Awe Walking

Mr. K’s World Note: I haven’t posted in more than two months, by far the longest stretch of inactivity since I started this blog April of 2018. By way of excuse I offer this: I returned to teaching fifth grade for five weeks in September and October, then for two weeks was visiting hoodoos, mesas and arches in Utah and New Mexico, where some of my family live. Before all that I was trying to get my mind around a longer piece of writing about a kiln firing and the “culture of making” a western Massachusetts potter has established. While there’s little evidence that the world needs more of what I write, I missed writing personal essays for this blog, so the work continues. I realize I’m posting when most of us are consumed with Electoral College results, and I run the risk of being ignored. Such is the lot of living in Mr. K’s World. Stay Strong. Stay Safe. Take a long, slow walk.

Truth about me: I’ve never liked to walk. Slow. Boring. A means to an end. Rather be there than on the way.

A bum hip forced me to limp starting five years ago, so I walked with increasing resentment and pain.

Hip replacement early this summer improved my gait and my attitude. I think often about walking and its benefits — it turns out I’m not alone.

I wrote twice this summer, after my hip replacement surgery, about the power of walking slowing through my neighborhood and being the “Shaman of the Unnoticed.”

I’ve since learned that there’s an official name for these therapeutic rambles of paying close attention to the rocks, seeds, posters, people, buzzings, horns, and odors around you. Awe Walks.

It’s good to have family join you in an awe walk. It helps the feeling of overall well-being, according to Mr. K. That’s Maya and Sam, on the left and center, and my effervescent sister-in-law, Jessie, on the right.

The New York Times reports about them. Psychologists study them. The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley gives step by step directions how to take them. Awe Walks.

It turns out I didn’t have to undergo hip replacement to take one. All I had to do was pay attention in a new setting while putting one foot in front of the other.

A group of researchers earlier this year published a study in the journal Emotion, where they divided sixty participants, all in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, into two groups. One group was instructed to take one 15-minute walk as usual. The other group was instructed to take a walk in a new or novel place, even a place that had a “physical vastness” to it, and also to pay close attention to the small matters encountered on the walk. Both groups were asked to take photo selfies at the end of each walk. The study went on for eight weeks.

Gretchen Reynolds, one of the wellness reporters for The New York Times, wrote that the researchers found that “feeling a sense of awe seems to up our overall feelings of gladness and improve health.”

Here’s how health might improve. Biologists know some cells secrete a substance called cytokine when our body is under stress. This substance, part of our immune response, is associated with increased inflammation in our joints. Some studies have shown that when we’re in awe our cells secrete less cytokine.

Even more, according to the latest researchers, walking while paying attention “reduces self-focus promotes connection and fosters prosocial action by encouraging a small self.” In other words, people kept their egos in check when paying attention in a reverent fashion to something bigger than themselves.

It’s easy to feel awe, when you’re in a place like this, yet I’m practicing for that sense of awe in neighborhood walks.

After eight weeks, the researchers found the evidence in the selfies. The group who walked with no special instructions kept taking selfies and the size of their faces in the photos remained unchanged. Ah, but the awe group. The size of their faces in the selfie photos decreased and the share of the landscape in the photos increased.

The researchers ascribed this shrinking head phenomenon to the “smaller selves” of the awe walkers. They weren’t so self-absorbed, it turns out, when they walked with awe and noticed what was around them.

These findings fit with what we know. Walking is good for us, and being in nature soothes us. But the studies push our understanding further: We can possibly reduce our body inflammation and increase our happiness if we walk and just notice stuff. It’s a kind of movement meditation.

Walking in places where it’s easy to lose oneself in awe is one way to a smaller self and decreased inflammation; I would also add, based on a summer of walking slowly after hip replacement, that walking without an end goal puts us in the same frame of mind. Noticing the fern growing out of the crack between granite blocks supporting the railroad trestle might be as powerful as seeing the arches and mesas of southeastern Utah. It’s about the stampeding effects of our unleashed egos and how we can distance ourselves from them.

My physical therapist, John O’Sullivan, works out of the Valley Medical office in Florence. He told me early on in my rehabilitation that my hip would never return to its past working order unless I did specific exercises to strengthen long-ignored muscles. You can’t walk yourself to a healthy hip, he said. 

I believe him, but it turns out we might be able to walk ourselves to a smaller ego and greater happiness.

The business of walking slowly and noticing the details along the way, as opposed to racing along and allowing our minds to scatter about, reminds me of that 1970s book that Robert Pirsig wrote, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I read the book in high school in an English class for a teacher I admired for his intellect and detested for his arrogance. 

In his memoir and philosophical examination of one way to lead a meaningful life, Pirsig wrote, “Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than arrive.”

Especially if you go about it slowly and in awe.

To Those who Didn’t Play: Thank You

He’s sipping his coffee.

I’m pouring another cup for me.

Radio on in our kitchen at 7:30 a.m., two White* men consider the day. We talk about race relations in America.

Maybe this happens all over the country, the slightly paunchy White dad and his bearded son first thing in the morning discuss race, talk about how lucky they are to go outside and never fear getting shot seven times in the back, even if the police arrive.

In this house, sitting around a table in what I understand to be a 100 percent white neighborhood — I’m unaware there’s a person of color living within a quarter mile of my house — the race talk so early in the morning is a first. 

We talk sports. We don’t talk about systemic racism before work — or much at all.

At least we never did, until a bunch of young Black men decided to stop playing basketball during the NBA playoffs.

So, I’m letting Fred VanVleet, Marcus Smart, and Jaylen Brown know that, even though they’re exhausted at seeing their brothers getting shot on the streets, tired of feeling ineffective at doing anything to stop the dying, two safe, pasty White guys have changed in the tiniest of ways. 

Our morning chat, which used to be slathered with plenty of rehashing of the last night’s game, now considers why Jacob Blake, a Black man walking away from a police officer in Kenosha, WI, could be shot seven times in the back. Why seven of them?

As the man in charge of my life, I know that this change seems so small as if to be meaningless, like choosing a sesame bagel instead of the poppy seed alternative. But let’s consider every other morning’s topics: NBA highlights, when the next game is to be played, our mutual loathing of LeBron James. (Please read here https://mrksdotblog.wordpress.com/2018/05/24/the-enemies-we-need/ for an explanation about why the best basketball player of his era, and a cultural icon, is easy to hate.)

