Posts Tagged ‘memory’

Randy Hasper

Randy Hasper

Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, was one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld, the other four being Styx (the river of hate), Akheron (the river of sorrow), Kokytos (the river of lamentation) and Phlegethon (the river of fire).That’s a nasty bunch of waters, and I’m not boating these if I can help it. Instead, I’m chosing to float another stream — mindfulness. These days, I’m remembering — good things.

Oscar Wilde wrote that “memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.”

I’m carrying that diary these days — all the time, a diary of the good things that are happening to my new friends, and I’m liking it.

Yesterday Isabel who is six, and Dolores, who is seven, came to my house for lunch.

“What’s your favorite story,” I asked Dolores.

“The God story,” Dolores said.

Three years ago she wouldn’t have said that. Three years ago her father was rafting hard down that river of fire that is made up out of crystal meth — Phlegethon, flowing hard and fast. He’s not now. No smoking meth; just working in the ship yards, and going to church. Because of this things have changed for Dolores, as well as for her nine siblings, and for her mom too. I’m remembering, and smiling.

Sunday at church I shook Aaron’s hand. He’s a single dad. He introduced me to a friend who was with him.

“How do you know each other?” I asked.

“Recovery,” said Aaron and then he laughed, having outed his friend the first thing.

Aaron told me recently that he was able to buy a house for he and his two boys. He’s so happy. A few years ago, his life was impossible — Kokytos of devastating proportions. Not now. The hard crying is behind him.

I’m remembering. I’m smiling.

Jeanie and I sat down to catch up recently. Jeanie is one of my many new friends.

“I’m telling my daughter that I love her now, ” she told me, breaking a little as she says it. She continues emotionally, “I never used to be able to say that.” Her eyes are wet.

When I met Jeanie she was traversing Akheron. She’s not so much now. She’s expressing emotions. She’s feeling. She’s coming back from the dead.

“Why do you think you’ve changed?” I asked her.

“Love,” she said emotionally, “I’ve found unconditional love. Now I’m able to give it to others.”

But Styx — it’s pervasive.

“I want you to pray for me,” said Robert.

“Why?” I asked him.

“I don’t want to hurt people anymore,” he said. He told us about an incident. He said, “I don’t want to use violence anymore.” He’s done trafficking on the river of hating.

We prayed for him.

Robert lives in a group home. Apparently there is nobody to tell this kind of thing to there. It’s hard to find people to tell this kind of thing to anywhere.

I’m happy for Robert. I’m happy as this year closes. I’m happy because I’m remembering my friends who are abandoning the polluted rivers of the underworld.

I’m with them. I myself refuse to float Lethe anymore. Mnemosyne — I want her.

I have too many good things to remember to be spending time forgetting.

I have too many memory stones to pile up to be losing river rock these days.

I’m remembering my people. I’m remembering my people, my precious ones, the transforming ones who God has given to me, the ones who are floating new rivers with me.

I’m remembering them. I’m happy.

Randy Hasper

Up the metal steps went my body, in through the narrow door and out onto the black rubber mats. The steering wheel was to the right, as usual, but to the left were rows and rows of spines. The spines went all the way to the back. The room rocked a bit as I stepped further inside. I chose one and opened it up to the thin white layers inside. I skimmed its dark lines to see if this one was for me. I loved them, all of them and this room, parked in front of my grade school. It was one of the first magic spaces in my life; it was the book mobile.

I was raised on potato-tuna casserole and “Rootie Kazootie.” Rootie hit home runs while Polka Dottie led the cheer, and then he rescued El Squeako Mouse from Poison Zanaboo. There were other children’s stories, so many, “Little Indian,” “The Little Red Hen” and “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” I sat under my mother’s arm and braved danger after danger. Little Indian bravely stayed by his hurt horse though the dark and scary night. The little red hen baked her cake alone, outwitted the fox and shared her cake. Peter Rabbit hid under a pot to escape from Mr. McGregor. Talking animals, for many of us, were our first best friends. Perhaps our parents read these too us for their moral values, as if children’s literature exists to instruct and preach. That didn’t work. We remember a good story, a unique character, some good lines. It’s enough.

