01 Aug

God Must Be An Introvert

Rock Creek Park

 

“Listening to the sounds of silence” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (August 14, 2016).

The sound of stone and gravel crushing under tires signaled my escape was at hand. The small lot sat empty, as it usually is, and the trailhead stood in front of me, waiting patiently as it always does. The asphalt road, with its winding path to the impatient world I was running from, lay behind me. I stepped out of the car, and soon my feet touched unpaved earth.

My solitary sentence began.

Such prison breaks have become increasingly necessary for my soul, as day by day it seems this extroverted world into which I was born grows more and more extroverted, thriving on ever-increasing noise, exposure, activity, and connectivity. It’s Times Square sprawl, its echoing din far-reaching.

I run from the neon lights, and envy early man and the quiet he must have known. Imagine a world so quiet that the sound of a shooting star echoes across time as the past streaks by in the night sky. Our ancestors knew such quiet in their souls. That quiet, however, both in the world and in our souls, seems to be rapidly disappearing.

As are our ways of escaping it.

The park benches far away from the crowds where the misfit introverts gather to be independent together? They used to be relatively safe spots for quiet. Our open-carry permit for cellphones has changed all that. Today, I find myself increasingly playing the role of the involuntary eavesdropper. The stage changes — the waiting room, the check-out line, ballfield bleachers, or the bus — yet the noisy play goes on. Perhaps we could bring back the phone booth, those all-but-extinct props from the past. Not to provide privacy to the caller, but to give quiet to the rest of us. Need to make a call? Enter the booth, no quarters needed. Herman Munster was onto something when he installed that coffin phone booth in his hallway. I may even follow suit myself, just to bury the noise.

In the meantime, I run away from it, and escape to the woods.

Though not yet dusk, the Earth is quickly spinning away from the sun as I set foot on the trail. Immediately the canopy branching out above me seems to quicken the Earth’s rotation toward darkness. Rain from the night before has left the ground slick, soft, and shoe-suction muddy. It is not long before my presence is noticed.

A fly buzzes by my ear and I swat it away, continuing down the path. He follows me, though, and whizzes by my other ear just a few steps later. I swat again and quicken my pace. He comes at me still, louder and faster, whizzing and whirring — and taunting too, I am certain of it. The game continues minute after minute as I maddeningly slap, swat, and thwack at the air, a madman alone in the woods. I walk faster still, but the fly, an extrovert himself, is persistent, demanding attention, buzzing in my ear.

In nature I had sought refuge from the extroverted world outside it, and yet nature’s chief extrovert was sabotaging my retreat. Each buzz was another Marimba ringtone; each whirr a banner-towing airplane turning the ocean horizon into a billboard; and each deafening drone just another device spewing noise from our ever-connected, mute-neglected, wireless world.

Again, I ran from the noise. Slipping and sliding along the trail, I came to a stop a quarter of a mile deeper into the woods. Above my panting breath, I listened.

All was quiet. I had outrun the extrovert, and I smiled.

Standing in silence and breathing in the stillness, the slightest sound behind me caught my attention. Turning, I saw a black and red butterfly fluttering directly in front of me. In the quiet of the woods, I could actually hear her wings beat together. Nature’s quintessential introvert was talking — perhaps even singing — and my smile grew. Like listening to a shooting star, I thought. I watched her extemporaneous dance into the distance. Dance as if no one were looking. A butterfly must have said that.

Continuing down the path, I became convinced that God must be an introvert. To hear her, we simply need to escape the noise, notice the beauty, and listen to the sound of silence.

When I left the trail and pulled off that gravelly parking lot, darkness had already enveloped the Earth.

But my soul was shining.

13 Sep

On the lookout for Ole Snappy

On the lookout for Ole Snappy

 

“On the lookout for Ole Snappy” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (September 13, 2015).

A late summer morning, and the lake is still. The paddle pulls us forward as we glide across its surface, our kayak’s ripples the only sound on this glistening mirror to the heavens.

Armed with binoculars, my 6-year-old helmsman sits perched in the bow of the boat. He scans the lake, on the lookout for Ole Snappy, an elusive 500-year-old snapper turtle the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and known to occasionally snack on the stinkin’ feet of unsuspecting swimmers. Never mind that this particular manmade lake is less than a century old. Boys, like lakes, deserve mythical creatures, and Ole Snappy is ours.

We paddle our way across the lake, ours the only boat on the water. For this moment it is as if the world has just begun, and we are its first explorers. We float along, daring young men in search of legends, myth-making, and immortality.

As we reach the other end of the lake, we spot a log jutting out from the water amid the reeds and lily pads that shroud the shallows. Binoculars confirm our suspicions: a family of turtles sun themselves on their own private floating dock. It dawns on me that we humans spend most of our vacations trying to be turtles. Shelled away by the water, we spend our days swimming, sunning, sleeping, and feeding on seafood. Turtles do this year round, and I begin to wonder who is more evolved.

With the tip of the kayak aimed at the turtles on their dock, I give one more stroke and then quietly place the paddle across my lap. We drift, ever so slowly, toward Terrapin Station.

All is silent as a soft, wind-blown current creeps us along.

We watch, and we wait.

As do the turtles.

