Trumping the candle

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, December 27, 2015

We have just lit a candle. An expensive, beautiful smelling, long-burning candle, the scent of which is neroli, I believe, (citrus aurantium — the flower of the bitter orange — a heady, citrusy, flowery scent still prized, as it was in ancient Egypt, for its calming, tranquilizing and mood-elevating effects). It is widely used in the perfume industry, and suspected to be one of the secret ingredients in the recipe for Coca-Cola.

We have not lit this candle as vigil or to make the house redolent of some evocative, mysterious, unnamable thing that leads one by the nose to blissful realms. It has not been lit to mark the presence of guests or the dinner hour or even as a late night treat for watching flame shadows flicker against a wall. In fact, we’re not even at home. We’re at work.

We’ve lit a candle quickly, with a specific purpose in mind and are having a good laugh about it now. This candle and matches have been dispatched to dispel bad energy, to clear the air, to burn away any residual negativity and to begin a new moment. Because what we’ve just had in our midst is an unfortunate person who does not have much control at all over her thoughts or her mouth and whose go-to expression is one of sourness, negativity and fault-finding. Meanwhile, in reality and right outside the door, soft fat snowflakes are falling all around, dotting peoples’ noses and eyelashes and accumulating in frosting-like layers, blanketing the town in a quiet and beautiful peace.

We are laughing for a couple of reasons. Because of the quick first aid we’ve applied to our space, the great and perfunctory speed of the sequence at which we’ve allowed a negative person to exit through a door and gone to fetch a good candle. We’re laughing because of the visible drama of marking the moment instead of internalizing it, which would involve taking on someone else’s miserable day, and taking it personally, a switch-up that is truly liberating.

And we’re also laughing because we’ve all been there before, in that discontented place, marching around like Pigpen from “Peanuts,” neck deep in a cloud of angry or resentful or fearful or lonely pheromones — inattentive to the world around us, thoroughly smitten by our own up-and-and-down-and-all-around stories, unaware or uncaring of their undeniable effects on other people.

The candle smells really good. In contrast to crisp, fresh mountain air, which is intoxicating and soul-reviving in its own way, the warmth and sweetness of the candle calms, helps us pause, accompanies us. Now, we are able to relax. Reboot. Let go of someone’s sharp, unwitting commentary.

Candles, which have been around for thousands of years, from the tiniest birthday candles to the tallest pillars, never disappoint. From insect wax and tallow, to oils, petroleums and more current permutations, we have lit our way through time, consoling and marking the moments as small flames burn bright. Now more than ever — in the advent of blue-screen glow and fluorescent light — we can benefit from the purity and light of fire, even in its most diminutive format.

Very shortly after we’ve applied micro-fire and scent to our space, another person walks through the door, this time a well-known personality with a couple of teenaged children and a husband in tow. They are an up group, a group whose vibe, charged with laughter and good cheer, with positivity and a sense of fun all around, changes everything and all at once.

We can feel it permeate not just the space but also our bones, our brains. It’s sweet and infectious and transformative. The children are polite. There is no sense of privilege or entitlement or urgency — none of that; and once they leave with their bags, the air in the shop expands, charged with good sparks, with pleasure, gratitude and generosity. It is now the prevailing climate, the power of which has trumped the candle by a long shot.

And we are the beneficiaries. It leaves us with a moment of real gratitude for the goodness of people who behave well. Who spread lightness of heart and joy. It gives us a moment to reflect on all of those who have told us (from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Norman Vincent Peale to Louise

Hay, Pema Chodron and many others) how important it is to tend to our emotional health, to take responsibility, to

examine the quality of our thoughts and emotions and to take care as we birth them in every moment.

What we learn, once again, this time from the cute candle-trumper family, is that good behavior is its own reward. It feels good and it makes others feel good. And what more could we possibly ask for as we attempt to make the very most of our limited time here on planet Earth?


Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, November 23, 2014

A little boy about five years old peers back from row 30 and looks at me. He’s cute. Big brown eyes, curly black hair, communicating with his expression since he doesn’t have English at his disposal. I smile at him, and he shyly holds my gaze. No trace of a brat. Occasionally I hear the low voice of the mother but I can’t make out the language.

I have row 31 all to myself on this flight from New York and have been reading and staring out the window a lot, thinking about One World Trade Center, 1776 feet, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, and now open. Window washers have just had a close call on floor 68. Our entire town could easily fit in one of these vertical needles. How does this teeming, grinding, vibrating city do it?

Halfway through the flight, the mother of the boy, a beauty, taps me on the shoulder. “Excuse me, can I sit here?” Despite an accent, she speaks without faltering.

Sure, I say, and she immediately curls up in the seat, knees up, and conks out like a light. I actually crawl over her to get to the bathroom at some point, and note she’s dressed like half the rest of the people on the plane — jeans, hoodie, sneakers, leather shoulder bag, leather watch. By the time I return, she is awake.

