Sunday, December 14, 2008

Grammar School

He sat upright in the hard wooden chair, carefully copying the letters that the teacher was writing on the blackboard. He loved the sound of the chalk against the slate, and he somehow enjoyed the teacher’s apparent frustration when her piece of chalk would break as she worked. She would shake her head, probably cursing under her breath, and continue writing, her hand and black sweater covered in errant white powder.

His little desk of blonde laminated wood was his ersatz home for six hours every weekday. At some point at the beginning of the year, his curious fingers had discovered the topographic map of hardened chewing gum on the underside of his desk. Despite the fact that even touching the old gum by mistake made him feel dirty and sick to his stomach, in moments of stress his fingers would wander to those familiar islands of hardened rubber, perhaps in search of some unattainable kinesthetic schoolboy solace. Although he had never laid his eyes on those discarded clumps on the underbelly of his beloved desk, his imagination pictured them as a secret and personal archipelago. Here on his secret islands, he could wander, free of the bullying madness of the other boys who, when grown, would most likely spend their lives selling insurance and drowning their sorrows in musty bars on lonely suburban back roads.

For him, recess was the hardest part of the school day. Torn from the safety and order of the classroom, he was unwillingly thrust into the chaotic melee of childish play. As packs of boys kicked balls, chased one another, and teased the small groups of girls clustered strategically near the jungle gym and the swings, he would wander the edges of the playground, looking for animal tracks, interesting rocks, or any other sign of life that might distract him from the painful and doggedly constant loneliness that he felt when among his peers. Occasionally, one of the boys who liked to torture him would seize the moment and call attention to his solitary nature, and a group would form, surrounding and teasing him with stinging words and cruel accusations that he only partially understood.

The teacher’s whistle that signaled the end of recess was like the whistle of a long-awaited train. He waited for that sound every day, willing it to happen sooner and sooner, but sometimes recess seemed like it lasted for an eternity. How he longed to return to the comfort of his desk, the books and papers stowed inside, his pencil box, and the wonderful smell of glue, erasers and paper that permeated the air.

When forced to work in pairs or small groups, he would try his best to situate himself amongst the safest of his peers, careful not to end up as the only boy among a gaggle of girls since that would give his tormentors too much easy ammunition for future teasing and psychological torture. No, he would try his best to position himself with the few children who, although not quite as outcast as himself, might at least hold some sympathy for one who so clearly doesn’t belong, and who so painfully and patiently tolerates the terrible vicissitudes of grammar school life.

These six hours of each weekday were an amalgam of pain and pleasure. The pleasure that he experienced was derived directly from the fascinating and mysterious rules and codes to which he was consistently given the key. Opening the doors of understanding to sentence structure, history, and arithmetic gave him such a feeling of accomplishment and excitement, a sensation unmatched by any new toy, television show, or trip to the movies.

But his gusto for learning, his eagerness to raise his hand in class, and his apparent relishing of the learning experience made him a target of much negativity and snickering. Awkward on the playground, miserable at sports, and uncertain around girls, his social isolation and obvious intelligence were like magnets for abuse, and each morning he would steel himself for the day's onslaught of unpleasantness. Were it not for his tormentors, school would be nothing but joyful learning.

Even now, hunched at his desk and enduring spitballs and nasty notes, this young man is painfully aware that he is different from his peers. Stoic, focused, knowing full well that his enemies are truly enraged by their natural academic inferiority, he looks ahead toward a future when his studious concentration and desire for learning will most certainly pay dividends beyond his wildest dreams.

Anxious, frightened but determined, he lets his fingers wander to the underside of his desk. Here, island upon island teem with life and transport him away from the cruel meanness and pettiness of his classmates. Some day, he'll own an island, his own private paradise. And when the chalk, the playground, the spitballs and even this desk are only memories, he will stand proudly among the fruits of his labor, and he will be happy.

(c) 2009 NurseKeith

Friday, November 21, 2008


The room smells of roses, disinfectant and urine. It was obviously used as a study prior to its current incarnation as a sick room, a room in which to die and bring a life to a gentle denouement.

The wooden shelves that cover two complete walls are filled with books of poetry, fiction, history, art, architecture, and a few select biographies. The windows, covered with crystal-clear plastic to keep out the bitter Nova Scotian winds, look out onto a dry plain of snow, bare trees and lonely winter grass.

