Friday, May 31, 2013

How Sublime

How sublime Art is when much is done with little.


                   Lysistrota, Chinesias et sa Myrrhine, c1934, by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Saturday, May 25, 2013


I thought it strange that I should be thinking of Petey at a time like this.  I mean, there I was, sitting on a stage with my classmates, waiting to receive my high school diploma, and I was thinking of my first pet, a little stripped caterpillar.
     I was six when I woke early one morning to see tiny glass-bright eyes staring at me from the windowsill of my bedroom.  Blue jays are ornery birds, malevolence on wings, and my fingers twitched for a rock.  Not that I was a mean little boy, not particularly that is, but this jay was one of a pair I'd been battling all summer.  My tire swing hung from that elm tree in our backyard long before they built their nest there!  With no rock, I threw my voice instead.
     What came out of my throat was bloodcurdling.  The jay was gone in a flurry of wings and I heard our neighbor, Miss Millie, a flinty little spinster who was always amongst her roses that time of day, say, "Thank heaven!  Someone's finally murdering the brat!"
     Bandits in the neighborhood!  Maybe even pirates!  And they were working their skills on some brat!  I darted to the window and hung half way out, feet kicking in the air behind me, a little breathless about witnessing villains practicing their dark arts.  But the neighborhood was quiet and serene in the morning sunlight.  There was only Miss Millie amidst the color and tangle of her rose bushes, hands on her hips, staring at me with sparks in her eyes.  Where was her tomcat, I wondered.  Again my fingers twitched for a rock.  Jeez, but her tomcat was fast!
     I gave one last look around for a brat in distress, then happened to look down at the windowsill.  Moments of awakening come at odd times in a child's life.  Suddenly, the world was an amazing place, and a caterpillar one of the most amazing things in it.  I squinted my eyes to take a closer look at the way he rippled as he walked along on all those little feet.  When he willing took a place in the palm of my hand and curled up, seeming to trust me to protect him from marauding blue jays, I felt something strange inside me.  At first I thought it was just my stomach sending me signals, reminding me about breakfast.  But the signals weren't coming from my stomach.  Once a heart has loved, it is forever changed, and I named my new pet Petey.  From that day forward I had an affection for all living things, and Miss Millie's tomcat had nothing more to fear from the little rock thrower who'd been making his life so miserable.
     Dubious about having a bug in the house, but feeling guilty because I'd never been allowed a dog or even a hamster, my mother and father let me keep Petey.  To everyone's surprise Petey thrived, grew fat, and we were seldom out of each other's sight.  I took him for long tours of the neighborhood onboard my Radio Flyer wagon, pointing out historical sites: the bush where I'd once found a hummingbird's egg, the drainage pipe where I'd gotten stuck and then rescued by firemen.  We swung for hours on my tire swing, him clinging to my shoulder while I kept a wary eye out for blue jays, and many were the nights, when I should have been asleep, that Petey would munch a blade or two of grass in the comfort of his glass jar there on the pillow beside me, while I told him every secret I had to tell.
     Came the day that Miss Millie served Petey and I milk and brownies at the little wrought iron table in her garden.  Without sparks, her eyes reminded me of Grandma's.  After finishing the first brownie, I told Miss Millie what Mother always said about her garden, that her roses smelled like the breath of angels, and a second brownie was promptly served that seemed even more chocolaty and chewy than the first!  It was then that I noticed Petey was acting very strange.  Though I pleaded for him to stop, he wouldn't, he just kept spinning thread, seemed to be slowly pulling a blanket up over his head.  Was Petey sick?  Dying?  Was he upset because I hadn't shared the brownies?  I was suddenly blinded by tears, and a frantic Miss Millie fetched my mother and father and the three of them crowded around me, telling me not to cry, that change was good, that change was part of life.  Comforted by hugs and kisses, I rallied and the waterworks shut down, but this change being spoke of left me feeling unsure and watchful, for Petey, my dearest friend, was at its mercy.
     The ancient mysteries of the cocoon took place, and then came the day of magic.  My mother was holding the back door open for my father who had his arms wrapped around sacks of groceries.  They stopped where they were when they saw me standing in the kitchen.  Perched on my fingertips was Petey, now a magnificent monarch butterfly.  And while he spread wide his wings and winked them open and closed, I said, "Isn't he beautiful!  Isn't he so very beautiful!"  We all stared in star-struck wonder as Petey gave a sweep of his delicate wings and lifted gently into the air.  He hovered there as if to say his good-byes, then, floating by my mother and father, he sailed the breeze out the kitchen door.
     Now on stage with my classmates, waiting to graduate, it suddenly came to me that it wasn't so strange after all, me thinking of Petey at a time like this.  I kept saying to myself, Aren't we beautiful!  Aren't we so very beautiful! as one by one we crossed the stage toward our futures, not unlike butterflies sailing the breeze through an open door.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

That Girl

June 5, 1981
Cafe du Monde
New Orleans

The sidewalk cafe's waiter, his head a tangle of blond curls, sat the iced latte down in front of me with that crisp click that glass makes against marble.
     "Just the thing on a hot day," he said.
     I answered with a smile and a "Yes," and as he turned away I raised the frosty glass.  I came to an abrupt stop.  What was this sudden terror I felt?  This sudden burst of joy?  What could possibly be filling me with such excitement?  Then, gazing over the top of my iced latte, I understood, for there she was..."that girl."
     How can I describe her?  I can't, it's beyond my ability to make words do such work.  Let me rather liken the experience of seeing her to the same exquisite rush and delightful chill I get when I hear Van Cliburn play "Clair de Lune" or gaze upon a canvas by Renoir.  Beautiful people affect us in the same manner as art.  They can change our mood, lift our spirits.  But there are also those, the most beautiful of the beautiful, who can instill in us a certain terror when they come into sight.  Why?  Because it is they who can stop our hearts, for that briefest of moments murder us.
     "That girl" began to make her way around the tables of the cafe with a graceful swing of her hips.   She passed a group of teenaged boys sitting around two tables pushed together.  The boys looked like a gathering of princes, not a toad among them, and how they stared at her.  After they recovered from what was obviously their own chills and spasms of excitement, they whistled and called out to her.  She gave them not a glance.  Watching "that girl" come toward my table, her eyes looking neither right nor left, just straight ahead, I felt another exquisite rush of joy and excitement, and, yes, another rush of terror.  Knowing my risk, I stood up.
     "An iced latte, just the thing on a hot day," I said to her, pulling the other chair away from the table as an invitation.
     She stopped, her eyes swerved to meet mine, focused.
     A butterfly poised on a nearby palm stopped winking its wings, the whistles and calls of teenaged boys ceased.  Then her smile and "Yes" stopped my heart, and I was, on that afternoon in New Orleans, for the briefest of moments, murdered by "that girl."


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Use of Kindness

Those who use kindness only as a deed to be repaid will know the scorn of angels.