The Senses





When I was a child, there was a huge old flowering crab-apple tree in our backyard. When it was in bloom the fragrance was intoxicating, filling as it did the fresh, unspoiled sense of youth. I planted one on our farm just after we got here. In this late spring, it is just about to open its flowers, releasing once again that familiar perfume.

But I don’t need to wait. I can remember the fragrance vividly. There is somewhere inside the space of my mind where I can breathe it in. If anything, the fragrance is more penetrating, more directly delivered through the walls of whatever nerve cells register such information.

My friend recently had a virus that gave him a cough for a week or two. After the cough died away, he discovered that his sense of smell was almost gone. Since this sense of his had been heightened ever since his exposure to the chemical sprays used on the fruit trees he picked in his twenties, this was a curious thing. I began to imagine for him what it would be like not to smell the cherry blossoms on my walk up the hill. Not to be able to smell the lilacs beginning to bloom by the barn. Not to smell the roses that will be opening in May. What if that external sense were blocked?

As have most people, at least in their childhood, I have often tried to reconstruct the experience of the blind by binding my eyes and trying to navigate my house. I have tried to experience deafness, but mostly in my imagination. You can always hear a little something when you plug your ears and I can’t afford those big blocking headphones.

Once I even tried to create what it would be like to lose the sense of touch, but it quickly becomes complex. Touch tells me about the condition of my muscles, the rhythm of my heart, whether my shoes are good for my feet, the texture of a tree’s bark, the heat of a stove or fever in my head, the cold of an ice cube or the chill in my bones. It communicates through delicate neural traceries the spreading fire of sexual response.

But, if I become quiet and look around in the internal space, I can feel the touch of a feather on the palm of my hand, the softness of a rose on my cheek, the way the wind blows and tosses my hair, the roughness of cedar bark. It’s harder to block the external sense of touch and imagine what it would be like not to feel that  jab of a stick on a fresh burn or what it would be like not to experience the touch of the air on my skin or the pressure of a rock on my knees as I weed in the garden.

If I close my eyes and go into that infinite space, some internal set of eyes allows me to see so many things from my memory, my dreams, my imagination. With that interior vision, parts of some scenes appear darkly, bits hidden in background. Others are bright landscapes where it’s possible to turn my gaze from one place to another and, as with the twist of a camera lens, focus on the details of a stained glass window, the plants, the insects, the fallen leaves on the forest floor, or even the mundane objects on the desk in my last office.

Faces are more difficult. Features of even the dearest faces seem to retreat repeatedly into the mist. Emotions that cling to the connection between us eclipse the actual appearance of a nose or a cheek. Although I can often see into the eyes, the sparks, the iris, the depth, that blur of feeling persists in keeping the other details from me.

I can hear, as I walk a trail in my imagination, the call of a certain bird I heard only once, the sound of the wind as I stand on a rocky overhang halfway up a mountain, the clang of a metal bar dropping somewhere at the train station. But the voice of my son, of my daughter, of my dead mother. They are almost impossible to hear with any certainty.

But it is the sense of smell that comes to me most vividly in that internal landscape that turns the universe inside-out. I can smell the power of that deodorant my son used as a teenager. I can smell the stew my son-in-law cooks for us or the warmth of my daughter’s hair. I can smell the particular fragrance of the wild roses that grow along the road where we ride our bikes in May and then shift to the distinct spicy fragrance of the big, fluffy heirloom rose I planted in my garden. I can smell the loamy smell of the old-growth forest floor I’ve walked in Northern Idaho and the smell of the old, pink snow clinging to the granite in the Absoroka Mountains in July.

If I can explore that endless interior space with all my senses, where is the division between the body I seem to walk around in and the rest of the universe? Between the space inside what I call me and the space inside what I call you?

Hyperbolic Space

Stories. Why are they so important? I, for one, have always had a terrible hunger for ways to explore the senses of another consciousness. I have always suspected, despite what seems, that there are other consciousnesses beside the one I’m in. 

Other people talk. I hear their words. The meaning penetrates into my own experience.

Other people walk down the road I walk. I watch them from the window. Some look at their feet. Some look straight ahead. Some are evidently listening to something coming through attachments in their ears (I know because I have done this occasionally while weeding). A very few look around at the world they are passing through.