She has three boys, in fact, and a husband (and a brother-in-law farther forward). When she takes the three year old into her arms, I motion for her to use the middle seat for him, and once he falls asleep she looks at me, “We are all so tired,” she says, a little sheepishly.

“Where are you coming from?” I ask.

“Turkey,” she says. “We were two years there. Before that, Iraq. Now we have been sleeping in the airports for two days.” So, they are all kinds of unfathomable layers of tired.

She was at university, she says, when she had her first child. The boys are now three, four and five, “like steps. Not one child, not even two, but three!” She says this both exasperated and captivated, as if now, tired with travel and the further unraveling of her story, the magnitude of this brood has finally exploded. The two older boys are lying like sardines in row 30. The husband has found himself an empty seat across the aisle.

I ask if she speaks Turkish, too. “Not perfect, but well.” She smiles and says she likes languages, that they are good for — she points to her brain. Now, she says, they are on their way to Portland. Where they have friends. It soon becomes clear this is not a simple visit but a permanent one.

I tell her Portland is a great city — and the water is nice. Her eyes light up. “Water?” she says. She has no idea that Portland is on the coast. She is looking forward to cool weather, she says, loves the cold, Iraq is so hot. She tells me she is worried about getting a job and wonders out loud if it will be okay. I tell her my mother was an immigrant and she thinks about this, studying me, and then tells me I look American. I tell her she looks American, too — that anybody can look American here in America. She smiles at this.

“We are starting again,” she says. “We are from Iraq — we are not bad people,” she pauses. “We have dreams.” The word dreams resonates and I feel the miles she has walked and the lives she is carrying on her back. “You’ll be fine,” I say.

“You think?”

I nod. “Yes,” I say. “Be strong!” It is not something I have ever really said to anyone but they already know what strong means, I’m just adding a little more kindling to her fire.

Once we’ve disembarked, I note that the two men have paperwork in plastic sleeves strung around their necks on lanyards, paperwork that says, we are fresh, we are legal, we are vulnerable and we will take your help if you give it. I steal one last look as they all stand there studying the departures, one zoom-click closer to a fresh and unimaginable life.

This is still America. People are still arriving, homeless and tempest-tossed, as the poem says. Their huddled mass may be family-sized but they are tired. They have dreams. They are pilgrims on missions to lay rest to their past unrest, to start all over again with hope and determination.

What a beautiful thing to remember as we prepare to break bread, slice turkey, and eat pie together, 393 years after the original thanks-giving feast.


Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, November 17, 2013

It is nearly midnight and you have just arrived in New York City. It’s your first day of vacation, and your first vacation in a long time. The approach, right over the city, is unbelievable — lights for miles in the crystalline black of night, Manhattan Island like an ornate jewel, pulsating, scintillating, set apart.

In the silence of the taxi, you scream quietly through streets, over the Robert F. Kennedy bridge and then down through East Harlem toward your friends’ apartment.

You haul your stuff up and settle in the guest room, the one next to the bathroom that has better water pressure than any hotel you’ve ever been to. Which is one reason you left New York all those years ago, because of the carbon-footprint mindbender of fantastic water pressure three floors up in a city of 10 million.

Though you’re tempted take a hot shower, right then, instead, you reach for your carry-on and unzip it, given that the toiletries are right there on top.
When you flip it open, however, you don’t see your cleanser. Or toothpaste, or little pills. Or the Ziploc holding them — or anything else. Instead of your clothes is a pile of brochures sitting loosely on a stack of men’s socks. White socks you’ve never seen before. And shirts. Someone’s shirts. That you don’t recognize.

You drop the flap and freeze. What is happening here? Who are you? All of a sudden your hands aren’t your own. You feel like you’re in a movie, a dark comedy written by people who hate you.

It occurs to you then, as you launch yourself into the bathroom like a missile, that it is your companion who has taken the wrong bag down from the overhead compartment on the plane! You tell him he’s made a terrible mistake, terrible! Spitting out his own perfectly packed, tracked and traveled-with toothpaste, he tells you the mistake was probably made in Denver at the gate check cart. Because there was only one bag to take from the overhead, which is the one he took.

Where is your silver carry-on, then, the one purchased specifically not to look like the hundreds of plain black ones? Now, of course, it’s obvious: This silver thing is not yours at all. It’s scuffed. There is a tag with a phone number on it (708!), which you call and text to no avail. Maybe this non-existent, faceless man has gone off without any bag, had a heart attack and died. Where does that put your bag, though, a bag without identification of any kind?

Numbly, you fill in the required online form, which is pointless unless you have checked your bag (in the future, you never even hear back). And then you start to think about everything in that bag, the only bag you have ever really been proud of packing, since you are a worthless packer, the kind of packer who, despite lists, panics at the end and either packs too little or too much, and then throws stuff in indiscriminately. This time, you have spent an entire week editing the bag for New York and for 10 days abroad. All the gifts for the relatives (12) have painstakingly been packed as well. There is plenty of underwear. The right ratio of shirts to sweaters, jeans to other pants. You have even packed a safety pin.

