Cake and Ice Cream

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There’s a party in the next life,
but not all will get an invite.
That’s what a man with stacks of pamphlets loudly told me.

He was standing on the corner.
Asked, “Would you like to be reborn, sir?”
Then he began to castigate and sharply scold me.

He told me I’m a sinner,
but I could end my life a winner
if I’d just agree to ditch all my worldly ways.

There’s a land of gold and honey
and another not so sunny.
He urged I make my choice before we meet the end of days.

When he described a lake of fire,
I felt I must inquire
how the honey could be expected to taste so sweet?

With all those people burning,
would the others not be yearning
to give water to those suffering from the never ending heat?

Would they all eat cake and ice cream
while listening to the crowd scream?
If so, I’m afraid I’ll have to “lose” the invitation.

Or I’ll have to RSVP,
“Sorry. This one’s not for me.
Sounds far too much like daily life in pick your nation.”

Unlocked

lock

Found a key
on the floor
of the attic,
then started searching
from the rooftop’s shingles
to the basement
where I found
not a thing.

Out the door
into the yard,
there I ran
in twisted circles
around the fenced green world
of my home,
but I found
not a thing.

Kicked the gate,
swung it open,
hit the sidewalk
with a skeleton key
in my left front pants pocket,
walked through town,
and I found
not a thing.

Every key
has a lock.
Every answer
must surely have
a question waiting to be asked.
So I stood
by the road,
hitched a ride.

Walked the coasts,
crossed the land
with the key
‘tween thumb and finger
and a hope for chance discovery
of that lock,
if there was
such a thing.

Took a plane,
searched the globe
for that sweet
and simple click sound
a mystery just released makes.
A billion locks,
a single key,
not a thing.

In the end,
I decided,
there are keys
just meant for trying.
They’ll take you everywhere, show
you everything,
while they open
not a thing.

The Steps

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I think I’d like to dance with you,
but I never learned the steps.
I can feel the rhythm.
I know how to flail and twist.
But I’ve never been shown where the elbows go
or how to use my soles
to count to seven then step,
back, two, three, four…

It’s hard to see what’s right in front of you
when you’re clinging to a melody
not sure of what comes next.

Everything’s so precarious.
One slip and you’re tumbling through space and time to the dance floor far below.

But you seem to know where you’re going and I think I’d like to go there too. And I could, I believe, with my elbows raised,and my toes pointed, and my eyes wide open and watching as you slowly show me the steps.

26th and Main

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I found happiness hidden inside a discarded box I pulled out of a trash can on the corner of 26th and Main.

Someone must have tossed it there with a casual flick of the wrist as they made their way to the train station.

Happiness wasn’t at all what I’d expected. It was mottled, scratched, and dented; fashioned out of bits of wood, old watch parts, and scraps of aluminum and tin; and the whole thing was held together with electrical tape and string.

I had no idea how to use it, and I almost threw it back in again, but then how many times had I already done that, I asked.

I’ve been carrying it in my pocket and a few times every day I take it out and look at it. No instruction manual. No touch screen. No money back guarantee. Just a small engraving on the bottom written in block letters as if labeled by a child.

“Look around,” it says. Sometimes that’s precisely what I do.

The Last Gift I Gave My Father

dad and me

Shortly before he passed away, my father came to see me play the part of Schroeder in a community theatre production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

It’s a night (and a lesson) I’ll never forget.

My Father Laughed at Me (and I loved it)

I can still see him sitting there beside my mother in the front row. His skin was pale. His frame was lean. He looked so tired and weak. Just months before, he’d been diagnosed with Leukemia, a thing that seemed intent on doing what it came to do in a quick and merciless manner.

But what I remember most about that night was the sound of his laughter. From the stage and all through the performance, I could hear him chuckling and giggling in a way I hadn’t heard him do in quite some time. It was the laugh I’d always loved, and on that night, it was the sweetest sound I’d ever heard.