One or two I’ve seen have expressions on their faces  I think I understand. The muscles in their face seem soft and relaxed. There is, perhaps, a soft smile on their lips. Even from some distance, I can see a little sparkle of light in their eyes. Their head turns to focus their eyes around into the fields and woods, to wander to the houses and the trees around them. Their heads tilt back to look up into the sky and seem to focus on clouds and birds flying. 

Perhaps they are also listening. I sometimes see them tilt their head a bit as they walk, ear pointed towards some bird calling, airplane flying over, power saw buzzing, cow mooing, or dog barking.

Since we walk the same road, I suspect a consciousness that has some congruence with the world contained within me. But how do I know?

Stories. The ones in books I’ve read, mostly. An occasional story from a friend. A story from the childhood of another being walking around on this ground we seem to talk about as a planet. These stories have passages that point in that direction—the direction of congruence. They are not quite the same as the universe within me, but they seem to contain some of the same flavors, hints of perceptions that could be what I am sensing, just with different twists. Those bodies were not, after all, walking the same road, at the same moments.

And then, what of the differences in a shared slice of time and space? I walk along with my dearest friend. We travel the same road at the same moment. Yet, the report from his body is not the same as in the universe I inhabit. He may report about things that have happened that he now carries as thoughts. Perhaps he finds their strands somewhere in the winds of space and ties them to another strand.

He may draw attention to a part of all the life around us. His words convey ideas. The sounds carrying the ideas come in through all those tiny bones I imagine are hidden in the openings of what I call ears on the sides of my head. They transmit those vibrations coming from his mouth into neural messages in my brain. These messages travelling as energy somehow transmit what we call meaning to the space of my universe. The transcription is full of errors.

Often a clear sense of a perception appears in what I call my mind. Sometimes there is a struggle to see the image that is somehow contained in those vibrations. And to see it the way it appears in the universe of another? What colors were in the original? What physical sensations accompanied the thoughts before they were translated into muscular impulses in a larynx that would then emit them as a symphony of vibrations? What hormonal baths did the thoughts receive before becoming the frequencies we call words?

Such a simple thing–looking out from this space of the only universe I know, seeing what the group of colors transmitted through these eyes in my head allows my brain to call a person. Recognizing in that form all the similarities to what I see in a mirror and deciding, in that scintillating wave we call a moment, that this form then contains a universe somehow similar to the one I inhabit.

Does it? Such a leap! I must devour more stories! I must absorb all that data from all those receptors until it is woven into the infinite expanse of the universe I inhabit. There, they are re-imagined and become woven into its essential matter. Or was it that they were there all along?

More than one infinite space? How could it be?


The Walk


You have to pay close attention to all the beings you encounter, whether seen or unseen–sometimes both at once. They are openings.

Today for instance, the air is clear, cold and bright with blue movement from the water to the left and blue stretching infinitely above. I’ve been walking for some time, up the beach into the sun and now back down, crunching on the rocky layers mingled with crab shells, rocks and bright bits of seaweed.

Ahead on the beach, cold and a bit windy in the sparkling clear winter sun, is a small patch of yellow. At first, it seems to be some small recreational yellow boat propped up on the shore for the winter. As I walk, other components of this blob began to come into focus. It, too, is moving. As I watch, I begin to see the black lines of legs protruding from the bottom, carrying the yellow rectangle slowly away from me. I had been enjoying the solitude of the blue ocean, the blue sky, houses either shuttered for the season or uninhabited in the middle of the day. A bit of regret at the sighting. It seems to be moving slowly enough that I’ll overtake it.

I had been enjoying the solitude of the blue ocean, the blue sky, houses either shuttered for the season or uninhabited in the middle of the day. A bit of regret at the sighting. It seems to be moving slowly enough that I’ll overtake it.

As I continued my walk, the figure came slowly into focus. A yellow waterproof coat covered most of a small figure whose shoulders were curved forward and slightly to one side, the yellow hood pulled up to cover the head. This bundle moved slowly forward, pausing every so often, moving a bit toward the water and then back as it progressed, uneven. A small black and white dog appeared briefly as it ran past the yellow figure towards me and then away again.