A woodstove in the corner burns with seasoned oak, birch and cherry harvested several years ago in the forest over the distant hill, trees that the dying man himself selected, felled, transported, split and stacked with the willing help of family, neighbors and friends.

His desk, a large roll-top affair adorned with one of those green-shaded lamps one might see in a New England antique shop, stands closed, quiet, and unproductive. Once the center of furious activity----writing, bill-paying, calculating and contemplation, it is now a relic of a life that has reached its pinnacle and is inexorably sliding towards death.

Where once the file cabinets and large bureau were covered with the detritus of an active intellectual and physical life, most every surface is now adorned with bottles of saline, syringes, clean towels, liquid soap, hand sanitizer, catheter supplies, morphine.

Laying beneath a set of blue flannel sheets and a thick comforter gifted to him last Christmas by his daughter-in-law, he listens for sounds of life downstairs. This second floor is unbearably quiet, and he tires of the tip-toeing and whispering that seem to be de rigeur as the family comes to grip with the inevitability of his demise. He had asked them to stop being so careful, to fill the house with sounds of life and laughter, but a funereal pall has fallen over the house, and he has succumbed to his family’s overarching discomfiture with this wholly natural process. He yearns for his grandchildren to come back for another visit, assuring him with noise and the confirmation that life will certainly go on without him.

Too tired to talk or write, he simply lays in his bed, allowing the home health aides to turn him every few hours to prevent bed sores. His eyes ache when the lights are too bright, but he feels unnervingly lonely in the dark. When his wife lights candles each evening at dusk, the room fills with a comforting glow that lulls him to sleep, and the CD player soothingly spins Satie, Chopin, and Debussy.

Despite occasional nausea, he waits for the smells of soup and coffee and baking bread from the large kitchen on the first floor. These smells, although sometimes irritating, simultaneously fill him with a sweetly sad longing for a life on the wane. No longer eating and taking only minute sips of water or ginger ale, food is now like a dream, a fading memory awoken by the wafting odors that curl around the staircase like smoke, snake through the hallway, and send finger-like tendrils to caress him in his narcotic reverie.

He feels his breath slowing, knowing full well that the hours are coming to a close, that the proverbial clock has run its course. He would like to hold on for the weekend, for family members to return, but he feels himself fading, the physiological blinds being drawn against his will. His thoughts are more frequently jumbled, and the line between waking and sleeping becomes increasingly blurred. Voices move across his consciousness, memories fade in and out, and he can no longer necessarily maintain awareness of whether his grandmother sitting quietly in the corner of the room knitting an afghan is any less real than the nurse taking his blood pressure.

Yes, the weekend would be a good time to go, with family around and the grandchildren playing at the foot of the bed. But he feels the cords releasing, the tension lessening, and the willingness to leave growing by the hour. Is it now? Is this the moment? Or how about now?

He feels himself carried into a nebulous moment of forgetfulness and calm violet light. The windows are illuminated, and the bed seems to be adrift in a field of snow.

(c) 2009 NurseKeith

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Six Word Story #4

My mind---undisciplined animal, running amok.


There is a myth that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write the best story he could write using only six words. His response to the challenge: "For sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Belgian Swimming Pool

The vast room
resembles an American prison:
like “The Shawshank Redemption” (with water).
Three stories of small changing rooms
wrapping around three sides of the cavernous space.
Even my Dutch friend recognizes the architectural design
so often seen in movies-----
a strange association.

An American abroad,
I swim in my lane
only to realize that anyone can enter
and swim along with me;
We Americans don’t like to share---
We like to “own” our lane in the pool—if only for thirty minutes,
just as we own everything else that we touch
(or at least think we do).

I acquiesce to the cultural norm---
socialist swimming at the heart
of Europe’s geopolitical capital.

Meanwhile, rambunctious children carelessly
enter my lane.
I graze or bump into their gangly arms and legs
as I crawl (Australian-style),
half-blind behind foggy goggles
towards the shallow end
where I turn, and
continue my communal recreation.

A swimming pool
complete with a café (of course)
wood-paneling, beer, and marble-topped bar and tables---
comfortable, civilized, and thoughtful.

I could be converted---
I could give up my oh-so-American coveting
of this and of that;
“My lane” would become “our lane”
and we would revel
in the pleasures (and occasional discomfiture)
of expatriation.

