooks. “Well keep your place then, Nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny.” Her words are meant to put him in his ‘place’, a place of social isolation.

220px-Mice_men_movieposter

Crooks, named for his crooked back, had been physically disjointed from the rest of the ranch hands. As an African-American Crooks is forced to bunk by himself. This isolation accounts for Crook’s consequent loneliness, bitterness and insecurities. As does Curly’s wife, Crooks directs his hostilities towards others and at someone in particular, someone who is even more isolated than him – Lennie.

Loneliness can bring out the worst in us. Crooks plays a mean joke on the dim witted Lennie by telling him that George is not coming back. But Crooks finally relents from his cruelness when he sees the pain he has caused Lennie.

The sense of the loneliness could become overwhelming for someone locked up in a prison or an asylum and exiled from one’s peers. In this story, Crooks returns to his books each night for companionship. One time he spoke of his deep loneliness to Lennie:

“S’pose you didn’t have nobody. S’pose you couldn’t go into the bunk house and play rummy ’cause you was black. How’d you like that? S’pose you had to sit out here an’ read books. Sure you could play horseshoes till it got dark, but then you got to read books. Books ain’t no good. A guy needs somebody-to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody. Don’t make no difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you. I tell ya, I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick.”

~~~of_mice_and_men

Each of the main characters in Of Mice and Men displays loneliness to some degree. Each carries with them a dream of some better life. Loneliness and dreams. They are everywhere present in Steinbeck’s Depression era story.

The storied relationships are shown to be transitory as with the “bindle bum” George or as non–existing as in the case of Crooks or as simply remembered.

Whit, a ranch hand, wonders if Slim remembers a friend who used to work together with them and whose letter was now posted in a recent magazine. “Do you remember Bill Tenner. He worked here three years ago?” This prompting by Whit shows that men in these situations don’t usually develop lasting relationships. As such they remain lonely, just remembering the past as a form of present comfort.

Steinbeck’s short novel conveys the sense of loneliness that can overtake any of us. In each of us there is that longing for companionship and a need to be known by someone and to know them. Overcoming loneliness and dreaming both require looking outside ourselves to what could be.

George and Crooks both expressed their negative feelings about loneliness. And, when they had a chance, they shared their tale of woe with someone or took comfort in some extraneity. As the story illustrates lonely people may seek solace in wine, women, playing cards, dreams, reading books and by petting live rabbits or dead mice or a satin dress. Our put-on-hold dreams are better shared, one could infer from the story.

The bindle bums and the vagabonds, the drifters, the isolated and the wishful – all of us – want to assuage our loneliness. One way or the other we will find a way to do this or, as Crooks reminds us, go nuts trying.

~~~

But little Mouse, you are not alone… the best laid plans of Mars and Men/Often go awry.

Ache W/O Outlet: Friends Growing Different

 

A brief synopsis:

 Frances Ha, a B & W film infatuated with French cinema, tells a story of Frances Ha (Greta Gerwig) a young woman who finds she is becoming at odds with herself and with her roommate and close friend, Sophie.

 With circumstances and relationships quickly beginning to shift from away from her dreams towards reality, Frances, one of the “green girls”, wants to relive the fantasies born out of their friendship.  She asks Sophie to retell the “story of us.”

 Contrasted with the recent upheavals in her life is Frances’ return to Sacramento, her childhood home, for Christmas.   It is this time spent with her parents and with their congregation, though brief, that helps ground Frances apart from the fanciful “story of us.“

 While in Sacramento she is surrounded by those who are mature and stable.  They speak of “integrity and acceptance…spiritual growth…intellectual stimulation.”  They are no longer ‘green’ in their thinking.

 After returning to New York City Frances begins moving away from being co-dependent to a place of self-acceptance, “her capital S-Self.”  No longer a “green girl” she begins adulthood by accepting the changes and by moving on.

 Frances soon finds an apartment where she is roommate free.  And although she can only put 2/3rds of her name onto her mailbox she is OK with this.  She is now living alone, moving in only with herself.

  Just a note:  How great it would be if instead of a homosexual union between two people these two people were just friends, friends who were not sexually or emotionally co-dependent, friends who related to one another as grown-ups.

Unchocked

Unchocked

(…a short story)

The cabin reservation was made the year before when Heinz turned in his vacation notice to his boss. Another machinist would have to run the vertical mill for the week Heinz was gone. Now it was just a matter of gathering all of the supplies he needed for the week and then head north to Rice Lake, Wisconsin. He also had to make sure he left things in their proper order.