These reside in deep memory, our storybook friends and their adventures, and we don’t merely  remember them, resting somewhere in the recesses of our cerebrums, snaked back to the surface throughout life by our hippocampuses, but in one way or another we eventually live them. I hit a Rootie Kazootie home run in grade school, turning on an inside fast ball and smacking a line shot that just kept rising over third, sailing over the outfielder in left, landing at the bottom of the hill and bounding into the trees. The arc of that shot, my unimpeded romp around the bases, crossing home plate and still waiting for Ronnie to find the ball – “Gosharootie,” life is good when you are the star, even if for just a moment, of Kazootieland.

Most every story that we read has universal elements with counterparts in our lives, like shadows have the thing that casts them. Take Little Indian for instance, the brave little child who loves the horse he finds. I too found a lost creature one summer day when I was little, a big red cat lying in the daisies, and I hauled him home under my arm. I can still remember his soft, flexible weight, almost dragging to the ground as I rescued his mangy hide, and made “Red” my best friend, day and scary night. And my mother hen baked me white cake with chocolate frosting on my birthdays every year, and we all ate it, whether we had helped or not. And I don’t remember helping. And we planted vegetables in a large garden spot near the house and the rabbits nibbled on them when we weren’t looking. Our early stories are the literary templates for our lives. And our later readings teach us how to write our own, Darwin borrowing phraseology from Humboldt’s personal narrative when he wrote his Beagle diary.

In writing about the value of fairy tales, G. K. Chesterton said, “My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery.” Chesterton tells how he learned from the fairy tales what he would later learn from philosophy and theology, that life was supernatural, mysterious and unpredictable. Ideas are powerful, and resident in tales they are even more powerful. We begin college in the nursery, encountering some of the great oppositions of life, good and evil and the will to persist in the face of dark magic until a beautiful woman or a beautiful kingdom is won.

When I think of stories I think of my mom. She read them to me. And she read them with me. When I was in grade school my mom and I read Zane Grey novels together, ones we had gotten from the bookmobile or the little library in town. We loved Riders of the Purple Sage. I totally connected to The Lone Star Ranger. “Duane could draw it [his gun] with inconceivable rapidity, and at twenty feet he could split a card pointing edgewise toward him.” I wished I could do that. I doubt if my mom did, but these stories became a bond between us. Her liking them seem to amp their value in my mind. Later in life when my wife and I went to Catalina Island to vacation we read Riders of The Purple Sage because Zane Grey had a home on the island, now the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel.

Stories change places, turning ordinary towns into tour destinations, small houses into rooms people pay to tour. All you have to do to see what a writer can do to a town is to go to Hannibal, Missouri.  Tom and Becky and Huck are now longer carefree; they’ve gone into business together. When my daughter Laurel and I went to Concord, Massachusetts we walked through the home of Louisa May Alcott. The tour paused with awe in front of a little desk in her room; it is now a relic. We wanted to touch it; maybe the magic would enter us. But it already had; we had both grown up in homes with desks and bookcases full of stories.

My mom saved a few of our early childhood stories. Their thin, fading cardboard covers moved with my family from house to house and state to state, and on a day I don’t remember now, I found some of them in a box at her house and brought them to my own home, twenty-some years after first hearing them, and I read them to my little daughters. These scraps from my childhood, a Little Golden Book, and a Better Homes and Gardens storybook, unlike my transistor radio, came alive again through my own voice and storied my own children’s childhoods. My daughters sat under my arm and heard what I heard under my mother’s arm, “The Little Red Hen” and “Peter Rabbit.”

I walked into my daughter Laurel’s room the other day and noticed that on the table by her bed were stacks and stacks of books. She is majoring in literature. The stories got to her. She wants more. When our brains are still forming, the stories we hear are archetypal, a part of deep memory, mental construction, identity formation. The other night we got to talking about children’s literature, and one of my daughters went and found our old copy of “Rootie Kazootie.” We took turns reading pages and laughing.

 “’Come one step closer,’ Poison Zanzaboo cried, ‘and I’ll soak El Squeako in the lake!’”

