Six Days Can Be A Long Time

[Photo credit: Mel Brown]

The moment happened a few hours ago.  I was probably sitting in Starbucks on Broadway and 75th Street when the time came and went.  I was aware of the time, but I was likely checking my email.  Our apartment wifi was dead for the time being.

It was an arbitrary time, marked only by a sweeping second hand on an office wall clock.  It turned over at 5:00 pm on June 12, 2017.  One moment it was 5:00 pm, and then it was another time altogether.

So, what’s so important about this?  That changing moment marked the end of a work day for my wife, Mariam…an ordinary work day.  But, now, she now has only six days left to the end of her working career, her fifty-one years in health care is coming to a close.  That’s a long time of working and an inspiring event to celebrate.  Ever since she graduated from the Bellevue School of Nursing, she has changed bed pans, helped AIDS patients, started up a cardiology unit in a hospital, and rose to being the head of the hemophilia treatment center at Mount Sinai Hospital.  She also is the president of two boards, both in the bleeding disorders world, in the intensive and competitive world of New York City.

I have expressed my concerns about the vacuum that will enter her life from a powerful position…into retirement.  She says she is not concerned.  I trust her instincts…but I still worry.

Her boss, Dr. Chris Walsh, is now reviewing aspects of her job.

“I’m going to miss you,” he understated.

I am proud of Mariam’s accomplishments.  I am looking forward to when she will be by my side, each day…for years to come…to travel and to sit at home…reading, playing chess, discussing politics and learning new things. We’ll be having a quiet dinner at a small Italian restaurant on 73rd St. on June 21.  Yes, June 21, her final day…and the traditional Summer Solstice.  How appropriate is that?  The longest day of the year.  The days will be getting shorter, but I will be there with you, Mariam, to help you through the long winter nights to come. And, I will be there on December 21, the traditional Winter Solstice, when the days begin to grow longer.  I know that’s the date you look forward to the most.

I will be there when the black flies come and go and the mesquitos arrive.  I’ll be there when the hail hits the roof and the leaves begin to fall.  I’ll light the campfire and I’ll play some Leonard Cohen for you on Spotify.  I’ll be there to ease you into your years of retirement.

Good luck to you, Mariam.  God speed!

Six days can be a long time…after all, that’s how long The Creation took.  Let’s hope there’s rest on the seventh day.

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Love at the Beacon Bar

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I spend most of my time alone…here in New York City, a city of 8.4 million people.  Sometimes I get very lonely and sometimes I feel forgotten.  None of this is Mariam’s fault.  She works very hard at Mount Sinai…slowly but steadily toward total retirement which should happen sometime after the middle of May.  Sometime around my birthday.  The birthday when I will turn 70!

Mariam and I have a routine of sorts.  We often meet at the Beacon Bar which is a four minutes walk for me, if the lights are in my favor.  I will have glass or two of Greenpoint IPA and Mariam will have a Chardonnay…all this before Happy Hour is over at 6 pm.

Last evening, just as the prices were about to rise and after we had spoken to a few of our new friends, Mariam turned to me and said something that was unexpected…and desperately needed.

Okay, it’s a few days after Valentine’s Day.  And this year we agreed not to exchange Hallmark cards (and she doesn’t really care for chocolates).  We knew how we felt about one another…we’ve been through a lot.  She saved my life when I was diagnosed with leukemia in 2003 by finding the best hematologist in the City.

So, what did she say to me?  What did she say that still rings in my ears and especially in my heart?

She turned to me and said:

“I love you, you know.  My heart is full of you.”  I looked at her somewhat mute.  I mumbled that I loved her as well, but I didn’t have that special phrasing that makes a special moment so endearing…and so lasting.

I had never heard it said quite like that before.  There is no Hallmark card that could take the place of that short statement.  No $30.00 dozen of red roses from the corner deli (the heads will sag in two days) that could have smelled better that the scent of words of love…like the ones Mariam said to me…yesterday afternoon, the day after Valentines Day.

Some sentiments don’t need a day on the calendar to guide you.  The special ones come from the moment.  The heart is the only guide you will ever need.

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I Am…

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It was the day before the inauguration.

I found a local gym that offered a month to month membership.  No long-term contract.  And, it was only$49 per month.  Ok, there is no pool (I don’t like to swim anyway and ALL pools have water that, to me, is just above freezing.  “Heated pools” …just a myth.  And, I tend to get water in my ear which keeps me from hearing clearly and forces me to keep poking my forefinger in my ear to clear it out (it never works). And, there is no sauna in this gym, which is fine with me.  My apartment is warm enough and I don’t really want to sit in a tiny room with a few older naked men.