I was coming quickly towards them. Closer up, I saw the profile of a woman’s face, sunglasses covering her eyes as she looked out towards the water, white woolen watchman’s cap under the hood. She turned again to walk before I was close enough to be a presence. As I began to overtake her, the dog spotted me from up ahead and began to run back. I sniffed and breathed heavily to alert her of my approach. As the dog passed her, I also began to overtake her and she turned, a bit startled, saying,

As I began to overtake her, the dog spotted me from up ahead and began to run back. I sniffed and breathed heavily to alert her of my approach. As the dog passed her, I also began to overtake her and she turned, a bit startled, saying,

“Oh! I wondered what that shadow was, falling on the beach! There you are.”

We both had stopped, she turning towards me on her right. I looked briefly to my left into a face somehow slightly twisted, canted, as the yellow package had been, with a mouth slightly curved down on one side, set around with the downward lines of wrinkles. Her eyes were hidden by the dark glasses but the glint of her smile

Her eyes were hidden by the dark glasses but the glint of her smile traveled plainly through the darkness. The dog was bounced at me on its forefeet, urgently excited to see another human. I bent to greet it, taking my eyes from her smile and meeting his. He let his head be scratched for a moment before bounding ahead once again.  It seemed to be his mode of ambulation–run off, return, jump, run off. 

I glanced back at her, standing still next to me, turned, curious. We shifted around each other to come side by side so we could resume our walking. As we set off, she turned towards me, that turning of her head seeming to require a manoeuvre of her whole body as if one with her torso.

She asked where I lived on the beach, slyly probing to see what this stranger was doing on her beach. I told her I wasn’t from the beach, but from a small farm a couple of miles to the southeast. I asked where she lived and she said,

“Well, we’re up here. We’re beach-facers.” She smiled at me.

The dog came and dropped a sand covered tennis ball in my path. I picked it up. My first mistake. I threw it a short way, he grabbed it and bounced back. This same routine continued for the rest of our walk, punctuating the flow of conversation.

As we walked slowly, keeping pace and pausing for the dog and for the answers in our conversation, she asked the name of the street where I lived. I told her and gave her some landmarks. She wondered if her children had known someone there growing up. We came to no conclusion. I told her our farm is for sale and, as we meandered along in our talk, it eventually emerged we are moving to France. This brought a spark to her eyes. She stopped and turned towards me and said,

I told her our farm is for sale and, as we meandered along in our talk, it eventually emerged we are moving to France. This brought a spark to her eyes. She stopped and turned towards me and said,

”Really! What takes you there?”

I explained about extended family, dreams and desire and she herself began to dream. She was quiet for a moment as we stood, I having thrown the ball again, then said,

“When the kids were little we were in France. We went to London, bought a van, fitted it out a bit for camping and traveled down through France, into Spain, then over to Italy, up through Austria, into Czechoslovakia and from there to Germany. We ended up back in London and we shipped the van back to Montreal. We had been living in Massachusetts, so we flew to Montreal, picked up the van, drove back to Massachusetts, packed up our stuff and drove cross-country to Washington. We’ve been here ever since.”

She paused while I threw the ball again, trying hard to give it a good pitch. Then she said “Travel is so wonderful. It brings such joy. I’m glad you’re doing that.”

Then she said “Travel is so wonderful. It brings such joy. I’m glad you’re doing that.”

We continued to walk, talking about the cold with its biting wind and how we didn’t mind it a bit with the bright sun. We had both spent time in colder climates on the East Coast, as we discovered. Her small form, spare, seemed to scintillate with energy beside me. She enquired where I was going through, back to the road. I was an interloper on the privacy of the properties lining the beach, but she was one of the oldest hands and was clearly not bothered. I pointed to where I’d come in and she said,

She enquired where I was going through, back to the road from the beach. I was an interloper on the privacy of the properties lining the beach, but she was one of the oldest hands and was clearly not bothered. I pointed to where I’d come in and she said,

“I think you may not be able to get around there with the tide in a bit. Come. You can come up through our place. Not here. Down a little way.”

We walked on in silence for a bit, the dog having found something interesting on the beach ahead. 