(c) 2008 NurseKeith

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Of Death and Shoes

His shoes line the floor of the closet, never having moved since the day when he took his last breath in the rented hospital bed that was set up in the study on the second floor.

In a small wooden box in the back corner of the closet, various tins of shoe polish sit in a jumble, together with several brushes, cloths, and other classically masculine tools of footwear ablution. And even though the word ablution generally refers to the ceremonial washing of one’s body---or parts thereof---it can also be inferred to represent the act of cleaning sacred containers, and for his fastidious and proud self, the thoughtful care of shoes was indeed a sacred act.

Those shoes, so illustrative of his lifelong desire for both order and elegant conveyance, are a manifestation of how he approached the physical world and the objects that he esteemed. Like everything else in his life, these utilitarian vessels were well cared for, clean, and thoughtfully placed in an order which must have made perfect sense to the author of their arrangement.

There are the dress shoes, brown and black, so common to older gentlemen of his generation. There is one pair of white patent leather loafers that one might see on a septuagenarian Floridian on the way to the country club for a game of bridge. Further back towards the wall, one will also find leather Totes, those relatively inexpensive faux leather boots lined with artificial black fur that can be easily slipped on during winter nights when there is wet snow on the ground and a trash can to be rolled to the curb after nightfall.

Even though he would rarely wear them in public, several pairs of sneakers also live among their footwear brethren. Grass-stained and obviously used for household chores, these two pairs of tennis shoes still convey a sense of his neatness, his clinging to order, and his utter sense of propriety in that they were never worn beyond the confines of the house or yard, except of course for a few rushed trips to Home Depot or the local hardware store on a Saturday afternoon.

Last but not least, his beloved slippers sit on the right side of the closet in a most convenient place for easy access and use. Embossed with the image of his feet—like his own personal Shroud of Turin---these two pairs of footwear speak of cozy winter afternoons in front of the TV, hot chocolate in hand, his beloved wife at his side. The newer pair, less worn yet obviously loved and cared for, were the last things he wore on his gouty feet. Three days before his death, he made his final trip to the bathroom wearing this particular pair, assisted by the home health aide sent by the hospice agency providing his end-of-life care.

These brown slippers, purchased at JC Penney’s just two months prior to his diagnosis, were so warm and comfortable, and it brought tears to his eyes as he shuffled to the bathroom, realizing that he would most likely never wear them again. In fact, it was clear to him on that day as he was painfully but gently guided to the toilet, that he would return to that cursed hospital bed and assuredly never leave it.

Bedbound and wasting, eschewing all solid foods and taking only sips of water or ginger ale, the simple comforts of slippers, scarves, gloves and cozy jackets were like wispy details of a once active life now inexorably slipping through his weakening fingers.

(c) 2008 NurseKeith

Friday, November 7, 2008

If I Could Tell the Story

If I could tell the story, I would say goodbye. If I was able to relive those moments, I would return to that white clapboard house with the green shingles, door with peeling white paint, and lonely, swinging gate. I would enter as if I belonged, and I would say goodbye.

Yes, I would enter through that white door, listening for the familiar sound of the creaking hinges that seemed always to speak regretfully of neglect and squandered opportunity. I would proceed down that dark hallway, hands guiding me in the dim light, oak floorboards creaking beneath my feet.

Entering her room, I would tiptoe towards her bed, listening for the telltale sound of her soft, even breathing. Quietly sliding one of her straight-backed and ubiquitously uncomfortable chairs to the side of the bed, I would reach across, place my hand over hers, and watch silently as her abdomen rose and fell with the tide of her breath. I would make note of her long fingers, delicate hands, and fluttering eyelids, and I would see her jugular vein pulsing in her neck like a living metronome.

Then the clock on the wall would strike the hour as it has for decades. Her eyes would open slowly, adjusting to the late afternoon light. We would regard one another with compassion and grace, and all would again be well.

(c) 2008 NurseKeith

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Six Word Story #3

I couldn't meditate. Made some coffee.


There is a myth that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write the best story he could write using only six words. His response to the challenge: "For sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn."

Saturday, November 1, 2008

At The Door

“What did you expect, showing up here unannounced like this?” She holds the screen door open just enough to allow me to smell the wet odors of corned beef and cabbage wafting towards me from deep inside the dark house behind her.

