September 01, 2015
Suddenly September – as if a switch was turned to dial up
“wind and rain and shorter days.”– all at once.
My recent hunting adventure – stalking my free ranging credit card - brought back memories of a tale from long ago – 31 one years ago to be exact.
It remains one of my favorites – one still active in my life.
I’ll tell you the story, and put it in context at the end.
A PILGRIM’S TICKET TO RIDE
Somewhere out there in the world is a young woman who, if she reads the story that follows, will sing out, “Hey, that’s me – that’s my story!”
This is a letter written to her out of gratitude – from me and all those who have heard her story from me.
Out of one person’s moment of comic despair has come wisdom for all.
Dear Fellow Pilgrim:
There you were, in the Hong Kong airport, at the end of the summer of 1984, tensely occupying a chair next to mine.
Everything about you said, “Young American Traveler Going Home.”
You had by then exchanged jeans and T-shirt for sarong and sandals.
Sensible short hair had given way to hair long and loose, with flowers and beads braided into it.
The backpack beside you bore the scars and dirt of some hard traveling.
And it bulged with mysterious souvenirs of seeing the world.
“Lucky kid,” I thought.
When tears began to drip from your chin, I imagined a lost love or the sorrow of giving up adventure to return to college classes.
But when you began to sob, you drew me into your sadness.
I guess you had been very alone and very brave for some time.
A good cry was in order.
And weep you did – all over me.
A monsoon of grievous angst poured forth.
My handkerchief, and your handkerchief, and most of a package of tissues, and half your sarong were needed to dry up the flood before you sobbed your heart out.
As it turned out, you were not quite ready to go home – you wanted to keep traveling on. But you had run out of money and your friends had run out of money, and here you were having spent two days waiting in the airport standby lounge – with little to eat and too much pride to beg or ask for help.
And now, your flight was about to board.
And, sob, sob, sob – even worse - you had lost your ticket.
You cried all over me again, tears spilling onto my hands and shirt.
You had spent the last three hours in this one chair, sinking into the cold sea of despair like a ship dashed upon rocks, with its bottom torn out.
At this moment you thought you would just sit there until you died.
As we dried you off - I, and a nice older couple from Chicago, who had also been swept away in the tide of your tears - offered to take you to lunch and to talk to the airline authorities about some remedy in this emergency.
Weakly, you stood up to go with us, and turned around to gather your belongings,
And then you SCREAMED.
I thought you had been shot.
But . . . no . . . you saw your ticket there on your seat.
You had been sitting on it for three long hours.
Like a sinner saved from the very jaws of the demons of hell, you laughed hysterically, cried in joy, hugged me and the couple from Chicago and several other bystanders, and ran off down the departure corridor.
Gone with the winds of good fortune.
Off to catch a plane for home and whatever came next.
Leaving your Good Samaritans limp from being part of your drama.
I’ve told that story many, many times.
“She was sitting on her own ticket,” I say, and the listeners always laugh in that nervous way that signals painful self-recognition.
Often when I have been sitting on my own ticket in some way – sitting on whatever it is that I have that will get me up and on to whatever comes next – I think of you and smile at both of us – and get up and move on.
So, thanks. You have unknowingly become, in a cherished way, my travel agent.
May you find all your tickets and arrive wherever you want to go, now and always.
* * *
There’s the tale – all true.
As I write now, 31 years later, I wonder what became of that young woman.
She must be in her early 50’s now.
I wonder if she got where she was going – and if it was where she wanted to be when she got there.
Or has she gone on traveling?
Still looking for satisfaction – with ticket always firmly in hand.
I don’t know.
But, if you are her or know her, tell her I say hello and please get in touch with me, a fellow traveler.
* * *
That story is actually a preface for something I want to say now about Fire.
August brings royalty statements from publishers.
And the good news is that the Kindergarten book continues to have strong sales – especially considering it’s been in print for 26 years.
It’s not the same book now, of course. It was reconsidered and significantly revised several years ago. Not a few outdated or weak stories were cut from the original, and 25 new stories were added. That seemed appropriate for the 25th Anniversary edition, which is now the standard version available.
To be honest, the original Kindergarten book was constructed from a reservoir of stories already in existence. Almost all of them had been originally printed in my weekly church newsletter when I was a parish minister.
