Try not to Try too Hard

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Big Sam’s

If James Taylor is right and the “Secret of life is enjoying the passing of time,” then I nailed it this morning. I woke early and walked along the beach well before sunrise, when the tone of the sky moves through myriad shades of blue before some strip of amber appears. Then the sun. 

I walked a while watching pelicans glide inches above the still surface and osprey move from water to rooftops with small fish in their claws. Only a few dolphins surfaced on their way south following some school of fish. The hotels along this coast are crowded again, but not so much at this hour of dawn when early risers like me head out to run or walk along the boardwalk. A garbage truck moved up the sand emptying cans, and two men walked along side.

I walked up Fifth Street to the inlet behind the fishing and tour boats to eat at a small favorite place of mine, Big Sam’s. It is frequented by the crews just back or not yet out to sea, and some locals who know, and also, every once in a while, by some tourists made aware by an attentive desk clerk. This morning I had scrambled eggs with peppers and tomatoes with a soft-shell crab on the side. By the time I started my coffee I’d already been up three hours. That’s a good morning. That’s how I like time to pass—no collusion with anyone.

The staff had the presence of mind to put sports on the televisions and music on the speakers, so I sat without speculations and commentaries. Where’s my cardiologist with his blood-pressure pump at moments like this?

Not everyone is aware of the stresses of others, what preoccupies them, no matter how absent of worry they might appear from afar. Depression is easily disguised, anxiety is a silent companion. So when people seem at peace, seem untethered by the concerns of a plugged-in world, they may actually be in despair. Or, more likely, feel some indefinable uneasiness in their stomach, something like the beginning of a stomach bug, only it’s not, and they can’t explain what it is and they can’t make it go away. The world, as has been pointed out so many times, is often too much with us.

When I sit and stare through the windows at Big Sam’s to the boats and docks and jet ski’s and morning flock, I have taught myself a brief but most effective game: What can I focus on right now to make my world spin smoothly? There are times when I need to be planning or thinking of other issues—when I walk I am often writing or editing in my mind, and when I’m settling in for the night watching a show or reading, I try and catch up on my accounting and make a list for the next day. I’m getting better at scheduling my brain’s activities so that I don’t need to worry about anything when I’m not on the clock. I love lists. It makes it easier for me to know that when I’m not doing something I don’t need to be doing something or worried even if I should be doing anything. A quick glance at my day’s list tells me if I’m neglecting something important. It relaxes me to have a list and follow it.

There’s more though. I’ve spent too much time around people and in situations which caused me to believe something was way more important than it needed to be. The news does this. Not that issues flooding the broadcasts, newsfeeds, and personal conversations aren’t important, but it is all too easy to blow their importance to our lives and our anxiety and our worry out of proportion. There is only so much I need to know, so much I can possibly do. Staying up to date on the daily shortcomings of government and the inconceivable loss of life and culture and possibility in the world is very different than the saturation which occurs. I am teaching myself balance. I was never very good at balance. And now, if I’m going to err at all, I’ve decided it is in my best interest to err in the direction of Big Sam’s.

My mother worries too much. My father, if he worried at all, certainly didn’t show it. My son has not yet learned to worry about anything. We all know that worry can be healthy—a way of precaution, a device to keep ourselves aware of our surroundings. We also know it can be debilitating. It can even cause some unfortunate souls to hibernate, to withdraw, but they’re in grave danger of “reaching the point of death only to find out” they “never really lived at all.”

And so it comes back to the simple decree, “The secret of life is enjoying the passing of time.” This morning when the sun was clearly about to rise, I noticed something interesting: the moments seemed to pass in slow motion. I mean they actually felt like the huge second hand on the wall was taking its time in some dramatic fashion. I waited as the light blue moved to pale yellow and the sun was, according to my free app, supposed to break the horizon, and it…just….was…not…happening…so slow. So so slow.

And then it did, and it felt very much like I earned it. I was focused only on the sun rising—nothing else, and that sunrise slowed down enough for me to completely absorb its perpetual drift.

Then I had a softshell crab and eggs because such patience should be rewarded.

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I saw two bumper stickers this week which have the unique quality of being both funny and poignant. The first said, “My dog ate your stick family,” and the second–a line of a stick family of four with a dog–said, “Everybody hates your stick family.”

It’s all true and it’s all disturbing. Everyone needs to know the problem with the entire family’s names plastered on the back window of the Suburban.

But first, of course, a story:

A colleague and I were at a Starbucks some years ago sitting at a table against the window. Just outside was a parking spot and a car pulled in. As the young woman got out of her car to come in I said to my friend, “I’ll bet you ten dollars the next person in this place is named Anna.”

“You know her.”

“No, I don’t.”

“You planned this.”

“With God as my witness I’ve never seen her before, didn’t plan this and have no prior knowledge of this person even coming here.”

Anna got in line. I called to her, “Hey Anna!” She came over–right over, I mean inches from me, and smiled.

“Do I know you?” she asked.

“You’re Anna, aren’t you?”

“Yes!” She looked for a chair to pull up. Unbelievable. “How do you know me?”

