jimowenswrites

Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Month: June, 2017

When They are Down There and I am up Here

when they are down there and I’m up here, sitting in the unfamiliar cool of an Alabama summer’s night, listening to the music of their laughter rising, and they see me, watching and smiling as I am, they are probably thinking, strange man, he’s out of place; but it’s really very simple, you see, I’m wondering if they know, if they are truly awake to how precious this moment is, and that life is short and friends are precious; I hope they know, that they really know, deep down in their bellies, if even for a moment, that the absence of care, and the the company of friends, is a precious jewel, an emerald shining in the sun, a shimmering sapphire,  a diamond forged under the pressure of life and achievement and gain and loss, when they are down there and I am up here in the unfamiliar cool of an Alabama summer’s night, listening to the music of their laughter.

Words Pour From Me

Words

pour from

me like water,

torrents of rushing water,

cleansing my soul from within,

from deep within my soul, gushing onto

blank pages, until the ink-covered paper becomes

a placid pool, an estuary of emotion, a reservoir of relief,

for a time, until my dreams must once more spill over, or burst

forth, from the dams of illusion, unrestrained by convention and security.

Bus Stop: A Brief Fiction

He was standing on the curb wearing his navy polo and a pair of chinos (flat-front, not pleated), rocking a kind of business-casual look.  With neatly-parted hair and new(ish) shoes, Max was a study in perfection. He tried not to make eye contact with his companions at the bus stop.  Idle conversation wasn’t his thing.  The day had started well and the familiar anxiety of a Monday morning wasn’t as pronounced as it normally was. There was no point in inviting more of it.  The bus ride itself would be unpleasant enough.

 

If loneliness made a noise, Max might have thought, it was surely the sound of an approaching bus in an overcast dawn.  The creak and moan and shudder of steel and rubber rolling over asphalt; gears complaining as a weary driver coaxed and pleaded and, finally, forced the transmission into compliance; and the squall and whine of fatigued brakes joined together in a foreboding soundtrack for the day.

 

Max waited for the others to board like he always did, hoping his preferred seat would still be available on the bus.  He liked to sit in the middle, where he could disappear into the drone of passengers chattering and rumble of the diesel engines. He took a deep breath, steeling himself, as he climbed the worn-rubber steps onto the bus and glanced down the walkway. Thank God. His seat was unoccupied.  He could lean against the wall and peer out at the passing sights, enjoy just a little more peace before the real challenges of the day began.

 

It would be years later before Max would realize loneliness might even have its own smell. The alchemy of sweat, freshly shampooed hair, and cinnamon pastries (even though there was no eating allowed on the bus) joined the diesel fumes, birthing an odor he would never forget.   But that would be later.  This morning, he slid into the seat and plopped his backpack to his left, a hopeful barrier against the possibility of some other passenger wanting to join him in his sanctuary.

 

Max got on the bus at the corner of Journey Avenue and Rushing Street.  Fortunately, there was only one remaining stop until his destination.  Usually, only one or two passengers boarded at that stop, so the odds were good he would have the seat to himself this morning. Fingers crossed.  This day might not be so bad after all.  No one had said anything to him this morning.  That was a good sign.  Max looked for things like that.  There were signs everywhere if you just watched for them.

 

But this morning, he had misread the omens.  When she sat down next to him, Max was crestfallen, even though she had smiled, waiting patiently for him to transfer his book bag from the seat to his lap.  He did it politely, somehow managing to hide his reluctance and fear. Max managed a muttered Welcome in response to her thank-you.

 

The scent of strawberries and lilac wafted from her, filling Max with an unfamiliar emotion.  He didn’t recognize her—couldn’t even remember ever seeing her on the bus before.  So he allowed himself the risk of quick glance, hoping to remain undiscovered.

 

“I’m Lucy.”

 

In just minutes Max’s emotions had run the obstacle course of peace, fear, hope, and now he was facing shear panic.  Oh, no.  Stupid. Stupid.  Stupid.  But gathering his dignity, as he always did, he managed a reply.

 

“Max,” he muttered.  “Pleased to meet you.”  Manners were important to Max.  Even when you didn’t feel like being courteous, it was the right thing to do.

 

Max felt the bus gaining speed.  One more left turn and his destination would be in sight.  But for now, he was trapped.

 

“It’s my first day to take the bus,” she said.  “We just moved.  My Mom drove me the first couple of days.  But she started her new job today, so here I am.”

 

Something in the way Lucy spoke, the sound of her voice, or how she smelled—like hope, maybe—washed away most of Max’s bourgeoning anxiety.  Normally, Max would have just grunted a courteous reply.  But he felt something unfamiliar in the moment—it wasn’t boldness—but something close to confidence.  It was enough to allow him the gamble of a reply.