It was, however, a fluke that I was even in the play. I hadn’t pursued the role, or any other role, or much of anything else I cared about since high school. Long ago, I’d put such things away in order to become practical.

Who I Used to Be

Yes, when I was a small boy, I made my first trip to a movie theatre, saw Tom Thumb, and insisted on reenacting it for a string of hapless babysitters.

Yes, after receiving a cassette recorder for my eighth Christmas, I used it to produce a series of little radio plays I wrote.

Yes, when I was in the fifth grade, I saw my first live play, went home, and immediately wrote my own, one my classmates and I performed for our Home and School Christmas program.

Yes, I went on to write dozens of sketches, stories, poems, and plays; become a member of my high school drama club; and even win a few awards.

But that was all just grade school and high school stuff. Life’s a ball and then you grow up. You get a degree. You get a job. You get real.

Who I Tried to Become

You see, I was going to be the first in my family to attend college and I took that pretty seriously. I wanted to make everyone proud. Especially my father.

I thought I couldn’t afford to waste my time on things I loved. They seemed so silly, trivial, and impractical. Sure, the university offered degrees in things like English and Theatre, but come on. I had to earn a living.

No one I knew made their living writing stories or poems or plays, and the town in which I was raised contained no actors or artists, at least not any that I knew of or that anyone paid attention to. So I took stock of my more practical skills, like math. I’d heard somewhere (Okay, more like everywhere) that engineers made good money and were in high demand, and I headed in that direction.

I boxed up all the silly stuff, writing and acting and goofing about, and threw it in an attic somewhere. I shut the door. I moved on.

Getting Down, Down, Down to Business

And almost immediately, the sadness set in. The sadness became listlessness. The listlessness became depression. The depression became constant.

Unhappy with engineering, I tried computer science, another respectable and profitable career path. Same results. I tried accounting, did really well in my classes, and even received an additional scholarship. More sadness. Every day, as I walked across campus, I’d glance sideways at the English building, but I’d already completed the required writing and literature courses, courses I loved but considered a mere distraction.

In those courses and all the others in which I was given writing assignments, I’d hear the same thing. “You’re a very good writer, you know,” my professors would say, and they’d often point to my work as an example for my classmates.

But I wouldn’t listen. I was out to make my father proud, and to me that had nothing to do with the things I loved.

Moving On and Further Downward

I eventually settled on a marketing major in order to settle on something, anything, get the hell out of there, and get a job. Maybe then, I thought, I could find a way to prove I had something on the ball. But the job world wasn’t much different. I worked hard, received a lot of praise and a few awards and promotions, but never felt at home. The depression only grew larger and darker, and just as I’d done in college, I drifted from one thing to another while feeling lost.

The Me My Family Never Knew

Somehow, in the midst of all that, I got married and had kids. I had a great family, but I still couldn’t shake the blues. I knew I was not the person I once was, and it struck me that the people in my home, the ones I loved the most, had no idea that such a person had ever even existed.

In fact, when a friend of mine paid a visit and showed some old video tapes of me acting and performing in skits and plays and amateur movies my friends and I had made, my wife at the time looked at me as if she had no idea who she married.
“I’ve never seen that side of you,” she said, “I love it.”

But I was still busy struggling and straining to be practical and failing miserably at it. The only practical thing I was succeeding at was feeling practically dead inside and exhausting those who cared about me.

Saying Yes for a Change

Then came my father’s Leukemia. My attempts to make him proud, in the way I thought I should, weren’t really panning out, and the time to do so was slipping away. Life had not gone as planned.

I think that’s why I agreed to do the play. It reminded me of better days, days when my friends and I had fun, and it had been a long, long time since I’d allowed myself to do anything that sounded like fun.

My friend Jennifer had called to see if I’d be interested. The theatre group was shy one actor.

“Umm, a musical?” I asked.

“Uh-huh,” she said.

There were reasons to say no. I was in my thirties and it had been fifteen years or more since I’d done any acting. I’d never been in a musical. Whatever singing voice I might have once had (I actually sang in a few weddings when I was younger) had been ground down by the cigarettes I smoked to escape my restlessness.

