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.

Philosophy Road

Certain memories remain vivid.

Three little boys–my two brothers and I–growing up in a high plains town in the middle of nothing.

From a dusty window above Mama and Papa’s brick store, staring out at mountain ranges a hundred miles distant. But we couldn’t see the next town.

A mile down the straight dirt road was a pioneer cemetery. Fuller Creek Road. That’s the dirt road we headed down to reach the highway when we rumbled in our truck to the hours away city. Back up Fuller Creek road we’d come bouncing and shaking, truck bed full of shrink-wrapped cartons: toothpaste, toilet paper, candy bars, pain reliever. Things lost tourists might buy.

The dirt road was the one thread of Earth that kept a poor family alive. It was our umbilical cord. It led right past that pioneer cemetery. Fuller Creek Road. Mama, with her odd sense of humor, liked to call it Philosophy Road.

The pioneer cemetery was barely visible when we passed it by. It occupied a low hill between the road and creek. The wood crosses and headstones had long before fallen over, disintegrated, returned to the dust. The only thing you could see was unbroken green grass, and gray and green cottonwoods whose leaves shivered in the blue sky beyond the hill.

On summer afternoons my two little brothers and I would ride our bikes down Fuller Creek Road past that pioneer cemetery.

We’d stop when we reached the spot where Fuller Creek Road crossed over the creek. We’d dismount, walk our bikes down a steep rocky bank to enter the cool darkness under the concrete bridge. It was a secret place that was our own.

Beside the bubbling creek were perfect places to sit. One could listen to the water, watch a pair of paddling ducks, examine sun-faded, windblown litter, throw dirt clods at mud.

As we sat comfortably on flat dry smooth boulders, we’d talk nonsense about girls, the ranking of the next state’s college football team, and a million other things, but mostly about matters we couldn’t possibly understand.

We’d laugh as we drank beers. Mama forbade that. I don’t think she ever found us out. She knew much, but not about that. At least, I don’t think so.

We’d all three brothers spin headlong into the future as we sat and concocted the wildest, most absurd destinies. How we’d each become quarterback and win the National Championship. How we’d win the state lottery and use the money to build a castle with four stone towers and a working drawbridge next to Plover Pond. How we’d lasso a wild horse out on the rolling plains, train it in the abandoned corral north of town, then win the Kentucky Derby. How we’d figure out that Miller girl we saw once every month, and marry her. How we’d save the world and become big heroes.

Sometimes we’d cast a line tied to a stick hoping for a fish. In that trickle of water we knew fish were unrealistic, but one of my brothers did catch one.

Just before the sun touched the horizon, as we biked back home down Fuller Creek Road, we’d listen to the chit chit teer terrr-eeee of red-winged blackbirds perched in the trees beyond the vanished cemetery. We’d see the shivering leaves of cottonwoods turned golden. But we never stopped.

When we did get home, we’d all three laugh behind Mama’s back at the terrible things we’d accomplished.

Funny. I really can’t remember a specific word my brothers and I said under that bridge.

Whenever I happen to think of it, I believe I understand what my mother meant.

Why she called it Philosophy Road.

All Things Will Speak

When tongues are silent the stones will speak. As will the trees and the rivers and the rainbows and the stars.

When tongues cease, all things will speak gladly, freely.

The stones will speak of crumbling and the crucible.

The trees will speak of their unquenchable thirst and deep roots and seasons.

The rivers will speak of the ocean, and the rainbows will speak of the sun.

The stars will speak their infinite wisdom in a twinkling whisper.

Soul to Soul

Rudy and I stood talking at the end of the line as we waited for a concert. Rudy calls himself a philosopher, but don’t ask me whether he is.

“You know,” Rudy was expounding, “if existence is defined as the opposite of nonexistence, and nonexistence is something that doesn’t exist, your existence is defined by something that doesn’t exist.”

“That sounds profound,” I said.

“Don’t you realize your very existence is in question? Doesn’t that bother you?” inquired Rudy.