I looked over at the houses to my right, a pretence to surreptitiously glance once more at her profile. There was something somehow so familiar and intimate in the twisted mouth, the downward gaze, the focus yet abstraction of her presence. My sense of self, usually diffuse, took up a place in relation to her, alert, open, aware of some subtle union between us. After a bit, she pointed up to the houses, smiled again and said,

“We’re up here.”

Stooped slightly, her whole body turning in its yellow package, we walked up towards a concrete wall. I paused for a moment, a bit perplexed, but she motioned up. I pulled myself up the huge step, wondering how she was able to still accomplish the same. She stretched one leg up and boosted herself nicely. She turned towards the water and said, 

“The tide can come up right to the top of that step. See the marks on the other wall? That’s where it came in the summer. It might again.”

It might, we agreed, depending on what nature herself determines. She led me along a path next to the house to a gate going through to a driveway and the road. Awkwardly, I fumbled with the gate, she standing, a bit distracted. We both seemed discomfited, unwilling to let go of the intimacy but finding no bridge to extend it.

“Thank you,” I said, “for a lovely walk.”

“Good luck to you,” she said. “Keep warm.”

I turned, moving away a wheelbarrow that had blocked the entrance, and took my leave down the road. I have carried her presence with me ever since, held it close and will, I’m sure, let it into my dreams. There is a boundary, yet none exists.

The Opposite of Happiness

There is a central craving built in to the array of our emotions. Its opposite is loneliness.  My thesaurus lists the antonym of “loneliness” as “happiness”.  It makes the case for me.  In a true lexicon, dry and linguistic, the opposite of loneliness would be a word such as “affection”, “love”, “closeness.”  But there is really no one word to capture this absence of loneliness, this magnetic pull at the core of our humaness. Our sense of feeling close to others, understood by others, respected by others, worthy of sharing with others is so central to our sense of well-being that its lack is defined purely as the absence of happiness.

Yet, here we are, constructing loneliness, literally.  We see its result reflected in all the choices we are making. It is almost as if we have accepted that the natural result of affluence, gained now at such cost in a world where resources are dwindling, is isolation, which we must then protect at all costs.  I see the presence of this conviction as I take my walks through what was, until fifteen years ago or so, part of rural America. The result of affluence here has been that those who have it, and work long, long hours for it, want big houses, filled with comfort and luxury, surrounded by space which keeps them separate. In that space food used to grow. People worked together to produce it, even though the advent of cheap petroleum as the central slave allowed for less human cooperation.   Now it is a safety zone, an isolation bumper.

The children in these houses are extremely lucky if they have siblings to play with.  Each set of parents initially erects, at large expense, a playhouse with swings, slide, and other doo-dads. Sometimes it seems a kind of lure in hope that other children will come over for “play dates” and their children will not be lonely. This rarely happens. As the children grow older, a trampoline goes up, more recently, by parents conscious of dangers all around, surrounded by a wall of mesh to keep them safe from the combined effects of gravity and exuberance.  If there are siblings, it gets used a few times as they try to outdo each other. If it’s an only child, desultory efforts are made at mastery and then it becomes new again only on the rare occasions when a friend comes to visit.

Then an “above-ground” pool appears in summer, glorious in its newness, a representation of the deep desire to be outside in water, in nature, and for children to find joy together.  A party may be held to celebrate, with several children joining together on some sunny day for a couple of hours at a time.  Screams and squeals of play can be heard. The splashing and roiling of the water is imagined from afar. Happiness. Children together.  Afterwards, on really hot days during the quiet times, it’s possible the parents get in and float for a while on a rubber raft (with cup holder) after work or on weekends after riding the mower. Hard to tell.  That activity would be quiet. It wouldn’t have much of a chance to penetrate the boundaries of isolation.

At houses with a bunch of young siblings, occasional laughter and fighting can be heard in the summer afternoons. Much less frequently, friends come together in a band at someone’s house. Sometimes they play a game the parents have bought for the occasion–Slip and Slide or some game “guaranteed” to get the kids outside and active.  Once or twice in twelve years I’ve seen a few kids use a trampoline together.  The only hold-out from this pattern observed over the years on long walks, runs and bike rides is a small farm with six home-schooled kids. When the kids were little, I saw real tricycles and wagons with kids pulling each other. Once I witnessed a picnic in the grass with everyone together, talking and laughing. Now they seem to be busy studying most of the time.