“Well, I was just hoping-----” I begin, but am immediately cut off before finishing my lame attempt at an explanation.

“Hoping what?” She grimaces, rolls her eyes, and gazes somewhere above my head, only occasionally meeting my gaze.

A dog barks in the yard next door and I think I hear a baby crying.

“He doesn’t want to see you. Never will.” She begins to close the screen door, but I grab it with my hand and prevent her from doing so.

“Has he really said that?” I ask. “Does he really not want to see me? Or is he just afraid that I’ll judge him and lecture him about how wrong it was that he did what he did?” I immediately worry that it seems like I mistrust her. And I guess I do.

She looks at me sternly. “He worries about what everyone thinks, and he can’t bear to face anyone. He’s always in that room of his, and getting him to even eat once a day isn’t easy.” Her eyes begin to well with tears and she relaxes her grip on the door, opening it slightly as she leans against it for support.

“Well, if he doesn’t want to see me, I understand.” I look her squarely in the eye. “Will you please tell him that I don’t judge him, that I’m not mad, and I just want to offer my support? He doesn’t even have to call me.”

“Look, honey. You’re a nice girl, and I know he likes you and that you’re his friend. And it’s nice of you to come all this way. He just isn’t ready for visitors.” Her eyes are dry now, but softer and kinder, like she has finally let her guard down.

“I don’t care about the distance. It's a really nice day, and I stopped at the flea market and bought a few things.” I point to a shopping bag on the ground next to my feet.

“This is a care package for him. I’d really appreciate it if you’d give it to him. There’s some really delicious cranberry-walnut bread and strawberry jam that I bought at the market. I know he likes that kind of thing with his tea.” I bend down and hand the bag to her. She opens the screen door wider and accepts the white bag, looping three fingers through the rope handles.

“I’m sorry I was so stern with you when you first knocked on the door, honey. It’s been a very difficult week for us all, and his father and I are about at our wits’ end.” She puts the bag down inside the door and steps out onto the front steps and stands next to me, her hands on the black iron railing. She lets the screen door close behind her. She smells like a combination of furniture polish and cabbage.

“So many people say the stupidest things, and I can’t even face our church community. Suicide isn’t looked on very favorably by the church, you know, and having all those people stare at me like I’m the most pitiable mother in the world is more than I can take.” Her face flushes with anger now. “It’s pathetic.”

“Well, I know how much he loves you and your husband,” I respond, and touch her arm with my fingers. “He always speaks so highly of you, especially in the last few years. “He would always tell me how he couldn’t let a Saturday go by without calling you, even when he was in Seattle.”

“I know. He’s a good boy. Always was. But what do I do with him now?” She crosses her arms and sighs. She blinks away a few tears.

“Just love him. Be patient. Be gentle. Give him time.”

We watch a small girl, perhaps eight years old, struggling to walk what looks like a six-month-old Lab down the street. The dog is intent and the girl trails along behind, the leash taut with the dog’s strength and fervor for life. The girl looks up at us, smiles and then tries to wave, but the dog jerks her along and she flails like a marionette. We both laugh.

“Well, dear, why don’t you come in for some tea, and maybe he’ll hear your voice and come down to see you. It’s not a crime that you came to see him, and maybe a familiar face will do him so good. He’s so far from his friends and the city, and he wouldn’t dream of calling any of his old high school friends right now.”

“I’d like that very much. As long as I’m not imposing.”

“Not at all. If you like corned beef and cabbage, we’ll feed you before your start your long drive back. My husband will be home soon.”

“Thanks. That’s not really necessary, but I won't say no. I love corned beef.”

We enter the house and walk down the hall towards the kitchen. As I cast a glance up the stairs, he is standing there at the top, smiling from ear to ear.

(c) 2008 NurseKeith

The Stew

The stew boils on the stove, the aroma of onion, garlic and a hint of cumin wafting through the house. The dog, sleeping under the table, twitches in the sleep-drenched excitement of the chase.

Outside, birds call and make their way through the trees, oblivious to the very human occupations of cooking and setting the table, perhaps slightly disturbed by the clattering of plates and silverware below.

In another pot next to the stew, rice slowly simmers, its dry graininess slowly absorbing the heated water, expanding to the plump texture so familiar the world over.