 

“The bus isn’t so bad.  If you don’t mind the smell and the noise.”

 

Lucy nodded a smile.  By now, Max was actually willing to make eye contact.  He noticed Lucy poking the frame of her glasses, pushing them back onto her delicate nose.  Max thought she was pretty, with her cherubic cheeks, porcelain skin and wavy black hair.  He had never really talked to girls before.  For that matter, he didn’t really talk to anyone.  It was just safer that way.

 

His Mom had always told Max to be brave.  She told him he was smart. (He was.)  She told him he was funny. (In a good way.)  And she told him that some day, even though he didn’t fit in now, he would.  “Kids are mean sometimes,” Max, she said. “But it gets better.”  All that was probably true.  His Mom wouldn’t lie to him.  But still.

 

As the bus doors opened, legions of pre-adolescent boys and girls poured onto the concrete sidewalks, some of the dragging wheeled book bags behind them, others stooped under the weight of book laden backpacks and expectation, Max waited his turn to disembark.  He looked at Lucy who was gathering her things.   He saw something familiar in her eyes and the way her eyebrows were drawn almost imperceptibly inward.

 

“Know your way around the building yet?” he asked.

 

“Not really.  Especially finding my homeroom,” she said.  “This place is a lot bigger than my old school.”

 

Suddenly, Max felt as if he had been transported away from all of the worry and fear and isolation—away from the taunts and judgment.  The sound of children clambering off the bus somehow seemed silenced and for a moment, he stood with Lucy, alone on an island of anticipation.

 

“I could show you the way,” Max said.  “If you want.”

The People You Meet: Smiling Pete

Recently, I’ve made a new friend.  He’s twenty-six, holds two jobs, and is always smiling.  As it turns out, we live in the same building and on the same floor.  My new friend, I’ll call him Pete, and I have a lot in common.

As children, we both lived in a large Midwestern city.  We both like college football.  We both like baseball.    I like to travel.  So does Pete.  We’ve been to a lot of the same places.

There are some differences in our lives.  We pull for different teams.  Pete has two sisters.  I’m an only child.  Oh yeah, I’m fifty-six.  So my kids are older than Pete.  In many ways, it’s an unlikely friendship, formed in an unlikely place.

On the weekends, Pete works at one of my favorite hangouts.  He greets guests.  He busses tables.  He makes the joint an even better place to visit—if you’ll let him.  A lot of people miss that experience.  You see, they don’t want to make eye contact with Pete.  They’re a little uncomfortable around him.

Pete’s speech is a little difficult to understand.  He has trouble with Ys and Hs.  Sometimes, when he joins me while I’m eating, he has to pull out his phone to type out what he’s trying to say.  Then, he’ll turn the phone to me and patiently wait for me to catch on.  His wide perpetual smile displays a set of imperfect teeth.  Pete is fair-skinned. He says he burns easily.  And sometimes, I can’t tell if he’s forgotten to shave or if he’s growing a beard.  His dark black beard set against pale skin can make Pete seem even more unusual.

I’m honestly not sure what Pete’s disabilities might be.  Although he has trouble speaking, he’s bright— but maybe just a bit below the peak of the bell-shaped curve society uses to define normal. I know he doesn’t drive. That doesn’t seem to bother him  though, because he walks to a local high school during football season where he serves as team manager.  He’s been doing that since he was sixteen years-old. Clearly, Pete doesn’t trouble with commitment to a job.

When Pete and I  first began to run into one another, I’ll admit I was a little uncomfortable.  I’ll even confess that I still am sometimes.  But that’s my problem, not Pete’s.  When Pete sits down to keep me company, the conversation can be a little awkward because while he understands every word I say, I can’t always understand him.  I’m getting better at it.  Thankfully, Pete is patient. The best friends always are.

Today, Pete wasn’t even working when I rolled in and placed an order for my go-to meal. He was just hanging out—and was rather nattily dressed, I have to say. With a big grin and handshake, he told me, “ooo eat in ‘ere a lot.”  Remember, Pete has trouble with Ys and Hs.  But I knew exactly what he meant.  I do eat in there a lot.  And he was ribbing me, you know, the way friends do.

After I grabbed the little number thing and cup of water, I looked over to my shoulder to see Pete following me. Before I could finish saying, “Sit down, down.  Keep me company,” Pete was already in his seat.  Today, we talked about his Father’s Day lunch with his Dad and family.  We talked about swimming.  We talked about baseball.

His team lost today.  As it turns out, Pete really loves his team.  Pulling the sleeve of his t-shirt over his shoulder, he proudly displayed a St. Louis Cardinals tattoo.  He pointed at it with pride.  And of course, he was smiling.

And so was I.