Heinz, a tool and die maker for a small CNC machine shop on the near west side of Chicago had worked as a machinist for over thirty years.  Apprenticed in Hamburg, Germany as a teenager he came to America at the age of twenty with his new wife Gertrude.  He hoped to start his own machine shop with her as office manager but Gertrude contracted Polio during their voyage to America. When Gertrude died Heinz went on alone.  His work became his closest partner. He accepted all the job orders given to him and often worked twelve to fourteen hours a day six days a week.  The precision of his craft was his sole interest.

Over time Heinz had become the shop’s top machinist. It was said that if Heinz couldn’t form the part, no one else could. He apprenticed the younger guys but in this he didn’t have much patience or pleasure. He didn’t appreciate their cavalier attitude toward working with precise tolerances.  If the drawing said + or – .001 mm then that is what was required. He didn’t accept anything less than the perfection of specific numbers measured with fine gauges. He frowned at sloppiness and shoddy workmanship.

Shaping a block of steel and the cinnamon smell of the Tap Magic lubricant were elemental to Heinz’s way of life as were exact order and a respect for the tools of his trade. So it was that every night before he locked his eight drawer wooden tool chest he wiped down each of his machinist’s tools. He carefully cleaned his micrometers, the digital veneer calipers, the inside calipers and the steel rules. He wire-brushed the metal files and zeroed the dial indicators and digital protractor.  He wiped and reset the mechanic’s square to a right angle and inspected the scribe and pick. He lined up the telescope gauges, precision level, thread gauges, surface gauges and reamers each into in their drawer, carefully placing each measuring instrument in its proper place on the green felt liner.

After cleaning and inspecting his tools Heinz would brush the metal filings off of his work bench.  He would then sweep up the curly cue metal shavings around his mill and beneath his work bench.  He dabbed up the gritty oil at the foot of his mill and would then throw Oil Dry over it to soak up the tooling oil over night. He did this routine every day and again today at 4:15.  At 4:30 pm he punched out and left for a week of vacation.

During the week prior to his vacation Heinz purchased cans of groceries enough to last him a week. He bought three bottles of Steinhäger and a bottle of Schnapps. He knew he could find some good German beer in Germantown, Wisconsin, a stop along the way.

Though he lived his life in solitude Heinz never partook of alcohol during the time he wasn’t on vacation. He never went to a tavern. Instead, he always sought to maintain the austerity and self-control he thought a man should have. Precision marked the beginning and end of each of his days.

Heinz packed his 1960 BMW 700 and left that Friday night for Rice Lake, Wisconsin. The drive north to Germantown took Heinz about two hours from his Chicago apartment. Once there he quickly found the store where he had purchased his beer last year.  He purchased four 12-packs of Warsteiner Premium Verum and a few cigars.  He placed six bottles of Warsteiner into a cooler along with the schnapps. The cigars were placed in the glove compartment.

Rice Lake was another six-hour drive north. Heinz didn’t stop for dinner at one of the many supper clubs advertised along the way. He chewed on some beef jerky purchased with the beer.  Driving at night was all the more difficult for Heinz because of Heinz’s night blindness. He gripped the wheel at ten and two and stared straight ahead.  The white lane lines were ever in his view like tolerances to be held.

He entered the city limits of Rice Lake and drove through the only intersection with a stop light. He proceeded past the town and turned onto a gravel road about four miles north. After winding along a deeply grooved dirt road through a dense opine forest he came to an opening revealed by the office’s front porch light. He pulled over and stopped the car. Virginia, the cottage owner, greeted Heinz from the enclosed porch. A remote TV weather report sounded a cold front coming out of Superior Wisconsin.

“Heinz, it’s good to see you again. I have your cabin ready.” She opened her guest register. “It’s gonna get chilly tonight. Down to 32 degrees.  You’d better get that fireplace going.  There’s some dry wood along…you know where it is.”

Heinz nodded with blood-shot eyes. He handed her a check for the week’s rent and looked around at the small office attached to the house. The same carved woodsman cuckoo clock hung on the wall over the same cluttered desk. Heinz looked at his digital watch. The wall clock was six minutes slow or stopped. He was too tired to care.

Above the office’s small whirring refrigerator hung the same 1975 Norman Rockwell calendar from Martin’s drugstore.  Nothing had changed. Nothing was out-of-place. He felt his jaw slacken and he let out a sigh of relief. The smell of cedar somewhere in the room replaced the Tap Magic smell of his hands.

“Are you still cooking, Virginia?” Heinz asked.

“Will sauerbraten, red cabbage and spaetzle do?

“Only if you join me for dinner tomorrow night. I will bring the beer”

“It’s been a year, Heinz.”