We tried initially to get to know our neighbors. Each eventually made it known in some way that they cared much more for the preservation of their own rights to enjoy themselves than they did for connection. Dogs that barked all night. Dirt bikes ridden without mufflers all hours of the day despite objections.  Target practice where bullets “strayed”.  We raised beautiful organic food, plenty of it. We had a farm stand. All the neighbors passed it by on their way to the local supermarket four miles away. Once or twice they stopped by in June to ask if we had corn (August or September) or in the heat of the summer to see if we had snap peas (early June).  Some people came from further away but most of the beautiful vegetables in the coolers went into the compost or to the local food bank at the end of the day.

A couple of years ago, a couple moved in to the lavender farm up the road. Soon his sister and a friend joined them from Massachusetts where her husband had recently died.  We struck up a friendship based on shared interests. We remembered that habits of connectedness in other parts of the vast territory that makes up America are different from what we have gotten used to here. People drop by. They actually come to dinner when they say they will. They believe in reciprocity.  We have made those connections richer over time. There are other friends who understand the natural laws of connection, but they are the few, the exceptional.

When we were hunter-gatherers, we lived in bands. We worked together most of the day, some of the time with our own gender but much of the time with the whole group. We fought occasionally with other groups for resources or because we became angry, one family, one band, with another for some breach of conduct, some insult.   With the advent of agriculture, many things changed, the most salient being the centralization of power, but we still worked together. Wars got bigger and bloodier. Slavery increased dramatically.  With the industrial era, people congregated increasingly in cities where it became easier to exploit them in mass. The long dreariness of work days where people could not talk together created more and more isolation of individual from individual, individual from family, family from community.

As we have learned how to consolidate wealth, we admire those who have it and acknowledge their need to isolate from the rest of the community as only necessary protection. We understand that people will want to grab some of those resources if they can. Those resources give you power and justification in the world.  Through this understanding we have absorbed the sense that the more money we are able to pull into our sphere, the more we need to distance ourselves from others to protect what is ours. Thus, the more we have, the more isolated we become, exempting only those who have enough resource themselves to allow for admiration but not a dangerous level of envy.  Those made too desperate by the weight of the system become outsiders, wafted by the winds of exclusion.

Even now, when so many people are so stressed by the insecurity of life in society, drained by the work they must put in day after day just to keep from moving backwards, we hold on to the habits of protection, just as we hold on to the hope that just around the corner the economy will shift, we will have money in our fists and a job for life. In our exhaustion and distress, we have forgotten how to rely on each other. We are sold instead the “serenity” of home ownership where nothing permeates from the outside world.  We are afraid to trust to connection, especially when we know most of those around us are secretly as desperate as we are. In our isolation, we have become malleable to the forces of fear.

In the cities of the US, the children of relative affluence come together to play in playgrounds, safely guarded by parents. In contrast, it is in the neighborhoods where there are no playgrounds and parents have little time and energy to watch over their children that they play together in the streets. Their lives are full of conflict and stress, danger and fear. They are increasingly isolated in these imposed communities by the fear and protectionism of those of us holding on more and more tightly to what we have. They have much to struggle through to survive, just as most humans have over the millennia.  Some are lonely, others are not. But, of necessity, they know each other’s struggles, each other’s families, each other’s weaknesses, each other’s strengths.   Are we safer with this connection or without it?


Brother Muhammad Ali

It was a Saturday early afternoon in Madison, Wisconsin and I was twenty-two or so. I was a college student and spiritual seeker.  Finally, after a series of very painful years, taking me through Vermont, New York City and two other undergraduate programs, I had come to Madison at the age of twenty-one and settled in to a new life and a new school.

Shortly after my move, my Sufi teacher had given me the assignment of starting a Sufi Order Center in Madison. I am convinced he did it just to shake things up. In that, another life-time, I had, trembling, started leading the Sufi Dancing in the square.  I had learned to speak and sing in front of a group of people, to lead gradually and then all of a sudden when the slightly older couple, who had been less formally leading the dancing, came into conflict with this youngster who had the effrontery to think she could do better than they.