“Not really.”

A strange someone sauntered up to the end of the line. The guy wore rainbow sunglasses, a green bow tie, flower trunks, and a cascade of gold chains that couldn’t possibly be real. His t-shirt was emblazoned with a photograph of Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue.

“Peace to you fellow Earthlings!” the strange someone proclaimed.

“Peace to you!” replied Rudy with his usual wry smile. He eyed Einstein up and down.

“Brave the unity and go soul to soul!” Einstein said. “The transcendent antenna beyond the multiverse electrifies, intensifies, rectifies! Be the incorruptible hunger that skewers the night and opens shutters to the Light! In that galaxy and time far, far away, enigmas await so fire up your starship! Let your rocket burn! Embrace the One like collisions of hot ectoplasm! We are the Alpha and the Omega and a billion furnaces roaring! We are the Omega Men!”

“Wow,” exclaimed Rudy. “That was completely rational.”

I corrected Rudy. “That was poetry.”

“That was one toke too many,” commented Rudy.

“That was something truly profound that you couldn’t possibly understand,” I replied.

Einstein stared at me through his rainbow sunglasses. He actually seemed to be surprised. “Yeah man, like he said.”

The Silent Woman

Those who sought the heart of the library had to pass a granite statue. The Silent Woman stood a few feet inside the entrance to the Reading Room. The gray Silent Woman had been sculpted by a famous artist. Her bowed head was wrapped in a carven scarf. Her eyes were down and closed.

In a dim corner of the Reading Room I took off my winter coat and settled into a plush armchair. Wooden shelves heavy with gilt-lettered books enclosed the silence, like the walls of a cathedral. My seat faced one side of the Silent Woman.

I opened a book. For an hour I read. Then I shut the book. The dry pages seemed unimportant. Small voices from the nearby Children’s Room had tiptoed up to me.

I listened to the little voices.

Like a bubbling stream of soft, musical notes, the voices pattered and splashed and giggled. They chimed like crystal water cascading over stones. From the Children’s Room I heard glee, excitement, surprise . . . softly running feet . . . a sudden cry of delight. I heard the joy of eager spirits that refuse to sit.

I tried to understand the indistinct voices that swelled from a knowledge of life’s immediate fullness.

As I listened to the happy voices, I lifted my eyes to the Silent Woman.

Her head was bowed. Her eyes were closed.

She seemed to be waiting.

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.

Climbing Higher

Night.

A dark mountain meadow.

The moon like a bright coin.

A thief moved across the ghostly meadow, melted into black pines.

Roy’s fingers searched the trunk of a tree and discovered a handhold. Blindly he lifted himself onto the lowest branch. Bending his legs, struggling to keep balance, he raised himself into space.

With one greedy hand he reached up again and groped. His fingers closed upon another branch. His muscles lifted.

Secretly he climbed.

A cold mountain wind whirled from the deepest corners of the night, lashing Roy’s upturned face. He fought unseen limbs as gusts swayed the tree. Black needles raked his arms like skeletons caressing.

A higher, more tenuous, more difficult branch.

An icy wind.

A few winking stars shivered through the ever thinning branches. Roy reached up greedily and grabbed hold of another branch, climbed higher, even higher. A careful thief, he climbed higher, higher, into multiplied stars, until the Earth spun a quarter million miles below.

One last branch.

He thrust his head above it.

A bright coin.

Roy collected the moon and put it in his pocket.

One Lone Candle

The weekend before her first day of college, Maisha moved into a small studio apartment on Sandrock Bay.

It was a nice, clean apartment, with brand new carpeting, and a large window that opened to a wide ocean. The perfect headquarters to begin her adult life. She had already decided upon her goal. She would change the world. Make it better.

The apartment itself wasn’t terribly remarkable. A bed occupied one bare corner. On one blank wall she hung a wrinkled poster of the planet Earth.