 

 

 

These Hands

These hands,

with blistered red palms

and aching fingers,

so gashed and scraped,

scarred from their endless toil,

blemished by digging and scratching,

in the red and ochre clay,

nails worn from ceaseless combing

through the obsidian loam,

angered from the relentless searching

for treasure buried deep beneath  sun-scorched sands.

 

This back,

that yips and barks,

whining like and some infant

longing for his mother’s comfort,

knotted muscles, burning

mourning and pleading,

begging for mercy,

carrying burdens from ancient labors,

stooped, yet rising,

rising,

sometimes rising with counterfeit hope laden by the weight of fool’s gold found;

 

These eyes,

that search,

staring into the horizon,

fatigued from incessantly peering into the glare,

watching mirages of home dance across the waters,

clouded by soot and smoke and dust,

the detritus of misunderstanding

becoming tears of relief,

squinting to focus,

to truly see,

to behold that elusive jewel, that hidden treasure, buried by the pirates of illusion;

 

These hands,

that now finally possess,

gently holding the ruby-laden cup,

encrusted with delicate stones,

pressed by time and weight,

shaped by fires that have burned away the dross of confusion,

these open, broken, filthy hands

these hands that have turned over stone after stone,

these hands that have tossed aside the broken glass,

and the scattered remnants of fools and tyrants and the lost,

without clutching, for just this moment, or perhaps longer, at last possess,

that once hidden treasure, salvaged from deep within.

 

Fear of Flying: A brief fiction

 

The man sitting beside him made Mark uncomfortable.  Maybe it was the way the man was dressed—grey pants, grey button down, brown shoes.   Or it could have been the the length of his neck, the way it jutted out of his collar, almost like a turtle’s head poking out from its shell, just seemed unusual.  But whatever it was, Mark knew it was going to be awkwardly long flight—even if it was just thirty-five minutes from Huntsville to Atlanta.

  At least I have the aisle seat.
When the flight attendant made her final pass through the cabin, Mark was relieved to know their flight had been cleared for take-off.  As the Embraer’s engines slurped in oxygen and fuel, Mark took a deep breath.  The only part of flying he liked less than landing was taking off.  The rattle of luggage above him and the indeterminate sounds of metallic fatigue always unsettled him.  But he reassured himself that flying was the safest way to travel and that he had nothing to worry about.  Except maybe the man sitting next to him.  Guy looks like Ichabod Crane. 

 

As the plane relentlessly fought gravity and finally levelled off at cruising altitude, Mark’s heart jumped, just as it always did, when the roar of the engines faded.  He squirmed in his seat, his feet anxiously pushing against the floor as if to insure the plane didn’t lose altitude under reduced power.

 

“Nervous?” asked Ichabod.

 

Mark let out an anxious uh-uh, punctuating it with a nervous laugh and a “’course not.”

 

No matter how many times Mark flew, he could never quite seem to get over his fear.  Hell.  It wasn’t fear.  It was something closer to a controlled kind of panic.  With every bit of turbulence, every slight bit of yaw, and, God forbid, the unexpected crash of something in the galley, Mark beat back the dragons of terror.

 

“No.  Sure.  Of course not,” said Ichabod.  “Sometimes, for me, well, sometimes I’m a peaceful as a newborn lamb on a flight.  Other times, I feel like a hunted animal—heart pounding in my chest, breathing like it’s my last breath.  Good that you don’t have to deal with that.  Wouldn’t wish it on anyone.” 

Geez.  Now this guy is gonna talk my head off. 

Mark cursed silently, wishing he hadn’t forgotten his headphones.  Maybe, he could just close his eyes and the guy would get the message.  He leaned his head back on the vinyl, or whatever it was, cushion and found himself wondering who had last lain his or her head back in that seat.  He shuddered, visions of unwashed hair or worse racing through his mind and gently lifted his back up from the headrest.

 

“What takes you to Atlanta?  Going home or leaving?”

 

Short of being downright rude, Mark knew he was going to have to talk to Ichabod.

 

“Catching another flight.  On the way to LA.”

 

“Now that’s a long flight.”

 

“Yep.”  Mark wished he’d just lied and said he was going home.  But if the guy lived in Atlanta that might have lead to questions he couldn’t answer.

 

“Business or pleasure?” asked Ichabod.

 

Damn.

 

“Business.  Going to see a client.”

 

“Guess that kind of question is a little odd.”

 

Mark couldn’t tell if Ichabod exactly who the guy was talking to—it seemed more rhetorical than it seemed directed at him.

 

“Pardon?” Come on, Mark.  Leave it alone. 

 

“Oh, I just mean, it’s kind of an odd question.  You know, if you’re travelling for business or pleasure,” Ichabod offered.