My Sufi friend, Labonna, another blond twenty-something, full of energy, love and life, had just walked into the Underground Café on State Street. I hadn’t seen her for a while.  I was finishing brunch with a few friends in this vegetarian haven and was in an expansive mood.

She was someone I didn’t know well. She was of the archetype of the cheer-leader-girls in high school whose circle I could never penetrate and who had never included me in their parties since elementary school. But she seemed to like me, bridging the gulf from that world into mine, the world of sensitive, impassioned war protesters, back-to-the-landers, yes—“Hippies”.  We hugged, talked a bit and decided to spend the afternoon together on what I remember as a beautiful spring day.

We went to the park beside Lake Monona, sat on the grass and talked, walked and danced around together, taking hands and spinning, just out of sheer exuberance.  We may have smoked a joint, or maybe not. Our conversation was rangy, meandering through the politics of the day, the people in the Sufi group, the lives of our spiritual teachers.  It happened that our teacher, Pir Vilayat, had recently had a secret meeting with Muhammad Ali. They had talked about the spiritual life, it was said, and what it meant to live by its tenants. It was reported through the grapevine that Ali had really enjoyed the meeting.  Labonna talked about how interested she had been to hear about this through Sufi friends in Chicago. I talked about my admiration for Muhammad Ali’s stance against the war and the way in which he had nobly accepted his exile from the sport he loved so much as a consequence of living by his principles.

Labonna was a Chicago kid. She had many contacts in the city.  Her conscious or unconscious presentation as a young Marilyn–maybe the “Some Like it Hot” version–was mixed from a brew of intelligence, enthusiasm, impulsivity, narcissism, and innocence, with a modicum of tough street kid.  She knew that Ali had been living for some years on the South Side, near the Muslim Temple of Elijah Muhammad. She even knew the garage at Stony Island Ave. and 69th Street where he hung out with his friends.  Now Ali was a brother. He had met with our teacher so had become, in some sense, connected.  Labonna had met him once, a year or so back, in Chicago, and they’d talked a bit. She had liked him very much as a person, she said.  He had a strong magnetism yet was firmly grounded and human.

We decided to go find him. It was afternoon. She had an old Chevy. We could do it. It was only about two and a half hours down I-90. We didn’t know what we’d find, but destiny was calling. He was a young man who had suffered and was seeking. We were young and full of an ideal about the unity of all seekers.

She drove and smoked.  When we stopped for gas, we shared her lipstick, she complimenting me on how it was a perfect color for me. The high school girl in me was enchanted. We were calm in our excitement, confidant in the force of the moment.

We arrived in Chicago as it was getting dark. I had only been to there once when I was a kid of twelve, travelling through on the train going west, stopping with my parents to see the Museum of Science and Industry and walk through downtown. I remembered nothing.
Labonna navigated fairly well, showing me for the first time a certain vulnerability.  She was confidant finding her way from the freeway to the outskirts of downtown but it was clear the South Side was not her usual stomping ground. By the time we hit the boundaries of that neighborhood it was dark, and all the faces were dark. Two young blond women in a car, driving a bit aimlessly, asking directions. It never occurred to us to have any trepidation. These were all people, young and old, as dangerous as anywhere at night, but yet familiar.

When we stopped to ask, it was “Do you know where Muhammad Ali is tonight?” Those we addressed looked only slightly quizzical at first, then, meeting the direct glance and smile, softened and seemed to feel it was a part of the natural life of the neighborhood. They directed us to the Temple, which turned out to be closed. We found someone hanging out on the corner and asked him if Ali were in town and if so, where he might be. He directed us to the garage on 69th which also was dark and empty. We stopped at a convenience store nearby and went in to ask again. By now it was around nine-thirty and the streets were pretty quiet. The guy at the counter told us to wait a minute.

He went to the back and returned with another young man who, in a friendly manner, asked why we were looking for Ali. We explained about our teacher and our desire to talk with Ali about his experience in meeting with him. He seemed to accept this. He said, “Well, that would have been nice, but he’s out of town for a few days. His apartment is close by here, you’re right, but I’m afraid you’re a day too late. He left yesterday.” We thanked them both very much for their help. They smiled. It seemed they smiled with genuine warmth. Who knows?