I’m Irish, not Swedish.

So I worked out on a bike for about an hour.  Got my heart rate to about 107 and I left sweat on the arm rests.  I had Spotify on my iPhone and was listening to some modern “Americana” music.

Then I punched the “cool down” button.  I had burned off several hundred calories which I was about to replace a block away at the Amsterdam Ale House.

I went upstairs, without  a shower (remember the above reference to naked men) and pushed the door to Broadway.  I was met by an enthusiastic woman and a guy with a camera. [To get to my gym, you have to enter the lobby of a small off-off Broadway theater.  The gym is down stairs.]

The woman had a sheet of paper.  She asked if I would just say ‘who I was’ and what I was ‘fighting for’.  I misunderstood what she said and thought that I would have my picture taken.  I felt that I looked like Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future.  I needed a haircut and felt tired and miserable.

A day later I walked into the theater lobby to go down to the gym.  It was then that I saw the papers lining the walls.  The papers I turned my back on.  The sheets of paper that I had declined to write a phrase and a comment.

As I read the sheets, I felt ashamed I didn’t have my own on the lobby wall.

I left the gym that afternoon…not with sweat on my forehead …but with a tear on my cheek.

Read some of these!

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Coal For Christmas

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[Artwork:Watercolor sketch by Paul Egan (Date unknown)]

Another year and another chance for me to share this holiday post…

 I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache and sadness of my sixty-ninth year. The stories that my father told me about his father have taken on new meanings. I’m the old one now. I am the carrier of the family history. When a recollection of a family event comes to mind, be it a birthday party, a funeral, a wedding or a birth, I get my journal and I write with haste, in case I might forget something or get a name wrong or a date incorrect. Or, forget the event entirely.

This is especially true when the snow falls and the Christmas tree decorations are brought down from wherever they live during the summer. There is a certain melancholy mood that comes with the wintertime holidays. The sentiment of A Christmas Carol comes to mind. It is a time to listen to the winter wind blow, put a log on the fire, pour a little more wine and to recall and celebrate the memory of those who have passed on.

It’s time for a Christmas story. It’s time to think again about my family and how they lived their lives so many decades ago.

I was raised in the post-war years. My parents were not saying anything original when they would tell me, or my brothers, that we had to be good…very good…or Santa would not leave us a brightly wrapped present, red-ribboned and as big a box as a boy could hold. No, Santa would not leave such a wondrous thing. But he wasn’t so vengeful to leave nothing in our stocking. No, he would leave a lump of coal…if you deserved nothing more.

My father grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk barefoot through ten inches of snow to attend school or go from house to house asking for bread.  It was just the kind of poor that would keep his father only one step ahead of the rent collector. Dad would often make a joke about poor he was as a child.

“I was so poor that I would get roller skates for Christmas but I would have to wait until the next year to get the key,” he would say with a sly smile. It was a joke of course…wasn’t it?

His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he was raised in the poverty that was common in rural America in the 1920’s.  My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story.  Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it was usually told to his four sons around the time it came to bundle up and go out, find and cut a Christmas tree. I heard this story more than once when it was cold and snowy in the 1950’s. In the years when my father was a child, the winters were probably much colder and the snow ever deeper.

It was northeastern Pennsylvania. It was coal country and my grandfather was Irish.  Two generations went down into the mines. Down they would go, every day before dawn, only to resurface again long after the sun had set.  On his only day off, Sunday, he would sleep the sleep of bones that were weary beyond words.

Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit.  Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys and two girls, comfortable and warm.  It all came crashing down, literally, when their simple farmhouse burned to the foundation.  After seeing his family safely out, the only item my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover.  My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet.  He rarely broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at a wall.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve that took place in my father’s boyhood.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in a remote farmhouse my grandparents rented.  Sometime after mid-night, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome.  It was too quiet.  There were no thoughts of Santa Claus in my father’s mind that night—the reality of their lives erased those kinds of dreams from his childhood hopes. There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and slipped out of bed.  The floor felt unusually cold against his socks.  He crept down the stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up, talking and keeping warm beside the coal stove.   But the room was empty and the coal fire was burning low.  The only light was from a single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling on a thin chain.  My father noticed the steam of his breath each time he exhaled.  He called out.

“Mom? Dad?”