“’Whatever can we do?’” cried Polka Dottie.”

It’s enough to make a modern egalitarian boil,  the helpless cheerleader and her Mexican mascot mouse who they keep in the dugout for luck.  I opened to the back of the title page, “Copyright 1954 by Steve Carlin.” I’d like to have known Steve, had him to dinner. He made up words. he must have been a fun guy.

We laughed at the Dogerooties and the Yankapups and shouted, “Zingarootie.” I checked on the chicken, broiling in the oven. The barbeque sauce on top was getting a tasty shade of dark. My daughter got out the serving dishes. The Little Red Hen was again about to share again.

Stories have a power that goes beyond their physical existence and beyond even the ideas expressed in them. Stories are community, and sharing our tales is one way we love each other. As my girls grew up I read to them out loud all seven volumes in The Chronicles of Narnia. When they were barely old enough to understand, we read out loud Treasure Island.  We exulted together in The Wind In the Willows, driving furiously with Toad, journeying with Mole and Rat. For hours on end they sat on my lap or under my arm, reveling in story, in language and most of all in having an arm around a shoulder, a hand on a forearm, a leg touching the border of another leg. Touch and story are a perfect compound.

Sometimes I didn’t read stories at all; I told them stories. They have always loved to hear the stories from how I grew up, like the time I shot my brother.  In telling them, I try to stick to reality, but it’s hard. The stories tend to get away from me.   

They like the one about the clubbing. This one involved a clubbing game that my brothers and I invented when we were young. We would fill our socks with other socks until they were hard and bloated. Then we would separate, hide and hunt each other. Our improvised games were often about maiming or killing each other. The intent of the sock game was to bludgeoning each other into oblivion. On one memorable occasion, I crouched down beside the washing machine in wait for my brother Steve. I  put my right hand back over my shoulder, club ready. I would strike, as quickly as the Lone Star ranger could shoot. The pocket door from the kitchen slid open. I could see the light change on the floor. With one fluid, non-stop motion I rose from the floor and swung the club down on his head with a vengeance. Except it wasn’t Steve; it was grandma. She swayed, staggered back, gasped and collapsed on the linoleum in  a defeated heap.

 It was shortly after that, that she moved back to California.  It probably didn’t matter to her that her beating was intended for my brother Steve. She went home anyway. I was distraught. She had bought us a TV. More good was sure to come from her living with us. Perhaps the clubbing was the last straw. But maybe it was just time.

The girls love this story; so do I. I’m the hero. But it is the girl’s birth narratives that are perhaps the most popular in our family.  When I tell Rosalind’s I say, “I cried when you were born. You were so beautiful. I loved you so much.” She is beautiful, the bluest eyes, the most lovely skin color. We played a call and response game throughout her childhood. “When will I stop loving you?” I’d ask. “You’ll never stop loving me,” she’d respond. That mattered when we were told that she was brain damaged, when we realized she would never read beyond the second or third grade level. When my wife or I tell Laurel’s story, we say, “When you was born, you were ten pounds and fourteen ounces. You were big because you were late, almost half-grown, practically ready to go to school and you didn’t want to come out. They had to suck you out with a vacuum. You looked like a cone head for weeks.”  Other stories involve their very early years. The girls were both bald for a year or so and they had fat cheeks. I tell them, “We paid extra for your cheeks. And we rubbed vitamins on your heads to try to get your hair to grow.” Sometimes they have asked, “Did you really?”  Such simple narratives are our histories, our oral traditions; we all need them.  We want our mythic tales. We want to have a story about ourselves.

I know adults who don’t know who their parents were; they don’t know any birth stories about themselves. They live without a personal myth. One of them has an attachment disorder, another a relational disorder; they are screwed up. Stories matter.When we don’t have early childhood stories we grow sick.  When my girls were very little I made up stories for them. I’d begin, “Once upon a time there was a piece of dirt. He felt so sad because he didn’t think that he was worth anything. Then one day a little girl came with a seed.” The dirt, or bug or plant always ended up finding their place in the world, making a contribution. I also told the girls stories about animals, who did what the girls would  like to do, fly, eat, adventure. The most famous stories I told were the Rusty Jake Stories, renown throughout my clan. Rusty was my brother Steve’s dog, but when my brother wasn’t home, Rusty took my brother’s motor cycle for a ride, with the family house cat on the back, and they went to Washington. They were stopped by the police, but had to be let go, because their were no laws on the books about dogs riding motorcycles,  and they saved the President of the United States and came back home to cheers and a parade.