As we got back in the car and she turned to me and said, “Well, we followed through. There was something that pulled us here. We didn’t shirk. We decided to do it. Too bad. I was really looking forward to hanging out with him.”  “Me too. But we found his atmosphere.”

It took a while to find a gas station still open. We had to drive almost to the North Side to find one. We fueled up and drove back to Madison, talking now and then, she smoking, me occasionally dozing, looking out into the night through the late hours of a long day.





Day Going By

She wheeled the wire shopping cart piled high with belongings further to the side of the road, a smile on her face. She was happier than she’d been in days. Earlier in the day she’d found a black plastic dust pan with a long handle–what she’d heard them call a lobby dust pan the time she’d had a Motel 6 cleaning job–behind a house near the back alley. It didn’t look beat enough to throw away. Maybe someone from the house had just used it to clean up around the trash and then forgotten it, but there it was, by the trash can. A throw away for sure. Now it was stuck, handle down, pan up, in the corner of her cart and she was smiling. She had plans. They were great plans. She had a purpose. She arranged her belongings again in the cart, shifting the blanket around a bit on top. It was a nice clean blanket, almost white. She smiled more sweetly to herself. I don’t have to go back to that place tonight. Too much noise. Too many people in my business.

After a while she thought she’d get busy.  The friendly girl was talking again, but it was just pleasant jabber. She could keep it in the background if she got going. The Nasty Man hadn’t put in a word for the last couple of days since she’d left the downtown shelter. She’d found a nice place across from the dump, sheltered and flat, surrounded by trees. No one else was there now, although there was a bit of trash and a torn, wet ragged shirt on the edge of the cleared spot. Other people came there for sure but for tonight it was probably hers, private, her own.

She crossed the busy road to the side where cars and shiny pick-up trucks pulled in the road to the recycle. There was lots of debris by the side of the road, stuff that fell off loads, blown bits from the last wind storm. She took out the stubby old broom she’d found a week ago in the dumpster and pulled out the new treasure. She stopped to admire it for a minute. Black. Solid. The hinge at the bottom of the handle let the pan swing down just right. Looking down at the gutter, she thought my, it’s dirty. Really needs attention. She began sweeping things up into the pan.  There was a nice song in her head.  Seemed like the Other Woman was singing in the background. She hummed a bit, sweeping. Cars went by.

Soon the pan was getting full and she started to think where she’d dump it. She looked around for a trash can, a dumpster. Nothing out front of the industrial buildings on this side. She stood the lobby pan on the asphalt next to the grass, making sure to move the handle so it balanced, just so.  Look how nice it just stands there, waiting for me, so polite. She rummaged in her cart. There it is. My garbage bag. She pushed down the crumpled chips bag and the mushy remnants of the buns from the food bank. Opening out the top of the bag carefully, she made room for the wider opening among her other belongings in the cart.   She picked up the dust pan and tipped it carefully into the bag, the way they’d taught her at The Agency before she got that motel job. The chunks of trash and the dust slid nicely into the bag.  She made sure the cart was propped safely on the grass within reach, taking her time.  The song was nice now. Slow, the voice mellow. The Uncle Guy started to shout at her once when she was sliding the dirt into the bag, but she told him, loud, “No! It’s not like that,” and he shut up. She picked up the pan and the broom she’d propped against a tree by the road and kept up her work.

A couple of times she got so absorbed in making sure she got the bits of bark that had blown onto the asphalt that cars honked at her, thinking she was walking into their path.  She’d look up and see the driver shaking his head. Once the driver shook a finger and looked like she was saying something nasty.  Once a woman in the passenger side waved her hand through the open window and smiled at her.  A guy riding by on his bike, racy helmet, orange tight shirt, gave her a thumb’s up and shouted “Good work!” as he zipped by.

The Uncle Guy was starting to criticize her work. “That’s stupid! Why’re you doing that! Who cares! You’re worthless anyway. Never make a dime.” She kept shaking her head and muttering things under her breath back at him, but he wouldn’t stop.  The friendly girl had gone away and the singing had stopped. Every once in a while there was a hissing voice, maybe coming from under the bush near the trees. Something watching her? She was starting to feel the old sense of dread in her gut. Time for a break.