My New York editor and agent made the selections for K, and, with some editing, produced the book – the rest is history. It was published worldwide – 103 countries, more than 30 languages that I know of, and probably some I don’t. Several million copies – I’ve no idea of the actual number now. But it’s still in print and selling internationally.
Nobody – nobody is more astonished by all this than me.
A year later, a second book, It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It, was published and was equally successful. For a long time the two books traded #1 and #2 positions on the New York Times Bestseller List – both in hard cover and paperback. There was even a period when the two books were #1 and #2 on both hard and paper lists at the same time.
Even more astonishment on my part.
Random House was impressed, too.
“Fire” was different in that almost all the stories and essays were new and written for that book. Some of the best tales I knew were included.
And I think the essay writing was stronger than in Kindergarten because I had some clarity about an audience – the general public, not a church congregation. The range of subject matter was much broader, as well.
Overall, I thought it was a better book.
And when I reviewed it recently, there was very little I would take out for an anniversary edition. Almost all the stories and essays bear up, even after all these years. I still tell many of the stories when speaking in public. They have “legs.”
So, why am I telling you this?
Not to brag or increase sales or complain or beseech you.
But I wanted to pass on the news that Fire is not being reprinted – and there will not be an anniversary edition.
There are no new hardback copies available, and Amazon says it has only 13 new paperbacks in stock (half price) and used copies are being offered from secondary bookseller sources for just one cent – that’s $.01 – a penny. (Really cheap.)
No royalties accrue to me from these ongoing sales.
I got my advance up front, and the book earned out.
I write to simply say that if you liked Kindergarten and have never read Fire, now’s your chance before it goes out of print and is not readily available except in a used condition from specialty booksellers.
Finally – (hang on, I’m almost done.)
While I’m at it, I should add that I continue to write often and at length.
The writing will go on as long as I go on, I suppose.
It’s a pleasurable form of an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
True, the response to my eccentric combination of Facebook photos and web-journal writing has been strong – and satisfying to me.
There are regular readers from all over the world, according to Google analysis.
But I’m no longer publishing books in English (lack of publisher’s interest) – though I am in Czech, oddly enough. (Two new books in the coming year.)
In fact, Argo, my Czech publisher has already issued 3 books successfully in the Czech language that have not been published in English.
I suppose I could try self-publishing in my native language, but it’s a lot more hassle and expense that you might think.
Still, it’s such a pleasure to regularly do the Facebook/web-journal combo that I will continue – and may put up some of the longer stories I’ve held in reserve to see how people respond.
If not published in a standard way, my writing will still be distributed.
Enough. I may have already told you more than you wanted to know.
Maybe all I should have said is “If you like Kindergarten and have never read Fire, take a chance on my recommendation and get a copy of Fire and read it.
I think you’ll like it. I do.
Meanwhile, I hope you keep on keeping me company by linking in here from time to time, and leaving me encouraging comments.
I am here. You are there. Let us continue . . .
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August 30, 2015
The beginning of September, 2015
A serious storm here over the weekend – with strong winds and heavy rains –
and wet weather predicted for the rest of the week. An early Fall.
Here’s another tale about “a man I know well.”
It’s my way of trying to stand outside myself and make rational sense of what goes on in my life.
It may also seem a lot like the story of a man or woman you know well . . .
A week ago, a man I know was in his favorite restaurant - in a truly fine mood – good food, good wine, good service, good music, good friends, good vibes.
All to the good.
When the time came to leave, he paid his bill with a credit card.
His main one – the one he uses most often.
As he was putting his wallet away, he suddenly noticed that this credit card was not in its usual slot.
He thought, “Must have forgotten to get it back – or maybe just dropped it – or put it back in a pocket instead of my wallet. No big deal – find it.”
The obvious solutions produced no results.
He initiated an all-restaurant Lost Dog Hunt.
“Well, damn,” he said to himself.
This was not the first time he had become disconnected with a credit card – and he had always been reunited with it sooner or later.
Tomorrow he would retrace his path over the last few days and find it.
His state of mind was rational: his wallet had not been stolen, he had not been in any shady environments, he was not in a foreign country.
He had just absentmindedly misplaced it or gone off without it somewhere.
No big deal.
So the search began.