Stories make choices for us.  In grade school Rosalind picked a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, our good family friend, when she was asked to choose something to memorize for a class assignment.  She heard the whole of Treasure Island very young, in the first or second grade, and she invited the author back.

When I was down beside the sea

a wooden spade they gave to me

to dig the sandy shore.

My holes were empty like a cup.

In every hole the sea came up,

till it could come no more.

Rosalind grew up at the beach in San Diego. On one of her early trips to the beach she ate sand, hand over hand. We never knew why she did that, but it came out in he diaper and we were amazed — we have a sand eating baby. So when she chose this poem, she could taste it, and she could smell the salty air and she had seen the sea wash away her sand castles. She had already lived her story poem.  Why do we read what we read? Perhaps we move toward the stories we have lived or almost lived or hope to live someday.

For my family, and for all of us, stories come to us in so many different packages. They are so much a part of our lives, and of course, they aren’t always in books. One of the most powerful first stories I bonded with my daughter Rosalind over was The Little Mermaid, a movie. It was the movie that saved Disney and it added to us too. We came home from seeing it cheering, singing the songs, “Kiss the Girl,” and “Under the Sea.” Disney had rediscovered it, the formula, the songs, the dialogue and more great stories were to come. We were taken up, as a family, with Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Hercules.

Hercules was a standout for us, the characters, Hades, Pain and Panic, the clever dialogue. We use it around the house. The characters became a part of our family. The movie is about Hercules searching for his own story, what happened to him when he was little, the reason he is different, the identity of his father, Zeus. It is one of those universal stories, zero to hero, and the more important discovery of his family and his own true love, Meg.  

We loved Meg,  “I’m a big tough girl, I can tie my own sandals and everything.”

“Thanks for everything, Herc. It’s been a real slice.”

Pain and Panic gave us one of our most repeatable family mantras, “If? If is good.”

Hades  was sheer genius, “So is this an audience or a mosaic?”

We live by our movie lines; they have become part of the family ideolect, a homey parlance to joke with. People do this, quote lines from movies to talk to each other. The dialogue comes off the page and works in the real world. People quote from What About Bob, from Napoleon Dynamite, from everything. The stories in this way get integrated into our lives. They become part of our mythology, the shared narratives that we use to understand life.

On the movie screen, on the TV, on the computer screen — it doesn’t so much matter how the stories are delivered, but it matters how they are told. A good narrative is a good narrative and nothing will substitute.  I read a lot now online, on my phone too, a news story, an article, Facebook, Twitter, checking my blog. I love a story song, something unexpected. niche, heard on Pandora Radio for the first time. I love a good sound bite, a pithy Tweet, but I think that most of all, I still love a good book. There will always be something about the page, about the longer read, about the physical experience of books, especially the books we keep.   My battered copy of Shakespeare’s complete works, the checked and underlined passages on the smooth, thin pages, those favorite lines I find my way back to,  “Nothing will come of nothing,” but something will come from a good story, like Macbeth or As You Like It, which is one of the sources for my daughter Rosalind’s name. And there is my old hardback copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems, the numbers of my favorites written in the front of the book so I can find my way again to those explosive bits of insight that blow the top of my brain off every time I read them.  “Tell the truth but tell it slant…” I like the pencil check beside this line in my book.

Books are so physical. There textures and their smells compliment so nicely their ideas and concepts. After we reread “Rootie Kazootie” the other night, I smelled it, the pages. Matija Strlic, a chemist at University College London, has figured out that the smell of the paper in old books comes from hundreds of volatile organic compounds released into the air from the pages. From her research, she writes of discovering in old paper “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.”