Then, without warning, one of the four turtles on the log quickly shuffles off its perch and plops into the water. His companions follow suit, like paratroopers leaping from an aircraft in quick succession. They disappear, leaving behind only concentric circles rippling through the water. Quickly, they too disappear.

A shadow on the water draws our attention elsewhere. We look toward the shadow, then to its skyward source, and gaze in awe at the creature soaring just above us. A great blue heron wings across the lake. Its pterodactyl wings beat in prehistoric time, slowly and stately. Feathered slate never looked more majestic.

Our eyes followed the heron until it came to roost atop a pine tree far across the lake. Branches bowed as the bird seemed to dwarf even the tree itself.

There it would stand.

And watch.

And wait.

As would the turtles, safely hidden in the cool darkness of the lake.

Picking up the paddle once again, the boy and I slowly make our way back across the lake, leaving nature’s inhabitants to their patient game of hide and seek.

“Is Ole Snappy really real, Dad?” the boy asks.

I think of the turtles huddled together below the surface, wondering how much time is time enough. Chances are the same question is being asked there too.

I smile, and glance toward the great blue heron in his roost.

“He’s real, all right, son,” I finally answer. “He certainly is.”

And bringing paddle below water, I pull us toward home.

27 Jan

Building a fire in the snow

Guest column in Delaware County Daily Times (February 27, 2014).

The night is silent save for the compression of snow as my shoes slog through the yard. God mutes the world with snowfall, and suddenly the slightest sound we make is an intrusion on that peace. The snow below talks with each step I take just as the snow above begins to its place.

I reach my destination and set to work. Wind-fallen branches have been stacked together, a depressed and discarded collection of woody arms that once reached out to the sky in glorious leafy coats of color. I grasp and lift, bend and take; the branches give, crack, splinter, break.

Quickly a mound forms in the center of the stony circle. Stick by stick it grows. The higher the mound, the higher the flame.

But sticks alone will not do. With snow covering the earth, wetting the wood, something more it needed to help the spark along – perhaps the wood’s more opinionated offspring. I reach into my back pocket and pull out the folded newspaper. This will do.

First the front page: death, disaster, discord, and discontent. I grab the page with my fist and crumple. Then tucking the newsprint under the pyre as if making a deathbed, I reach for A2 and do the same. Fire and fuel join death and destruction.

One after the other, quickly the pages crumple and quickly the bed is made. He said-she said pages! Buy this-do that pages! Blame him-sue them pages! Pay me-watch me pages! Fear all-change law pages! Kiss her-want him pages!

In such heavy snowfall, I use almost the entire newspaper. Having read it all, the ensuing warmth will feel even greater.

I grab the last page of newsprint and pause. The characters of the comics stare up at me. I carefully fold the page and place them back in my pocket.

Then, bending down, I strike a match to the paper. Immediately the ink, the words, the letters, they begin to turn to ash; and within minutes the entire world has disappeared, replaced by the warmth and light of burning timbers.

I stand back and watch.

Snow is falling.

Flames are rising.

And the world is mute.

17 Feb

The Deserter

I look left, then right, and left again.

The road is clear and, pushing pedal toward the floor, I pull onto the winding road. As I accelerate into the turn, a hawk merges with me, flying a few yards both above and ahead of my vehicle.

For half a mile we keep pace with one another, flying along at a 35 mph clip. I shadow him, winding left and right as the road dictates. For a moment I am not driving, but rather flying.

The light ahead pulls my attention away from the beautiful bird. The light signals red, and my foot presses on the brake. The vehicle slows. The hawk does not.

As I come to a halt at the traffic light, the hawk suddenly changes course. It angles its outstretched body a few hours counterclockwise, deserting the road in favor of fields and forest.

Imprisoned in my vehicle, awaiting the go of green, I watch in envy as the hawk fades into the heavens.

31 Aug

Black-eyed Susan and the sun

The sun beat down on the growing cluster of black-eyed Susan as each flower below stretched skyward, a sea of yellow and black hoping to touch the fiery heaven above. Like looking into a kaleidoscope when gazed at too intently and too long, the colors danced in circles in my mind’s eye. The yellow and black swayed, circled and swam in a drunken dance of color.

A blink of the eyes returned focus to the flowers before me. Golden lashes reached out from dark eyes, tempting – beckoning – passersby.

As the flowers danced in the summer sun, I saw that they were not alone. Bees had succumbed to temptation, kissing their black and yellow brethren in the hurried task of pollination. Before long they were joined by a tiger swallowtail. The butterfly and its black and yellow wings fluttered in erratic flight, forced to drink the dregs the bees left behind. The evidence was clear: bees were built for work; butterflies were built for play. While one sings, the other stings.

Standing back from the black-eyed Susans, it seemed to me that the world isn’t black and white. It’s black and yellow, eternal lovers dancing in symbiotic song.

03 Oct

Heaven on earth

If there is ground in heaven, I believe it must be covered with a thick layer of fallen pine needles.

If there is music in heaven, I believe it must be the wind brushing against the land as spirits travel through the sky.

If there is an aroma in heaven, I believe it must be the scent of a fire’s transformation of wood into ember.

And if heaven has a heaven, I believe the night sky must shine above it, stars shimmering from the past while the moon carries out its orbital dance.

Glancing up from the campfire, I look toward heaven.

And I find myself already there.