Listen

Listen.

Hear the ocean breathing.

Sync your own breathing up to it.

This is what it is to be alive. What comes, goes; what comes into being, passes away. Life is ebb, then flow, then ebb again.

All life. Yours and mine, and everyone else’s.

Time is the ocean we all live in, and time, too, breathes. It’s only our constant scurrying and clamor that keeps us from hearing it. Like crowds on the beach on a summer day, focused on suntan lotion and bodies in swimsuits, we miss out on what we could be hearing, or seeing.

But when you get the chance…

Listen.

Hear time’s breathing, and sync your own breathing up to it, because this is what it is to be alive. There’s ebb, there’s flow, and the quiet person has access to a wisdom that the noisy person never has.

So, listen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snow Hollow

Mid-December of that year, he decided to go to the cabin anyway.

For much of that year, after his wife Angie’s death in late January, he had done virtually nothing. He was surrounded by memories of her at every turn, and that was where he wanted and needed to be.

She had been sick for a long time, “so it wasn’t really unexpected,” people thought. But somehow, he had still never expected it.

He had stopped going the places they used to go. No more pizza on Thursday nights, nor barbecue on Saturday afternoons. People at church started to wonder if he might have died, too.

And many nights, he wished he had.

But, he decided, on a whim one day, to go ahead and use the cabin booking they had made the prior year. And now, here he was, making the long drive up to Snow Hollow.

He traveled silently in the car (she had always been the one to choose the music) looking around at the mountain scenery, and thinking how much she would have loved seeing it like this. He still caught himself, from time-to-time, thinking she was there, out of the corner of his eye, only to turn expectantly towards what turned out to be an empty passenger seat.

The parking area was down the hill a ways from the cabin, and he pulled up right around sunset. He could smell wood-smoke from neighboring chimneys as he stepped into the bracing air, his one piece of luggage in hand. He trudged up the hill, scraped the key into the lock, turned the handle, and stepped into the well-remembered ancient smell of the place.

Flipping on the lights, he saw the familiar large room (the only other room was a bathroom) that was a combination of a kitchen, dining, living, and bed room. The fireplace had dry wood placed in it for his use, and he wasted no time starting a fire and lighting a couple of the kerosene lamps.

As he looked around the cabin more closely, he noticed that there had been some repair work done on one of the built-in shelves, the upper two-thirds of which were now made of a newer looking wood. He’d never really looked at any of the books on those shelves (other than to note the titles), and he absentmindedly pulled one down from the top called Lost Worlds.

It was a old Time/Life book about ancient civilizations. It appeared to have taken water damage at some point, as several of the pages were stuck together. Still, the photographs were incredible. He sat down by one of the lamps to look at it more closely.

Turning to a chapter on the Babylonian civilization, he found an envelope that had apparently been used as a bookmark at some point. Turning it over, he saw that it was postmarked from 1968.

The original letter appeared to still be in it. He pulled it out and read it.

Saigon, December 23rd, 1968

My dearest Diana —

I always do imagine it snowing back home. It seems as hot here right now as it was in the summer. I am counting the days now (143!) until I should be headed back home to see you. I think about you all the time, here, and I miss you more than any words could ever express.

This place has been harder than I was expecting, and I thought it would be hard. But we all pull together, us guys, and we’ll pull each other through, I know it. Having you to think about makes everything better, so much better.

I think I know what I want to do with my regular life, now! I want to teach. You’re probably laughing reading that, given how impatient you know me to be. But I’ve changed, I think, here. Teaching about animals and about agriculture sounds like heaven to me now.

The last picture you sent is probably my favorite one yet. I can’t send you an updated one of me as I have a bandage on my head right now from a minor thing that happened the other day. It’s no big deal, but it’s made me self-conscious about pictures. I’m sure you understand. It’s nothing to worry about.

Well, I have to keep this short as we’re kind of busy. Give my love to everyone there. I love you, more than anything in the world, and I always will.