Reading is a total sensory experience, the grassy, tangy, musty pages, the spines, covers, dust jackets, paper pages signal us through our fingers.  Many of the books on the book mobile, as was common with library books then, were bound into heavy, fabric bindings, dark red, blue, green, brown, and hardened with glue. The authors, titles and call numbers were printed or embossed onto the spines. I can still remember the heft of them, the rough feel of their covers in my hands.

And  stories are relational and meant to be handed to other people and shared in close quarters. How often have my wife and I called out in the evening after reading alone, and laughing, “Hey, listen to this.” I still find stories as a way to find my people and bond with them. I  love a reading groups where we eat together before we talk books and then we gather in the living room and puzzle over print and story and concept and quote lines and laugh and remember and travel together to a world of ideas and foreign places and togetherness. A story in another person’s mouth is a new story. I’m always surprised by what someone else sees that I don’t. We read The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony and discussed it in a group recently. I commented that I thought Lawrence was a masterful leader shown in how he immediately addressed problems. My friend Melissa pointed out that she was more impressed by his subtle leadership, the way he let others learn for themselves and take leadership for themselves.

Our lives are journies to find good stories and to explain those stories to each other, to find something to pass on to the little ones sitting under our arms, to get back on the book mobile, the idea mobile, to take a cerebral ride, to bring friends along, to have something to tell while we eat.  So has it been for all of us, or if it has not, then I wish that it may be so in the future.

Life is story and story life and there is so much more to tell.


On summer nights when I was a child,  my brothers and I ran loose in the dark cool fields in front of our cinder block  house. Children chasing after each other at night  is a delicious unrestraint,  like dragon flies darting over smooth water or wild horses running free in open spaces. We lived on a campground which my parents oversaw, and during the summer months the camp filled with wild children, rounded up from unsafe neighborhoods in Kansas City and bused to the Ozarks in rural Missouri.

One magical summer night when the campers were out, playing tag, which is just another of the many activities of life that we make up so that we can touch each other, I rounded the corner by a lilac bush, and there she was.  I had seen her a few days before in the dining room, where we all ate together. I was smitten.

What makes something cute? Puppies, kittens, baby elephants – cute is cute, big eyes, pug noses, long legs, curly hair. Whatever cute is for girls, she was that, and I loved her, so  I kissed her on the cheek. At the moment it seemed right, the most natural, innocent, wonderful thing in the universe. A summer night, a lilac bush in a grassy field, a game of tag, the most darling little girl, a pounding heart — a darting kiss. It was the perfect touch for what I felt.

I lived to regret it.  She went back to her cabin that night and told the other girls. There was a mole in her cabin; word leaked to the outside world, and my brothers found out. If that wasn’t bad enough, when she went back home to the city, she wrote me a letter. My brothers ferreted this out too, and the letter became a public discussion in my house. It couldn’t have been worse.  It was a mystery to me: Why would she do that, be kissed and tell — everybody?

And when my  brothers sang the  song, I knew then that life as I had known it before waw over.

 Randy candy, puddin’ pie, kissed the girls and made ‘em cry.
When the boys came out to play,
Randy candy ran away.

I fell in that moment, like Adam, and I knew the difference between good and evil.  If you liked a girl, you shouldn’t let it ever be discovered. And  kissing – it was a certain catastrophe.  Why? I wasn’t sure.  At ten years old I couldn’t figure it out. I couldn’t bring it to light. I couldn’t fathom it, the mystery of girls. And so, very young, I learned to stick  to cats, mostly, and dogs.  I still like them, a lot.

I rub my cat’s ears in the morning, the friction ridges on my finger tips sliding over her soft black fur,  the epidermal ridges on my finger tips amplifying the vibrations rising from my contact with her edges. I love ruffling her fur, smoothing it down again. I run the backs of my fingers over her, then I rub my finger tips over her head.  I luxuriate in her softness, and I enjoy my skin ridges, my high places that link me to her fur. My corrugated skin is so useful, so alive, so well-designed, so pragmatic, allowing me to sooth myself and my cat, grip my food and hold onto the hands of my people.  