I read this from VanVleet, who plays for the Toronto Raptors, the team that won the NBA championship last year. As if that matters now.

“I was pretty excited, and then we all had to watch Jacob Blake get shot yesterday. So that kind of changes the tone of things and puts things in perspective. So that’s really kind of all that’s been on my mind. And coming down here, making a choice to play, was supposed to not be in vain. But it’s just starting to feel like everything we’re doing is just going through the motions and nothing’s really changing and here we are again with another unfortunate incident.”

VanVleet, along with many other NBA players, lives in a sealed basketball complex in Orlando, FL, playing basketball to keep me, and all the other fans, entertained. We can’t imagine missing the playoffs, even during the Covid-19 pandemic, even while many in the country roil in anger over Black men dying. The Raptors were supposed to play the Celtics tonight — Thursday, Aug. 27 — in the start of a playoff series. But VanVleet and his teammates, plus the Celtics, including Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, decided not to play. What’s the right word? Did they boycott the game? Did they protest? Did they strike?

It seems to me they couldn’t be bothered with basketball when police officers were shooting their people in the streets. They couldn’t conjure up the effort to care about playing basketball, even though they know it is the work that pays them millions of dollars a year.

That decision to not play changed my morning conversation. Small, yes. Could I do more? No doubt.

Across America, so many people do so much more than change the topic of their morning chat. On my knees, I say: This is were it starts with the words we share in private around our tables. My journey, and my son’s acceptance of his White good fortune, must have a starting line. In this case, it’s talking about George Floyd and Jacob Blake in the morning, not the score.

I said to Sam, Brown is a poet. Listen to what he said.

“Are we not human beings? Is Jacob Blake not a human being? I don’t care if he did something 10 years ago, 10 days ago, or 10 minutes ago. If he served his sentence and he was released back into society, he still deserves to be treated like a human and does not deserve to be shot in the back seven times with the intent to kill. His kids will never unsee that. His family will never unsee that. And, frankly, I will never unsee it.”

I will never unsee it — the words of an athlete who changed our morning. Brown is 23 years old. I know who this young man is because he plays basketball with an athleticism and verve that awe me. I will remember him because he couldn’t compartmentalize, and ignore for three hours, Black people getting shot by cops.

Brown and Smart and VanVleet all admit they are tired of seeing their people die, or get shot, on the streets. They are worried that playing basketball, then using the media platform that the NBA provides to talk about race relations in America, is a waste of time.

My message to them, from my kitchen where I slice peaches to eat with my yoghurt, is that they may not be making the world safer for Black people to walk their own streets; they are, without doubt, changing the conversation of two White guys, forcing us to talk about the reverberating effects of slavery on all us — ideas we’ve sometimes considered in the abstract, then tucked away like socks with holes needing repair. 

My drawer is full of what I can afford not to consider: Because it wasn’t my family getting stomped on the head on a Minneapolis street. It wasn’t someone in my family, crying out on Staten Island that he couldn’t breath. It wasn’t my family member running through a neighborhood, pursued by vigilantes in a pick-up truck, then shot to death.

Jaylen Brown wants to take to the streets to effect change, not play basketball. 

I want him to know that he already has changed the breakfast habits in one kitchen on Bradford Street. The two White guys sitting at the table now must figure out a way to do more than talk.

*Newspapers in the United States, in the wake of protests about police shootings, have started to capitalize the word Black when used as an adjective describing people of this race. Those newspapers also capitalize White, when used in the same manner. I am following their lead in this capitalization. Though I’m unsure that we need to capitalize white, I understand that voices across the land would complain in unison about the unfairness of capitalizing Black but not its opposite.

The Gift of Slow

I rush often, believing there is a power to faster, a satisfaction in being there. No one forces me to speed from one activity to another, I’ve come to it on my own, and yet, even when others advise me to slow down, I hear the subtle support, maybe a wink of knowing, for hustling, for impatiently pushing.

I don’t believe I’m alone. We all cheer the quick recovery. We marvel at those not held back by injury or surgery or illness or need for rest.

The first three weeks after receiving a new hip in late June, I tried stepping on the escalator, ready to skip past slow recovery and arrive early in the land of the healed. Friends and medical professionals told me to calm my approach, but they also nodded their approval at my determination, my desire, to fast forward to the end.

They did not tell me about the simple time of powerful noticing that awaited if I only slowed down. I nearly missed it.

No one said that the five weeks of incremental improvement would represent a gift of slowness that we only receive a few times in our lifetimes. My doctor didn’t prepare me for this present of recovery, so easily overlooked then trampled in the need to get to the end. 

When I went outside the first time after surgery, crutches under both arms, I understood that first trip to the end of my street on uneven pavement as a step. I wanted to go further, faster, and those first steps were meant only as a leg of a relay to being healed. I looked up and out so I could get there faster. 

No one told me to look down, even stop and listen, where I’d find an adventure in noticing what I had never seen.

Before it’s gone, before I vanish into flames of having to be somewhere five minutes ago, I want to acknowledge the power of slow. I’m not sad it’s over. I’m not regretful. I’m clear-eyed that the times of allowing myself to walk so slowly that I marvel at the tiny purple spot in the middle of the white umbel flower of Queen Anne’s Lace are over. I might talk in the future about being intentional so that I am “awake” or “present” during a time, but I’ll not easily reach again the level of slowness I’ve been living at this summer.

Before it’s gone, before I vanish into flames of having to be somewhere five minutes ago, I want to acknowledge the power of slow.

I call my slow walking, and enhanced noticing, The Power of No Other Alternative. I’m forced into a slowness that I would not otherwise choose. It’s the same reason why so many people wrote and talked about the beauty and length of spring this year. We all read the same trope, and it aged quickly, “Wow, did you know there were trees outside the windows?”

People noticed birds, flowers, and their neighbors. They had no choice.They were forced to stay home. The Power of No Other Alternative.

I’m damn happy to receive a hew hip. I walk with less pain than anytime in the last five years, even though my right hip was splayed open fewer than two months ago. But I sit here in my shack unexpectedly happy about the pain of recovery and being forced to see my world differently. I feel like a camera whose shutter could only snap at a slow speed, but instead of producing blurry photographs, I saw pictures that were invisible to me before.

Now that I’m moving faster, I know I’m passing by those pictures I saw only days ago. Today, they are blurring. Tomorrow, they will disappear.

