The Wheel

The potter sat before a turning wheel making a bowl . . . or a vase.

The potter’s hands expertly manipulated the spinning clay. Several visitors stood watching. It was a late Sunday afternoon at the Artist Collective.

I looked up at the many glazed ceramics on nearby shelves. My eyes took in row upon row of shining bowls and vases and cups and plates, in every possible shape, each and every one beautiful.

I observed the artist. “How do you know when you’re done?” I asked.

The potter laughed and shook her head. “Good question!”

The wheel kept turning as the potter’s hands compelled her creation. The clay suddenly grew tall like a tower, then expanded outward like an opening flower.

The spinning thing bulged, narrowed, ripples appeared, were smoothed away. Like soft skin touched with a finger.

Something organic emerged from the potter’s clay-covered hands, developed shoulders, a neck, a lip. Perhaps it was a vase.

The potter removed her dripping hands to examine the whirling creation. It was not quite born, suspended in space. She changed the posture of her fingers and the clay resumed its undulations.

The eyes of the artist seemed never satisfied.

The creation spun through endless permutations of beauty, and I didn’t understand how one curve would be considered more beautiful than another. There was an infinity at the center of the wheel: a door to a place of transcendent possibility: the eternal dream from which all things spring.

But only one fleeting vision would be subjected to fire.

The wheel stopped.

The potter thrust her clay-covered hands into the air, as if in surrender or triumph. “Done!”

The Pier

A short wooden pier extends from a secluded beach on the northern coast. The pier doesn’t appear to serve any purpose. It’s too high for a boat, and it doesn’t even reach the surf. Fishermen seldom use it.

Sometimes during my long morning commute I’ll pull off the coast highway, turn down a dirt road and into the little parking lot by the pier, just to open my window. The sound of the ocean is very soothing.

When I have several minutes to spare, I’ll walk out over the water.

I’ll lean on the rail at the end of the pier, nobody around.

All along that part of the coast unbroken forest sweeps down from a line of hills to the ocean, and at the end of the little pier a fresh green scent merges with the salt smell. Seabirds fly overhead. The faint chatter of water on small round stones rises from the beach below. Standing there, I like to gaze down at the water as it steadily rolls in and out, then raise my eyes to the horizon, the ocean breeze on my face.

One morning as I stood at the end of the pier I became aware that a person was walking toward me.

A man my own age, dressed in a business suit like myself, was advancing down the pier very slowly. He moved with the aid of two crutches. It appeared to me that he had cerebral palsy.

Embarrassed, I looked away.

The man faltered and struggled along the pier and finally came to a halt several feet from me. He leaned his crutches against the wooden rail and stood quietly gazing out over the ocean.

I finally turned to him meaning to say hello.

But the man’s motionless eyes were so far away. They were riveted to the ocean’s horizon beyond the line of breaking surf. His face bore a complicated expression that I couldn’t quite untangle. I saw regret. I believe I saw resignation.

I looked again his crutches and kept my mouth shut.

The man stood for a while with fixed, unreadable eyes, then he reached a hand into his pocket and pulled out something small. A coin.

He turned the coin over and over in his fingers without looking down at it. The coin flashed in his hand like an ember from a hidden fire. Suddenly with an easy motion he tossed the coin from the pier. It dropped shining into the ocean and was gone.

The dropping of the coin seemed like a surrender. I yearned to say something sympathetic. I finally spoke. “It’s like a gigantic wishing well.”

He turned and regarded at me. “You’re wrong,” he said. “It’s a payment of my debt.”

With a sudden smile, he gathered up his crutches, placed one under each arm, and with a lurching effort began to walk away. He lifted his legs one after the other as he struggled back down the short wooden pier.

I watched him become smaller.

His debt?

I stood perplexed.

What could a man in pain possibly owe the ocean?

I turned to gaze again at the breaking surf from the short pier’s end. Beyond the line of surf the ocean pulsed to the horizon like an ethereal thing. So unfathomable. And I so small.