Touch is  ancient. In our beginning, we were all touched. Our first bits of reality were experienced inside of our mothers skins, in sacred spaces where we differentiated and became sentient. I believe that we all have neonatal memories. We first heard our mothers’ voices while embedded in their bodies. We may not be able to access  the cognitive memories of neonatal life, but we do have physical, tactile memories of it. I think that we  remember it in primal, chemical, neurological ways. Our bodies remember cell division, and so our bodies how to do things like replace our own skin about every two weeks. And our livers know; they know how to regenerate from as little as 25% of the original. And we all experience the physicality of memory when we come very close to another person.  “I’ve been here before,” our skin thinks, because we have.

The other day one of my daughters put her head close to mine. Our skulls bridged. Our checks touched. I almost couldn’t stand it. It is always like this for me when I get to close to my grown babies: I experienced an overwhelming chemical-electrical storm of connectedness — powerful, familiar, close. It’s my past; I’ve been here before, I will be here again, de ja vu and foreshadowing, at the same time, my neurons remembering and my brain anticipating more.

We were constructed for tactility. Our  arms were made long enough to care for our toes, and long enough  to  steady our babies riding on our necks. And our fingers were constructed as perfect baskets to ferry strawberries and cats and other loved things closer to us. I licked some guacamole off my fingers recently. The soft, delicious slickness of the green ambrosia slid from my finger tips and into my mouth. All good food is essentially tactile, texturized, mouthable – the velvet, lightness of cool whip melting on our tongues, the chewy edges of caramelized coatings on meat gluing our teeth together, the liquid flow of milk soothing our dry throats and acid stomachs. Our experience of life’s resources is essentially tactile.

Closeness was the first thing with my babies. Every night when they were infants, my wife and I held them to put them to sleep, lying on our backs on the couch or floor, our stomachs and chests their human mattresses. I remember their little sweaty, baldish heads lying sideways, against my chest, sleeping, the smooth soft down on the top of their heads against  my lips. I breathed them, their baby fragrance; they breathed more deeply and heard my heart beat. We bonded, our rhythms in sync.  These moments — something deep in me knows them, the heart beat, the breath in and out. I began here. You too.

You remember, although perhaps you don’t, but then so much goes unrecognized, doesn’t it? I’m beginning to think most things have been unobserved. The age of exploration and discovery  isn’t past; it hasn’t happened yet. Magellan wasn’t one of the few at the right time and place; we are all voyaging, out to sea in a small boat, peering over the horizon, looking for next place where we might port, where we might touch. But we can so easily lose sight of this and come to see ourselves not at boats but as islands. I think that this begins to happen right after birth. In those first magical moments, we begin to sail away from touch.

Our births were one of the most startling experiences of our lives. When we were suddenly and shockingly out, and then held in someone’s grip, held from the outside, then set  aside in a cradle, in a nursery, wrapped in a covering, not a skin, our first moments all alone, not touched by flesh. Wham and bam —  birth — what a rude shock and an awesome thrill. Our first taste of autonomy was intrinsically lonely; our first taste of  freedom — it was exhilarating! We must have startled, and begun a startle pattern that has not stopped – each moment of responsibility since then a startle, each moment of opportunity to choose is another startle, the steady forward-jerking freedom to decide to be touched, or not.

Autonomy is rocket fuel, projecting us both into and away from the tactile world. Very soon in life we learned to flip over on our backs, we discovered the crawl, we got up on our own two legs and cruised the edges of the couch, we took our first unaided steps into open space, we tottered, we landed on our behinds, we got up again and walked! And in those moments, those incredibly mobile, ambulatory moments, we were empowered, and we looked back at our mothers, and gloated, “I am free of you.” Don’t you remember this? Yes, you do, for with this power, you  have carried your body away from the touch. Most of life is an effort to get back.