We have a pair of hawks playing and shrieking around our wood near the Millyard Brook. They are loud and boisterous. Last summer, I believe I would have missed them. Next summer, I might not see them. This summer, I walk so slowly I had no choice but to befriend them.

I walk down Woodmont Avenue, these summer afternoons, my slowness amplifying the sounds of my neighborhood — katydids and airplanes and wind rustling cottonwood leaves. 

Two weeks ago, I heard a gull, but I thought it odd, since I live one hundred miles from the ocean. Gulls do visit here, but not until late fall. I kept hearing the screech of a gull, but noticed nothing. Then I saw, beyond the black of my local crows, a soaring hawk. We have many red-tailed hawks here, a few broad wings, and some coopers’ hawks. None of those sound like this distressed gull. 

One more slow walk; one more gull hawk screech. I kept this to myself, until one morning when this hawk flew over my garden. I saw only its shadow, a dark, ominous gliding making me feel like a chipmunk wanting to hide. Then the screech. I looked up and spied the mostly white underparts of a hawk that was not that of a red-tail or a broad wing.

I asked my wife, the family birder, if she knew of a hawk that sounds like a gull. No, but she would find out.

It’s a red-shouldered hawk, a noisy raptor less often seen than the ubiquitous red-tail and the smaller broad wing. My slowdown allowed me to see my new neighbor. 

Whether it’s the pandemic forcing us to spend more of our time in our neighborhoods, or my slowdown, I can’t say for sure, yet here’s what I do know: I have regular chats now with folks living on my walking loop — CJ, Robert, Lukas, Kate, Anne, and the lovely woman living on Cherry Street growing the charred red flowers called Celosia.

I’ll try to keep up with these lovely people. But it’ll soon get cold; we’ll elect a new president who will follow the advice of scientists, so allowing us to contain the coronavirus; and I will inevitably speed up my life. I will see less of my neighbors, stop at fewer yard sales, pass without noticing the fern, slender yet long, growing out of the dirt in the crack between the granite blocks holding up the trestle over North Street.

No one told me that I’d receive the gift of slow. My advice: unwrap it when you get it.

A Letter Sent Once

This post is a departure, a short story that started out as a letter. I’ve been reading Amy Hempel short stories, and, I guess, I want to be like Amy. Nobody can, but it was fun trying. My friend and gentle reader, Lida, gave it a glance and made an expert suggestion. Otherwise, any weirdness is mine.

July 28, 2020

Boys,

No one’s much for saying much. I wonder how we still know each other. But it continues — the friendship, I mean, at least the idea that it was once there, and, since no one officially buried it in the garden, or burned it in flames of contempt and anger, there must be a root of something called intimacy (scary word for boys) shared among us. Of course, we know that living things die of neglect daily, but our neglect doesn’t seem to be the sort that kills this friendship. OK, let’s be honest, here. I’ll speak for my neglect, you speak for yours. 

My neglect isn’t the bandana-around-the-eyes ignoring, where plants get no water in droughts, babies get no vaccine shots, cancer patients get appointments put off until next year, and white people pretend black people dying with their heads squished on sidewalks is the natural order.

My neglect is more the I’ll-get-to-it when it counts variety, where I show up at the funeral (but ignore the year of decline before it.) My neglect of us is much like me replacing the windshield wiper during the middle of the rainstorm, then later I return the book I borrowed while you wonder why the fuck I figure it matters since I’ve had the book on my shelves far longer than you even did.

Something happened a few years ago to one of you that makes me write this. Before the summer on the lake — speed boats, poker nights, and shamans on the shore — one of you experienced a medical event. We all do. We go to the doctor, and, maybe, we tell our spouses about it, but we text no one else. Who needs to know?

During that weekend, all six of us there, we began our time with a hike up a mountainside. We spread out, me limping my way up. Someone else sprinted ahead. One of us fell far behind, breathing heavily and dripping those forehead sweat rivers. We waited for the one behind to catch up. He said, after leaning against a tree snag for a minute, “By the way, I had heart bypass surgery last year.” He said it like I might say, “By the way, I put the beer on ice, it’ll be cold when we return.” 

What? Let’s make sense of this. “You had heart bypass surgery and you didn’t tell us?”

“Yes. Apparently, I did.”

Everyone has a choice. Keep it to yourself or tell your friends that you almost died and needed life-saving surgery. There are no rules of friendship engagement. After the mountainside-coronary story, we had a great couple of days, punctuated by one of you slamming down his morning cup of coffee on the table for attention, and saying some shit like, “By the way, I unloaded my shotgun into an intruder and spent a month in jail, before I was set free.” Later while chucking horseshoes near the lake beach, one of us turned to another and said, “By the way, I don’t have sex anymore, because when I was clearing my land of a few trees, I lost both nuts to a chainsaw. Things kinda got out of hand.”

Our neglect is not toxic to our collective health. We lived through it, and, I believe, we could continue the trend. But the spread of Covid-19 to pandemic levels has inspired change. Last April, I couldn’t smell the rotting bananas in the fruit bowl, and diagnosed myself as Covid positive. I decided there, in my kitchen getting ready to make sourdough bread, that you deserved to know if anything big happened to me. It turns out, the smelly banana test is not a good indicator. I don’t have Covid-19, but the idea still stands: I promise to write you if I have any problems. No more big news neglect from me.

You won’t be the first to know my news, but you won’t learn that something happened to me with a by-the-way story on a mountainside.

If you were to hear my news in a by-the-way manner, I believe it would go like this:

You’d all fly into Macau, the Las Vegas of Asia, and you’d head to the airport bar. We might neglect our friendship, but we’d not forget a drink to get started. There’d be five of you at a table, and the most awake of you would notice an absence. You’d say, “Everybody promised they’d be here by seven. Greg’s not here. Where’s he at?”

I think it would be one of the two Kevins, both wearing khakis and a blazer, who’d say, “I received a letter yesterday. It’s here in the inside pocket of my travel coat.”

“What’s it say?”

“Don’t know. Haven’t opened it yet.”

“It’s time. Open the damn letter. It’ll say why he’s not here.”

“That’s stupid. He’d text.”

“Shaman don’t text. Read the letter.”

One of the Kevins would pry the envelope’s top open, ripping along the crease, and slowly pull out my letter, unfolding it deliberately, looking into the four sets of eyes in front of him for reaction. Both Kevins know about milking drama.

