The In-Betweens

Ohio leans hard enough against Pennsylvania to feel like a way station between the East Coast and the Midwestern corn belt. It’s rural and industrial (or used to be), progressive in urban centers and conservative in farm towns. Either/or, neither/nor.

When I return to Dayton I often get the feeling that I’m caught in the in-betweens. No one and no place is definitely one thing or another. As soon as I start making assumptions, I’m surprised to find their contradictions.

And I’m reminded of how it felt to be an adolescent, of hoping for and dreading the future, of knowing the things I wanted from life without knowing how to get them. I couldn’t stay a child when everything around and within pushed me into adulthood, but resented having no clear map for the journey forward.

I once became acutely depressed in my early twenties. I’d been trying out a semi-bohemian lifestyle of working at a grunt job while painting late at night. I burned the candle at both ends to see how that felt, but discovered that I had no enduring desire to drive myself into an early grave for the sake of ART. I decided to move back home and finish college, but the prospect of making the transition to a more normal life gave me a sense that old dreams had drifted away before new ones had arrived. Numbness set in as I began to close my studio and pack, and I remember that my lowest point came when I found myself watching back to back re-runs of “The Love Boat”. I couldn’t tear myself away from the reassuring spectacle of ordinary folks finding happy endings.

I suffered through another “in-between” during my first wife’s pregnancy. We’d agreed that I would stay home and take care of the baby while Judy pursued her career as a biological researcher. I’d never even babysat before and felt overwhelmed by the looming responsibilities. Judy gave me books to read, but I never picked them up. I told myself that I’d figure things out as I went along, but avoidance was my real disincentive. Annie, of course, came along anyway, and I did manage to learn how to care for her. And while I struggled with new mental and physical challenges (lack of sleep, out of balance back from walking with baby on one shoulder, bewilderment from the realization that my life no longer belonged to me), I still felt more comfortable with the actual struggle than with waiting for its arrival.

Now I’ve entered another transitional period involving religion. I became allergic to traditional Christianity in my teens when a nun assured me that “my soul would be lost” if I didn’t attend the local Catholic high school. I realized that her concern centered less upon my spiritual welfare and more upon exerting control over one of her minions. I’ve recently begun attending a Presbyterian church, and the kind influence of the pastor has moved me in the direction of renewing my faith. This sounds positive, but I’m left with that same old in-between feeling. Cynicism has become comfortable and confirmed in news reports about the Catholic Church. But I’ve discovered a group of people making a sincere effort to live in faith and feel drawn to join them. This feels odd after all these years…

I’d ask you to pray for me, but that sounds hypocritical. Maybe folks could meditate in my general direction, and we’ll see how this works out.


The Case of the Briefly Missing Daughter

Last night I sat on a hard plastic chair in an empty waiting room of a bus station. A sign near the counter in the next room told me that travelers had to report to a reception window, cash was not accepted, and no cash was kept on the premises. Another sign on the wall across from me said, “Smile, you’re on camera.” A window to the right had spider web cracks that shattered outwards from an impact crater.

I read an opening chapter from “Raven Black”, a thriller by Ann Cleeves, to pass the time while I waited for my daughter’s bus to arrive. I had just passed the point where a young woman had been found strangled in a field. Ravens pecked her eyes out. A strange man who lived in a crooked shack at the top of a nearby hill had been implicated in the disappearance of a girl twenty years before. The locals suspected that he had been at it once again. The victim’s father visited the woman who had found the body as he couldn’t face coming home to an empty house. Police had begun to interview the dead girl’s friends and associates.

Two guys emerged from behind the bus station counter and exited. I followed them to a nearby parking lot and saw a double decker bus pull up. A few passengers straggled off, but my daughter wasn’t among them. I checked the sign on the bus, and it said “Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Orlando”. Annie’s route. Annie’s bus. No Annie.

I wandered back toward the bus station thinking that she might have slipped by me. Perhaps she waited for me inside the bus station. Perhaps… Scenes from the novel danced in my head, and lightning flashed in a distant thunderhead. Dark figures crossed the nearly deserted lot.

.A second bus rumbled up to the disembarkation zone. This one was full, and the countermen took several minutes to unload luggage. Annie appeared at the exit door near the driver, and I smiled and waved.