 

Mark noticed the timbre of the man’s voice change.  Was it lower?  Or maybe it just sounded strange because of the pressure in his ears.

 

“You know,” Ichabod continued.  “Business or pleasure.  Seems kind like you shouldn’t have to pick.  Know what I mean?”

 

Mark was beginning to forget how uncomfortable the man had made him when they first sat down.  He noticed the man had impossibly long fingers and wondered if the man might suffer from Marfan’s syndrome—but even with noticing them, it didn’t strike him as odd as it might have earlier.

 

“I guess.  But work is—well, it’s work.  You have to make a living.”

 

“Oh, yeah.  Of course, you do, Mark.  But sometimes it seems like you have to mortgage yourself to buy little bits of pleasure.  Maybe they should be the same thing,” said Ichabod.  “I don’t know. I’m sorry.  I’m just rambling.  Forgive me.”

 

Mark thought about the fact he really didn’t enjoy his job.  It paid well.  Came with some nice perks.  It was respectable and occasionally satisfying.  But the truth was, he’d come to the place where he didn’t expect that much from it anymore.  Whenever he found himself depressed or discouraged about his job, he just pressed it down.  Kind of like how he pushed down the near panic of flying.

 

“Who do you work for?” asked Mark.

 

“Who?  Me?  Oh, I work for myself.”

 

“Doing what, Ich—?” Mark caught himself.

 

“Oh.  It’s nothing really.  Nothing important.  But I enjoy it.  Which is something, I suppose.”

 

Mark thought about the long flights.  The hotels.  The Monday morning sales meetings.  It was what he called excited misery.  The next deal.  The next client.  The next—everything.

 

“I don’t really like my job,” confessed Mark.  “I mean, it’s a good job.  Good benefits.  Pays the bills. Truth is, I wish I could just quit.”

 

Ichabod’s face flushed, as if he were embarrassed.

 

“Oh.  Don’t do that,” pleaded Ichabod.

 

Mark was confused.

 

“But I thought you said you didn’t think people should have to choose between business and pleasure.”

 

Ichabod apologized.  He tried to explain what he meant.  Or at least Mark thought that was what he was doing.  For a minute, all Mark heard was something that sounded like garbled voices when you were just close enough for two stations to occupy the same spot on the dial.  He cocked his head a little, like a dog hearing a high-pitched whistle.  That was better.

 

“…don’t have to, I think.  I mean it’s possible, you know.  To make it a different kind of choice.  It’s possible to find meaning in even the most mundane things,” said Ichabod.  “If you pay attention to the people around you—to how you make them feel, to the things you teach them, just by being present.  I think you can change the world that way.  But you have to pay attention.”

 

Mark nodded.  By now, he had forgotten his discomfort.  Ichabod’s confession that he struggled with fear sometimes, his attention to Mark’s anxiety, and his humility had been more than enough for Mark to let go of his irritation.  Ichabod made a certain amount of sense.  Anyway, it was something to think about.

 

Mark had barely noticed when the plane had begun its final descent onto the runway of Hartsfield International.  As the plane came to a stop and the cabin door had opened, Mark stood and looked at Ichabod.

 

“You getting off here?” he asked.

 

“No. Just a stopover.  This flight goes on to Philadelphia.  I get off there.”

 

“Well,” said Mark.  “It was nice to meet you.”

 

“Nice to meet you, Mark.”

 

“I’m Mark, by the way.  What’s your name?”

 

“I’m Sophos,” the man replied.

 

“That’s an interesting name.  Family name?”

 

“Well, yes.  I suppose.  It’s Greek.”

 

Mark could feel the push of hurriedly travelers behind him and said, “Guess I better get out of these people’s way, Sophos.  Have a nice trip.”

 

“You too, Mark.  Enjoy your journey.”

 

Mark fell in with the rest of the herd exiting the plane, robotically dragging his carry on behind him.  As he exited the jet-way into the terminal, he thought about the man’s name.  Sophos.  Unusual name.  Maybe he should look it up.  Mark thought his family had some Greek heritage, but he wasn’t sure.  He checked his ticket for the departure time of his connecting flight and noticed his name on the ticket.

 

Wait.  Did Sophos ever ask me my name?  How did he know my name?

 

He looked at his luggage.  Nope.  No tags.  His ticket had been in his pocket.  Did the flight attendant call him by name?  No.  He was sure of it. That’s just plain weird.  Mark thought about his encounter with Sophos the all the way to his next gate. When the Boeing 737 leveled off, Mark looked at the man sitting next to him. He could tell the other man was avoiding eye contact, trying to dissolve into his own private flight bubble.

 

“Hey.  My name’s Mark.  Long flight ahead of us.  Figure we might as well get to know one another.”