“Yes, it’s been a year to the day and …two hours. I better get going and get that fire started.”

Heinz drove his car around to the one room cabin a quarter of a mile from the office. It was too dark to see the lake but Heinz could feel the expanse before him. A patter of rain began to fall on the cabin roof. Pine boughs swooshed around him with each gust of wind coming off the lake. Heinz unloaded the cooler and some boxes from the trunk of his car.  He carried them into the cabin and set them on the floor.

Without turning a light on he found the bed where it had been the year before and lay down. The constant focus on the road and the oncoming strobes of light had given Heinz a fierce headache. His neck was stiff, his forearms were tight and his hands still seemed to be clutching the steering wheel. He closed his burning eyes.

The rain began to fall more evenly. The wind was howling plaintively outside the cabin windows as if nature was trying to get in the cabin.  But with his eyes closed the monotonous lane soon appeared again.  After a few minutes he let his hands release their hold on earth.

Through a part in the calico curtains, a ray of sun shot through the room, glinted off a copper spoon hanging on the wall and struck the corner of Heinz’s eye.  He jerked upright wondering if he had overslept.  He looked at his hands if they would tell him what he needed to do.  After a couple of minutes he stood up and set the coffeepot going. As he turned on the burner he wondered if Jason, his latest apprentice, had remembered to turn on the mill’s lube pump. He bit is lip and then released the thought. Heinz had trained him well.

While Heinz stood on the porch surveying the lake the percolating coffee pot boiled over, sputtering coffee and grounds out of the pot’s spout.  “Damn,” he thought. The red-hot burner below sizzled and hissed.  Heinz came in and set the coffee pot on another burner.  He dabbed up the watery coffee grounds with paper towels and then poured himself a cup of coffee. This action made him think of Gertrude. She would have fussed over the mess he’d made but only for a moment.  Then she’d take his hand and say “You’re not at work.  Go sit down. I’ll take care of it.”

He opened a can of deviled ham and spread it on a slice of pumpernickel bread.  From the cooler he took out a hard-boiled egg.  He ate thinking about work and the whir of the lathe.  His knee bounced up and down nervously until he heard footsteps on the porch. It was Virginia. She cracked the door open.

“Hi, just came to check on you. You find everything alright?”

“Yah, I’m good here.”

“I have row-boat if you are interested in some fishing.”

“I may go out this morning to look around. The fog is lifting.”

“You know where to find me.”

“Yah, I will be over soon.”

Virginia left and Heinz returned to his breakfast.  The size-on-size fit of everyday life was being replaced by nature’s uncontrolled bluntness.   When he had finished breakfast Heinz fell back into his chair and let his shoulders drop. He wasn’t going to roll up his sleeves this week. The memory of Gertrude and the presence of Virginia would see to that.

Stiff from sleeping most of the night with his feet off the side of the bed Heinz ambled up to the office.  He was hoping his back and legs would soon loosen up. When he got to the office Virginia handed him the key to unlock the row-boat. When she handed him the oars she joked, “OK, mate, here’s your gear.” She had packed him a lunch.

“I thank you ma’am. Have I been away a year?  Does time stand still here? You haven’t changed a bit.”

“Only that old cuckoo clock stands still. I have to keep moving so the wrinkles don’t catch up.”

“Hah, you’ve done that! I’ll be back after lunch.” He headed out the door and then turned back to poke his head inside the doorway.  “Virginia, tonight…?”

“Still on.  I’ll be cooking this afternoon.  Catch me a lake trout and I’ll cook it. You clean it and I’ll cook it.”

“It’s a deal except I already caught me a can of herring. It’s in my cabin already to go.”

“You know the way to a women’s heart ~ prepared food.  See you tonight.”

With that Heinz walked down to the reedy shoreline where the row-boat was beached.  He unchained the boat, grabbed the oars and his bag lunch and pushed off the shore.

Heinz rowed slowly measuring the strength in his arms against the return distance.  When he had reached the middle of the lake Heinz stopped rowing and took in the familiar surroundings:  a featureless grey sky domed the lake today. The water lapping around his boat rippled with each tickling of wind.  Along the shoreline shoulder to shoulder pines stood in a dense lattice-work of deep blue-green. It was to this spot that Heinz returned every year. There were no tools, no work orders – only time and space in the queue.  It was here that life came to him outside the defined tolerances he worked with every day. And it was here that he sat in nature’s unfinished place, a precious commodity not mined and milled into an end product.

Heinz opened his bag lunch and pulled out a slice of pumpernickel bread and some Edam cheese. He opened a beer. While he ate and drank the lake breeze blew across his unshaven face. Hah!