“I don’t. Your license plate says “Anna 95. It was either you or maybe your daughter.” The three of us looked at the car.

Then I told them this story. My Uncle Tom Burton was a sheriff in Florida for some years and he told me once of how high the crime rate was because of names on the outsides of mailboxes and the then-brand-new practice of vanity plates. “A young woman could be in a parking lot at night, and some psycho sees her plates and calls to her. Of course she is going to wait–we don’t think of our plates that quickly, and suddenly she’s taken somewhere or carjacked or killed.”

Anna took a step back. “Wow! I’m going to DMV today and changing my plates!” Good, I said. My friend asked if I was on a mission, if I was going to drive from coffee shop to coffee shop to spread the word. I laughed but said I was surprised the DMV doesn’t have some sort of warning about such plates. It seems irresponsible. They’re more concerned about a plate that says, “N S Wipe” or “420 Weed,” both plates rejected by their screeners, than a sixteen year old ordering a plate with “Briana” on it.

And then we have those stick figures, many of which have the kids names under the little ridiculous kid figure, just to the left of the dog, also with a name. I mean, come on! You put your kid’s names on your window?! Then some psycho walks up to you at Target already knowing their names and ready to role play.  Scrape those names now  

We do an awful lot of crying out in the darkness, don’t we? We want people to know we are here, we exist, we are happy (or not), motivated, in love (or not), on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, car windows, t-shirts…everyone is vying for a few moments of attention, and, truthfully, attention feels good. It can be reassuring, it can be uplifting. I want attention for the work I do, as does any writer, any artist. I hope the attention I seek is for the work and not for me personally–I would rather put a sticker of my books in the window than my family, especially since my dog died years ago and they probably don’t make a sticker for that.

But the problem is real. Young people on Instagram and Facebook enjoy attention from strangers; parents want their children to be popular, and newbie drivers, etc, want everyone they know to know it is their car. So she puts Anna on the plate and drives off hoping someone notices.

Someone did.  “Hey Anna!” I called out with a smile, like I knew her years ago and was excited to see her again. She came right over–not one second of hesitation. I hope she wouldn’t have done that in a garage or parking lot–she was relatively safe in the confines of a Starbucks. So I asked her, and she said, “Honestly, yes! I probably would have come right over to you! I wasn’t thinking! I thought we were old friends!” I’m glad she changed her plate.

Bob the Vanity Plate Buster strikes again

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The Land of Hopes and Dreams

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A new caravan of migrants is walking from Honduras to the US/Mexican border. Walking. Women and children and men are walking from the Honduran border to the US border, a distance of about 1600 miles. That’s like walking from New York City to Houston, Texas.

The vast majority of them, just about 99 percent, have no criminal background. Part of that is because the vast majority of them are children, but those left are laborers, agricultural workers, and more. Their jobs have been threatened by local Honduran cartels who force out or kill anyone not willing to work for them. These people are scared, and they’re determined to provide a better opportunity for their families, a better education, leaving home with only what they can carry or drag or are willing to abandon along the way to maybe–maybe–have a chance in the United States, because they already know they don’t have a chance in their native land. They’re walking across mountains, a desert, with hardly any food or water, risking the lives of their children to avoid the death sentence pretty much guaranteed in their homeland.

Their determination to literally cross barriers and risk separation, and even life, is a trait that carries them through the hardships of this journey. It isn’t unlike those fleeing Nazi Germany, fleeing Bosnia, fleeing starvation in Ireland, fleeing religious persecution in England, and on and on. The overwhelming majority of these starving, tired, battered souls are seeking something other than, better than, oppression and servitude.

Why aren’t we sending buses down there to get them and bring them here? What work force wouldn’t thrive on a population of people with such integrity and determination, who have clearly proven they would rather die than turn to a life of crime–if that weren’t true they’d stay home and move up the ranks of some cartel.

I have always been proud of most of my students, proud of their efforts to find their way in life. But they–we–could stand to learn from those whose sacrifices to better themselves can’t be compared to the so-called struggles we face on a day to day basis. Their pilgrimage to this sacred place–a journey three times longer than the Camino de Santiago from France to Spain–has taught them to carry humility, sacrifice, determination, compassion, and hope. Why wouldn’t we–my God I hope this is taken as rhetorical since it is so obvious–why would we not want them in our classrooms and workplaces as examples? There is nothing lazy about these people. If they wanted a lucrative life of crime they could have just stayed home.

This country has always benefited from immigration. In every study conducted by everyone from the NY Times to Gallop to CNN and even Fox, crime rates have dropped in cities where the most immigrants settled, the overwhelmingly largest percentage of drugs comes through recognized DHS check points, not across illegal crossing sections of the border, and the primary occupation sought by those fleeing crime and murder in their homeland is agriculture–jobs simply not sought by US citizens.

We should be setting up job fairs for these people, not jail cells. We should find housing and extended family and help them get settled as quickly as possible–there’s work to be done.

And I’d love to sit in the back of the classroom sometime while a student who might have crossed the 1600 miles from the Honduran border to the US border talked about what it was like, how the family survived, what dreams were they chasing, and what’s next. We could all learn from such fortitude, such determination, such hope.

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