Perhaps at this moment, in pots throughout the world, fragrant stews and pots of rice simmer in preparation for the nourishment of their human authors and their families. Perhaps under other tables, other dogs chase rabbits through dreamscapes of lush foliage and soft grass.

Stew speaks of comfort.

(c) 2008 NurseKeith

Friday, October 31, 2008

Everything Worth Reading

My post entitled "Healthfood and Lipstick" has been included in the latest edition of "Everything Worth Reading", an interesting and fun literary blog carnival which I recently discovered. I recommend surfing over for some good reading in your spare time.

You can find the home page of "Everything Worth Reading" here.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Six Word Story #2

Went to a festival, found love.


There is a myth that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write the best story he could write using only six words. His response to the challenge: "For sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn."

Sunday, October 26, 2008


I approach the door and reach for the brass knob mounted on the dark brown wood. I have turned this knob before, walked across this threshold before. But today is different, and I hesitate to act, cringe as I reach for that seemingly innocent metal ball that, when turned, will open the creaking door and place me in a position to which I loathe to return.

How many other hands have gripped this hunk of forged metal that serves as both totem and gatekeeper? How many others have hesitated just as I am doing now, wondering about the consequences of turning around, resisting the pull of emotion and history, and eschewing the experience that waits beyond this mahogany portal?

(c) 2008 NurseKeith

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Six Word Story #1

I lit four candles for her.


There is a myth that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write the best story he could write using only six words. His response to the challenge: "For sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn."

Friday, October 24, 2008

An Act of Kindness

To Whom It May Concern:

On a day long ago, on a street whose name can no longer be remembered, an act of kindness occurred that permanently and inextricably altered the course of a particular individual’s life.

This act of kindness, itself quite minor in the canon of possible human kindnesses, set into motion a series of events and synchronicities which, in hindsight, changed the course of history. When I say “the course of history”, I refer not to “history” in terms of the world economy or the rise and fall and nations or civilizations. I refer simply to the course of history as it pertains to a single human being, his life’s trajectory, and the multigenerational repercussions of his particular existence and the choices that shaped it.

One never knows what a simple act can engender, and there are moments in human intercourse when a word, a gesture, a facial expression, or a conversation can move mountains within a human soul, wherein the tectonic plates of emotion, memory and relationship grind together in such a way as to give birth to a continent never before felt by the human heart.

On this particular day, on that long forgotten street corner, an interaction took place. It was an interaction, however brief and seemingly innocuous, whose simplicity and apparent normalcy belied the fact that it shook this particular individual’s soul to the core, and his life---and the lives of so many others---would never again be the same.

Yours Sincerely

(c) 2008 NurseKeith

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Last Lecture

My dear friends, at this extraordinary time, we come together to share our thoughts as a community. These are days of upheaval and uncertainty, and it is akin to a last gasp of breath when one finds him- or her-self engulfed in the flames of history.

Over the centuries, humankind has collectively traversed a variety of troubling avenues, the huddled and snot-nosed masses blindly following its failed leaders through ill-begotten storms of misconduct, venality, and unrivaled greed.

Today, with so much of the world in disarray and many of our shipmates hastily (and quite sloppily, may I add) jumping ship, crying over spilt milk and the crumbling cookies of human avarice, we sit in the bleachers, eating popcorn, drinking soda, and laughing the laugh of the maniacally smug.

We told you so!” we cry through our cardboard bullhorns.

What did you expect?” reads the banner that we unfurl as the armies of forsaken CEOs, displaced workers, and bereft corporate automatons march by in loose formation on their way to God-Knows-Where.

The limits of power, corruption and lies have been discovered. The eternal power of Karma has most definitely come home to roost in a big way. and no Nobel prize winner or quantum physicist can convince us otherwise.

These are heady times for some, especially those who’ve seen the signs and already understood exactly where it was we were headed. But for others, for those sheep-like and trusting souls who dutifully jumped through the hoops set out for them like there was no tomorrow, it’s the end of the world. Like Michael Stipe once said, “it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

So why, you ask, is this the last lecture, the final missive we will deliver from this bully pulpit of irony? Well, my friends, those of us who needed to learn our lessons have indeed learned them well and summarily moved on. And for those who still cannot see the forest for the trees, I can only say, in those immortal words from the 20th century, good night and good luck.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Quote: Coner Oberst

"What can you do?
Child, what can you do?
Sleep 'neath the stars
and toil in the sun."