Ravens, if any lurked about, would have to go hungry that night.

*I once gave my wife Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to read on a bus trip (I stayed behind). She called the next morning to yell at me as the story is about a road trip that goes horribly awry (a family gets waylaid, shot and executed by an escaped killer). I finally got my karmic payback 30 years later.

Dollar Store Funeral Home

We dressed in our best clothes and drove slowly to a funeral home on Wayne Avenue. The two-story Victorian mansion loomed over the manicured grounds, and the prospect of seeing my dead grandmother lying in her coffin became eerier. The heavy curtains, dim lights and hushed atmosphere inside confirmed my fears. A door off a half hidden side hall could have easily led to a basement crypt worthy of a tale from Edgar Allen Poe.

My sister chose a more modern looking establishment for her funeral. The parlor could have passed itself off as a small business office, but it sat on an isolated lot. Dire function dictated location. The carpeted halls, floral wallpaper, innocuous paintings and flower arrangements reminded me of a modern hotel striving and failing to create a sense of old fashioned hominess. I found myself longing for the muted Addams Family creepiness of the Wayne Avenue home. Victorian gloom fit better with the utter strangeness of saying good bye to a body that once belonged an athlete, a tough chick, a loving mom.

Today I passed by a strip mall in southeastern Orlando. I saw a cut-rate funeral parlor on a site cheek to jowl with a Dollar General. A McDonald’s, a Goodyear Tire Store and a chiropractor’s office sat on lots just down the road. I got the impression that buying fast food, a tire rotation, and therapy for a kinked back could be items on an itinerary that included sending Aunt JoJo into the Great Beyond.

Death, of course, is a part of life, but we may have slipped a bit in honoring the momentous nature of the occasion.

Gray Yesterday

It was gray yesterday and the day before. I looked out the window into early foggy light, and a wave of nostalgia flooded through me. I saw myself in downtown Dayton with red brick factories around me and lowering skies above, and I could almost smell the combined scent of hot popcorn and diesel fumes, the aroma of the Gem City’s urban core. I might as well have been standing at the corner of Third and Main waiting for a bus. Hello, Morning Depression.

But my wife and I had a pleasant chat over breakfast, and I drove to work in what I thought was a good mood. However, I found myself offering sarcastic advice to drivers around me: “Choose a lane. It’ll be all right once you finally pick one…Oh please cut in front of me so that you can beat me to the next red light. There you go. You won!”

My door wouldn’t close after I parked at work, and I tried to free the seatbelt from the latch while juggling my coffee and supply bag. Spilled coffee on my shirt, pants and bag and said, “Shiiiiit.” I looked inside the bag and found partially sopped class hand outs.

My boss handed me a cup of fresh brewed coffee and offered lemon cakes left over from the last opening. Sugar, caffeine and kindness lifted my mood, but my demo drawing went fast and faster as I burned off the remnants of irritation. My students worked happily and made good progress, and I felt almost cheerful as I packed up to go.

Stopped at the Publix next door to buy our weekly groceries. I reveled in the luxury of not having to thread my way through an obstacle course on each aisle. Mondays afford excellent opportunities to shop in near isolation.

The bagger at the check-out made a comment about winter weather, and I said, “It’s been so gray the last few days that I’m having Pennsylvania flashbacks.”

The cashier jumped in and said, “Oh my God. I used to live in northeastern Pennsylvania right after I got married. Every winter it turned gray and ugly, and I got so depressed. I began to wonder why my husband had moved me there (Did he really love me?), but one day he came home and asked how fast I could pack if he took a promotion that would move us back down south. I immediately pulled out a suitcase, stuffed in a few clothes for me and the baby, packed my toothbrush and a leash for the dog, and said, “I’m ready!”

Quaker Meeting: “I feel the presence of God descending.”

Alapocas Friends Meeting, graphite.

Judy and I sat on padded, upright chairs in a school library. We had joined six other people to form a circle in the dimly lit room. Some stared at the floor; others closed their eyes and frowned; one older man gently snored. The grandfather clock on a near wall ticked, and branches occasionally scraped against the windows.