 I remember Teresa, in  elementary school. She was the most exquisite thing in my fifth grade class. She had long golden hair, a cute nose,  slender legs, and she was wicked smart. I’ve always liked smart. My wife is smart.  I fell in love with her brain. I still can’t predict what she will say on any given topic, but I know it will be worth hearing, not the crowd’s mantra. But in school, I was afraid of Teresa, and of my classmates, and I was very afraid of telling  her  how I felt. I knew that what I felt was good, but  I was afraid the ridicule that might come from embracing the good.  So I worshipped her from afar. We do this, secretly, throughout life, adore others from a distance.  I think she liked me back, but how can one tell these things in grade school? She used to smile at me from across the room. When our eyes met, I gave a shy smile back and  in that moment of connection, I received electric shock therapy. Our eyes would touch, across the room, and lock. Jingle, jangle, emotional tangle — it is more than my circuits could bear. We always unlocked, fast.   

One day in the seventh or eight grade, I could stand it no longer. I wrote her a note on a small bit of paper I carried it with me as I exited the room to get on the bus. I dropped it on her desk as I went by. It said, “I love you.”

I was an idiot. I had done it again. I was playing tag, and in another unguarded moment, I had gone too far. A note! It was a document, like the letter that my brothers got their grubby, touch-stupid hands on.  Someone might get their hands on this.  I  had to be more careful. So I was careful: I didn’t follow-up. I kept it to “Hi” when I passed Teresa on the playground.  I loved her from a distance — all the way through highschool, and adulthood, and I never  asked her out or told her again how I felt about her. It couldn’t have been more agonizing. Other guys took her out, and I was jealous, but I didn’t. Negotiating affection had become a mystery to me. The whole dating and kissing and talking thing had totally eluded me, and it even came between me and the possibility for the expression of infatuation and affection and physical closeness. If one didn’t do this the way everybody else did, going out to eat and to a movie and to kiss hard in the car, then what did one do?

I have total and complete recall of several dates in high school. They were so awkward that it physically hurt. I remember going to a basketball game with a very attractive girl and not talking much. The first thing you noticed about her wasn’t her eyes. Afterwards we  parked in a secluded spot and kissed each other fiercely. She got me down in the front seat. That was interesting, but she was kind of aggressive, and there wasn’t much room. The steering wheel seemed to grow bigger than it ever had been before. You can kiss for a long time, but eventually it can make your lips hurt, so after a while we gave up and went home. We were trying to connect, but we just didn’t know how. Not enough talking. I didn’t learn how to talk to girls until much later in life, when my wife, who was more experienced than me, schooled me in the art of conversation with women.

Looking back, I can see now that other things besides scary girls come between me and  the possibilities for affection, for closeness, for safe touching. There is so much working against us holding hands. The other thing, besides girls, that keeps us from each other  is the love of dead things. Dead things come between us and people, the first of this order being pacifiers, blankies and toys. These things  are wonderful, helpful, magical, but they also intrude, cut us off, substitute, become essential to us, multiply endlessly, clone themselves, take over —  food, clothes, books, cars, houses endlessly. By such dead things we come to live and to isolate from human touch.  Touching things is magic, but it may become dark magic, making people disappear right in the middle of a bright room, plate glass between us and those who have come to talk to us and hold us.

I remember being given a portable radio for Christmas one year. I still remember the shiny green plastic case, the chrome handle, the black speaker, the row of defining numbers, the tall silver antenna. Voices came to me through my radio, hit songs, local baseball games, other worlds. I went to my room, lay on my bed, I treasured it; I have always had a love affair with technology. I kept it for years, long after I stopped using it. I’m not sure when that happened. Those aren’t memorable moments, when we throw a mobile phone in the back of a drawer in the laundry room or  unload a TV at the Goodwill. I remember occasionally seeing the radio again while going through its storage box in the garage, looking for something else and there it was – Christmas, a connection to a larger world, life. But it ended up getting dusty in a cardboard box like so much other stuff does. Its dials and buttons lost their intrigue.

Dead things don’t eventually cut it. They have a golden touch, a Midas touch, but it is a cold touch, not enough. We want something warm, living; we want to get back to first things, to unrestraint and summer nights and lilac bush kisses. What to do? It is complicated. I was born by the means of a caesarean section. The knife, one of those dead things, saved me. But I assiduously keep knives away from my skin now. The knife is necessary, but I don’t love the knife. I don’t have the pocket knife that I treasured when I was a boy. Things shed. The knife the doctor used to remove me from my mother is probably in a landfill now, rusting away with other trash.  