---Coner Oberst

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Day

“Dios mio”, she wrote. “Que dia sera”! What a day it will be! How will I survive and do what I must do?

On this day, we will bury my mother, and I will become the eldest woman in the house. Before she died, my mother, God bless her, asked me to promise her that I would care for my brothers and sisters, supporting my father and keeping the family together and healthy. She said, “I know that this is a big responsibility for a girl of thirteen, but there is no one else to take my place, and your brothers and sisters need you.”

How I cried that day, asking her not to leave us. I cried in her arms and fell asleep with my head in her lap. Later, she woke me up with her coughing, her coughing that would not stop, even when the blood came, bright red against the towel she always held in her hand. How I hated those towels and handkerchiefs! They were my enemies, soaked with sickness, the sickness that would finally take away my mother.

I woke up extra early this morning, boiled a large pot of water for extra coffee and made fifty tortillas just the way she taught me. “Not too much salt, but just enough,” she told me. If my tortillas are a failure, I can always run down the calle to Dona Castillo’s, but that would cost so much more, money that Papa can’t really afford. Still, it’s nice to know that I can make up for my mistakes.

After the coffee had boiled, I put beans on the stove that had been soaking all night, fed the chickens, ironed my dress, and washed myself using the extra boiled water that I had set on the table to cool as I made the tortillas.

How did Mami do all of this every day for so long? She never complained, at least not to me. She always smiled, except when the coughing became so strong that she couldn’t bear to move a muscle. Can I really take her place? Can I do everything that she did, every day? And what about school? How will I go to school? Will I ever have time to play in the calle again when my friends come by and call my name? How I wish abuela—grandma---was here, but she’s in Heaven too, and I bet they don’t have to make tortillas in the morning up there.

After I ironed my dress and made sure the beans and tortillas and coffee were ready, I woke my brothers and sisters, but not before I stood in the doorway and watched their faces as they slept, three girls in one room, two boys in the other. Little Maria cried in her sleep last night, and I know she must have been dreaming that Mami had not died, that she would be in the kitchen this morning, barefoot as always, her hair hanging over her forehead as she prepared our breakfast, a smile on her lips.

(c) 2008 NurseKeith

Monday, October 20, 2008

Of Mystery, Drama and the Great Unknown

The smell of bleach fills the air. Bleach, blood, disinfectant, and water.

The corridors glisten from the overnight waxing. The low hum of machines can always be detected by those who listen carefully. Computers and machines are now the lifeblood of this facility, it having been decided by the powers that be that automation is the key to efficient care.

Behind each door a human story unfolds. Here a woman lies in wait for death, her still face illuminated by the thin light from the window. Her daughter sits silently by her side. In the next bed, a young woman recovers from an infection, the slow drip of antibiotics and saline working in tandem effort to send her home again.

On floors above and below, dramas take place from moment to moment, from hour to hour. Death wanders these halls freely, yet Life too has its sway. Skilled hands slice bone and skin; cantankerous limbs are guided towards their intended function; organs recover and fluids regain balance once again, and troubled minds are occasionally stilled.

The human body---so efficient, so greatly streamlined through evolutionary processes---is yet still so vulnerable from inside and out. Torturous kilometers of tubing deliver fluids where they’re needed. Digestive organs churn the staff of life into life itself. And the lungs---Oh the blessed lungs!---deliver those molecules of oxygen to capillary beds hungry to release their waste in exchange for that which they crave so mightily, so righteously.

As new life bursts forth from wombs engorged with blood, the journey begins anew. A head emerges, then shoulders and the remainder of a squirmy body covered with mucus.

How did those two original cells knows how to replicate themselves so efficiently? How can such life be born of the microscopic, the verifiably invisible? And how does such a lump of flesh become instilled with spirit and self? As this being lies in wait in the comfort of the womb, when does the soul manifest? When does this biological wonder receive its spiritual identity?

Within the woman dying down the hall, that baby’s first breath still breathes. Once upon a time, her rib cage was squeezed through that same vice-like canal, fluids pushed from the bellows by incredible force, almost volcanic in nature. And with that first breath of air, that first gasp, her body (which previously and paradoxically breathed only fluid) transitioned from the Aquatic to the Terrestrial. With that breath, her fledgling heart truly began its work. In that painful and exquisite moment, her birth was birth itself. Her breath was breath itself. It was then that her violent grasping at this new and mysterious world began.