Late in the afternoon Heinz rowed back to the shore.  He grabbed his things and headed back to the cabin. Nearby a common bathroom offered a hot shower.  He decided not to shave giving his hands some freedom from their regular duties. He showered and dressed in a clean pair of slacks and pullover shirt. He grabbed the tin of herring from the box and a cold six-pack of beer and headed over to the office.

As he arrived Virginia was finishing up registering a couple for the night.  Heinz overheard them talking:  they were on their way home from a week canoe trip outside of Ely, Minnesota. They were hoping for a hot shower.  Heinz told them to wait a bit.  The hot water had been used up during his shower.  He offered them a couple of beers instead for their wait. They accepted and headed off to their cabin.

“Heinz, my dear, you know how to finesse the customers.”

“That hot shower finessed me.”

‘You didn’t shave.”

“A man has got to know his limits and mine is shaving while on vacation. When it gets to long I’ll mill it off.”

“Pour me a glass will you Heinz?”

Heinz poured Virginia a tall glass of beer and set it behind her on the kitchen table.

“Put on some music. I’ve got some old records next to the couch.”

Heinz sat on the edge of the couch and looked through the collection of LPs. He chose the Warsaw Concerto by Addisnsell. Rachmaninov would be for another night.

Heinz set two places at the kitchen table and lit the candle. The flame listed every time he came in and out of the room.

Virginia grabbed the plates and spooned on red cabbage and spätzle.  She added sauerbraten to the plates. Dinner was served.

Heinz sat directly across from Virginia. The familiar food, the halo of candle light and the rush of arpeggios weakened his knees.  He was glad to be sitting. Virginia’s face was radiant, awash with both red and gold. The hot stove had flushed Virginia’s cheeks and the candle light gilded her features. If angels cook then he must be in heaven.

Heinz and Virginia didn’t discuss Heinz’ work when they were together. Virginia understood Heinz’s passion for precision and his irritation with sloppy work.   Virginia’s husband had been a tool and die maker for many years before he died.  Like Heinz he had worked with tight tolerances each and every day.  Virginia knew that Heinz’s visit’s to Rice Lake became a reprieve of sorts from the exacting measures that so drove his personality.

Heinz and Virginia would dine the same way each night.  Heinz would spend the day alone and the night he spent with Virginia. There would share beer, schnapps, cigars, Rachmaninov, Dvorak, Chopin and Brahms.  They would play cards and near the end of the night dance to polka music. A time of remembering and a time of letting go met together each night.

After those evenings Heinz would fall into a deep sleep.  In the early morning hours vivid dreams would animate his sleep. He would see himself talking to him Gertrude about their new home in America. He saw his childhood home and the curs that came to their door for biscuits. He saw his father playing the violin while his mother cooked the family dinner.  He saw his childhood school and saw himself in his short pants.  He saw the shop in Hamburg where he apprenticed.  He saw the trolley that he brought him to school. And his dreams always included a machine shop. 

He dreamt of a 5 axis vertical mill, of fixtures and of metal shavings peeling off a turning steel bar.  He could smell the cinnamon scent of Tap Magic and see his hands chocking a 4140 steel bar into the spindle of the lathe. He saw himself aligning-centering-cutting-drilling-boring – sculpting steel into precision gears.  He saw himself being measured by a micrometer and a dial indicator checking spindle runout – Virginia holding the gauge! He saw himself checking hardness with a Rockwell tester and then falling off into deeper asleep again

As a strobe of morning sun came through the curtains laser-like onto his closed eyes half-asleep he would imagine the stamp of a time clock and bolt upright in bed. He would then sit rubbing the sun’s imprint from his eyes.  In those waking moments each night’s quickly vanishing dream passed through his mind.  What appeared to him in the night seemed to enact some absurdist play where memories – real people, times and objects – donned the surreal and came together on stage to wait for someone to come along and give meaning and direction to it all.

The days Heinz spent fishing he didn’t fish at all.  He never brought fishing tackle or a rod with him to Rice Lake.  Both he and Virginia knew that when Heinz said that he was going “fishing” he really meant that he needed to be alone. So it was that he would take the row-boat out to the middle of the lake and sit there letting time pass over him. Time could come and go as it pleased without the date time stamp his everyday life..

In the afternoons, before Heinz made the short walk up the hill to have dinner with Virginia he would settle into his cabin for nap. From a collection of LPs leaning next to the bureau Heinz would select an album of classical music.  He would choose Frederick Delius’ tone poems:  Song of Summer and A Walk to Paradise Garden or Dvorak’s New World Symphony or Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Reverie or Bach’s violin concertos. Bach had a way of resetting things for Heinz, of resolving any stress he felt in his neck and his hands.