My thoughts turned to the ocean’s salty smell and how it permeated my life. How I longed to smell it, along with the green. How it made me feel alive.

I thought of the vast world that encircled me. Of the living forest rising up hills from the stony beach, of moving clouds and wheeling seabirds, and silver water rolling back and forth across rippled sand.

I thought of my daily drive up and down the beautiful coast highway, when I considered my life’s lofty goals, and listened to my favorite music.

Then I thought of my home halfway up a green mountain, with its porch swing and warm fireplace, its modest yard and few flowers.

I thought of my family. That very morning they had given me a thousand reasons to smile.

I thought of my friends who provided encouragement and bursts of laughter and a feeling that somehow, in this crazy mixed-up world, I belong.

I thought of sunshine and rain, good times and bad, the mixture of pleasure and pain that constituted my own life.

As I gazed out at the surf crashing beyond the pier’s end, I realized that all things obtain their life from a churning ocean–a generous ocean whose depths lie beyond any man’s reach.

I took a coin from my own pocket. Thoughtfully I turned it over in my hand.

I tossed it into the water.

Aviary Observations

The captive birds in the walk-through aviary had nowhere to go, so they perched on branches and observed the humans.

“These creatures are very selfish,” commented the purple honeycreeper. “Watch them as they crowd outside our enclosure. Every human is anxious to get in here first, but they don’t want to appear like ordinary animals. They measure distances from the corners of their eyes, then shift and shuffle and angle. For an intelligent species they are very squirrelly.”

“But why are all these humans in such a big hurry to get in here?” asked the blue-necked tanager.

“Because they want to exult in the little things they have caged. Then they want to feel relief when they step out of the cage.”

“If they want to feel relief, why do they hesitate to leave?”

“Because it turns out we are beautiful.”

“But if they prefer to be free, why won’t they let us be free?”

“Because our beauty would escape them.”

One Rock

“You can only take one rock,” explained Lydia’s mother.

As the two walked, Lydia bent down to pick up smooth stones from the beach. Each stone was a different bright color, a gift from the tumbling ocean.

Her hands moved across the wet sand to touch the scattered treasure.

One polished stone seemed to shine like an emerald, but when she looked at it very closely Lydia discovered it was mostly a colorless gray.

Another oval stone was glossy black with shining silver flecks. Where the ocean’s recent touch lingered, the silver glittered and gleamed.

One strange bluish stone contained many tiny holes, and Lydia put a hole to her eye to see if she could somehow see through it.

One crystalline, pearly white stone had already begun to dry out and lose its luster, turning dull.

Another bright reddish stone seemed perfectly round, like an agate marble, but a crack ran through it and part of one side had chipped off.

To Lydia every single stone at her feet was a precious jewel.

She wanted to fill her hands with treasure. But she knew her mother was right. Her small hands could manage just one.

She reached down and took the nearest rock.

The Flight of an Eagle

“Isn’t it amazing!” enthused Alec, looking at his phone. “Some guy takes pictures of plastic action figures sitting on cats, and he has over four million followers.”

Daryl had put down his own phone. He sat across the coffee shop table, gazing out the window at cars jamming the boulevard. He heard, but said nothing.

“Technology has made it incredibly easy for anyone to become rich and famous, ” remarked Alec. “All it takes is something brilliantly stupid.”

Daryl sought a reply in his mind, kept his mouth shut.

Alec continued to scroll on his phone. He suddenly laughed. “You should check out this video. Here’s a guy who stands on his head while reciting Shakespeare. Over nine million views.” He held up his phone for Daryl to see.

Daryl observed the upside down person for a few moments, offered a smile, turned his head again to gaze silently out the window.

On the sidewalk across the busy boulevard an elderly man was resting on the seat of his walker. He was holding a small bag of what must have been stale bread. He was feeding pigeons that had gathered around him.

Pigeons continued to fly down from streetlamps and rooftops. The man tossed crumbs.

As Daryl watched the flocking scavengers, an unbidden memory flickered into his mind. It was a memory that formed when he was a boy. A golden eagle from a place far away used to visit the pine tree outside his bedroom window.