“Here goes,” one of the Kevins would say.

“You don’t have to tell us you’re gonna read. Just read it. Jesus Fuck.” Paul, the one church-goer amongst us, would not have been the one saying that, though he’d want to have once he heard it.

Boys,

Letting my friends know big news is something I’ve been working on now that they pulled the ventilator tube from my throat. I’m writing this as an emotional insurance policy; it’s redeemable just once.

If you’re reading this, that means the policy is in use, and I didn’t make it out of here alive. In short, I’m dead. Now you know.

You aren’t the first to know, but I didn’t want anyone to say after I died that I neglected my friends. I’d write more, but it’s hard breathing.

Your friend, 

Greg

 

You’re not in Macao, and there’s one more thing you should know, which is the real reason for this letter. It’s big news I didn’t want to neglect telling you. I received a total hip replacement a few weeks ago. I should be able to hike mountains without a limp.

By the way, when the next adventure rolls around, drink to me, if I’m not there.

Yours in neglect,

Greg

Poetry Box Steps Out

A fellow poet, and advocate of local writers, has thrown his considerable energy into a new, and super slick, website called Valley of Writers (https://valleyofwriters.com) where he’s trying to keep those interested in the local writing scene up-to-date.

A Primitive & Rejection-Free Way to Publish
I check the Millyard Poetry Box regularly to make sure new poems rotate. Fungai Tichawangana took this photograph for his Valley of Writers website.

I met Fungai Tichawangana at one of Michael Goldman’s poetry workshops last year, where I mentioned that I had recently erected a wooden poetry box. Fungai said he wanted to highlight it on his new website. Cool, I thought. Then I thought no more of it.

But Fungai seems to be determined. He contacted me mid-pandemic and reminded me of his desire to give The Millyard Poetry Box some publicity. So, I wrote a little piece for his website, which is full of current content about the local writing scene and looks professional in all ways. The superior design of the site should not be a surprise, since that’s what Fungai does for a living. In addition, Fungai’s a journalist-poet-dad, living in Amherst with his wife. Go visit Fungai’s website. He’s doing good work — and not getting paid for it.

Since the Millyard Poetry Box may get new visitors because of the Valley of Writers notice, I decided to write a new poem. Because the publishing bar is low, the box accepted my poem, which has gone through my own editing process but no other. That’s the way it rolls at The Box. Many others in my neighborhood have dropped off handwritten poems over the past few months. No poem has ever been rejected, though I did pull one because I couldn’t read the writing.

So, that’s the lowest of bars: Write a poem that everyone can read.

Here’s my latest, the seed of which I picked up as I ambled through the neighborhood, shaman to the unnoticed. You can also come by the neighborhood and read the typewritten version. Take Woodmont Road off of North Street in Northampton. The box, unpretentious and hand-made like the poems it holds, stands just past the Norwottuck Bike Path tunnel running under the railroad tracks.

His Shadow’s Head

He’s afraid to look 

where his shadow points,

not a compass he follows,

unnerved that shade is made 

from absence —

alive where white fails.

He’s uneasy with new —

his dark silhouette,

a one-armed sun clock on tar,

tells where light might break.

You see, his shadow’s head

leans toward where a rainbow

would arc if today’s 

July sunlight would only 

slant at a wider angle.

He looks out beyond 

the rainstorm where

the early afternoon 

white light remains unbent

a straight, easy-reader history.

He can’t imagine 

unfurled colors out there

telling their own stories. 

Tiny Tales of a Slow Walk

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To get anywhere in my neighborhood, I have to pass the Millyard Poetry Box.

Everyday, I try to walk further, forcing myself like an aging sprinter who’s lost his one important ability — running fast and hard — to keep racing, no matter the slow pace, no matter the crutch at my side, not judging the results. Walking, it’s what my body does, even if a titanium spike with a ball on one end was hammered into my right femur seventeen days ago.

Since I must slow my pace to that of the aged or the toddling, I’ve decided to enter the land of make-believe and pretend it’s a gift, like I’ve been given the opportunity to walk slowly and preside over the insignificant. I don’t hold that anything new I see or hear or smell will change the trajectory of our history, rather I’m practicing a skill I abandoned because there’s no glory in it, no money to made doing it.

I’m now the neighborhood snoop of the tiny and forgotten, stopping at the inconsequential to write tiny absurdities in my notebook, thinking they might turn into poems.

July 8, 1:15 p.m. I stop on Highland Avenue and inspect a redbud tree gone to seed, thinking it interesting to see the pods hanging directly from the branches, and spy a twice-bitten pear wedged into the crotch of two branches. Noticing elicits questions: Do you think it neater, dear pear eater, to stash away the half-eaten fruit in a tree, rather than toss it in someone’s lawn?

July 11, 1:20 p.m. I notice a tidy porch on North Street, a couple of chairs placed nicely for the residents to sit and chat with those of us passing by. No one’s in the chairs. A small, black sign sits on the half-wall and leans against the house. It says: “Don’t Piss Off The Fairies.” Maybe I have my answer to the question of why no one’s sitting in the chairs.

July 8, 3:20 p.m. Crutching down North toward my home on Bradford Street, I remember a recent radio interview with an epidemiologist, who said the most reliable indicator of someone having Covid-19 is not the running of a fever, rather it’s the loss of smell, a fact that makes me smile now that I smell the splat of first raindrops on the hot street, rather like detecting the body odor of a rainstorm. I may not be able to run from this storm, but I do not have Covid-19. I inhale deeply. The rain smells like good fortune.

July 8, 3:40 p.m. The rain has lifted, leaving the overhead sun to cast my shadow. I spy my shadow head pointing northeast, which leaves me wondering if I, or more accurately my shadow head, is pointing to where a rainbow might arc. No rainbow appears, though the conditions seem right, leading me to ask if the sun is too high at 3:40 p.m. on July 8 in Northampton, MA to produce a rainbow. I think about how rainbows occur, understanding that light must pass through enough water, acting as a prism, in the air, yet if the sun is too high in the sky, the angle is not right. I return to thinking about my shadow head pointing to a rainbow, or where one might be if physics and my wishes were to cooperate.

July 6, 12:45 p.m. I stop on Bradford Street to allow the sometimes white, other times translucent cottonwood seeds suspended in the air to float into my chest, directed by the subtle breeze of the afternoon. I don’t bump into many people anymore, so these cottonwood seeds will have to do. Where is the tree that produces all these seeds?