After putting the needle down on the first track he would pull Virginia’s homemade afghan off of the high back chair and bring it with him over to the rug.  Lying on the floor eyes closed and covered with the afghan, just as he had done so many times before listening to his father play the violin, the music coursed through him and down into his hands where it was released.

Heinz’s father was concertmaster of the Philharmoniker Hamburg. His mother played the organ in their Lutheran church. Heinz was taught the piano and was made to practice rigorously until he began his apprenticeship. The metronome which had kept the strictest of time was exchanged for a time clock.

On the last night before Heinz returned to Chicago Virginia cooked sauerbraten. Heinz placed birch wood and kindling into the fireplace and began a fire. He lit the all candles and chose Chopin’s nocturnes for the dinner music.  He set the table.

Once again there was music and laughter and the shuffling of cards. And once again when the hour grew late they sat on the porch swing. Virginia would take his hands and hold them.  As if blind she would trace their outline with her fingers, her eyes reading some unseen message. His hands were calloused and leathery from use.  As she looked at them tonight she saw that they were etched with fine lines of dark grease like a charcoal drawing she had seen once.  These hands, like her husband’s, had held steel stock to be turned and milled and chamfered, steel to be transformed from block to bolt, from stock to shaft.  On this night friendship’s annealing process, a slow working stress relieving process that had both softened and solidified his soul over time brought tears to his eyes. And when she took his hands into hers he could sense the weight of what felt like a massive headstone of grief being taken from him. The night came to an end when he kissed her deeply and held her tightly under the chromatic gauze of the northern lights.

On Sunday morning Heinz packed his car and drove up to the office.  Virginia was waiting at the desk preparing checkout bills for the guests. Heinz asked for the bill and she handed it to him.  Heinz paid the bill and then looking at Virginia he said, “They broke the mold when they made you.” 

With a smile she replied, “Well, then you old machinist, you’ll just have to come back and take some more measurements.”

Heinz smiled, “I’ll be back next year if you can stand it.”

“I’ll be right here with this old cuckoo clock ~ me and time standing still.

“Bye, kiddo.”  Heinz kissed Virginia and headed out the door.

The Sunday trip driving back top Chicago took him most of the day because all the weekenders were heading home. When he finally reached his apartment he unloaded the car and put away his things.  He set the alarm clock for 5:30 am.

 The next morning he clocked in at 5:52 am.  At 8:30, his break time, he had handed the shop manager his vacation request for the next year ~ two weeks off the clock for recalibration.

© Sally Paradise, 2012, All Rights Reserved

***** 

Elementary Friendship Deduced

Friendship.  The very word conjures up everything good and noble about relationships.  My friendships over the years have always given me a sense of bundled joy.  I have sought out friends and they have sought me out in a vice-versa tango of interests.

Currently I am watching the BBC’s Sherlock series on DVD.  I truly enjoy this production.  There is much to like:   the theatre-of-the-mind writing, the winding plots, the creators’ love for Conan Doyle writing’s, the clever cinematics and most of all,  the unabashed homage to friendship between the two male leads – Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson.  I said friendship and not homosexual liaison. 

As depicted in the first episode “A Study in Pink” Dr John Watson tries to pick up Mycroft’s female assistant while riding in a limo.  Later, while seated in a diner Watson tells the restaurant owner who has inferred that the two are together that he is not “with” Sherlock Holmes.  In the same setting Sherlock tells Watson that he is not looking for “any…” because he is “married to his job.” Thank God. We need to see hale and hearty male friendship depicted in a world infected with dehumanizing homosexuality.

“Well, what did you think?”

“Well, what did you think?”

 

“Well, what did you think?”

I’ve heard people ask,

As if a snide comeback,

Was up to love’s task.

 

“Reasons, all reasons.”

“We’re not by your side.”

“Our life has its reasons,”

They’d chortle and chide.

 

“With friends like these friends

I’ve learned to just say,

“I’ll continue along,

Get out of their way.”

 

“Well, what did you think?”

They won’t hear me ask,

I’m so far behind them,

I walk in their past.

 

© Sally Paradise, 2011, All Rights Reserved

The True Myth of Friendship: Part Two Cont’d.