He heard nothing.  He pushed his cold feet into cold shoes that were six sizes too large.  Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing flow of frigid outside air.  In the snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house.  He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the prints.  A pale moon helped light the way. The tracks led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a low hill and faded from his sight.  He followed the trail.  Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions.  A child’s fear swept over him.  Were the young kids being abandoned?  It was not an uncommon occurrence in the pre-Depression years of rural America.

In his young and innocent mind, he prayed that the hard times hadn’t become that hard. But deep within, he knew of his parents’ unconditional love and concern. He knew he and his brother and sisters were cherished and loved.

He caught his fears before they had a chance to surface. His parents were on a midnight walk, that’s all.

At the top of the hill, he saw a faint light from a lantern coming from a hole near the side of the next slope.  He slowed his pace and went to the edge of the pit not knowing what he would see. He looked down.

He knew this pit from summertime games, but it was a place to be avoided in the winter. The walls were steep and it would be easy to slip in the snow and fall the dozen or so feet to an icy bottom. The children never went into that field after the hay was cut and the autumn leaves had fallen and the snow began to drift.

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

At the bottom of the small hole were his parents, picking fist-sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the hillside.  They had nearly filled a bucket with the chunks of black rock.  They looked up, quite surprised, and saw my father standing a few feet above them.  They looked back at each other with a sadness that was heart-breaking.  They certainly didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids, not on Christmas Eve.  They stared at each other and then up at my dad.

“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The kitchen stove is empty.  Come on down and help us get a few more lumps, will ya?”

My father was helped down and after only a few minutes his hands were black from the coal.  The bucket was filled.  They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together. My father and his father carried the bucket between them.

In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again.  My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee and the house was warmed a few degrees.  Dad kissed his mother and father and went upstairs to bed. He fell asleep, he always would say, with a smile on his face.

Twenty some years after the midnight trip to the coal pit, my parents and my two older brothers moved to Owego, New York. I was born two years later, in 1947.

. . .

When I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve.  I had not been a very good boy that day, and I was afraid.  Neither of my parents, however, had mentioned the threat that would be used to punish a child if you were naughty and not nice.

My fear left me. Father’s voice was warm and full of understanding.

“Pat,” he said, “If anyone tells you that you will get a lump of coal in your stocking if you’re not a good boy. Tell them: ‘I hope so,’ then wish them a very Merry Christmas.”

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[Artwork: Unfinished watercolor sketch by Paul Egan (Date unknown)]

The Blind Date

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[Source: Google search.]

My wife and I arrived at a popular Upper West Side restaurant about fifteen minutes before our friends.  Mariam remained by the door to wait.  The place was crowded and noisy.  We’d been here before.  It was always like that.

I made straight for the bar to get a beer and wait for our friends and a table.  We switched our reservations from 8:00 pm to 7:00.  There was some confusion.  My wife made it clear that we couldn’t  and wouldn’t wait until 8:00.

I snagged a seat at the small bar and ordered some kind of imported beer on draught.  I took a sip.  That is when I heard the woman next to me say something.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “Were you talking to me? Is the seat taken?”

“No,” she said. “I was talking to myself”.

I had the feeling she thought I was going to hit on her.  She clutched her iPhone in her right hand.

“Are you waiting for someone?”, I asked.

“Yes, he’s late.”  She turned to me and looked me full in the face.  I saw an attractive woman with just a bit too much red lipstick and too much hope in her eyes.  I took a risk and asked:

“Waiting for a date?”

“Yes,” she said.  “And he’s late.  He already cancelled once before on me claiming there was a sickness in the family.”

“So, you think you’re being ‘stood-up’?” I ventured.

“Yes.”

“How late is he?”

“He was supposed to be here at 6:45.”  I looked at my watch.  It was 6:48.

“Hey, it’s probably traffic.  His Uber didn’t arrive.  Give him a little more time.”

“How long?”

“Give him until 7:10 and then make a call or text him,” I said.

I sensed that this woman has been let down more than a few times on the blind date thing.  She even admitted that it was true.

“I have a lot to offer,” she said.  “I saw a guy for a year and a half.  He didn’t want to go anywhere, movies, opera, museums…I told him I wanted to get out and experience what New York City had to offer.”

“Good move,” I said.

She looked at me again, not avoiding direct eye contact.  “I’m sixty,” she said.  “I have a lot of living to do.”

Our party arrived and our table was ready.

“That’s my wife over there with the white jacket.  She was a former opera singer.”

“Interesting,” she said.  “I’m an opera singer too.”

I got up and took my coat off the seat.  It was a few minutes after 7:00 pm.