(c) 2008 NurseKeith

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Health Food and Lipstick

She walks down the hallway, ill at ease, hands trembling. The bag on her shoulder is heavy. Does she regret what she said? Will she rue this day at some lonely time in the future? It was easy. It was so easy to be honest---cruelly honest. But was it cruel? Wasn’t it just reality? Wasn’t she just being authentic?

Leaving the building, she hurries down the sunny street, her shadow passing along the sidewalk, mingling with the shadows of the trees planted intermittently to provide some semblance of shade on hot summer days. The sound of a passing car radio playing an old Simon and Garfunkel tune transports her momentarily to her childhood in the 1970s: that old album cover, Art Garfunkel’s frizzy 70s afro, and Paul Simon’s silly flat hat and moustache. And when they sang of Mrs. Robinson, her child mind always thought it was about Mrs. Robinson on Lost in Space. Wasn’t that June Lockhart?

She passes by the healthfood store as the door opens, and that familiar and comforting smell of medicinal tea, baking bread and citrus lures her in. There are samples of organic cheddar cheese and crackers on a plate near the front door, and she helps herself. She makes a mental note that, of course they put out toothpicks for people to use to take a cheese sample, but if someone with very dirty or soiled hands fumbles for a toothpick in that little bottle, isn’t he or she going to contaminate the all of the toothpicks? Talk about fecal-oral cross-contamination! She shudders a little, grabs a toothpick, and makes sure to spear not one, but three small pieces of cheese, ignoring the sign that says “only one sample per customer, please”. Fuck that, she thinks. I spend at least $3000 a year in this place, so I can have more than one piece of cheese.
In the produce section, she spears a piece of melon from a plate with another of those ubiquitous toothpicks and moves on to the next section. Do I really need anything?, she thinks. Why I am even here?

Stopping in the cosmetic section, she checks out the display of natural lipsticks and dabs a few colors on her lips with the cotton swabs provided for just that purpose. Looking in the mirror, she notices a new wrinkle next to her left eye, and another one by her mouth. She frowns and the wrinkle by her mouth deepens. She smiles and it disappears somewhat. She frowns again. Smiles. Frowns. No lipstick today.

Turning into the aisle with the oils and spices and five million brands of soy sauce, she almost runs headlong into an acquaintance who regales her with a story of his recent adventures in Santa Fe with a Quebecquios shaman. She extricates herself as soon as possible, hoping not see anyone else. Sometimes, coming here is like Old Home Week and she hobnobs and chats with everyone and their mother, friends old and new, former colleagues, former lovers, future lovers. At other times (like today, for instance) it’s torture, and she turns each corner into a new aisle cringing, wondering how many more people she’ll have to elude before making it to the checkout counter.

Oh no! The checkout counter! One of the worst things is getting in line at the checkout, and then someone she only knows remotely gets behind her in line. They engage her in conversation, distract her from the task at hand, and complete the bloodletting, the draining of her vital energy that can happen when this place grabs her by the throat and reminds her of how long she has lived in this town, and just how desperate she is to leave.

Only now does she realize that she has thrown several random things in her cart that she doesn’t even remember choosing from the carefully stocked shelves. Did I grab someone else’s cart by mistake? And then she remembers: while Mr. Shaman-in-Sante-Fe talked, she pretended to listen as she selected a few things from the nearby shelves, just to have an excuse not to look at his pock-marked face and unsightly nostril hair. (Why doesn’t he trim that, anyway?)

Lost in a reverie in front of the overwhelming tea selection, she sees a tea called “Calm” and this brings her back to the exchange that happened not thirty minutes ago. She has bruised someone’s ego badly, let them down hard, and as much as she values her own sense of integrity and no-bullshit authenticity, a tinge of regret splashes across her mental screen. Did I really have to say all of that? Couldn’t I have edited myself just a little? Should I regret what I said? What I did? Is there no turning back?

Seized with guilt and a feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach, she abandons her cart in the tea aisle and hurries towards the door. Mr. Santa Fe tries to wave her down as he lifts his bags to his chest, but she pretends not to see him and emerges back onto the street, disoriented and feeling slightly feverish.