And it was community theatre, something many people regarded as the K-mart of the performing arts and the last bastion of ridiculous, wannabe actors. We would be a bunch of goofy people having a goofy time doing a goofy thing.

“Okay,” I said.

It was a blast. The people involved in the production were smart, warm, supportive, and fun. The practices were an escape from my troubles and depression. I felt alive. I felt happy. I felt a lot like the person I used to be.

We did three performances. Friends came, my wife and the kids came, and on a Saturday night, my parents came. They all laughed, but no one laughed as hard as my father did.

My Father’s Delight

Oh, how he laughed, and I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Back stage, the others grinned and remarked how much he seemed to be enjoying himself.

Afterward, when it came time to go out and greet the audience, a few of the other cast members and I made our way to the front row. My dad was there, smiling like a big kid, working to rise from his seat. When he stood, he embraced me.
He shook his head, looked at us through watery eyes, and said, “I just want you to know you sure made an old man happy tonight. I haven’t laughed that hard in a very long time, and I really needed something to laugh about.”

My new friends and I had made an old man, my old man, happy, and we’d done it by doing something that made us happy.

What a Little Joy Can Do

I wondered how much happier I could have made him through the years if I had simply followed my heart and pursued the things I loved. I wondered how much joy I could bring to everyone I love, if I just did things that brought me joy too.

I don’t know if I always made my father proud, or if that even mattered. What I do know for certain, however, is that one night, a night when he and I both needed it most, I made him laugh, and that makes me proud.

In a few short months after that night, my father passed away. The last gift I ever gave to him, it turns out, was a gift I gave by simply using my own.

That’s why you absolutely, positively have to share your gifts. And I’m not talking about the the respectable, admirable, or sensible ones. I’m talking about the ones that make you giddy, the ones that make you feel like you might be floating.

You have a gift like that, something you love, something you enjoy, something that lights you up inside. Those are the gifts you have to share because you have a need to share them, and because there’s someone out there who has a need to receive them. And that’s really the only thing this trip called life is all about.

The Immortal Bach

a beginning…

A soft voice on the radio informed me I was listening to the immortal Bach. Then she played some Mozart like what she’d just said wasn’t at all fantastic.

My sense of time has never been keen. Hours go by like seconds, a minute can seem like a week, but I could have sworn Bach died hundreds of years ago. To find out the man was immortal? I was completely blown away.

Where was he? What was he doing with his life that never ends? What would anyone do with all that time?

I’m no expert, but I have listened to a lot of classical music. That and film scores are always in the background when I’m working, so I think I would have heard if he’d written anything new in the last three centuries.

Half the Beatles were gone. Freddy Mercury, Billy Holliday, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and many more of my favorite musical legends had passed on. Bill Withers had died just that year. But Bach, by the report, still remained.

Spin never talked about it. Rolling Stone never did a piece. The guy had never been honored with a lifetime achievement ceremony on any of the award shows.

Was I, I wondered, the only person who wasn’t aware one of the greatest composers in the history of music was still among us but apparently living underground like a musical Salman Rushdie? Was I the only one who cared?

It was irrelevant, I decided. Even if I was the last to learn and the only one interested, I was going to find some answers. No. Scratch that. I was going to find Bach, the Immortal Bach, and I was going to convince him to make music again…

What She Did Was

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What she did was is she would look around and make sure no one was watching, then she’d take off running. At full speed she’d pump everything, her knees and elbows, her hands loose like mittens on a string threaded through coat sleeves she never bothered to slip over her fingers. It was all flop, flail, fly.

She made pebbles and birds fly, too. She made the sun chase after her and search for her beneath the tree leaves.

One day she attacked a hill head on, and, in her heart, she won.

So what she did then was she danced right there on the peak. She twirled her arms and hopped on one foot and then the other. On that day at that moment, if anyone was watching, she just didn’t care, so what she did was she called out to all the birds and told them to come on back. And hurry.