Zensights provides a space for gentle contemplation in a world filled with hectic action and stressed-out situations.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Sign of the Times

Find a penny pick it up
And then all day you’ll have good luck.
Ancient Proverb

Walking is not only good exercise, it can be lucrative. Other than running around after my three year old granddaughter, walking is my major form of exercise. I have a two-mile course through my neighborhood, and my walking adventures afford me good muscle tone, a calmness for thinking clearly, and a full piggy bank.

I am not particularly superstitious, but it is hard for me not to pick up abandoned currency. Whenever I see a round glint on the pavement, I can’t help but bend down to check it out. So far, I have collected about $12.97 in the three years I have been actively seeking good health. To be honest, ten dollars of my treasure came when I found a frayed $10 bill flapping in the gutter of a vacant house. The rest of my stash, however, is made up of lackluster nickels, quarters, dimes, and pennies.

At first, the occasional lost coin didn’t seem extraordinary, but then I realized every time I walked, I netted at least a penny, and sometimes much more. Sadly, as the financial climate in America started to deteriorate, so did the number of lost coins and errant $10 bills. I have gone on a month’s worth of walks now and have found only one penny. It was so blackened with tarnish, I thought it had actually been lost much earlier and only recently been unearthed during our hurricane season.

The drought of lost money started me wondering. Could these hard economic times be the reason? As the bear market snarls and snaps at us, are we clinging to the tiniest piece of change in our pockets? Maybe this is not such a bad thing.

My grandmother Irene lived through the Depression, and her “waste not, want not” attitude carried her successfully into the 90s. She reused Mason jars and bread bags. She saved foil and rubber bands, and she squeezed every penny from her paycheck so the church got her tithe and her savings account grew. She knew exactly how many pennies she had in her purse, and I can’t imagine her letting even one of them slip through her fingers to lie in a gutter somewhere.

She was exceedingly thrifty. When her husband died, she sold their house, paid off what was left of the mortgage, put her money in savings, and then took a job as the house mother at the ATO Fraternity of Drake University. For many years she was paid to live there rent free as long as she provided good council to the young men in the frat house. When she was quite old, she even made a quilt from the abandoned ties left by her fraternity sons. Imagine the brilliance of such a crazy quilt! It is one of my most prized possessions. My grandmother never let things go to waste.

But her thriftiness did not mean she loved money or she would do anything to keep it. She simply respected money and knew if a person took care of the finances—that you bought things when you actually had the money to do so—then there would be money later when you needed it. As a result of her sound fiscal policies, she could be generous.

I almost cried at my 35th birthday party when she sent me a $5 bill in my birthday card. Aside from the fact she couldn’t let go of my childhood, she was never going to let me go without the little things. She even left enough money when she died to give each of her 6 grandchildren $250 apiece. What a treasure she was!

Sub-prime loan defaults, credit card debt skyrocketing, and bail-outs would surely have had my grandmother in a tizzy, especially after what she went through to survive the Depression. She would never have let a $10 bill get away from her and into the streets. Instead, she would have stretched that money into a pantry full of canned summer produce. Her pennies mounted up until she could buy what she wanted. And what she didn’t spend, she saved for a rainy day, which is what we have now.

I hate to think we Americans were once so blasé about our fortunes that our bulging pockets couldn’t contain all our coins. Our opulent mentality—one where people feel an indefinite flow of cash is always to be had—is probably what has now gotten us into trouble. Maybe if we had been a little less loose-fisted with our small monies, we might have more big money to show for it now.

I also hate to think we need hard times to provide us with an appreciation of the little things—things as lowly as pennies. Maybe the lessons which I learned from my grandmother will now be taught by economic turmoil, when all we should have done was respect the small change. It eventually makes a fortune. We should not take our money for granted nor should we let it fall from our pockets for others to pick up as they exercise.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Wonders of Beaches

Every time I go to Vilano Beach, near St. Augustine, Florida, for my summer vacation, I am amazed by the things I get to see. Magnificent sunrises, powerful storms, and all manner of wild life. This year held many new things for me to see.

First, I got to see the porpoise. We were enjoying the swells of Hurricane Bertha. Perfectly formed waves rolled in for three days when we realized that the porpoise seemed to enjoy the waves as much as all the surfers. We observed from our deck vantage point a pod of porpoise one afternoon which frolicked along side of the surfers and swimmers. The porpoise often cleared the water as they surfed down the face of the waves next to their human counterparts--one little porpoise, maybe a juvenile, coming completely out of the water and turning a complete flip. Amazing!