July 8, 2:40 p.m. Though I’ve passed it an estimated 5,000 times over twelve years, I see this afternoon for the first time the enormous cottonwood tree on Woodmont Avenue that must be the parent of all the seeds floating around and bumping into people. I introduce myself to the majestic tree as the presiding shaman of the neighborhood’s unnoticed. It does not notice me or my high office.

July 11, 1:05 p.m. I take out my notebook to write an absurdity, when two pieces of paper fall to the sidewalk. They are folded into tiny books and contain poetry prompts from Tracy K. Smith, former U.S. Poet Laureate, the ramblings of one of my dreams, a lengthy grocery list, and a cartoon drawing of a chick. I do not want to leave them on the sidewalk, but I cannot bend to pick them up, because the angle at which I would have to put my body might cause my new hip to dislocate. The physical therapists call this “breaking precautions.” 

So, I paw at the papers with my crutch, hoping by magic they’ll stick to it and I can retrieve them. This does not work. I take off my sandal and try to shovel the papers into my sandal, so I can wear the papers home. This does not work.

I hear a faint laughing, as if an amused person does not want to but can’t help themselves react. I look up from my paper-on-the-sidewalk problem and see a woman with long, brown curls, wearing black running shorts and a black singlet, pushing a baby carriage, one that she could easily have ushered on a run as well as a walk. She’s across the street.

“Can I help you?” she says. (If only you knew.)

I say yes to the most tangible way she can help, and she crosses North Street with her carriage and stoops to pick up the papers. Masked, she hands them to me (unmasked) with as much distance as two people can manage but still be issuing a kindness, one to another.

She’s wearing sunglasses, which means I’ll never recognize her in any other context, because I have facial recognition issues to go along with my other ones.

Though I say my “thank-you” repeatedly, I feel like I owe a kindness out there, because even though I might see her again, I suspect I won’t recognize her to return her kindness. 

Tomorrow I plan to walk again, shaman to the unnoticed, looking to bestow a kindness on some unsuspecting wretch.

Experimenting in Garden Surrender

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Janet doing the work.

The garden is where I experiment. 

In go the garlic, I’ll see how they thrive.

I’ll plant a tomato next to a sunflower. Any benefit to that pairing beyond chance?

Since my garden is no truck garden, or working one, being wrong there does little harm. What’s to lose if I tuck my eggplant in the wrong section? The farm stand down the road will provide what I can’t, has more than I will ever grow. 

This summer, I’ve been forced to expand the garden experimenting, leading to an examination of my growth beyond tomatoes. I need to try a new way of working, one demanding a new strategy, letting go of old ways, looking for different meanings and sharing at a deeper, more vulnerable level. 

I can’t garden the old way, because I can’t walk. I’ve had my hip replaced, so I decided to surrender, and, damn, I hate admitting it.

I’ve been trained, self-training layered on top of testosterone fertilized coaching from all the team sports I’ve played, to hate the word surrender. It’s weak, implies giving up before every last option has been exhausted. Surrender is losing; there’s nothing lower than losing.

But my garden facts are clear. What once was limited to a blooming core of flowers has expanded to a line of thriving raspberry bushes, a lettuce and pea patch, a section for all things salsa — think tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos — even two medicinal plants near the rear. The center still stands as an unmapped triumph to color, a gift of nectar and pollen for bees, wasps, and butterflies.

While the center of the garden remains standing, I do not. I’ve known about the surgery for months. As I sowed pen-tip-tiny carrot seeds in April, I knew I’d be lame come summer. So, surrender.

I knew I would not be able to weed, maintain rows, or harvest. My wife marched into that void.

Help, though, does not come without cost, especially if, like me, you’ve worn ruts in the hard pan by acting and thinking like a horse-drawn wagon for the past five decades. Every project has been an effort to make account for myself, to leave a mark on the world. As a gardener, it’s been a place to leave a seasonal reckoning, marked by color and harvest. 

I have gardened alone. I weeded alone. I watered the plants by my design, read what I could to help the garden succeed. My job was to provide the fruit; Janet’s job was to put them up.

Today I limp with a crutch, my hip rebuilding itself. That old strategy, rooted in me growing mine, can no longer work. I cannot bend to pick up a sock from the floor, no way squat to pull carrots from the ground. I can’t twist at the hips, yet; I’m a fossilized straight ahead robot until my hip heals and I mend myself.

So, I surrender, and as I write here in my mother-in-law’s old recliner, my crutch leaning against a nearby post, it occurs to me that this surrender should be about more than raspberries, cosmos, and jalapeños. The surrender should rend not just garden habits, but deeper ones, where my goal has been as much about establishing me as completing any project.

Leave it to a nun to explain to me what surrender can mean when you dig beyond the top soil. Joan Chittister, a writer and occasional columnist for the Catholic Reporter, said that surrender isn’t only the stopping of grieving for what I can’t do anymore, it “means that I surrender to new meanings and new circumstances, that I begin to think differently and to live somewhere that is totally elsewhere.” 

She finishes her thinking about surrender, by which I assume she means a surrender to God, a letting go of her ego and falling into what she might call grace, by saying, “I surrender to the circumstances of a new life.”

I’m not Catholic, wouldn’t consider myself to have an active spiritual imagination, and am not looking for God’s grace, but I sense possibility and growth here. A new hip and an opening of the way we garden can extend past the summer.

I received a titanium spike shoved into my femur bone on June 26. The spike has a metal ball on top that fits into a hard plastic socket implanted in my pelvis. I should be able to move more freely for decades. Why limit the freedom? Why limit the learning to my right hip?

So, I surrender the flowers and vegetables to Janet, replacing “my garden” with “our garden.” I’m learning to accept that she adores wooden stakes. They stick up everywhere in our garden, holding small eggplant and towering sunflowers. Before, I would erect stakes as needed, not as a fortress of the upright. But, it’s not just for me to decide anymore.

She rigged up a watering system of soaker hoses, snaking through the vegetables. It’s as if an endless black mamba lives in our garden and sometimes leaks water. 

I’m learning to consider these new elements, plus her advice and good sensibilities, as “the circumstances of a new life,” not surrendering to God so much as moving beyond the strategy of do-it-yourself. We do it ourselves, one moment of surrendering at a time.