– Artie

The letter had every sign of having had large teardrops on it. Or maybe, he thought, it was part of the water damage the book had taken. He wasn’t sure.

Looking back at the envelope (which did not appear water damaged), he saw “Sgt. Arthur Jacobsen” written in the top left hand part of the envelope.

Two years prior was the last time he had been in Snow Hollow; at that time, there was neither wireless nor cellular available. However, he had noticed upon pulling up that he still seemed to have phone service, so he started searching the name “Arthur Jacobsen” There were a pretty good number of them, but none of them were definitively this one.

Next he tried (having guessed that they were married) “Diana Jacobsen”, but he got pretty much the same types of results: lots of people by that name, including many he could rule out, but no “one”. Trying both Arthur and Diana Jacobsen did no better.

He tried then lists of people whose names are on the Vietnam wall, but no one by that name had died in Vietnam, either, which he was relieved to know. So he placed the envelope back in the book, and placed the book back on the shelf.

The next few days passed without incident. He decided one night to go into the village and pick up a few things (like batteries). The old owner of the village’s one store saw him and offered condolences. He had never really gotten used to the ritual of explaining to people about his wife’s death, so he was always glad when he met someone who had already heard.

“How long have you lived here?” he asked the store owner.

“Since I was a kid, in the 1940’s.”

“Did you ever know anybody named Arthur Jacobsen?”

“Artie Jacobsen? Yeah, of course. His family used to own the cabin you’re staying in.”

“Was he ever married to someone named Diana?”

“Married? No. That was a sad story. She died while he was in Vietnam. Sudden illness. They were engaged at the time.”

“Does he still live here?”

“No, he moved years ago, I’m not sure where. Why are you curious about Artie?”

“I found a letter in the cabin he had written to her while he was in Vietnam. I just thought whoever wrote it might want to have it.”

“I’ll ask around, see if anyone else knows where he moved to.”

“Thanks.”

Back at the cabin, he perused the letter again. It might have been one of the last things she read from him before she died. Or, she might have already passed by the time it got there. If she had sent him a picture he liked, she was probably well at the time. But the storekeeper said it was sudden.

Artie had loved Diana the same way he had loved his Angie, and she had loved him. but they never had a wedding, or a honeymoon, or any of it. All the great memories he had, they never got a chance to make, and Diana had probably spent the last year of her life in mortal terror of a message being delivered that Artie had died in combat.

And then she got sick and died, and he didn’t even know it had happened until some time after.

When the week was up, and he still hadn’t heard from the shopkeeper (who he knew had his cellphone number) he decided that the letter had been left in the book for some reason, and that he was better off just leaving it there. He never looked again for Artie Jacobsen, but he left Snow Hollow feeling a lot less alone.


Way south and east of Snow Hollow, in a sunny town in South Carolina, a sixty-eight year old man sat, surrounded for the holidays by his children and grandchildren. He smiled at all the noise, smiled at all the mess, and spoke quietly to each little face that came up to him in his red plush chair.

In the same room, on the bottom of a bookshelf, was an undamaged copy of Lost Worlds, one that also contained a letter in it:

Snow Hollow, November 2nd, 1968

My dearest Artie —

The big news here was the blizzard. We got an early blizzard this year, and, even though it’s all over with, the roof took some damage and we got some leakage here at your parent’s cabin. Your father fixed all that, but before than, some water leaked in and damaged the beautiful book you gave me for my birthday. Some of the pages are now stuck together, including the photographs of Egypt that I loved so much. But most of it is intact, and I’m grateful the damage wasn’t more. If you ever wanted to get me a replacement copy, I wouldn’t object to getting the same gift twice!

People ask me about the wedding every day. I say it will be this coming summer, but that we won’t work out all the details until you’re back. However, I do have a dress picked out. I hope you’ll like it. It made your mom cry at the dress shop, and then I started crying. We two were a mess. I love your mom and dad by the way, they’ve been so sweet to me while I’m staying here.