Calmly at first – checking other places where he had dined, bookstores, the grocery store – all the obvious places in his traffic pattern.
And then anxiety began to raise its ugly head out of the swamp of his mind.
He checked the unlikely places – the gas station, the clothes he had been wearing in the past week – the laundry – his car – his path from car to apartment – the building janitor’s closet – all the nooks and crannies of his living space and office.
Trying to calm himself, he observed that if the card had been found and was being misused, his bank would cover the theft and issue him a new card.
The simplest thing to do would be to call the bank, report the card missing, and get a new one for a new account.
But - that would mean he would have to consider all the places where his account was on record – change all the automatic withdrawals – deal with the old card being rejected – big hassle.
Maybe he should wait a few days – just in case the card was found.
One more problem was that his wife had her own card on the same account.
He would have to tell her – admit that he had lost his credit card.
And she would have to deal with all the hassle she’d have with her
And he would have to cope with her vexation and amused derision.
And while he waited, he revisited all the possible places the card might be.
He went back to the same coat and pockets that he had already checked at least five times – to look again – as if the Universal Mojo would have made the card magically reappear – maybe the card is just playing hide-and-seek with him.
He emptied his wallet and went through the contents for the third time.
“I’m an idiot,” he said to himself again and again.
“I’m careless and stupid.”
“I’m a born loser.”
He was angry with himself – not so much for losing the card – but for the obsessive way the loss-and-search had taken over his life.
He couldn’t concentrate on anything else for long.
“Where’s the card ?– where’s the card? – where’s the card?” pounded through his head like the mantra of a meditating monk.
“How the hell can something so small and trivial take over my existence?”
* * *
Does all this sound familiar?
Has this ever happened to you?
Did it put your life in shambles for a while?
All this over a missing piece of embossed plastic 3 3⁄8 × 2 1⁄8 in size.
He had lived most of his life without one, and now he was driving himself crazy because one was missing.
To divert his mind, he looked up “Credit Cards” on Wikipedia.
1. The first idea of using a card for purchases was described in 1887
by Edward Bellamy in his utopian novel, Looking Backward.
2. In September 1958, Bank of America launched the BankAmericard
in Fresno, California.
3. American Express followed shortly after with its own credit card.
4. In 1966, competitors to the Bank of America launched Mastercard.
5. In 1976, all BankAmericard licensees united into the Visa brand.
6. It is widely accepted that the first ATM was put in use by Barclays Bank in north London on June 27, 1967.
7. By now, September, 2015, the number of credit cards available from the number of sources is beyond counting. Gazillions is the estimate – and the ways in which the card is used is equally beyond count.
It’s a universal phenomenon – in every country on earth.
Who can imagine daily modern life without credit cards?
But knowing all that didn’t locate the man’s lost card.
So, of course, he went back and looked everywhere one more time – everywhere –
all the most obvious ones and the most ridiculous ones.
He went over the search in his mind again and again.
And even began to dream of his card – now the size of a billboard in his mind.
* * *
OK, so I’ve strung you along far enough.
Maybe even provoked your own anxiety about a similar loss and hunt.
You may be mired in this as you read.
I suppose you want to know if the man finally was reunited with his card.
Yes, he was.
It’s safely tucked into its usual slot in his wallet as I write.
And I suppose you want to know where he found it . . .
Ha! Fat Chance. I will never tell – you or anyone else.
It’s so stupid – so dumb – so embarrassing that I just can’t admit the truth.
If I did, you would know what a numbskull I am.
But I do trust that you understand.
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August 22, 2015
The third week of August, 2015
Cool nights, foggy mornings, warm days – the fading of long summer light – a sense of oncoming fall.
As often as possible I go out into the world in the same spirit as if going to the theater to see a play. Here’s the result of doing that this morning:
TEN FRAGMENTS OF THE MIRROR FOUND ON A SUMMER DAY – without commentary . . .
1. Words noticed written on a construction-site fence just behind a bus stop - apparently by four different people:
I used to think I was indecisive, but now I’m not so sure.
I used to think she was my happily ever after but now I know she was only my once upon a time.
I used to think I cared, but now I take a pill for that.
I used to think that thinking got me somewhere, but now I try not to think about that.
* * * *
“How’s it going?”
“I’ve had a hard day – about you?”