Stuff seduces us then rots. I love stuff and I always will, but I have learned to speak more bluntly now to new and shiny things, to cameras, phones, TV’s, cars and houses. I take them by the chins and I say to them,  “Look at me. I know you; you little traitors. You are so hot now, young and smooth-bodied, but someday you are going to sag and rust on me aren’t you?  You are all fixed up and cute tonight, but after we kiss, you little rotters, you are going to let yourselves go, aren’t you? And someday you are going to leave me, aren’t you?” And they nod because they know they will, and hang their heads in shame and are afraid. For they know what they are, and they know too that if they hang around too long, we will leave them.

We hunt and we gather and we move; we clean house, have a garage sale, empty boxes, give to charity, put things in the recycle bin, abandon things. It it isn’t easy. We  need the soothing touch of dead things, but more deeply we want and need the warm touch of living things. We need useful things, pot and pans and toothbrushes, and so we get them and dance with them and loose them from our grips and get more. We are addicted to things. We are not. We are. We are bag ladies, shopping cart people. We push stuff in front of us, we pull it behind us, we cram it in with us, we hang it off of us. It doesn’t make up for not being touched by creatures.

A lady came to my office recently. She was hung with white, plastic grocery store bags. They were wrapped around both her wrists, full of food, hanging heavy on her, pulling her down. She asked if she could leave her bags with me. I was immediately confused. It isn’t uncommon for me.  Why would she be giving me all this food? And then it came out that she was coming home from the store to her nearby apartment.  She had ridden the bus to this point, but now that she had to walk, her strategy was failing. The bags were cutting off her wrists. She had to have another plan.  She would go get a cart from home, and bring it back to my office, so she could ferry her groceries home. Could she please just leave the bags with me for a few minutes?

It was obvious what I should do. I helped her take the bags off, holding them up, loosing their tight grips on her, freeing her red skin. My fingers gently touched her wrists. I was the dermatologist, removing the plastic growths, restoring her mobility, healing her wounded skin, setting her free. We put the bags in my car and I drove her home. I helped her carry them upstairs, and then I left. She never came back to my office. I wonder what has happened to her and her disabled son. When we opened her door, he was sitting at the table, surrounded by stuff, waiting for his mother to come back home.

This will keep happening. Exactly this scenario. We will stock up. “My God, we have to eat.” We will drape ourselves in goods, we will attempt to carry too much home with us, we will not be able “to get these stupid bags off” our wrists. We will need help untangling. 

And we will touch things briefly, “Your it!” but our touches will be short; they will be bit parts that we play in a childhood game, and we won’t know what to do after that with real, living, sweating human beings.  And we will wait for our mothers to return, but when they do we will only look up briefly, busy with our distractions at the table.

I don’t know exactly what to do with this.  I’ve never met anyone who did.

My daughter sat beside me the other night while we watched a movie late, and she rubbed the hairs on the top of my arm. It was soothing , a magic moment at the end of a day. A bit of the stress of the day was conjured out of me. Skin to skin— I don’t want to get away from this. None of us should.

One of my friends, who is lives in a tent down behind Target, or when it gets too crazy down there, up under the overpass where the 805 and the 54 connect, told me the other day, “The worst thing is the loneliness. I sit by myself in my camp and wish I just has someone to talk to, someone to be with.”

The other day, a guy who lives in a group home came to a food line that a friend of mine oversees. I know him. He is big, tall, dresses like a skin head, but is not in any way racist. He is a simple person, with a simple understanding of things.  She gave him a hug. A few minutes later he came over to her again and said, “I just want to thank you.”

“Why? she asked.

“For hugging me,” he said.

No one touches him.

If we knew how to fix what is wrong with the world, I suspect that we would have to begin by making sure that everyone on earth was hugged by someone safe and good every morning, and that just before every person lay down to sleep every night, someone loving and tender would gently rub their backs and kiss them goodnight on the top of their heads, even if just for a moment, close enough to feel their warmth.