Beach Creatures

The other day my beloved was showing off his new ipad and shared a video from The New Yorker illustrating the September 7 story about Theo Jansen‘s beach creatures, or Strandbeests, wind-powered sculptures that walk on the beach. You all may be familiar with Jansen’s work, but maybe I haven’t gotten out much lately. Or, more likely, I’ve been coming across adventure and delight and beauty in other places. Here they’re all rolled into one. Take a look and enjoy!

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Air Jewelry

For years, I’ve worn a cross whenever I fly. A superstitious ritual, perhaps, since I rarely wear a cross on the ground. When I fly I wear a cross to reassure myself that faith (not necessarily mine, some days) is stronger than my chronic travel anxiety.

Most recently, instead of a cross, I’ve flown wearing a necklace my new friend Nikki. made. She makes jewelry out of junk: others’ cast-off jewelry, hardware, children’s toys, and other small items. the tag line of her business is “everything is beautiful in its time, even nuts, bolts, and washers.” Every time I see Nikki, she is wearing a new creation: a pendant made of a small metal plate with a piece of a vintage earring dangling from it, a ring made from a doll’s teacup, a pair of earrings from light-catching dashboard fuses. Take a look. I’ve learned not to gush too much over Nikki’s jewelry, because she is prone to take it off and give it to me. She won’t take my money, and I know she depends on jewelry sales as a portion of her income. I keep my mouth shut so she can sell it to someone else later on.

Over coffee she told me about how she was prostituted by her mother as a child, and subsequently abused by her stepfather. In the same paragraph she talked about her life in the suburbs, her wonderful husband and two small children, and her jewelry-making, how the ability to see beauty in odd objects and discarded broken things came to her as an unexpected gift.

The necklace I wear whenever I fly these days is the one she wore that day. It’s made of nuts and washers, pieces of something else that were formerly left for dead. It has become my talisman for survival, for the triumph of life and hope over fear and death. The hex-nuts hang down like a bunch of perfectly ripe grapes and are irresistible to play with mid-flight, their satisfying weight and shape as reassuring to hold onto as any cross.

Heaven, 9/11, and Anthony

In the summer of 2001 I worked at the VA hospital in Manhattan, talking to cancer patients about God. Or, more likely, listening them talk about whatever they wanted to talk about.

For the last three weeks of my tour, there was this guy named Anthony—he was probably my favorite patient all summer. He was in a four-bed room on the oncology floor. I went to see him every day. I’d walk in and he’s day “Hey, howaya? Want a chair? There’s a chair around here somewhere. I’m tired of people standing around. Have a chair.” He was loud and funny with a Brooklyn/Jersey accent and a football player’s body, about the same age as my dad. He had been a cab driver for decades. He talked with his hands and I could picture him as one of those chatty New York City cabbies who would turn around to look at you while he talked, one hand on the wheel and the other waving in the space between you for emphasis.

You couldn’t tell by looking at him that he was full of cancer. He’d had it for years; it kept moving around and showing up in different places. He explained that now it was in his guts, and he couldn’t bothered with radiation or chemo. They’d done surgery, but he was pretty sure it was still there.

Other than serving in the Pacific during World War II, Anthony had never been outside the United States.  But he knew a lot about the world—after a few visits I realized he was a self-taught historian who had drawn some fairly clear conclusions from his research. “We’re all screwed” was his common refrain. “The world’s a crazy place. Always has been, always will be.” Then he’d regale me with stories about Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, the Crusades, the first World War, Hitler, and lots in between. “We’re all screwed. I can’t wait to get outta here.”

He didn’t mean get out of the hospital. He talked all the time about his death.

“Where you gonna go?” I asked.

“Hmph.  Hell if I know….Get it?” He smiled. I got it.

“There’s only one place I’m going.” He looked away.

“Really? I’m not so sure.”

“Nah…I don’t believe in heaven. Why would God ever create heaven for such a miserable species? We’re all crazy, ya know that? Screwed. Burnt toast.”

For all his denial, it was Anthony who got me thinking about heaven. I was pretty sure he was headed there.

I thought Anthony would die before mid-August when I ended my ten-week stint at the hospital, but he didn’t. Goodbyes to patients are not the kind of things hospital staff generally go in for, but I did it anyway. I wanted him to know I’d enjoyed visiting with him and that he wouldn’t see me again. “Yeah, thanks. Thanks for checkin’ up on me every day.” That was it.

Right after Labor Day, I called my supervisor to ask about Anthony and learned that he’d died a week or two earlier. This was no surprise, but I shed a few tears nonetheless. In spite of his gregariousness, he had a deep sadness to him, and he’d been all alone.

One week later, 2600 people in lower Manhattan were killed as the result of two terrorist-piloted airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center towers. It was a surreal time for everyone in New York. The idea of any return to normal life seemed an affront to the reality of what had happened. The smell of death hung in the air from one end of Manhattan to the other. Moments of relief came, bidden and unbidden, to me and to people I knew: making an impulse purchase of flowers, being kind to strangers, finishing an academic paper on an obscure and irrelevant topic, smothering one’s children, lighting candles, escaping to the movies, spending as much time as possible with friends, starting a new craft project.

The first time I smiled was just a few days after the towers fell, when I thought of Anthony. I imagined him in heaven, realizing that he’d been wrong all those years. I tried to picture him in a state of unspeakable and eternal joy, and I couldn’t. Then he wouldn’t be Anthony. But I imagined him relaxing in a recliner with a favorite magazine, suddenly interrupted by a trumpet signaling “incoming!”. “What the….?” I heard him saying. “Oh, Geez….What have they done now?” And then a moment later: “Hey, welcome! I’ve only been here a few days myself. It’s real nice. Better than I thought. Have a chair. What kinda chair you like?”

Today’s Cup: Extravagance

Today I went to my current favorite latte shop with the best barrista ever. Sometimes he makes my drink with an ornate leaf in the foam on top. Sometimes a heart. Today, a heart and a leaf. (How do they do that??) All I could think of was: what extravagance!

Extravagance is a favorite word of mine, especially in these times when scarcity is creeping into so much of our daily conversation. I use the word all the time, so I decided I better look it up. (Mostly, I was wondering where “vagance” comes from.) Lo and behold, channeling Andre the Giant, Wallace Shawn, and “inconceivable” in The Princess Bride, an initial dictionary survey showed that the word doesn’t mean what I have always thought it means. The common definitions are all about spending too much money. Spending a few extra seconds and one’s own natural talent to create latte art, destined to be destroyed in as many seconds, would not be a good example of extravagance according to Webster or many others.

It’s a great word nonetheless, and I refuse to accept the limits of all those common definitions. I finally found a dictionary that gave me the etymology I sought and taught me something new: extra, outside of (and I extrapolate beyond) plus the present perfect of the latin vagari, wandering, or vague. Wandering beyond expectations. Who knew that extravagance was about vagary?