Next, I saw evidence of sea turtles. We were graced by sea turtles coming up on the beach at night and attempting to lay their eggs. Their tracks were visible in the early morning light on two separate occasions. No nests were actually made on our beach, since the turtle tracks turned and went back to the sea before any nest was dug in the sand. Something had scared them back, we can only suppose. The turtle patrol told us that they had found nests farther down the beach, so hopefully, many little turtles will spill out of their confines in the 45 to 75 days that it takes for them to incubate.

I also got to see many sharks--the most impressive was what a fisherman friend of mine called a Spinning Shark. This shark was many yards out from shore, and it jumped high out of the water and spun around violently three times, almost as if it were a marlin caught by a deep sea fishing boat. No boats were anywhere so, this dance was spontaneous and not caused by man. Awesome!

I also saw many kinds of birds. There were crows, gulls, sandpipers, and my favorite, the pelicans. I loved how they would glide down the face of the waves with one wingtip nearly touching the crest of the waves as they coasted on the updrafts of the winds. Theirs was a graceful motion that played itself out time and time again as our vacation slipped by. I could watch the pelicans all day and did as I fished the surf for whiting and pompano.

I am home now. My fish are cleaned and frozen in the freezer, and even though I am already missing the sea breezes and salty air, I know that this wonderful place with many things to observe awaits my return next summer. My memories will keep me warm when the winter winds blow. All I have to do is defrost some fillets, make a great dinner, and relive all my summer observations with each bite I take. I love the wonders of beaches.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Lesson of the Bunny

The beauty of the morning scenery was making my exercise walk bearable—even wonderful. The health trail was near the campus of Epworth-by-the-Sea on St. Simons Island, Georgia, where I was part of the faculty of the 2008 Southeastern Writers Conference. The path winded its way through lush foliage and sun-streaked air. I was entertained by mockingbirds and blue jays and a hidden sprinkler system that came on when one least expected it. But, the very best part was the bunny.

On my first morning walk, the little, dark brown entity darted across my path, startling me until I realized I was not in danger. I watched as the underbrush enclosed the little fellow and trembled as he skittered away. I felt blessed, actually, to have witnessed such a rare thing, and as I hurried along on my walk, I was uplifted.

The next morning, before I even entered the health trail, I saw a brown smudge near the edge of the road, which I thought was a clump of Spanish moss. As I got closer, I realized that there were two large ears sticking out of the mass, and I snapped my camera capturing the bunny in his statue like pose. The flash sent him rushing into the forest, but again I felt wonderful for having been able to see such a thing.

By the third morning, I was certain that I would not be so lucky as to get a third look at the bunny, but I was wrong. I was about halfway through my course when I saw a slight movement in the foliage to my left. Looking over, I saw a little brown rabbit blending almost perfectly into the sunlight and shadow of the plants. I took many pictures, and he didn’t budge. Even when the sprinkler sprayed over us, we both stared at the other waiting for the other to move. I was the one to move first. I had to go to my next class, and he had more foraging to do, I suppose.

I was buoyed up by my encounters with the rabbit(s). I was grateful to be allowed to witness something so precious in a time when little blessings go unappreciated in my life all the time. The lesson of the bunny is—I must slow my life down and see what hops across my field of vision. It might just be a something that will raise my spirits and make my day and my life all the better.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Moment Extraodinaire

When I opened my hotel window, an audible sigh escaped my lips. Right before me towered a castle-like structure gleaming in the golden rays of an autumn sunset. I was overwhelmed! The Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes)—the seat of the Roman Catholic Church built in Avignon, France, between 1334 and 1352—filled my sensibilities, and I stood awed.

In September of 2007, my choir, The Lakewood Presbyterian Chancel Choir of Jacksonville, Florida, sang its way across France. We had started in Nice and moved up to Paris through nine performances in 11 days. The highlight of our trip was to be a performance at Notre Dame de Paris; but along the way, we had so many other memorable events, that it was hard to pin one down as the best. Certainly this moment extraordinaire became one of my special memories.

I came to that moment by retiring early one evening, right after a wonderful three-course dinner with all forty members of our choir. We had enjoyed quiche, baked chicken with sauce, and crème brûlée, but I was absolutely exhausted and beginning to feel the stresses of our whirlwind singing tour of France.

I made my excuses and proceeded to my room alone after encouraging my teenaged roommate, Mary Ashley, to go on with the others. I needed to get some extra rest. When I got back to our room, I started preparing my clothes for the next day’s performance, but soon realized that the room was a little bit stuffy. Since I was having trouble figuring out the Celsius thermostat in the room, I simply opened the window just to get a little fresh air. That is when magic happened.