“Days are easy – it’s night that’s hard.”
* * *
3. Memory: Seattle’s recent Hempfest, a rather straight-looking young man was standing by a tall tube painted gold and marked “Wishing Well.” He was holding two signs. Both said: “Free - Take One.” And both had those tear-off tabs at the bottom.
One set of tabs had “Just a minute” printed on them.
The other set of tabs said, “One Good Wish – Make One and Put It In The Wishing Well.”
* * *
4. Question: Have you ever seen the word “mayonnaise” in a poem?
Answer: I have. But it was misspelled. I think . . .
* * * *
5. Advice found in a poem: “See everything, overlook a great deal, correct a little.” Who said that? A web search says it was Pope John XXIII.
* * *
6. “I have the right to remain silent – but not the ability.”
Words on a T shirt on an old man in a bookstore in Asheville, N.C.
I thought, “That’s me, too.”
This morning I sat at an outdoor table at a French bakery.
At the next table was a young Oriental couple with a young puppy.
Dogs seem to like me, and the wriggly puppy jumped up on my legs
so enthusiastically that I pulled it on up onto my lap.
“Do you like puppies?” the young woman asked.
“Well, it all depends,” I replied.
“I once ate baked puppies served as a special dish at a Thai wedding.
A little strange, but it tasted pretty good. It’s all in the sauce, I suppose.
I’ll tell you the whole story . . .”
She stood up, gave me a fierce look, grabbed her puppy, and marched away in disgust.
Maybe I should get the T shirt and wear it as a warning . . .
* * *
7. Thought: As I writer I sometimes think I am only an ordinary workman building a Tower of Babel that will never be finished and doesn’t ultimately serve any useful purpose. There are lots of us, though.
And we keep on laying bricks.
* * *
8.“I miss pay phones. I miss the intensity of a conversation measured by a dwindling stack of quarters.” Sherman Alexie said that.
* * *
9. Remembering a Tibetan tradition: “kha sher lamkhyer:
Meaning – whatever arises, carry it to the path.
* * *
10. Sometimes daily life seems more like comic fiction than serious reality.
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August 18, 2015
The middle of August, 2015
Cool nights, warm days, the soft slide into September
It’s a useful habit to shift into third person and stand outside one’s self to try to get a more objective perspective – or so say I.
Here’s an example.
The “man I know very well” is, of course, me.
You may know someone like me, so I share this to be useful.
A man I know very well recently spent a month in crisis.
He had developed symptoms.
- dry mouth – often thirsty
- numbness in the bottom of his feet at the end of the day
- swelling of his ankles by bedtime
- a frequent need to urinate
- bouts of low energy - lethargic
- frequent need to nap
- weight gain
- slightly blurred vision when he was reading
- restless sleep – waking often at night
- unpredictable periods of being irritable and mildly depressed
- forgetful – often absent-minded
Research on the web suggested the onset of Type II diabetes.
No doubt in his mind.
And way back in the darkest corner of his mind:
maybe the early signs of senility.
This was a blow to his self-image of always being in good health, never ill, and feeling far from old, even though he was in his 79th year of life.
He didn’t think old or talk old or act old or live old.
He refused to accept the category of “Senior Citizen” or “Retiree.”
No senior discounts for him.
But maybe that’s all an avoidance of the reality – denial of the obvious.
The body ages and with age comes failures of systems and organs.
He would get old and die – and he accepted that.
And he always said that if he had some kind of terminal illness, he would take himself out gracefully rather than prolong the struggle.
He expected that sooner or later something would catch up with him.
Some of the possibilities: high blood pressure, heart disease,
Alzheimer’s, liver problems, arthritis, cancer, joint failure and on and on – all the maladies of the end stages of life.
So now, he thought, “Here it comes – the onset of diabetes – meaning significant lifestyle change, strict diet, medications, insulin injections, possibility of amputations, even blindness – nothing but a long struggle to try and survive the inevitable.”
He sensed the beginning of the end . . .
He went so far as to review his will and his instructions for death and burial – and he stopped by to stand on his cemetery plot to ponder.
On the other hand, the man I know well has always thought that factual information trumps prejudicial guessing, and that getting more than one opinion about serious matters should be basic policy.
So he made appointments with his ophthalmologist, his dentist, his family doctor, and even his car dealer (might as well get a final service on his old and worn-out car while he was in review mode.)