I know you don’t know what you want to do with your life when you’re back, and I’m really sorry if I’ve ever put pressure on you about that. I’m so proud of you, the man you are, then I go an undo all that by making unreasonable demands. Please forgive me.

Your dad took the enclosed photograph the other week while we were down in the village. When it came back from the developers, your mom immediately thought you would really like it. It was a good hair day.

Don’t spend one moment worrying about anything here, just make it home safe. And always know I love, love, love you as much as any girl every loved a boy, and that I will be proud one day to take your name.

All my love,

Diana

 

 

Everything… and Nothing

It was only three weeks, but he was absolutely in love. Love, however, doesn’t always flow both ways.

It had been a late April day when he was stopped after class by one of his professors and told he was needed as an emergency replacement to accompany a flutist at her upcoming senior recital. Her regular accompanist had broken a wrist. So, he showed up at practice room 141 at 5:00 that evening.

He recognized her as a girl who had been in his Advanced Music Theory class the year before, but who never spoke in class. They shook hands, and she said, “Hi. I’m Sarah.”

He introduced himself as well.

“I don’t know if they told you, but, you’re the third replacement accompanist I’ve auditioned in the last three days. The others didn’t really work out.”

I see, he said.

“Well, let’s get to it. Let’s try this,” she said, handing him sheet music. “This is what I’ll be opening with.”

The music was unfamiliar to him, it was a Sonatine by Walter Gieseking, who he knew as a great pianist of yesteryear, but who he didn’t realize had also been a composer. He looked through it, page by page, then turned back to the first page.

How fast? Or do you like to count in? he asked.

“Just watch me and follow,” she said, which was singularly unhelpful.

She picked up her flute and caught his eye, then nodded her head, and they started.


It’s hard to explain conservatory life to people who’ve never experienced it. You have young artists, burning with the desire to express their individuality, but doing so within the heavily constrained world of classical music, where individuality can be a matter of extreme subtlety. Envy is endemic, competition is fierce, and snark is served up with ever meal.

One way of standing out is to write your own music; unless you are Prokofiev, this is extremely hard to pull off. Another way is to perform little known repertoire, which helps you stand out. This was her way.

To him, their practice sessions were magical; they built cities out of music together. He loved the music first, but gradually realized that he loved her. She was completely devoted to her craft. She expressed herself through it. And he saw her, truly saw and heard her.

But to her, he was just some guy, a guy who would either accompany her perfectly or screw up her senior recital. She didn’t really see him — at all. Not once.

When the performance came, it was just like practice had been. They were one person when it came to performing, and he felt it. And the audience felt it. It was electric.

And, to him, it was even more.

But something can be everything, and the next moment, be nothing. She checked off the box of a successful senior recital, acknowledged the applause, performed the ritual of acknowledging her accompanist, smiled in the moment, then left the stage.

And just like that, she was gone, and she never gave him three seconds thought again.

He gathered up his sheet music as the house lights came up and to the sounds of the audience milling about. It was an oddly empty feeling.

That love can be unrequited is well known; that it is almost always unrequited is less known. That the person loved never even knows it happens all around us, everyday. There’s a fair chance it has happened to you, and you never noticed.

For one person’s everything is another person’s nothing.

He Who Sleeps In Harvest

Time was. That time no longer is.

“You can do better. You know you can.” This had been his father’s frequent refrain.

Yeah, probably, he thought. But there’ll be time for that. I’ll get it all together, I will.

Then, one day, he closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, his father was gone.

But yeah, the days keep coming. And no one tells him anymore that he can do better.

Because no one else believes it.


“He who gathers in summer is a wise son;
  He who sleeps in harvest is a son who causes shame.”


Only 2 Out of 5

Reghan Flynn, twenty-six, was looking at recipes and meals on Pinterest, when it struck her forcibly how ironic that was. She was taking in ideas about cooking through a medium where she could neither smell nor taste. Nor touch, for that matter.