“It was nice talking to you,” I said as I made a move to our table.  I felt suddenly very sorry for this woman.  She wanted to have a date on this night.  She wanted a companion.  She most likely wanted a lover.  She was sixty and she said she had a lot of living to do.  I thought for an instant to ask her to join our group but realized it would be awkward for everyone.  I turned to her as I left her side.  She still clutched her iPhone.

“I hope he gets here.  I hope you have a date tonight,” I said.  She smiled.

I went to our table and settled into my chair.

“I met a most interesting woman,” I said to our friends and to Mariam.  “She was an opera singer.”

I ordered a Malbec and ate a thumb-sized piece of bread.

I looked over at the bar stool.  The woman was gone.  I glanced around the room to see it he did indeed arrive.  I didn’t find her.  She most likely went home alone again that night.  She would wipe off the red lipstick.  She would pour herself a glass of Chardonnay and sit alone…maybe watch an old movie…maybe call a friend…maybe go to sleep..she probably had a cat or a dog.  Everyone else in Manhattan seems to.  But it wasn’t a pet she was looking for that night.  It was a man.

She probably cried, alone and wishing for another chance to find someone to join her in life.

I can almost cry myself thinking about her hope that was dashed and her lonely night before her.

Actually, I did.

There are a million stories in the Naked City…and this is one of them.

 

 

 

The Snow Moon Over The Mojave

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Last night the Snow Moon rose over the Coxcomb Mountains of the Mojave Desert.  It’s the fifth full moon we have watched since our journey began

There will be one more to witness before we are home again.  Will we see the Warm Moon from where ever we will be in the third week of March?  I’ll bet a finback that it will be a cloudy night.

That’s the reason I miss so many celestial events like meteor showers, aurora and eclipses back home in the Adirondacks.  Cloud cover is a way of life when you enter the states east of the Mississippi River.

Out here, in the dry clear air of the Southwest, the skies have been spectacular.

But, my pleasure is mixed.  I feel enchanted and mystical when the full moon is lighting my night-time environment in the soft glow of paleness…like a lingering campfire or night-light that is bright enough, just enough, to illuminate a book or allow me to walk without a headlamp.

This post is celebrating the full moon, but I should be writing one, in two weeks, that speaks to the awesome and dazzling population of stars and planets that a desert sky displays on nights that are moonless.

Last night, I could barely make out the belt of Orion.  I could hardly see the Milky Way…but I could read a poem.

Last night, the giant globe passed by Jupiter (which sits near one of the feet of Leo) and rose high and proud.  The goddess Luna, was strutting her stuff and her act could make you halt in your steps and look up…look up and think sublime ideas.  Think romantic thoughts, poetic phrases and sad memories.  Sit on a rock and look up, look around you, look inside your mind and soul.  Remember someone you loved once…or still do.

I have had many conversations with Luna, the Roman goddess of the moon.  Sometimes she sends her Greek sister, Selene to sit with me and talk of melancholy things.  I’ve been reminded that I’ve been alive for approximately  825 full moons in my life…and I still don’t fully understand how the human heart works and why it’s so fragile and why the moon plays such an important role in our thoughts and beliefs.

I think I need another several hundred lunar cycles to fill in the gaps of my own nature.

“Drink in the full moon as though you might die of thirst.”

–Sanoben Khan

 

 

 

 

I Heard The Secrets Of The Grackle’s Song

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[Image: Google search]

A short time ago, perhaps a week, maybe more, I spent a few days in Austin, Texas.  We were visiting with a gentleman, William, that I had met during a writers workshop in Westport, New York in October, 2012.  He has been a good friend and faithful follower of my blogs since I began posting them.

Austin.  The home of the long-running pbs music show, Austin City Limits, the Skylark Lounge, a great blues club, a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan that stands on the banks of the Colorado River (not the Colorado River).  Arguably the most famous dance hall in Texas, The Broken Spoke, is in Austin.  It’s where I “learned” to do the Texas 2-step and when my bones and legs couldn’t keep time with the music, I could sit and sip a Lone Star beer and watch the real dudes and drug-store cowboy’s do the dance the way it should be done.  Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys played this city, while virtually inventing Texas Swing music.  A statue of Willie Nelson stands outside the theater where Austin City Limits is recorded.

Austin.  A town where the hills glow violet in the setting sun.  A vermillion hue in the afternoon sky.  And, in that afternoon sky are thousands of birds.  The Grackles of Austin.