The Body of Hurt

I told my wife that I was considering writing a regular journal about my hip. 

That bit of morning news registered like this.Head in her crossword puzzle, she asked, 22 Across: Texas Tourist Spot?

She’s bored of me, my ideas, my humor, my predilections, like my bad hip. Heck, yes, her boredom is warranted. I’ve been tutoring, writing, and worrying from home for the last three months. Laid off, she’s had to endure me for that same time.

She put down the paper, and looked up. “You want to write about getting your hip replaced?” She asked this question wordlessly, but, and this takes talent, incredulously, the look in her eyes giving away that she thought it a stupid idea, full of too much self-importance.

The trick will be in the execution, I said in defense.

Hmm, hmm, she said.

Here’s my defense, my first installment in the hip journal:

 

My hip, and the pain associated with it, has warped my sense of time. Some days race by as I face the deadline of surgery. I paint my house; I build tables for the deck; I plant extra greens, eggplant, and tomatoes in the garden; I repair the stairs going to my second floor; I build a roof extension over my front door. The activity is prompted by a feeling of being damaged, time running out, my body having a finite number of projects it can complete. 

This thinking is harebrained, yet when the body’s timing quickens, when the hands of the clock sweep faster, there’s no sitting still. I just go.

Pain plays with time in more than one direction. It stops me. It slaps me. I drag my leg around and time reverses. Nothing gets done on those days, when the hands of my clock lurch and seize. Some days my surgery date doesn’t near, the time gap between now and my hip replacement expands. Time seems to lose its meaning.

I was put in mind of this idea of the body ordering my time, my body setting time limits, after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates and Claudia Rankin, two African-American authors, who, in their books Between the World and Me and Citizen, wrote about how black bodies define black people, how colored skin is unavoidable, especially when splashed against the backdrop of white as Zora Neale Hurston once said. Coates wrote to his son in Between the World and Me that the body is freedom, it’s what needs to be defended, a line that cannot be crossed. Of course, we white people cross the line of able, beautiful black bodies and crush them all the time.

Rankin told stories in Citizen of black people encountering their bodies everywhere they go, on the bus, in the dean’s office, driving the car with a white passenger. The stories are ugly, revolting, hard to understand and easy to miss as a white person.

Rankin and Coates are clear: The likes of me define black people by the bodies they inhabit. While my white body makes no disturbance in my white town, one of thousands that is offered free admittance wherever I go, my body still defines me.It keeps time for me. 

It used to keep regular time. Now, my body lurches and spits, and my days run jagged as well, some chaotic with action, filled with the dread of a body that has little time remaining. Some days I dream of being repaired, living without pain, able to run again, able to bend to pick up a dropped screw.

I recently told a friend, with whom I used to run, that I wanted to jog one mile with him pain free. The slow run with a friend would be like going back in time. A new hip would give me that luxury — time travel.

That idea that a surgeon will repair me, that my body won’t render me physically useless, gives me the sense of starting over, resetting the clock. Without pain, my body will run regularly, as if someone with a key rewound me like one does a grandfather clock. The hop is that my life will now sweep in the correct beat of time, no chaos one day, inertia the next.

And yet, repairing my body unnerves me when I consider how easy a person of means gets their time back. My issue with my body is personal, not forced on me, and I can fix it. The insults and injuries that people with black bodies suffer keep occurring, and, so far, we haven’t fixed the problem. There may be a repair for what white people inflict on black people, but it’s not a procedure that’s going to happen in an operating room at my local hospital.

My surgeon will replace my arthritic joint next week. At the same time, someone with a black body will get hurt, possibly killed, because their skin defines them.

Can’t Resist a List

Few things will get my attention faster than a list. 

Lists with bullets, numbers, drawings — I fall for them all. I used to make my lists on scraps of paper and find them washed and dried in my pants pockets. I’m now more organized.  I’m a dedicated bullet journal follower, listing my life’s important events and must-do’s by month, then by day. In this journal, I keep track of the birds I’ve seen in 2020, movies I must see, poets I must read, and quotes I want to remember from books I’ve read. They are all in list form in my bullet journal.

No list, though, sets my heart aflutter like a list of advice. I read one this morning, riding in unannounced, as a list often will, through some portal and onto my computer. I clicked the list link and read all 68 items from writer/inventor/entrepreneur Kevin Kelly, who blogs at KK.org and co-writes a weekly newsletter called Recommendo. 

Kelly is a maker and a doer, and helped found Wired magazine, and his list reflects someone navigating his years with generosity, but with a certain get-it-done attitude. I read the list once, then decided I’d try and find my favorite 10.

I went through four rounds before I found my top 10, which means I had to eliminate sound pieces of advice, like No. 29 “To make mistakes is human. To own your mistake is divine. If you mess up, fess up. It’s astounding how powerful this ownership is.” (That should have been my mantra when I taught fifth grade: If you mess up, fess up.)

Or No. 30, “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.” (If you’re a fan of the movie Princess Bride, you’ll recognize that line from the film, proving once again that the best advice is borrowed advice.)

Here are my top 10:

No. 2 Being enthusiastic is worth 25 IQ points. (This one reminds me about the power of curiosity and my friend Carol, who could, with her revved up enthusiasm, make eating leftover fish soup on the third straight night seem like a terrific idea.)

No. 6 A worthy goal for a year is to learn enough about a subject so that you can’t believe how ignorant you were a year earlier. (Another vote for curiosity. Yes.)

No. 8 Treating a person to a meal never fails, and is so easy to do. It’s powerful with old friends and a great way to make new ones. (This one makes me think of two important women — my wife and her mother, Dorothy, who used her kitchen to heal people and befriend many others.)

No. 13 Extraordinary claims should require extraordinary evidence to be believed. (With the amount of bullshit we’re buried under daily, this manner of thinking seems essential to me. Did you hear about the people peddling the idea that Dr. Anthony Fauci is trying to take over the country with false Covid-19 claims? WTF. People believe this shit?)

No. 25 To make something good, just do it. To make something great, just re-do it, re-do it, re-do it. The secret to making fine things is in remaking them. (I’m thinking here of the novel I’m resisting revising for the third time. Shut up and re-do it.)

No. 42 There is no limit on better. Talent is distributed unfairly, but there is no limit on how much we can improve what we start with. (This is a perfect distillation of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset idea. I wrote a 50-page master’s thesis on the idea and Kelly boiled it down to 25 words.)