A fellow next to me said, “I feel the presence of God descending upon us.” I felt nothing but boredom and an urge to massage my neck. I saw that his face had settled into a look of peace as if his mind had become immersed in a field of joy.

I envied the man and wondered if going to a Quaker meeting had been a mistake. My spiritual life hadn’t advanced far enough to give me a sense God in any form. Was I qualified to worship with them? Then I decided that the man’s declaration was evidence of a self-induced delusion.

I went back the next week, however, and sat in the circle. I stared at a rhombus of light on the carpet in front of me. Dick snored and the clock ticked. A sparrow chirped in the bushes outside the window. I started to nod off.

Then a sensation of falling deeper into the silence made me close my eyes. A loving, still, peaceful presence filled my mind. I could recall nothing like this from my short time of practicing meditation. I wondered, “Is this God?”

Ducklings at the Dam

My wife and I moved to Wilmington, Delaware six months after our wedding. Judy worked at Dupont’s Experimental Station. Armed guards at the entrance only raised the gate after closely inspecting employee IDs. They also conducted spot searches of cars leaving the grounds. A tall fence topped by barbed wire surrounded the compound of brick buildings. White precipitates billowed out of tall chimneys and fell in soft flakes like snow. The company posted “No Smoking” signs everywhere–flammable and explosive experiments were underway.

Angry, status obsessed and pointlessly aggressive people dominated the city, and hostile encounters while driving, shopping, and dealing with service desk clerks became part of our weekly routine. Judy and I escaped whenever possible to a nature preserve or park.

We drove one day to a strip of woods on the outskirts of town. The Brandywine River divided the park in half, and we found a spot to rest along a bank near the edge of a low dam. A flock of ducks escorted a small group of ducklings as they floated down the stream toward us. They came to a stop at the edge of the dam.

The ducks and drakes dipped over one by one, fell two feet, disappeared underwater, and popped up four feet downstream. They turned to the ducklings, flapped their wings and quacked. “Follow us!” they seemed to say.

Four out of the five ducklings complied. They hesitated, swam back and forth along the edge, but soon took the plunge. But one couldn’t muster enough courage. He swam in circles near the edge, came close to taking the dive, but backed off at the last second each time.

The flock squawked, quacked and flapped at the lone duckling, but Junior wanted no part. One duck flew back, demonstrated the task once more, but the stubborn duckling refused to budge.

The ducks and drakes resorted to tough love: they turned their backs on the last duckling and swam downriver. Junior swam in faster and faster circles as the flock drew farther and farther away. When fear of abandonment exceeded fear of drowning, he finally tipped over the edge.

When he resurfaced, he found himself once again in good company. The flock rushed back to greet him with quacks and wing flaps, and the little guy swam along with his head held high as they resumed their journey down the Brandywine River.

Judy left Dupont a year later and took a post doc position at Penn State. I stayed in Delaware to finish my second year of grad school. We met on weekends and phoned every day. Our acquaintances warned us that our marriage would suffer from the separation, but we took the risk and did our best.

We faced many tough decisions in the next few years and sometimes hesitated before making a move. But we knew in the end that there are times when we had to take a plunge while hoping that we would pop up safe and sound on the other side.

Judy and I made difficult decisions over the next few years. We chose to spend nine months apart while I finished my degree. We began a family during uncertain financial times. We bought a house before Judy had qualified for tenure as a professor at Rollins College. We knew the risks and the

Abstract and Personal

I spent the day drawing abstractions using combinations of letters from my name and grid lines. The drawings progressed from left to right on the top row, then from right to left on the bottom row.

I woke up in a slightly depressed mood, but felt lighter and happier as the day moved forward. The drawings unintentionally reflect the gradual transformation from gloom to playfulness.

I’m going to use these examples in an abstract drawing class that starts on Wednesday. I’ll talk about the way shapes and patterns can be developed from simple sources to represent emotional states, thoughts and memories. I’m going to show examples from Paul Klee, August Macke, Wassily Kandinsky and Thomas Nozkowski. They believe(d) that shapes, lines and colors can be used like musical tones, rhythms and harmonies to communicate.

I may bring my baritone ukulele and strum a few major, minor and seventh chords to illustrate the point that each musical arrangement evokes a different range of feeling.