By rough calculation, given her phone and her laptop, she figured she spent something like 4 to 6 hours a day online. That’s four-to-six hours a day where only 2 out of 5 of her senses were engaged. True, she might be drinking coffee or petting Keegan (the cat) while she browsed, but those were disconnected activities.

Maybe that’s why I feel so disconnected, she thought.

When a very, very small child is first engaging and learning about the world, they use all of their senses. The strongest memories she had (and the best ones) almost always had components of smell, and touch, and taste as part of them. But she had reduced herself, in some way, to sound and image, because those were so easily available.

And easily manipulated, she also thought.

As she sat there, pondering, she thought about Vihaan, who had been her first real love. She thought about the totality of him, how he looked, his voice, his scent, how his skin felt. When things had been good, they were very good, but his family disapproved of her, and sent him to school (and then medical school) as far away from her poor Irish family as they could manage. He had loved her, she knew, and she had loved him, but practical life had interfered, and they’d each moved on years ago.

Amicably.

She periodically viewed videos of him and his wife and their young twins on Facebook. So 2 of her 5 senses still had access to him. The other 3 senses were the province of his more culturally suitable wife, she mused.

She lay down on the bed where Keegan was sleeping, resting her head on his gray fur. “I guess the Internet is not really different than television was,” she said to the cat. (She had decided to continue what had been an internal monologue out loud.) “And in the days of books, sight was all there was. Just words and images. It’s not like fully realized fantasy lives used to be available on a platter.

The cat had opened his blue eyes. He was a very clean cat, was Keegan, and unusually patient when she would rest next to him like this.

It wasn’t like she had no life, or that the life she had was bad. But she had been feeling kind of disjointed, like wherever she was, she was only kind of half-there. Her first thought was maybe she needed to change her diet; that was why she had been on Pinterest looking at recipes in the first place.

Keegan, I think I need to make some changes.

He purred.

Not major ones, or anything, no need to panic.

There seemed very little danger of that on his part, as he had once again closed his eyes.

I think I’m going to try that cooking class, the one that meets down on Olive Street.

All that was left of his previously loud purring, was a low-level vibration.

Well, that’s settled then.

She got up to leave the cat sleeping on the bed. As she left the room though, she would have sworn she heard a sleepy voice saying

“And you could even put pictures of your class on Pinterest…”

Fourteen Waves

It’s summertime now. Next year, Lexi starts high school.

Each year has been like a wave; they’ve come in gently and receded with deliberation, gradually giving way to the next one.

It was early afternoon, and her mother was looking at baby photos, remembering with fondness what her daughter’s smile looked like before she had teeth. Her father was absentmindedly reading an NBA playoff summary, all the while hearing echoes of what his daughter’s laugh had sounded like before her voice changed.

Lexi’s birthday had been the previous day; plastic plates with bits of cake stuck to them were overflowing from the kitchen trash can. She herself was still in bed, a place she would occupy for roughly 20 more minutes.

The birthday party had been a simple affair: her mom and dad, cousin Derek, and her four best friends from school. The singing of Happy Birthday and present opening involved everybody; after that, she and her friends went waterskiing on Derek’s boat, which had been a blast. She’d never been able to slalom before, and it was pure joy dropping a ski and negotiating the waves on just one.

When they finished skiing, it was almost eight o’clock. The boat pulled up to the smell of her dad’s grilled shrimp. They ate dinner with the gusto that only fourteen-year-olds have, including multiple slices of cake ; her friend’s parents had then picked them up around ten, and she was asleep not too long after, as she was completely exhausted.

But now, it was 12:32 in the afternoon, and bright light was streaming in her bedroom window. Today was also a big day, as she was starting her first real job that evening.

Lexi also smelled coffee, the presence of which always made getting up so much easier.

Lexi’s mother placed a cup in front of her as she sat down at the kitchen table. Her father touched her lightly on the shoulder and kissed her hair as she squeezed his hand back.

“Are you leaving already?” she asked.

“Yes. You have been asleep for awhile,” he said, with a smile in his voice.