For some reason the golden eagle chose to perch in that tree. In the early morning, lying flat on his bed, Daryl would quietly stare up through his window to watch. He would marvel at the mysterious visitor, wondering why it lingered outside his window. The eagle’s sharp eyes seemed to flash with secret knowledge as it turned its head looking right and left.

Thinking about his own very ordinary life, Daryl would wonder what it might be like to possess golden wings: to stretch those wings powerfully, leap skyward and rise.

From that tree Daryl would rise above his bedroom window into a welcoming sky. As he soared and turned he’d feel the air sweeping his body, the unclouded sun beaming warmly on his face. He’d climb higher, higher, circling higher, even higher.

With keen eyes he’d look down.

The familiar houses in a row. The tiny people, like insects. The pine trees and the nearby lakes and a silver river in a wilderness. The magnificent sweep of the luminous Earth, with all of its unfathomable vastness laid bare. Prairies and canyons and patterned deserts. Mountain ranges like wrinkles. Deep blue seas sprinkled with fragments of green. The horizon’s never changing, ever summoning curve. The magnified beauty that is revealed from high places.

As he circled on golden wings Daryl would understand the freedom of the sky, where there is nothing in life that is tiresome or meaningless or paltry. The world’s cares would shrink down to nothing. He would be alive. He would perceive the immense majesty of the world.

“I can’t figure it out, ” said Alec. “Here’s a guy who puts his pet mouse in costumes. He dressed up his mouse with a party hat on its head. You can make a small fortune if your videos go viral. Can you believe it?”

“Yeah, I suppose, ” replied Daryl.

The Hand of Fate

A small shrine appeared on some bare dirt near the intersection where a transient had been struck and killed. Neighbors brought candles, roses, prayerful messages written on cards. The next day the City cleaned up the guttered candles and withered roses and tossed the messages into a plastic bag to be thrown away.

Carly, during a walk through the neighborhood, looked down at the dead patch of dirt. She wondered why a nameless person had drifted along her street.

All that remained beside the sidewalk were windblown leaves.

And one faded rose.

Carly leaned over, picked it up.

She took the spent thing back to her apartment. She put it in a damp paper towel. She made a quick trip to the store to buy a clay pot and small bag of soil. She prepared the stem for propagation. Her mother, long gone to heaven, had once taught her how.

Carly put the cutting into the soil and placed the pot in her small apartment window. She was careful to keep the soil moist and warm.

Early one morning, when nobody was about, she walked down the sidewalk back to the intersection and its dead patch of dirt. She brought a hand shovel.

Every morning after, she brought a water bottle.

. . .

Many years after Carly had joined her mother, those who walked by the intersection would pause to marvel at the strange abundance of wild, beautiful roses. Hundreds of blooms crowded the sidewalk.

It seemed the Hand of Fate had birthed an improbable garden.

Nobody knew where the roses had come from.

Every Butterfly is New

As I sat at a table on the patio waiting for my morning coffee to cool, a butterfly lighted on my sleeve.

I looked down. Very slowly the butterfly’s wings opened and closed. The small creature seemed perfect, freshly made.

I remembered something I had read. Most butterflies live for about one month.

Every butterfly is new.

I looked closely at my visitor. I marveled at the filigree wings, as delicate as dreams made real. I could see the tiny eyes. I was careful not to move my arm. I didn’t want it to leave.

A butterfly, I mused, in its short life dances with the wind, always searching.

As this one approached me, what did it see?

A patchwork of many colors?

An immense, undefinable mass looming like an Everest?

An unexplored planet, in an inexplicable orbit, flitting like itself through an ever-changing universe–a universe that beckons infinitely to newly born eyes?

A strange flower?

The butterfly on my arm was small, bright and new.

At once a revelation came to me.

I too am new.

A Heart That Would Not End

The faraway sound was familiar, but strange.

“What’s that?” asked the child.

Holding hands with a grown-up, the child circled around the bubbling fountain and arrived at a bench near the Natural History Museum, where a man sat playing a didgeridoo.