When afternoon transformed into dusk, and her few things had been neatly arranged, Maisha noticed that a dim, barely perceptible light periodically entered her room. It winked from a place very far away up on the headland enclosing Sandrock Bay.

She approached the open window and saw a distant lighthouse.

As darkness grew, the circling beam of light strengthened. It cast a single ray of power miles out over its circling sweep of silver ocean.

At night, as Maisha lay in bed thinking about her life ahead, and her big dream, that powerful beam whirled, passed over her window, shining through to the black wall that faced her, passing over the Earth. It was like the rising of many suns.

On Monday morning Maisha returned to the open window. She breathed in the cool ocean air and anticipated her first class.

Walking up Campus Way to school, it was difficult to keep her eyes from that faraway lighthouse. Even after sunrise, in broad daylight, its tiny light kept winking. It seemed odd to her that a lighthouse would operate in daylight.

The first day of classes passed.

Maisha sat alone at a table by a window in the school cafe. She tried to remember what she’d learned during several lectures. The complexity. The fog of human action. The formulas, suppositions, limits, conditions. The outlines, demands, divisions and conflicts. The history, the hatred, the avarice, the vanity. The cruel truths of the world. The impossibility of soul. Theorems uttered by unconcerned professors.

And in that darkening shadow of near hopelessness, her eyes were drawn again to the lighthouse.

How did it shine for miles? she wondered.

What was its secret?

Slowly she remembered . . .

When she was a very little girl, and all the world was completely new, she and her parents had visited a lighthouse–another old lighthouse that stood at the end of another headland . . . overlooking a dim place . . . an elsewhere she had nearly forgotten . . .

She tried to see it.

She remembered being inside that narrow lighthouse, climbing circular stairs up and up and up . . . right up to an enormous shining lens.

The lens had appeared to her surprised eyes like an enormous diamond, finely cut and polished and infused with a heart of light.

Her parents had explained that the radiance of a single candle was refracted by the lens into a single powerful beam that could be seen for miles out at sea.

Saving countless lives.

As she sat at the table remembering, she suddenly wondered: would it be possible to change the world by refracting light from her own heart?

Could she shine her heart’s light through a jeweled lens, focus it, and send a beam of saving power beyond her small horizon?

Resolute, she was determined to ask the silly question of everyone in the cafe. “How do you refract a heart’s light?”

Maisha turned to address a student who sat at the nearby table.

A laugh. “You’re joking, right?”

Maisha turned to the table on her other side, where several students sat eating and staring into phones.

“How do you refract a heart’s light?” she asked the first student who looked up.

“You know, that’s really a weird question. Is it possible to refract what–a heart’s light? That’s literally impossible. You bend light, not a heart’s light. What exactly do you mean by a heart’s light?”

“I think I see what she means,” interjected another student. “Can you bend your soul or spirit or something and shine it around a corner–is that what you mean? The heart light you’re talking about can do anything you wish. It’s like poetry–a heart light can shine anywhere. You could pass it through a metaphysical prism and make rainbows, even.”

The final student laughed. “Oh come on, be serious. Metaphysical rainbows. The fact is nobody can escape from the Laws of Physics. If by heart’s light you mean something like love or compassion, then you have to bend it with something that actually works. But compassion isn’t a physical thing. So I don’t really know how you would do that. Is it possible to refract a heart’s light? I mean, really, why would you want to refract that? I’ve never heard a more stupid question.”

“Thank you,” said Maisha, turning back to her cold food.

When she had finished eating, Maisha quickly jumped up and crossed the school’s cafe to throw away the garbage that remained on her plastic tray. She had never felt so alone.

“It’s possible,” said a small voice behind her.

An old man with severely stooped shoulders was busy mopping the dirty floor. His mop worked in small steady circles. He looked up at her. His faraway eyes shined with knowledge. “It’s possible,” he said quietly.

“But how?” begged Maisha. “How? All I have is my one candle. How do I cut and polish the refracting lens?”

“You’ll work it out. Simply keep that candle lit.”