Continued from Part Two…

Part Two: Billy the Kid, Bill the Buddy, continued…

The 1960s and 1970s. I clearly remember arriving at my fifth grade class on a chilly Friday, November 22, 1963 and seeing my teacher Mrs. Rhoades standing at the front of the classroom, weeping. I soon learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

Our class was sent home that morning. Our school was closed for several days the next week. The death of our president, his stately funeral procession and the swearing in ceremony of Lyndon Baines Johnson became the national focus. During this time we as children looked to our parents for meaning and for security. We looked to our friends for a sense of community. Billy and I were close friends throughout the distrssing times we lived through.

At home with my family, I watched as the TV networks replayed Abraham Zepruder’s 8mm film of Kennedy’s assassination. I also saw Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. The black and white images of our TV set seemed to add to the grief we were feeling. I began to sense that there was evil in the world. With curious apprehension I wondered what would happen next. I would sit with my father and watch the news every night.

The international tension of the Cold War was brought home daily via the nightly news. The ongoing events of this stand-off war between the U.S. and the USSR were presented by newscasters Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Their reports detailed the U.S.’s escalating involvement in the War. The U.S. sought to contain the encroaching U.S.S.R. Communists moving into Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. This escalation began in the early 1960s. U.S. combat troops would be deployed in 1965.

At this time Billy and I were in seventh grade. And though I had no thought at this time that I could later be drafted, I did see that my father took a special interest in the newscasts. As we sat on the couch together his right leg would shake up and down nervously, the motion reminding me of my mom’s sewing machine stitching my pants.

When Billy and I entered high school, we veered off into different directions. Billy, a technology kind of guy, was involved early on with an automotive internship work program. This program allowed him to leave school early and go to a local auto shop and learn about cars. Although Billy, now called Bill, was somewhat lethargic about school studies and strongly opposed to sports, when Bill did focus on something he would put all of his thought, energy and money into that project. He would become a stream of consciousness, in any direction, that nobody could interrupt. One day his mother once told me, as Bill flew out the door on another self-directed mission, that Billy “was like the wind”. I knew what she meant.

High school for me, on the other hand, was about music and sports. I auditioned for the concert band during the summer before our freshman year and I won a seat in the first trumpet section. I also joined the cross country team and began running that same summer. I liked the new friendships these activities brought with them.

Though Bill and I were separated during school hours our social lives were entwined with our church’s teen’s group. It was in this group that we thrived emotionally. We could flirt with the opposite sex and spend endless hours in Bill’s car, just driving around so that we could just hold hands with someone sitting next to us. On the weekends, if were weren’t in church or in Bill’s car we would be at John’s Pizzeria drinking Cokes and gobbling large amounts of salty, greasy pizza.

The tables at John’s Pizzeria each had a flip chart jukebox. On the music menu were songs by groups like the Monkees, the Beatles, the Turtles, the Buckinghams, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, the Association and the Platters. Of course, everyone had their favorites. Bill would play Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business and the Monkees, Last Train to Clarksville.” I would play the Turtles “Happy Together”, the Association’s “Cherish” and the Moody Blues “Nights in White Satin.”

Our church’s teen’s group met at John’s Pizzeria after every Sunday evening service. It was a time and place like no other – a teenage haven. While the rest of the world was splintering into factions and the words of the Beatle’s “Revolution” blared from our table speakers, we met and talked about the things that mattered to us: who we liked, about our church, our parents, and our part-time jobs and about our school. Bill and I felt safe inside this circle of church friends.

Outside our close-knit world, momentous events marked our high school days: Martin Luther King was assassinated, April 4, 1968; Robert Kennedy was shot and killed on June 5, 1968; the first humans landed on Earth’s moon, July 20, 1969; Woodstock took place on Max Yasgur’s farm, August 18, 1969. And, the secularist album “Jesus Christ Superstar” would soon be released.

In 1969 I was informed by mail that I had to register for the draft. I was seventeen. Apparently, the Vietnam War needed more blood to fill its ranks. Bill, because of his school/work program, was not asked to register. After filling out the Selective Service card, I handed it to my mother. She worked at the counter of our local Post Office. As I walked away from her, I began to feel the draw of the world pulling me into its many conflicts. This unsettling feeling hid itself behind a mask of false bravado that I wore only briefly. I soon realized, though the television news didn’t show it, what being drafted could mean for anyone drafted– body bags, missing arms and legs, scars and tremendous loss. A fear grew inside me. A fear I had never known before. A fear of someone waiting to kill me; I could be chosen to step in front of a bullet.