“I have to be there at 5:30. I don’t want to be late my first day.”

“You won’t be, I promise.” He then left the room.

“What are you going to wear?” her mother asked.

“The long skirt we talked about. I mean, I’m hostessing, so I just need to smile, and greet people, and assign tables. I don’t have to pick up dishes or anything.”

“That will look great. I was really proud of you yesterday, watching you ski,” her mother added, changing the subject. “It’s hard to believe fourteen years have gone by.”

Lexi had leaned back in her chair, feeling the sun coming through the window as she sipped her coffee. “Waterskiing is so much fun. Seriously.”

“What do you plan to do today?”

“Oh, not a lot before work. I told Anna I’d call her; she wants to get an early start on discussing our summer reading. UGH. But you know Anna, she’s very enthusiastic. I told her my books hadn’t come in yet.”

“They have, though,” her mom said. “They came the day before yesterday, I forgot to tell you.”

Lexi laughed. “Fine, then. How many are there again?”

“Six.”

“Braille or audio?”

“Three of each.”

“Give me the longest of the audiobooks first, those take will take the most time,” Lucy sighed thoughtfully, after pausing to listen to the slow sound of the waves through the open window.

Driftwood Beach

Every morning, she walked down to the seashore to watch the sunrise.

They had won a five day, five night vacation to this place in a contest held at the neighborhood grocery store. She had never won anything in her life before that, and when they called to notify her she was the winner, she was pretty sure it was really her brother-in-law and his idea of a joke. But it was legit: five days and five nights in a place called Driftwood Beach, on Saint Simons Island off the coast of Georgia on the Atlantic Ocean. All they had to pay for were snacks: lodging, transportation and meals for two were included.

When they had checked into the resort five days earlier, she felt a little like Dorothy in the Emerald City: everywhere she looked were high marble walls, fancy carpets, spiral stairways, and a host of other things she’d only ever seen on TV. She half-expected to hear Robin Leach’s voice describing it all. Her husband, too, seemed almost something like moved by it all.

Almost.

Although they had been given a resort map when they first rode up to the compound, and she had suggested several things she would be interested in trying, he figured out the location of the various bars in the place within 20 minutes of arriving, and at one or the other of them he had been for most of the last five days. She would be asleep when he would come in, beginning a nightly ritual that started with a sickening smell of alcohol, tobacco and sweat, and ending with angry words and tears. Her favorite night had been the one he was so drunk, he didn’t make it past the couch to the bed.

In other words, it was exactly like home.

What wasn’t like home, though, was the ocean. She would wake, very early, and taking advantage of the twenty-four hour coffee available in the lobby, head out the back door of the resort and off into the dark to watch the sun come up on the beach. The first morning, she wasn’t really sure if it was safe (she would never walk outside in the dark at home), but a kind of recklessness had come over her, and she charged out into the black like she’d been doing it her whole life.

The ocean says things in the dark that it doesn’t say in the light. In the light, the ocean often defers to the sun, or the clouds, or even the birds, but at night, it has the floor to itself, and it spoke to her of hidden things, and secret wishes, and desires she’d never admitted of to anyone, least of all herself.

As the last vestiges of night began to peal away, she looked over at the now-familiar driftwood. Driftwood made her sad; these had been living trees, roots planted firmly in the soil, leaves open to the sun, drinking life in slowly and growing surely. But they’d been torn away from their roots, shorn of their leaves, and set adrift on an ocean large and more chaotic than they were built to handle. To see these bits of wood now, they had always been homely and gnarled; but they had been glorious, once. They congregated on the shore, whenever possible, within sight of their still-living cousins, who seemed to spread out their branches to shield them, to give them whatever dignity was possible. Much like this resort had done for her.

She thought about divorce, but, unless the grocery store was running another contest, she wasn’t sure how she could afford it. The sun was up, now; and foamy waves reached out to tickle her bare feet. In a few hours, the car would take them back to the airport, and back home to real life.

Real life, ha! she thought. Strange term, considering it’s neither.