She took her lobby pan and the broom and went to sit down in the shade on a big rock.  She muttered at The Uncle some more and then decided she was hungry. Her stomach was rumbling gently.  She thought about what was in her cart and remembered the loaf of white bread and a bit of cheese left over from her trip to the food bank a couple of days back.  Getting off the rock carefully, still holding her tools, she went to poke through the cart. She found the bread, squished but not yet moldy, the cheese in an old plastic bread bag, just a little wet since she’d put a half-eaten apple in with it. She tossed the apple that was now brown and bruised and brought the bread and cheese back to the rock, the bags in one hand and the tools awkward in the other, dragging.

She sat for a while and ate some bread and the rest of the cheese.  It was pretty quiet. Not too many cars. A bit breezy, but not cold. The zippered sweat shirt she’d found was enough to keep her warm in the shade. The fir trees towering around her were dark but they felt strong, protective. The crows that had been hopping around on the fir needles under the big trees by the road now came hopping nearer to her, cawing. She threw a bit of bread and two big ones converged on it, squawking, wings beating, beaks parted at each other. They both flew off a few feet, cawing. The smaller one came back to the bread while the bigger one jumped up to a branch and preened.  She watched for a long moment while other crows came and went, noisily.  Soon her interest wandered, her mind blank. She thought about the black lobby pan. It was still there, propped next to her against the rock.  I’d better get back to it. The Uncle Guy crankily told her she might as well give it up, she was so useless. She decided to ignore him. Someone had taught her that not too long ago, a case worker. You could just ignore him sometimes. It was hard, but if she got busy it might work.

With her lobby pan and broom, she went back to her cart and checked to make sure everything was still there on the top as she’d left them. I’d better close up this bag a bit, she thought, ‘cause of those crows. They’ll just hop on up here and start pecking around.  She looked around on the side of the road. Yup, still a lot of mess. She rolled the lobby pan behind her, the smile returning, the broom in the other hand, and moved out towards a pile of bark and debris on the edge of the asphalt.

A car honked loudly, startling her badly so she jumped back and dropped the handle of the lobby pan with a clatter. The car–she saw it was an old red one, new paint, maybe a Buick–went up to the next drive, pulled in and backed up quickly, coming back on the other side of the road. The driver was rolling down his window, hard, she could see. As he pulled up across from her he shouted at her out the window, “You fuckin’ crazy woman!  I could have fuckin’ killed you!  I could have killed you and then where’d I be? In fuckin’ jail, you crack head! Jail! Fuck you!!”  He jerked up his window as he floored it, engine sounding like a race car, back to the turn-off to the dump where he squealed in, gravel popping and then backed out fast, driving towards her again.  She watched, frozen. as he passed, close, stretching his arm out over the passenger seat with his middle finger emphatically extended. She could just barely hear the  “Fuck you!” through the closed window.

She shook her head, arms loose at her sides, tears starting in her eyes, her chest burning. The Uncle Guy was yelling at her. “See!  You’re fuckin’ stupid! You need to just kill yourself. Hang yourself on a tree. It’s easy. Just do it! You need to do it. You know you do!”  Her head reeled. She sat down where she was on the grass and then yelled “Fuck you, too!”  as another car passed, a girl in the passenger seat looking briefly at her and then away, as if there had been nothing there.  Yelling had made the tears stop. She crooned to herself for a moment.  Oooh.  Ooooh.  Aaah.  She remembered suddenly she hadn’t taken her noon med.  She still had a few they’d gotten for her at the shelter.  The small ones. She got off the ground, feeling a little stiff, picked up her tools and went over to her cart. Moving aside the garbage bag, she found the box under her blanket.  It’s Thursday she thought. Yeah, and opened the one marked Th.  She rummaged around some more and found the half bottle of water she’d saved and downed the pill. I’d better get back to work, she thought. Yeah. There’s lots to do. She smiled as she picked up the lobby pan and the broom, pleased at how nicely that hinge let the pan swing down as she lifted the handle to carry it back to the next pile. “Maybe I can get that cleaned up before it starts getting cold. She’d like that. She would.”