On December 1, 1969, I nervously watched the televised draft lottery with my father. This draft lottery would determine who would be sent to Vietnam. Birthdates were given numbers from 1 to 366. These numbers, put into plastic capsules, were mixed in a large glass jar. A hand would reach in and select a capsule and then someone would read the number to the watching audience. The first number/birth date pulled would be the first persons to serve in the military; the next number would be the second wave of inductees and so on. The drawing would go on until 195 numbers were fished from the bowl. My father and I waited and waited, talking about anything except Vietnam. When the seemingly unending process finally concluded, my number would not be one of the 195 chosen to serve. I breathed a great sigh of relief. My father relaxed back into the couch, his knee finally still.

In 1971 Bill and I would graduate from high school. Bill was planning to go off to a technical school to learn about electronics technology. I would go off to Moody Bible Institute for a teaching and music career. But before we took off for more schooling, Bill and I would travel out west to Yellowstone National Park and the Rocky Mountains. In doing so, we would leave behind the volatile ‘60s and our umbilical youth. In it’s place: a “Lean-On-Me” friendship. This friendship would become the fuel for an exhausting road trip.

(If you wonder why a girl like me hung out with Bill, doing all that we did together, I can only tell you that the story is unfolding out before you. Before Sally there was…)

Part Two: Billy the Kid, Bill the Buddy, to be continued…

The True Myth of Friendship

The True Myth of Friendship Part One: Lena

Friends come and ago. At least in my life they have. I moved away from my first friend and then later another friend moved away from me. Some friends were friends in my mind only: these three ‘friends’ had other plans for me. One friend left me when I decided to make a life change and another close friend died. Friendship has always meant more to me than any romantic relationship. Friendship meant people liked to be together and do things together, sharing their imaginations. And, friendship wasn’t loneliness.

1957. Lena is the first friend that I can recall. She lived downstairs just below my family’s apartment. Lena’s parent’s, both of them immigrant Swedes, were the landlords. The three story apartment/house was situated in the middle of a quiet block on Long Ave. in Chicago. Beside the house was a stretch of grass, a garage and a food garden. Lena’s parents tended the garden daily. I can still taste the tart garden fresh strawberry-rhubarb pies my mother made from scratch.

Lena, a couple of years older than me, was in second grade. I had just started kindergarten. We attended the same school, Lowe Elementary, not far from our home. We would walk together. Lena, as I recall, looked as if she had walked out of a Carl Larrson painting: golden-blond hair, rosy cheeks, blue eyes and a snow white complexion. It was usual at any given moment, apart from school and sleep, for me to head out the back door of our apartment onto the open porch. I would run down the noisy wooden stairs to the first landing and from there jump down to Lena’s porch floor. The impact was enough to let Lena know that I was ready to play. Through their screen door I could hear Lena tell her mom that she’d be on the back porch playing with me. Her mother would respond in Swedish. The smell of cardamom bread often followed Lena to the porch.

Being best friends meant that Lena and I spent a lot of time together playing house, playing doctor/patient or playing doctor/nurse. We also played baseball and kick ball along side the house. When we did, Lena’s mother would anxiously look out the kitchen window. Her mother was very concerned about the ball coming near her garden or a window. When we hit the ball too close to the dining room picture window, we were scolded in Swedish. In English, we were told to go find something to do, but “not here.”

Finding something to do in the neighborhood was easy. It wasn’t long before we found out that a group of us kids could unscrew the nearby fire hydrant cap. On very hot summer days we would open the hydrant and let the gushing yellow water cool our feet. The splashing and laughing would go on until fire trucks came whirring around the corner. Heavily dressed men with big open eyes and mouths would jump out of their trucks. They would chase after the rapidly scattering crowd of waders hoping to give each one of us a disciplinary talk. Escaping their clutches, Lena and I would run and hide on her back porch. Once there, we would play firemen and fire. It was a Curious George time in our lives.

Friendship with Lena was an easy give and take. Each of us could easily imagine characters we wanted to be when we grew up. We would often role play a mother and father situation. When we did, Lena would always choose to be the father. I was to be the mother. As designated mother, I was relegated to making supper and having things ready when “father” came home from work. I would stand on the back porch stirring imaginary stews on an imaginary stove (the porch bench). At some point, “father” would come home, walking through the screen door out onto the porch. “Father” would give me a hug and say “How was your day, honey?” In return, I would say, “The kids were terrible.” The days of our parent’s lives were enacted again and again until the time had come for my family to move.

Besides Lena, there were other friends, too, whose names I can’t recall. I do remember that I would often walk down Long Avenue to the busy West Chicago Avenue. I would go with a friend or by myself (I was six years old. In those days, parents were not afraid of letting their kids wander through the neighborhood. I don’t think, though, my mother would have approved of this if she knew.) On the Avenue, I would sometimes visit and sit in on the service at the Salvation Army Center for the homeless and the drunks. The Captain knew me as a regular. To him, I must have looked like a lowly street urchin from a Charles Dickens’ story.