No. 47 Anything real begins with the fiction of what could be. Imagination is therefore the most potent force in the universe, and a skill you can get better at. It’s the one skill in life that benefits from ignoring what everyone else knows. (This reminds me of Yuval Noah Harari, who wrote in his book Sapiens that it was being able to fictionalize ideas that set homo sapiens apart from other species. We could make plans, which are, you see, nothing but a fiction.)

No. 58 When someone is nasty, rude, hateful, or mean with you, pretend they have a disease. That makes it easier to have empathy toward them which can soften the conflict. (I’d rather try empathy as a way to solve the problem than wallow in a nasty, hateful stew. The worst part about encountering rudeness is that we then take on being rude in return. No thanks.)

No. 63 Buying tools: Start by buying the absolute cheapest tools you can find. Upgrade the ones you use a lot. If you wind up using some tool for a job, buy the very best you can afford. (Nice formula for thinking about what’s important when we buy things.)

No. 68 The universe is conspiring behind your back to make you a success. This will be easier to do if you embrace this pronoia. (I’m a sucker for made-up words (neo-logisms) like pronoia, the opposite of paranoia. More important, if we’re going to have unbidden, wrong-headed thoughts swirling in our heads anyway — I can’t be the only one who suffers from this modern malady — why not inoculate ourselves with helpful thoughts, why prejudice the negative, why not choose the hopeful, if a little whacko, ones? If both paranoia and pronoia are thought choices, sign me up for pronoia.)

Here’s the list in full from Kevin Kelly’s blog. If you want to choose your top few, put them in the comments section. I’d love to know what people see as important.

It’s my birthday. I’m 68. I feel like pulling up a rocking chair and dispensing advice to the young ‘uns. Here are 68 pithy bits of unsolicited advice which I offer as my birthday present to all of you.

1. Learn how to learn from those you disagree with, or even offend you. See if you can find the truth in what they believe.

2. Being enthusiastic is worth 25 IQ points.

3. Always demand a deadline. A deadline weeds out the extraneous and the ordinary. It prevents you from trying to make it perfect, so you have to make it different. Different is better.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask a question that may sound stupid because 99% of the time everyone else is thinking of the same question and is too embarrassed to ask it.

5. Being able to listen well is a superpower. While listening to someone you love keep asking them “Is there more?”, until there is no more.

6. A worthy goal for a year is to learn enough about a subject so that you can’t believe how ignorant you were a year earlier.

7. Gratitude will unlock all other virtues and is something you can get better at.

8. Treating a person to a meal never fails, and is so easy to do. It’s powerful with old friends and a great way to make new friends.

9. Don’t trust all-purpose glue.

10. Reading to your children regularly will bond you together and kickstart their imaginations.

11. Never use a credit card for credit. The only kind of credit, or debt, that is acceptable is debt to acquire something whose exchange value is extremely likely to increase, like in a home. The exchange value of most things diminishes or vanishes the moment you purchase them. Don’t be in debt to losers.

12. Pros are just amateurs who know how to gracefully recover from their mistakes.

13. Extraordinary claims should require extraordinary evidence to be believed.

14. Don’t be the smartest person in the room. Hangout with, and learn from, people smarter than yourself. Even better, find smart people who will disagree with you.

15. Rule of 3 in conversation. To get to the real reason, ask a person to go deeper than what they just said. Then again, and once more. The third time’s answer is close to the truth.

16. Don’t be the best. Be the only.

17. Everyone is shy. Other people are waiting for you to introduce yourself to them, they are waiting for you to send them an email, they are waiting for you to ask them on a date. Go ahead.

18. Don’t take it personally when someone turns you down. Assume they are like you: busy, occupied, distracted. Try again later. It’s amazing how often a second try works.

19. The purpose of a habit is to remove that action from self-negotiation. You no longer expend energy deciding whether to do it. You just do it. Good habits can range from telling the truth, to flossing.

20. Promptness is a sign of respect.

21. When you are young spend at least 6 months to one year living as poor as you can, owning as little as you possibly can, eating beans and rice in a tiny room or tent, to experience what your “worst” lifestyle might be. That way any time you have to risk something in the future you won’t be afraid of the worst case scenario.

22. Trust me: There is no “them”.

23. The more you are interested in others, the more interesting they find you. To be interesting, be interested.

24. Optimize your generosity. No one on their deathbed has ever regretted giving too much away.

25. To make something good, just do it. To make something great, just re-do it, re-do it, re-do it. The secret to making fine things is in remaking them.

26. The Golden Rule will never fail you. It is the foundation of all other virtues.27. If you are looking for something in your house, and you finally find it, when you’re done with it, don’t put it back where you found it. Put it back where you first looked for it.

28. Saving money and investing money are both good habits. Small amounts of money invested regularly for many decades without deliberation is one path to wealth.

29. To make mistakes is human. To own your mistakes is divine. Nothing elevates a person higher than quickly admitting and taking personal responsibility for the mistakes you make and then fixing them fairly. If you mess up, fess up. It’s astounding how powerful this ownership is.

30. Never get involved in a land war in Asia.

31. You can obsess about serving your customers/audience/clients, or you can obsess about beating the competition. Both work, but of the two, obsessing about your customers will take you further.

32. Show up. Keep showing up. Somebody successful said: 99% of success is just showing up.

33. Separate the processes of creation from improving. You can’t write and edit, or sculpt and polish, or make and analyze at the same time. If you do, the editor stops the creator. While you invent, don’t select. While you sketch, don’t inspect. While you write the first draft, don’t reflect. At the start, the creator mind must be unleashed from judgement.

34. If you are not falling down occasionally, you are just coasting.

35. Perhaps the most counter-intuitive truth of the universe is that the more you give to others, the more you’ll get. Understanding this is the beginning of wisdom.

36. Friends are better than money. Almost anything money can do, friends can do better. In so many ways a friend with a boat is better than owning a boat.

37. This is true: It’s hard to cheat an honest man.

38. When an object is lost, 95% of the time it is hiding within arm’s reach of where it was last seen. Search in all possible locations in that radius and you’ll find it.

39. You are what you do. Not what you say, not what you believe, not how you vote, but what you spend your time on.

40. If you lose or forget to bring a cable, adapter or charger, check with your hotel. Most hotels now have a drawer full of cables, adapters and chargers others have left behind, and probably have the one you are missing. You can often claim it after borrowing it.