As the cool air swirled into the room, the Palais des Papes almost filled my window’s perimeter. The planet Venus rose over it like a jewel, and as it began to recede into the shadows of nightfall, I pulled the desk chair up to the window so that I could sit there and watch this special miracle unfold.

Then, almost imperceptibly at first, the clear masculine voice of a tenor began to rise to my consciousness. This person was singing Ave Maria from somewhere in the direction of the Palais. Dim lights illuminated the stain-glass windows from the interior of the fortress, so I assumed that the voice was emanating from within the walls of the sanctuary. His voice came through pure, clear, and hauntingly beautiful. I almost wept.

The disembodied singer soon began another song that went to the tune of Away in the Manger. As he sang in French, I closed my eyes and imagined some young French priest or monk singing in the dimly lit Salle de la Grande Audience of the Palais which my window happened to face. I tried to imagine what life would have been like in the 1300’s when the Palais was new. I even imagined what it would have been like to be a medieval peasant woman stopping to rest along the way home after a hard day in the fields and getting caught up in the beauty of vespers coming from the awe-inspiring edifice. This imaginary woman would certainly have been as mystified by this scene as my modern self was.

A round of applause brought me out of my ancient reverie. I adjusted my perceptions and realized that I must be hearing a recital of some sort. Again, I closed my eyes, and I imagined a young man performing for a congregation of the faithful as another song rose to my window. Perhaps the tenor was a young music student running through his repertoire for a critical audience. It didn’t matter, though. The sound and the feeling that the invisible performance created in me was magnificent!

The recital lasted quite a while. Song after beautiful song floated up to me, and I let my weariness melt away as I meditated on this marvelous experience. Very soon, after the “recital” was finished and the final round of applause echoed away into the night, my roommate, Mary Ashley, came bounding into the room.

“Man, did you hear that guy singing?” she asked, excitement flushing her cheeks. I didn’t even move from my vantage point at the window, trying to let this memory set forever in my heart.

“Oh, yes. Wasn’t his voice beautiful?” I answered. “Don’t you suppose he was a priest in the Palais next door?”

“Oh, no,” she said as she started to remove her shoes and settle in for the night. “He was a street performer right outside the hotel.”

My mouth must have fallen open, and I looked at Mary Ashley with what I am sure was a dumbstruck stare. My mystical flight of fancy took a decidedly secular detour. The lofty music I had been so sure was a tribute to God by some cleric was just a sidewalk sideshow put on for the tourists. How deflated I felt inside!

But then, I began to laugh, much to Mary Ashley’s confusion. “What’s so funny?”

I told her about my evening and when I had finished, she chuckled as well.

“I guess, nothing is what it appears to be,” she told me with a philosophical air. And I had to agree.

I have often been accused of seeing the world through rose colored glasses, and this incident is a case study in my gullibility. Since I was predisposed to see ancient French history come to life as I listened to the singing, it certainly set itself in my mind that way; that is until I was presented with the real image of what I had experienced.

Later as I lay in bed in the dark giving it some thought, I had to ask myself, “Was the singer any less wonderful because he was a street performer?”


“And was my window’s view any less spectacular because I had misjudged the participants in and around it?”

Not at all.

Maybe I should just leave the moment alone. It was a joy to me regardless of its source and regardless of my mental tampering. Sure, I need to be careful in making assumptions until I have all the facts, but at the very least, I was able to enjoy a wonderful concert in the historic district of Avignon, France, and my dreams were a refreshingly different as I closed my eyes to sleep.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Atonement and the French

Last night, as a group of my friends and I were at the movie theatre watching Atonement, a minor character in the film said of the French, “They hate us.” My friend sitting next to me said rather loudly, “They still hate Americans.”

Not only was I was horribly saddened by her comment, I was also surprised that she didn't realize that the characters were indeed British. Even so, had we been at home or at a restaurant where my comments would not have disturbed movie patrons, I might have challenged her on her thoughtless words. I have just recently returned from a wonderful time in France, and if the French hate Americans, then you couldn’t prove it by me.

My church choir made a trip from the south of France to the north of it last September, and at no time did I or anyone in our group ever feel the least bit unwelcomed. Of course, I did bother to speak my broken high school French at ever possible moment. Granted, everything took a bit longer because I was groping for words and tenses, but every French person with whom I interacted was polite and friendly and patient.

One moving incident occurred when we were boarding the bus to perform at the Cimetière Amèrician at Normandy Beach. A Frenchman came up to one of the older men in our party and asked in English if we were a group of veterans. Richard said no but that a few in our company might have served in the military. That is when the man said very reverently, “Please tell them thank you for me.”