She walks ten, fifteen feet, looks back, walks a few more feet, and then freezes. She looks back towards the healthfood store entrance. Mr. Santa Fe exits, turns in the opposite direction, and disappears around the corner. Relieved, she heads back in the direction she had come in the first place, determined to take back at least some of the things she had said. I may still rue this day, she thinks.

(c) 2008 NurseKeith

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Coat

She opens the closet door and removes the beloved coat from its wooden hanger. Ah, this coat. Such a symbol of autumn’s anticipated, yet strongly resisted, arrival. The wearing of this coat represents the complete death of summer and the true beginning of the long sojourn that is the New England winter season, a creature that always seems to come too early and stay far too long, like a houseguest who overstays his welcome.

This coat, bought at a thrift shop on Cape Cod, perhaps fifteen years ago, is soft in all the right places. Inside the collar and sleeves, a soft silky lining prevents any exposed skin from even a hint of irritation.

It is as if this coat was tailored specifically for her body. The sleeves are absolutely the right length. When she raises her arms to pluck an errant leaf from an overhanging branch, the sleeve of the coat doesn’t rise so far up her arm that her forearm feels inordinately exposed to the chill air. But neither does her arm feel unnecessarily restrained by the sleeve as she raises it above her head. It is as if the sleeve allows her arm to move---no, it almost encourages movement---and she traverses through space without hindrance or concern.

And now for the pockets. She could rhapsodize about these pockets. They are just deep enough to provide her hands with enough space to be comfortable, yet not so much that they feel like potatoes being shaken inside a oversize shopping bag too big to hold such a small load. These pockets are lined with a synthetic fleece that provides just enough insulating warmth when it is most needed. However, if she has no use for the pockets, they are the perfect size to hold her gloves on one side and her keys on the other. Pockets can be so disappointing and annoying in their inadequacy. But not these pockets! No. These pockets welcome their use, and they lend themselves to use like a good pocket should.

So of course the frontal pockets are worthy of a rhapsody, but the inner pockets---well, they’re worthy of a sonata. There’s nothing so unsatisfying as a coat without an inner pocket. Granted, it’s usually men who long for an inner pocket in which to stow manly things needed during the process of post-modern hunting and gathering that takes place in towns and cities worldwide. That secret pocket wards off thieves and the sleight of hand of semi-talented pickpockets, yet it is also provides a place close to the heart for objects that would feel far too vulnerable if kept in an outside pocket and potentially exposed to the wild and untamed air. Yes, this inner pocket is like a sonata.

Before we move on to another part of the coat’s anatomy, let us consider the ultimate pocket, the pocket that she didn’t even discover until she’d owned the coat for several seasons. This pocket, diminutive yet terribly useful once discovered, lives on the left side of the inner lining. Unlike the easily negotiated inner pocket on the inside right, this secret pocket lives on the inside left, slightly lower down and out of the way, yet still delightfully reachable under duress.

This extra pocket is, interestingly enough, held closed by a tightly sewn button of mother-of-pearl (a secret delight of which only she is glowingly aware), making it safe and secure for any manner of crucial personal ephemera. For her, this small but mighty pocket always holds two twenty-dollar bills and an extra credit card, an insurance policy against a forgotten purse, or a purse annoyingly empty of the wallet that she sometimes forgets to transfer from the last purse that served active duty. There is also a tiny nail clipper living at the bottom of this pocket, and she cannot even count how many times it has saved her from her brittle nails that always seem to be breaking and splintering. How she loves this pocket as she walks the streets with the full assurance that she’s always ready for anything.

Finally, the buttons on this coat are the coup de grace. Like the button on that most hidden of inner pockets, these fully visible buttons are themselves also mother-of –pearl, and they are the perfect size that merrily allows for easy fastening and unfastening, all while making a gentle statement of grace and simple beauty.

Yes, the collar, the sleeves, the lining, the buttons, the pockets, the coat’s perfect length, even the familiar smell-----it all makes this coat a talisman, a marker, a buoy in the waves. Sometimes, in the middle of summer, she’ll just open the closet and caress this beloved garment, knowing that even as she dreads the coming of winter, the coat, in its magnificent but simple utilitarian beauty, will see her through the long, cold months ahead.

(c) 2008 NurseKeith