The next day, fully discombobulated, you find yourself buying pants and underwear, and even though you love this particular store, you cannot think straight. Can you travel to France with two pairs of pants and a shirt? Arrive with no gifts? Your companion leads you around like a person trailing an IV. You might as well be wearing a backless hospital gown because that is how it feels.

While in the dressing room, a call comes in. Finally: white-socks. His phone has died but now he’s received your message and, boy, this is a catastrophe because he is about to go to a conference without his brochures. He quickly tells you that you’ve obviously picked up his bag first since he was sitting in the back of the plane. Huh? Utterly unnerved, you take responsibility. And two days and $360 later, you are reunited with your bag and he, presumably, with his.

You force yourself to forget the money and proceed to have a fantastic trip. You narrowly miss running out of gas (see six rainbows that day, in fact). You narrowly miss having your wallet pinched in the Paris metro (you feel his hand on it and see him flee). You narrowly miss a major flight-canceling storm in Europe (you get driving rain and flapping shutters in Paris).

Somehow in the great pachinko machine of cause and effect, it all evens out. Which is reassuring. But that doesn’t change the one take-away from this:

Tag the bag, sister. Tag the freaking bag next time.

Rancherman (™) (Get the action figure)

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, August 18, 2013

People have their superheros. Their muses and icons and gurus and gods, those they look up to and wish they were more like. They have their Merlins and Morgaines and Wonder Womans and Joseph Campbells, their Yoganandas and Baghwans, their personal trainers and life coaches, their grandmas and great aunts, the ones who have given them the goods on life. They have their peeps, their teddy bears. Their talismans. Their pacifiers. They have them in order to get up in the morning, to get through the day, or the dark, or a rough patch.

Me? I have Rancherman, my personal muse and superhero. I believe I mentioned him last time — but only in passing. Now, I can elaborate.

Rancherman, though a legitimate superhero, strays from the profile. He doesn’t really have it in him to go big; why would he? With Rancherman, there is no dark backstory or cape or secret identity — mainly because of his ranching background. His mother lived to be 97. His father grew up on a horse.

Because of these simple and humble roots, the work of Rancherman is quotidian, expressing itself on a sort of toast-and-coffee level. His moral ethic and mission is inserted gently into an ordinary day, like a slender bookmark on page 229 of The Poetry of Robert Frost. The work he does is basic and foundational — without newspaper coverage or fanfare or potential movie rights.

For instance: say it’s a rainy day in August and the first cool twinges of fall are crimping one’s heart a bit. Ow. You clutch, feeling something indescribably melancholy. The clouds, getting darker and darker and rolling in from who knows where, are an intense, heavy-stomached, stormy, sea-sky blue sort of deep gray meant to overwhelm one. You feel yourself slipping into that faraway land of vague, boat-bobbing longing.

While a part of you is busy wondering what that color really should be named, and also how a color can be so connected to one’s heart, the rest of you just simply wants to wallow. There is no doubt: as the rain comes crashing down amid lightning and thunder, you want to wallow, to wrap yourself in wool and stare out a window, a window whose transparent face has sweet tears of rain streaming down it. You want to listen to Rachmaninoff and think about the high drama of more important people’s lives. About far off places where the stakes are high.

This is right about the time Rancherman should be hailed, just before getting trapped in that parallel universe of greener grass just on the other side of the fence. This is when you call upon him, saying W.W.R.D. What Would Rancherman Do?

Well, Rancherman doesn’t know how to wallow in anything. It’s never been a possibility for him, and neither have a lot of other confusing emotions. Rancherman arrives on the wings of common sense, wearing faded jeans and an ironed shirt, usually something in blue, possibly checkered. He carries a handkerchief in his pocket. His hands are calloused but his heart is soft, superhumanly soft perhaps. He comes in humming a tune — without a hint of fight-or-flight response in his body. This, come to think of it, is also superhuman.

Rancherman doesn’t see bittersweet gloom in the August sky and doesn’t get all sad, either. He looks out at his cattle, his horses, as the rains pelt them, and takes a moment to pause. Yes, that he will do. For the thousandth time, he wonders what the animals think about as the water comes down. If they notice the rain in their eyes like he might. Then before thinking too much more, he puts on his boots and goes out to check on things.

This is the essence of Rancherman. This, I suppose, is his real secret weapon, his true superhuman trait, this constant checking. Checking on his cattle, on his horses, his ditch. Then checking on his closest neighbor whose truck hasn’t been starting lately. Checking on her trees, the ones in dire need of pruning.

While he checks on things, Rancherman remains quietly optimistic for good outcomes. He is careful and spare with words. He keeps his feet dry and his collar up, but doesn’t hunch over as he walks. He’s my man. Solid. Steadfast. Present. He sleeps well.

And he’s the one I call upon when the skies get dark. Rancherman. Then when his voice comes, it’s soft and gentle, almost sensuous. “Easy girl,” he says, taking off his leather gloves. “Don’t get all balled up. Pay attention to right now, the way the light’s coming in. See it? And then keep checking on things. Always keep checking.”