When Richard told us of this man as we made our way through the breath-taking French countryside—the one that had once been ravaged by war—I could feel tears filling my eyes. Our concert was all the more emotional with this encounter in our minds. Contrary to popular belief, not all French have forgotten our friendship or American sacrifice, and perpetuating the notion that they hate Americans is the wrong thing to do in this day and time.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Hemingway's Key West

I am not sure exactly what mystique continues to surround Ernest Hemingway--for me at least; but whenever I am in Key West, I will find myself drawn to Hemingway haunts--the docks near Turtle Kraals, The Pelican Poop, above which was his first apartment in Key West, Captain Tony's which is the first Sloppy Joe's Tavern, and St. Mary, Star of the Sea, Catholic Church where Ernest was a member. But the most meaningful place for me is Hemingway's House which has been lovingly preserved. Here is where I spend a morning basking in the wonderful, sunny air that permeates the compound. I suppose part of the magic is that Hemingway lived such a "writer-ish" life--writing everyday, a seven pencil day being a good one even if it only made one perfect sentence. Oh, that I could write such sentences!

Ernest was very disciplined in developing and nurturing his craft, and, like the writer that I try to be, he suffered his fair share of rejection. This was especially true when he lived in poverty in Paris as he waited for his stories to find publishing homes. He seemed to have found an audience in France and Germany long before he made it in the States.

For me, Ernest's appeal, beyond his writing ability, is found in all the interesting things that he did so that he might have things about which to write. He was an ambulance driver in the First World War. He lived for about 5 years in Paris with Hadley, his first wife, and John "Bumby," his infant son. Ernest was the great fisherman when he lived in Key West and in Cuba, and he was quite the hunter when he traveled to Africa. Add to that the tales of his drinking, his rubbing elbows with the famous people of the day, his tempestuous relationships with women, and his eventual tragic suicide, and you have a rare, larger-than-life character whose life was every bit as interesting as his books.

Still, while I was surrounded by the lush green palms and tropical plants of the Hemingway House on the corner of Whitehead and Olivia, I felt a quiet, thoughtful presence--maybe just my imagination running wild--as I could almost see Ernest's form moving among the cats that sauntered aimlessly about the verdant grounds. I could almost see Ernest climbing to his writer's studio above the garage where he takes a seat at his typewriter and begins a masterpiece.

This year I enjoyed my fifth visit to the Hemingway House Museum in Key West, Florida, and for the fifth time, I felt transported to a different time and reality, one where the word is valued and revered, and writers are the celebrities of the day. And I always love being in this hallowed place, so that I might walk in the footsteps of one of the great American writers--Ernest Hemingway.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

End of an Era

I have been teaching for over 35 years, and at the end of this month I will close the doors to my classroom for the last time. I am turning in my grade book and chalk, and I am setting out to do all the things that I have wanted to do for a very long time. I want to go to the beach more often and play with my granddaughter whenever I feel like it. I want to sleep past 5 AM, and I want to be free to stay up late and finish that novel I have been reading. I am really excited to have time to write.

But I am also sad. I will miss students like Makeya who hangs on my every word, or Suada who came from Albania at a young age and has a better command of English than many of her American counterparts. I will miss Alex who asks the wise questions and Jeffrey who makes jokes that are really insightfully funny.

Since I have never been able to enjoy that fruits of my labor--students blossoming and becoming all that they can be long after they have been in my care--I can only sense that my life has been a force. By my count I have had more than 6000 human beings crossing the threshold of my classrooms during my career, and I would put money on it that I have had some positive impact. I know it when a 40 year old man tells me in the grocery store that I was the highlight of his senior year. I know it when a co-ed comes home and says that if it hadn't been for my class, she would not have made it through freshman English.

Still I worry about the sad state in which education often seems to find itself--filled with political agendas, bureaucratic paper trails, and, most sadly, violence. How can education ever regain the elevated status it used to have in this country?

First, I would suggest that teachers remember their mission--gentle, persistent guidance of their students. Don't let anyone dissuade you from that mission--not administrators or dysfunctional parents. Then, parents, you must realize that you are far more influential than any teacher in school; that your children learn from parental example far more quickly than the example of any school board employee. Set a good example for your children! Finally, I would remind students that ultimately, you are in charge of your education; that no one really makes it happen unless you let it. You can blame all your problems on the schools, but actually, it is your own responsibility to "get it." Work harder than you want, and I guarantee you will reap great rewards for that effort.

I have hope for the future, but until education becomes the most important focus of teachers, parents and students, I am not sure we will ever get anything more than what we have ever gotten before.