Monday, October 26, 2009

Uncommon Wisdom

After two days of cold – days that belonged in some other month, some other state – October came home and teased me outside with the still crispness that doesn’t require a jacket, but makes you want to wear one anyway.

There was no wind to carry my scent or the sound of my feet shuffling in the sand, so the dogs didn’t come running from the backyard where they were overseeing Mama picking up pecans until they saw me, just past the mailbox, and walking away from the sunset. Lily simply fell in beside me; Tamar had to lick my hand before trotting ahead. They, like all of us, are creatures of habit.

We didn’t walk very far. The dogs demanded no explanation. They simply turned when I turned.

The sun was still over the treetops, but low enough to make me squint. I looked down at the sudden glint of metal in the middle of the road. Bending over to pick it up, I expected to find only one of those aluminum disks that contractors put under nail heads. It was, however, a quarter. Heads up. George Washington’s profile with the straight nose and wig flipped up on the ends like a 1960's cover girl.

There are two schools of thought about found coins. One is a poem that Katherine taught me at Wesleyan: "Find a penny pick it up, all the day you’ll have good luck. Find a penny let it lie, before the day you’ll surely die." The other is less lyrical and less morbid: Picking up a penny that is lying heads up brings good luck; picking up a penny that is lying heads down brings bad luck.

The contradiction between these two points of common wisdom is intriguing. According to the first, picking up a penny that you finding lying heads down will result in good fortune for a day. According to the second, picking up that same penny will kill you. How can both be true? They can’t. Unless the finder is one who is eager to throw off the garment of flesh and exchange it for whatever form awaits in the next life.

Which points out the problem with common wisdom – that, while it may very well be common in a "generally known" sense, it is rarely common in a "shared by all" sense. And, of course, superstition isn’t wisdom at all. Or is it?

I slowed my pace and rubbed the quarter with my thumb, ran it through my fingers like a magician, thought about flipping into the nearly-dusk sky and changed my mind immediately at the panic of trying to find it again if I dropped it. Without a pocket, I had to close my fingers around it if I wanted to keep it.

And I did want to keep it, didn’t I? I’d found it. It was mine now, wasn’t it? I could drop it in the milk bottle where I put all my quarters. And when I had 560 I could buy that turntable at Best Buy. And then I could start over again and when I got 720 more I could buy the new tuner that matched. Back at the house, I dropped the quarter on the kitchen counter and started supper.

Now it’s on my desk and in the lamplight I can see it better. I can see the ribbon at the end of George’s ponytail and I can read "liberty" in all capital letters in the rainbow curve over his head. Suddenly, I have an idea. Excuse me for a minute.


Okay. I’m back. This is what I did: I walked outside and tramped out into the edge of the branch as far as I dared go in the dark and I threw the quarter into that dark. I heard it fall, hit leaves that had themselves fallen. Common wisdom says that a penny or, in this case, a quarter saved is a quarter earned.

Sometimes. But not tonight.

Copyright 2009

1 comment:

Lynn Nash said...

what I love about your writing is that it is so similar to having a conversation to you (as in - OK I'm back)

That's just ONE thing I love about your writing!