I would also visit a deli just next door. The sights and smells (and conversations) would delight my senses. There, I could buy a huge kosher pickle for only 5 cents. After paying the owner of the deli, I would reach into the pickle barrel and pull out a pickle that had been floating at the top of the briny vinegar water. I would eat the whole pickle, puckering my lips from the sourness. This is a memory that is as sweet and sometimes as acerbic as the friendships I’ve had.

Recalling the day we left our Long Avenue apartment, I was a terribly sad when our car slowly pulled away. We waved goodbye to our many friends who were gathered on the side walk. There were moms and dads, tree house friends, kids on bikes, the ice cream truck guy and, of course, Lena. That night, I couldn’t hold back the tears as I lay in my new bedroom in the new house on a new block in a new unfinished subdivision. I thought of the gushing fire hydrant, of Lena, and of the back porch where we staged our make-believe lives. I wondered, too, as I lay in my bed: Would there be fire hydrants and friends on this new street? The next day I would meet Billy and Blackie dog.

*************

Part Two: Billy the Kid, Bill the Buddy…continued here.

A Friend Closer Than a Brother: Solitude

“We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.”
–C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Mirror, Mirror, Not At All

A put down. That was the first thing that my friend Eric said to me when I told him that I was going to start living as a woman. I had called Eric, my long time friend, and had asked him to meet me for a beer at a local micro-brewery. He is a beer fanatic so I thought good ale would help clear the way for my ‘out-of-the-blue’ news. But my words were sobering to Eric. When I told him he grimaced and then, instead of looking back at me, he looked over at the large vats of brewing beer and said, “You’ll never be beautiful. That was the first thing that my long time close friend said to me.

Eric’s response came as a complete surprise to me. I had never thought about beauty in the context of living as a female or as a motive for doing so. The idea of seeking beauty simply never came to mind. I don’t think that anyone wants to be ugly or unattractive so I considered myself as one of these same people. I hadn’t held beauty up as some ideal to reach for or desire. Since I’ve transitioned and have lived as a woman for several years now, I feel very comfortable in my body. I occasionally do hear comments: “Hey, pretty lady.” “Hi, beautiful.” and even “Hi, gorgeous.” I would have to say that those words are nice to hear sometimes but they don’t confirm to me that I am beautiful. What makes me beautiful is that which is transitioning in my soul: becoming less self-aware and more Christ-aware. My validation of beauty comes from within me and not from some mirror of opinion. The view of the latter would be as though “looking through a glass darkly” or just speculation about my outward appearance. I prefer, rather, to visualize the words said by the Real One Who dwells within me:

How beautiful you are, my darling!
Oh, how beautiful!
Your eyes are doves.
***
Like a lily among thorns
is my darling among the maidens.
***
All beautiful you are, my darling;
there is no flaw in you.

I’ve known two things since my earliest childhood: I am a female and that God is more concerned about what is my heart than about my appearance. I was born with the innate understanding that I was a female despite what I saw to the contrary. I also understood early on that a God Who I could not see is able to see what cannot be seen with the human eye. I learned this from a Sunday School lesson about the lowly shepherd boy David being selected by God to be the king of Israel. It was out of this understanding of God that my faith in God began to grow. By faith I believed in Jesus and by faith, later on, I began living as a woman.

It is faith, according to the Scriptures, that operates on the basis of what is not seen and it is faith that acts in anticipation of what is to be received. Faith doesn’t operate by sight. But, people do. From the same Sunday School lesson I was taught that “man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart.” And that brings me back to Eric’s words.

When Eric responded he essentially said that my transition would be some contrivance to obtain beauty. This statement confounded me and hurt me but not for long. The fact that I am a woman is settled for me. The fact that I may or may not be beautiful truly doesn’t matter to me. In this Age of Enhancement, beauty can quickly become the mascara tears streaming down the cheeks of Despair. The issue of beauty is certainly important if you make it important. I do not consider it important. Rather, I am learning to be less self-aware and more Christ-aware. I am continually praying that this transition will happen. This transition is the most important one of all and it is, by far, the most costly.

Sadly, my friendship with Eric ended that day. He said that he didn’t want to watch me make the ‘change’. He went on to say that I must have some horrible psychic pain to want to make the ‘change’. What he didn’t understand was that there had been tremendous psychic pain in avoiding the ‘change’. Eric broke off our long term friendship that day. We finished our beer, hugged each other and then drove off.

It appears that friendship, not beauty, is only skin deep.