Monday, September 26, 2011

Monks and Soldiers

I finally used my passport. It’s been in my safe for eight years, its navy blue cover stiff, the edges of its pages unruffled. It would be difficult to explain why it took so long; the important thing is that now a lovely blue stamp on one of its pages confirms the fact that my feet left the sovereign soil of the United States, landed in Ireland, and returned.

I went alone. One suitcase, a backpack, and no telephone. I visited six different cities, rode over 800 miles on various buses, and walked about 10 miles a day trying my hardest to impress upon my memory everything I saw and heard, smelled and tasted. I noticed right away that the landscape really is as green as all the PBS documentaries make it look and the patchwork of countryside is stitched together not by fencerows, but by hedges high and low.

It was jolting to see so many flowers blooming in September. All the public parks were flush with roses, hydrangeas, and pansies. At a street flower market in Dublin I found Gerbera daisies the color of strawberry ice cream and I took I don’t know how many photographs of window boxes spilling over with asters, impatiens, and petunias.

I hiked six-and-a-half-miles through the Gap of Dunloe in the Killarney National Park, countryside that made me feel like a character in a 19th century novel. There were huge sheep grazing on the hillsides close enough to touch, waterfalls and brooks, miles and miles of unbroken rolling hills, and wildflowers in colors that came out of a Sharpie pack.

At the Trinity College Library I stood in line to see the Book of Kells, the illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels written in Latin and created by Celtic monks around 800 A.D.. It is art and inspiration and perseverance made concrete. Staring at the words written in ink made from minerals on vellum made from calfskin, I tried to imagine the men whose life work it was to day after day create this monument to God. Did they ever wonder whether what they were doing was worth the effort?

I carried that question with me as I arrived at Shannon Airport early on Saturday morning, not at all looking forward to the 23 hours of travel time ahead of me, in clothes that you could tell I’d been wearing off and on all week, and just a tad concerned about being in an airplane on the day before the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

I had cleared the second level of security and was in the waiting area outside customs, the last gauntlet to run before boarding the airplane. There weren’t many people there at that hour of the morning, a few folks reading newspapers and drinking coffee, a few browsing in the last outpost of the duty-free store. I wandered through the aisles of refrigerator magnets and chocolate bars trying to figure out how to spend my last few Euros, constantly glancing at the plastic watch on my wrist to see how much time had passed.

I moved a little closer to the departure door and noticed that a significant number of American soldiers had begun walking through the terminal. They were all dressed in desert combat fatigues and moved singly and in small groups toward a large set of gray double doors near the exit I would use when I went through customs. A few of them lingered in the hard plastic seats of the waiting area. Some just stood and chatted quietly with each other.

I found myself standing next to three of them. One was tall, square-shouldered. His Army hair cut was salt-and-pepper. I’d guess he was in his early 40's, most-assuredly an officer.

"There are a lot of y’all here today," I offered. "Headed home or going somewhere else?"

"Kuwait," he said. And, after looking over at the other two, "then other places."

I felt something rise in my belly, a knot of emotion that caught me completely off-guard and climbed rapidly up into my chest and then into my throat. My eyes welled up with tears as I heard myself choking out, "Thank you."

He looked me dead in the eye, straightened his shoulders a little straighter, and said in the steadiest voice I have ever heard, "It is an honor to serve."

A few moments later he and the others gathered their things and started toward the double doors. The prayer I whispered was as much for the mothers and wives and daughters as it was for them.

The world is full of monks and soldiers, those who approach their tasks with reverence and awe. Those who gladly accept, but do not need, the affirmation of others in order to march into the fray, face down the foe. Those who know there is no weight in bearing what is right. May we have the vision to recognize them all.
Copyright 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Three Views From An Office

I’ve worked in this building for eleven years. I’m presently in my third office. The first one was directly by the front door and everyone who came in passed by. It had a set a double windows with a sill wide enough that, on afternoons when my brain pulsed like the walls of a disco and distraction was the only antidote for the throbbing, I could sit and watch the traffic – car and foot – move by on Main Street in currents running north and south.

There was a gingko tree right outside the window and it calendared the seasons with a local accuracy that the calendar never could. Sometimes it was the swaying of its branches in a brisk spring breeze that caught my attention and pulled me away from the mayhem documented in the files on my desk, if not so completely as to actually sit in the window, at least to prop my feet and let my face feel the warmth of the sun for a few healing moments.

I got moved from that office to one near the back stairs, an equally busy location. It had one window from which I saw not a gingko tree and Main Street, but an alley, an overgrown courtyard and flat rooftops of varying heights – brick and concrete and tar paper. The air conditioning unit for the building next door sat on a metal platform attached to wall of the second floor. It was rusty. The top collected water when it rained and it rained a lot while I was in that office.

There was a bench in the courtyard. It was rusty, too. It was missing part of its back and all around it weeds were growing up between the bricks. The scene both whispered and screamed loneliness.

That single window was off-kilter in its sash and in the winter months cold air seeped through the cracks overpowering the output of the little ceramic heater I kept under my desk to warm my feet. There was no sitting in the windowsill in this office.

The third office, the one I now occupy, is on the back corner. It is larger than the previous two and is at the end of the hallway, in a sort of interior cul-de-sac shared by only one other office and a tiny kitchen. When I close my door here it is more likely for the purpose of climate than crowd control. The same furniture, the same books, the same certificates identify its occupant.

There are two windows, one overlooking the alley, one Main Street. My office marks the intersection where the noise and constant activity of the street crosses the quiet and emptiness of the alley. The humming of cars and trucks is set off against the non-noise of occasional foot traffic. The wide and open juts up against the narrow and constricted and the contrast is stark.

I’ve been here a while. Long enough to have changed out some of the older photographs for more recent ones. Long enough to have gone through a couple of printers. Long enough to have survived the renovation of the office building across the alley, a renovation that took months and months and involved too many afternoons of a cement mixer underneath my window grinding and grinding at a decibel level that had me teetering on whatever decibel level is my personal pain threshold.

I’ve been here a while and, yet, strangely enough, I’ve only just now come to see this place as an intersection. The single point on a graph where the Y axis, traveling in one direction, and the X axis, traveling in the other, meet. And having seen it, I’m now asking myself what exactly does one do at an intersection?

That depends, of course, on what one sees. A traffic light, a stop sign – those are easy to interpret. But what if there are no traffic signals? What if there are no street signs? What if there is an accident blocking your lane?

The answers are all the same. First, slow down. Then decide. Right, left, or straight ahead. Maybe even a u-turn if it’s clear there’s been a mistake. All viable options.

What is not an option is stopping. In the middle. Of the road. It is there that danger lies.
Copyright 2011