41. Hatred is a curse that does not affect the hated. It only poisons the hater. Release a grudge as if it was a poison.

42. There is no limit on better. Talent is distributed unfairly, but there is no limit on how much we can improve what we start with.

43. Be prepared: When you are 90% done any large project (a house, a film, an event, an app) the rest of the myriad details will take a second 90% to complete.

44. When you die you take absolutely nothing with you except your reputation.

45. Before you are old, attend as many funerals as you can bear, and listen. Nobody talks about the departed’s achievements. The only thing people will remember is what kind of person you were while you were achieving.

46. For every dollar you spend purchasing something substantial, expect to pay a dollar in repairs, maintenance, or disposal by the end of its life.

47. Anything real begins with the fiction of what could be. Imagination is therefore the most potent force in the universe, and a skill you can get better at. It’s the one skill in life that benefits from ignoring what everyone else knows.

48. When crisis and disaster strike, don’t waste them. No problems, no progress.

49. On vacation go to the most remote place on your itinerary first, bypassing the cities. You’ll maximize the shock of otherness in the remote, and then later you’ll welcome the familiar comforts of a city on the way back.

50. When you get an invitation to do something in the future, ask yourself: would you accept this if it was scheduled for tomorrow? Not too many promises will pass that immediacy filter.

51. Don’t say anything about someone in email you would not be comfortable saying to them directly, because eventually they will read it.

52. If you desperately need a job, you are just another problem for a boss; if you can solve many of the problems the boss has right now, you are hired. To be hired, think like your boss.

53. Art is in what you leave out.

54. Acquiring things will rarely bring you deep satisfaction. But acquiring experiences will.

55. Rule of 7 in research. You can find out anything if you are willing to go seven levels. If the first source you ask doesn’t know, ask them who you should ask next, and so on down the line. If you are willing to go to the 7th source, you’ll almost always get your answer.

56. How to apologize: Quickly, specifically, sincerely.

57. Don’t ever respond to a solicitation or a proposal on the phone. The urgency is a disguise.

58. When someone is nasty, rude, hateful, or mean with you, pretend they have a disease. That makes it easier to have empathy toward them which can soften the conflict.

59. Eliminating clutter makes room for your true treasures.

60. You really don’t want to be famous. Read the biography of any famous person.

61. Experience is overrated. When hiring, hire for aptitude, train for skills. Most really amazing or great things are done by people doing them for the first time.

62. A vacation + a disaster = an adventure.

63. Buying tools: Start by buying the absolute cheapest tools you can find. Upgrade the ones you use a lot. If you wind up using some tool for a job, buy the very best you can afford.

64. Learn how to take a 20-minute power nap without embarrassment.

65. Following your bliss is a recipe for paralysis if you don’t know what you are passionate about. A better motto for most youth is “master something, anything”. Through mastery of one thing, you can drift towards extensions of that mastery that bring you more joy, and eventually discover where your bliss is.

66. I’m positive that in 100 years much of what I take to be true today will be proved to be wrong, maybe even embarrassingly wrong, and I try really hard to identify what it is that I am wrong about today.

67. Over the long term, the future is decided by optimists. To be an optimist you don’t have to ignore all the many problems we create; you just have to imagine improving our capacity to solve problems.

68. The universe is conspiring behind your back to make you a success. This will be much easier to do if you embrace this pronoia.

A friend, a prompt, a poem

I live close to grief.

Covid-19 has killed approximately 2,400 people in Massachusetts — the number is sure to pass 3,000 soon. Friends of mine have come down with the virus, then have returned to health, but only after weeks without energy, days filled with fever and aches that lodge so deeply in joints that the pain feels part of the anatomy. 

I’ve lost no one.

Yet, we’ve all been suffering loss, grieving in some way, mine small and shallow, yours maybe larger and deeper. My wife mourns the loss of the touch of friendship, grieves that she can’t hug friends, welcoming them, in body and soul, into her warm family — a community of story, sharing, and food.

I grieve the acts that I once viewed as small; now I see them as essential: the handshake with the stranger, the high-five with the kid who just said something hilarious, meeting a friend downtown who I hadn’t seen for months, then feeling the glow of knowing that he and I share a nugget that time has yet to erode. So small. And yet, we grieve; we mourn the loss of the tiny interaction, because part of us suspects that we can’t be assured the moments of touch will return.

My friend, Carol, texted me earlier this week that she had heard Kwame Alexander on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, talking about how poetry might help some people cope with big emotions. I hadn’t heard the spot, though I admire Alexander’s work, especially his promoting of literacy in cities across the country. Alexander offered this prompt on Monday: What I’m learning about grief.

I listened to Alexander read one poem by Nancy Cross Dunham, who used the prompt. Then it occurred to me that Carol could help me write a poem using that prompt. I texted her a couple of stanzas, asking her to add to them. I combined our efforts below. If anyone would like to add to the poem, please do so in the comments section. 

We’ve already had four other contributions. Thank you, Andria, Janet, Valle, and Lynn. Keep’em coming!

Learning

What I’m learning about grief

is that we don’t mistake

it for happiness

like a mud pie

could look like the chocolatey one.

 

What I know about grief

is you cannot outrun or hide from it

as a child does from scolding parents

or monsters under the bed.

 

It knocks at the door

it’s no good pretending we’re not home

it knows we’re sagging into the couch

open the damn door

hang up its coat

offer it tea.

 

It is undeniable, a given

something you can count on

so greet it gently

or yell and scream.

Greet it, however it demands.

 

I do not greet grief.

It finds me, follows me like a shadow at unexpected times.

After losing my husband then another partner,

I know filled chairs at holiday dinners

never erase the loss — always a loved one missing.

Nothing fills the loss. It remains,

I see the missing.

 

i’m learning that grief can be

Rekindled

the familiar childish stomping “NO!”

in my Heart
a sadness that reduces me to
counting cards
birds and turtles
a so-brief respite from
Sorrow.

it lives in my marrow
flows with my blood
through narrow passages
touching the surface releasing tears,
seeping deep making my muscles numb,
sparking memories that force smiles, laughter too.

 

Likes to come through music

Especially on a warm day, in the car

With the windows down.

Maybe it’s Lucinda singing about the big red sun

Or Leonard singing just about anything

But mister grief wants us to know he is there, just on the edge of that song