Silly thinking crept into the edges of his mind.
The eye lady said his blurred vision while reading was likely a result of ongoing improvement in his near vision. His reading glasses were stronger than necessary. “You should even be able to read in bed without glasses now.” (True) Moreover, he had no signs of cataracts or glaucoma, certainly no symptoms of diabetes - no problems.
His eyes were in excellent condition.
His dentist and the oral hygienist could find no signs of new cavities, no
unusual wear on past repairs, or any indication of oral ill health.
His teeth were in fine shape.
Even the car dealer had good news. All that was needed was standard service. His car was good for another 50,000 miles or more.
Finally, his physician reviewed his list of symptoms, had all the necessary tests done on his blood and urine, and checked his heart function and blood pressure.
She smiled and summed up her findings.
“There’s nothing wrong with you. And you do not have diabetes.
Your blood pressure is normal, kidney function normal, glucose level normal, cholesterol a little high, but there’s a medication for that.
In fact there’s nothing to treat or to be overly concerned about.
You’re good to go for a long time to come.”
“What about my symptoms?” asked the still-anxious man.
After a long discussion, it boiled down to the fact that drinking 8 cups of coffee in the morning was excessive - producing all the symptoms of a reaction to an overdose of caffeine. It’s a diuretic and irritates the bladder and the bladder wants to get rid of it.
And the athletic socks he wears daily were probably constricting nerve and blood flow to his feet.
Finally, anxiety about having diabetes was likely the cause of all the rest – stress and worry hampered sleep.
The only thing she would suggest was using a cream on his face to clear up sand-papery barnacles that are the late life evidence of from having too much sunburn as a kid.
“It’s a mild chemical peel,” she said, “But you’ll have skin like a baby when the treatment is over.”
Really? That’s it? That’s all?
A lot less coffee – loose socks – and a facial?
The man went away laughing - in a euphoric stupor.
He felt like dancing down the hall of the clinic.
He got in his tuned-up car, and drove away in tears of relief.
In a mood of revival – from the Latin revivere – to live again.
Maybe another 50,000 miles to go – for him and the car?
“They’ll call me Babyface,” he thought. “I can live with that.”
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August 02, 2015
The first week of August, 2015
Hot, hot days, with no immediate relief in sight.
In all the years I’ve posted on Facebook and on my website journal page, no photo or essay or story has elicited as much response as the
picture of my new shoes that I put up last week. I was astonished, but not completely surprised because, as I wore my colorful shoes around town, time and again people stopped me to approve the shoes and ask where to get a pair. In the grocery store, at a book store, or just walking on the street in my neighborhood it was the same: “Love your shoes!”
This morning, at the Ballard Sunday Farmer’s Market, I stopped to consider three young people sitting at small tables punching away at old-fashioned mechanical typewriters. In front of them was a sign:
“POEMS. YOUR TOPIC, YOUR PRICE.”
I’ve seen them before. They offer poetry on demand.
One of them looked up at me and then down at my shoes.
He stopped typing, and smiled.
“Here we go,” I thought, and “Why not?”
“Give me a ten dollar poem about my shoes,” I said.
“Give me twenty minutes and I will,” said William-the-Poet.
Here’s the result, in the format given to me:
do wear the finest
shoes to keep
the body up.
infuse the wisdom,
dispel the lonesome,
scene of desert,
in the art
which moves and shapes . . .
the carrier of
the burning son,
on the feet of the chosen one . . .
one that carries the infinite
picture of the
I went away pleased – never expecting to have a poem written about my shoes. Or, for that matter, to meet a real poet engaged in the world.
Poets tend to be contemplative souls, working in solitude.
Their writing tends to be self-referential and often obscure.
To declare to the world that you are a poet takes social courage.
And to use your calling to serve customers a dose of contemplative
insight to their request for a poem – well, that takes a special talent.
To decide you are a poet in the first place is uncommon – not an easily- taken decisions about who you are.
Your mom probably never said she hoped you’d grow up to be one.
You have to love words more than anything.
And you would have to have an affection for people to do it in the street, on demand, with a sign that says: “Poems – Your Topic – Your Price.”
Thanks for the gifts, William-the-Poet.
Write on . . .
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