The Grackle is considered by many to be a disease-carrying bird that is a genuine pest.  Cannons have been used to keep them from clustering in various city parks.  On my first afternoon, a late afternoon, when the sky had begun to redden, I saw black objects clinging to the power lines near the exit ramp of I-35.  I could make out that they were birds…but the numbers were staggering.  I can say one thing straight away: I have never seen such flocks of these starling-like, black-hued avians roosting on power lines in my life.  When they took flight from the trees, shrubs and high wires, they would fill the air and darken the sky.  When they moved, when they were on the wing, they moved as one.  I described this sudden turn of direction in my first novel, Standing Stone, as “one shared soul.”

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[The swarming Grackles in Waco, Texas. Image: Google search]

These are birds of legend.  To a person unfamiliar with large flocks of crow-like creatures, these looked like something that was left on the cutting-room floor after Alfred Hitchcock decided he had gone too far.

Birds of Legend?

I was familiar with the real birds of legend.  The Phoenix, rising from the ashes.  The Ibis of Ancient Egypt.  The Dove of Noah.  The Eagle of American power and might.

But, the Grackle?  What legend?  What was it about this Raven-like bird that inspired such mystery and admiration…and contempt?

It seems that in the ancient days, back in the time when even dust was old, the Grackle did not make a sound…it had no call.  It was mute.  But, birds need a song to sing…to communicate a message of warning, spread the word about where water could be found…or to call to one another, to seek a mate…to make a nest…to pass on a new generation of life.  For nothing lives forever…

The Legend begins:

In Mexico, the bird were called zantes.  In Pre-Columbian times, it has been said, the mute birds began to seek a voice. They found a Sea Turtle and the zantes stole their voice from him.  They stole the archaic song of the Sea Turtle.  That was the mystical Song of the Seven Passions.  They now had their voice…their song.

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[Image: Google search]

For eons, they have sung this most sacred of songs.  But, to the modern ear, it sounds like a common cackle.  The sound and the name stuck…hence, the Grackle.

Annoying and obtrusive to most people these days, I found myself alone in a quiet park one afternoon.  I listened to the cackling.  I listened for the song.  It began to clarify in my head.  I could make out intonation, nuance, emotion and meaning.

I began to hear the Seven Songs of Passion.

I heard LOVE…and I thought of my childhood.  My mother, my father, my brothers, my elders, my girlfriend, my lovers, my wife.  I thought of those I never knew… never knew I really loved them, and those who I never realized, once loved me.

I heard HATE…and I thought of killing in the name of God, killing those who are different, killing those who chose to love those we don’t think they have a right to love.  I thought of those killed by others who believe in another God than the One of our birth.  I thought of the death of the spirit in a child by withholding love, by hurting their tiny hearts and bodies.  I thought of those who hate because…they hate.

I heard FEAR…and I thought of a lonely snow-covered trail in the Northern Forest and the fear that I was losing a dear friend.  I recalled a phone call, and then another, followed by yet another, telling me that a parent or sibling was near death.  I thought of the fear that a woman I loved would simply walk out the door.  I thought of the fear of abandonment and the fear of being unloved.  I thought of the fear of dying, the fear of pain, the fear of being afraid.

I heard COURAGE…and I thought of the brave who have died for their beliefs, not for a flag or a symbol, but for  human dignity and the freedom from being a slave of any kind.

I heard JOY…and I thought of how I felt when my children were born.  How I love and respect my daughter, Erin and how she and her husband, Bob are raising my grandson, Elias, to be an inquisitive and curious and kind child.  I thought of how much fun I have when I sit and have a talk with my son, Brian, who is smart, witty and has the heart as big as Texas (with New Mexico and a good deal of Utah thrown in).

I heard ANGER…and I thought of the misspoken words between a married couple, between a child and a parent, between lovers, between nations, between religions, with oneself for not being able to accomplish something creative and meaningful, lasting and full of beauty.

I heard SADNESS…and I feel a billion tears from a million people crying, at a graveside for the soul of someone they will never see or touch again, at a wedding when a father says farewell to a daughter or a son, in an office when a husband or wife hears of the loss of a spouse or child in a misbegotten war, in the heart of a student when the teacher implies he or she can’t do something, in the doorway of a family home when a parent watches their child walk away into the life of adulthood, never to be a child again.  The sadness of those losses are overwhelming.

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[Source: Pinterest]

I heard all these passions from the beak of that dark bird, the Grackle.  I was overwhelmed by this ability to hear these things.  It’s too much for one person to handle.  If more people just stopped and listened to the zantes, perhaps the burden would be spread out…and lighten the load for the few who stop to listen, not just to this one bird of Austin, but to all life.

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[Image: Google Search]