Others stood by listening.

A strange, pulsing sound rose from the speaking end of the didgeridoo. It was like the rhythm of the ocean. Like the beating of a heart.

The man’s cheeks swelled as he breathed life through the instrument. The slightly crooked didgeridoo, painted from one end to the other with blue moons and yellow stars, was simply the hollow trunk of a young tree. With his lungs the man produced an ancient music that was resonant, churning, pulsing, surging.

Surging, surging, echoing, echoing.

The child ran a few steps forward, halted within arm’s reach of the magic.

The music never paused or faltered. The man didn’t stop. His eyes were half-closed and turned inward as his head swayed and lungs worked. His cheeks swelled. Beads of sweat made his face gleam. Suddenly the man’s eyes opened wide and he looked directly at the child. An eye winked.

The child laughed and dropped down to the ground to look up into the open end of the didgeridoo. From fallen leaves the child peered up toward the source of the strange music, into the darkness of the singing tree, searching.

There was nothing to see. Only space. A vast, unbounded space more mysterious than the deepest ocean. A place beneath blue moons and yellow stars.

Unfathomable, untouchable, an infinity overflowing with invisible music that swelled like an exultant heart.

And somewhere above it all: a winking eye.

“You’re going to get dirty down there,” said the grown-up. “Come on. It’s lunch time. Aren’t you hungry by now?”

The child jumped up and the two made their way through the sunny park, in step with a beating heart that would not end.

A Wise Man

Another year, almost gone.

On a Sunday afternoon my family sat down in the hilltop park to listen to a community Christmas concert. The chilly outdoor amphitheater was packed. My wife and I sported Santa hats, and our kids dressed as elves.

Up on the leaf-strewn stage the New Life Choir sang Christmas carols. The audience sang along, clapped in time, jingled bells and keys on chains.

For some reason I couldn’t join in. My thoughts concerned problems at work and those toxic in-laws that would be visiting again. Christmas felt tired. I kept looking around at the crowd of easily excited strangers in the audience. It all seemed so predictable.

At the end of our row, near the exit, I spotted one man’s head that stood out in the small ocean of red and white Santa hats. It was his strange golden crown that drew my attention. I wondered what sort of fool would decide to wear a crown for Christmas.

The crown seemed absurd. It was one of those simple crowns that look like triangular steeples arranged in a circle, each graced with a single gem. Suddenly I realized the person had come to the Christmas concert as one of the Wise Men.

I looked at the face beneath the crown and saw a gray, very old man, who sat alone and apart.

A children’s choir was filing up onto the stage. Several dozen awkward children were all dressed like green elves. My son and daughter were very excited see more tiny elves, exactly like themselves. I looked at my wife as she gave Janie and Joshua each a quick hug.

The choir of bright-eyed elves gathered nervously in rows on the risers, smiling, squirming, turning their shy faces to the audience. Parents waved and held up phones to take pictures.

I regarded the eager audience. Above the swelling sea of Santa hats, I observed the crowned head of the very old Wise Man at the end of our row. He stared directly ahead, eyes unmoving. His weathered face was expressionless. I wondered what the very old man saw. Confusion, probably. The passing of too many years.

I turned to watch the children as they prepared to sing The Twelve Days of Christmas.

The tiny green elves stood side by side and began about that partridge in a pear tree. Their wavering voices rose and rose, becoming more certain as they sang about two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.

On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me, three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.

The elves sang through the twelve days, brief days filled with abundant gifts of hens and geese and swans and gold rings, filled with gifts of dancing ladies and leaping lords and pipers piping and drummers drumming, drumming, drumming, repeating, repeating like strong, perpetual heartbeats.

Each elf had eyes that shined like jewels.

For a moment I forgot about work and in-laws and looked softly at my own excited children, my two small elves that one day would don Santa hats.

After the final carol had been sung, as everyone left the small amphitheater, the very old man in the strange golden crown remained in his seat. I glanced down at him as we brushed past. His eyes stared directly ahead. They were filled with tears.