It has been a tough winter: snow on the ground most of time since the beginning of December. First full week in February started with ten inches of snow, two days later ice was layered over the snow and we lost power for six days. In the midst of this period of time I had to cancel a storytelling concert at the Mercer Museum here in Doylestown. Because computers and phones –even my cell phone- were not working at home, I had to camp in my daughter’s place to communicate with the world. I mention these events of the past three months not to recite a tale of woe, rather to complain about my loss of routine because of events in the natural world.
Routine is an essential element in the life of a person who is past the age when work dictates allocation of time. It is easy to allow the tasks of daily life to dominate our routine. I will not be so over bearing as to suggest a proper routine, but I will offer a story that reflects upon the last third of life and how we order our time.
ONE STRANGE BIRD
copyright February 16, 2014
Able Fink had to take a journey, and he did not want to go. He also knew that he could not choose to stay at home forever. He told himself: some day I will go, but not today, and mostly likely not tomorrow. Some day I will go, when the time is right; until then, I have things to do.
Able Fink was well named. He was capable of doing many things. He had lived alone since the death of his wife. This meant that he had to cook, clean and keep up with the laundry. Friends often commented that his house looked as if it still had a woman’s touch about it. He was no less talented when it came to manly chores. He worked with a hammer and saw as easily as a vacuum cleaner. In fact, his same friends often asked him to help with their house repairs: painting rooms, repairing the lock on a door, or installing a dishwasher.
Yes, Able Fink was a capable man, but this wealth of worldly talents meant that he had little time for the spiritual side of his life. He was raised in a Christian family. His mother and father attended Church regularly and lived a moral life. Able attended Church as a child, but it never satisfied the spiritual needs in him. For fifty years he had now, then, and again, thought about his spiritual needs. He had experimented in various ways with meditation and prayer. He tried to live a moral life. He even imagined that some day he would write a story about his own spirituality, to help clarify his mind about the subject, but he never wrote the story. He was too busy with the practical routines of life, too busy keeping house and helping friends. And there was the thought of that trip hanging over him.
Able Fink lived this way, always imagining a future time when he would write that spiritual story. Then one day, it was cold and raining, a day in early fall. He did not have any pressing work inside or outside the house. After a quick bowl of cereal and a glance at the sports page, he headed upstairs to the room where he liked to read, think, and look out the window. He sat down in his barkalounger chair, leaned back, closed his eyes, and freed himself to imagine the beginning for his story. From the time he was a boy, Able loved to steal away to a place where he could get lost in his imagination.
His mother often warned him about this habit as a boy: Able Fink don’t fill your head with things that aren’t real. The world honors a man with a backbone, not a wishbone.
The outer Able always felt better when he worked with his hands and accomplished a visible task each day; but the inner Fink, relished the thought of being lost in a world of his imagination.
The story was about a tree shedding its leaves in autumn. Able opened his eyes and looked out the window. The oak in his neighbor’s lawn was shedding its red-brown leaves as a gust of wind swirled about it. Fat raindrops splattered on the windowpane and blurred his view of the tree. He pondered: it is a story about a tree in autumn, shedding its leaves. It is a story of dying, about the end of life. But trees do not die in autumn. Trees enter a period of dormancy, a period of rest until the coming of renewal in spring. Maybe the Buddhists are right that we follow many cycles of death and rebirth.
Able wondered what the Christian Bible said about trees. He got up and went to his book shelf and took down a copy of the Bible. He paged through the concordance looking for references to trees. He read in the second chapter of Genesis about the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the New Testament book of Acts, he read about Jesus death on a tree. Able closed his eyes as he imagined a tree that was both a doorway to death and the renewal of life.
A bell was ringing in the distance. Slowly Able dragged his conscious mind back to the present. He opened his eyes and realized it was his door bell ringing. Someone was at his front door. He went downstairs and opened the door to a gust of wind and his neighbor, Daemon Heath.
“Able, I am sorry to bother you so early in the morning, but I’m worried about the leaves in my gutters with all of this rain. You know how they clog the gutters, then the rain from the roof runs over the sides and straight into my basement. I would do it myself, but you know I’m not good with a ladder and climbing to that third storey roof.”
Able stepped out to the edge of his porch where he could look up to the oak tree. Maybe ten percent of the oak’s leaves had dropped. Able looked back to Daemon. “All right, Daemon, I’ll take care of the leaves. They’ll be in my gutters too. I can do both jobs.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you Able, I always know I can count on you”, said Daemon Heath with a smile.
Able did not smile back at his neighbor. It was not that he resented the work. He resented the timing. The gutters could handle another two weeks of falling leaves and not be clogged. Whether it was a trip to take or gutters to clean, Able believed that everything had a time. The art of timing was important to him. His neighbor always rushed the leaves in the fall. He raked too early, therefore he had to rake more times than was necessary. It was the same with the gutters, except Able always cleaned the gutters for both houses.
The story would have to wait. Able went back into the house, changed to his old jeans, a red Woolrich shirt, boots and yellow raincoat. He thought about gloves, but could not find them in his hurry to get back to the story. He headed straight to the garage and carried the ladder to Daemon’s house despite the rain that was coming down at a steady pace. For a moment he considered where to set the base of the ladder. The concrete sidewalk along the front of the house would provide solid grounding. He set his ladder and started up to the third storey roof.
The wind was still gusting and the rain steady as Able climbed to the top of the ladder. He was not afraid of heights. With his left hand he reached out to clear the leaves from the gutter downspout. He extended himself just a little too far for his balance. His foot slipped on the aluminum rung of the ladder………………………………………………
And just at that moment he heard the sound of a steam engine’s whistle. It reminded him of his youth. He remembered at that moment one of his mother’s other wisdoms: train whistle blowin’ means someone’s off for an adventure. Able remembered as a boy lying in bed on a hot summer’s night, hearing the whistle through the open window of his bedroom and wishing he could be off for an adventure.
The train whistle sounded again. Able looked up from the sidewalk where he landed and saw steam billowing from the train engine in front of his house. From the passenger coach behind the engine, Able saw a conductor and heard him call out, “Able Fink, train’s got a schedule to keep, time waits for no human”
Able got to feet and felt amazingly good after his fall. He ran to the train.
The conductor called, “all aboard!”
There was no time to change his clothes, in his jeans and still wearing his yellow raincoat , Able caught the handrail and pulled himself effortlessly up the steps and into the train.
Able made his way down the aisle looking for a seat. The car was about half full. The passengers looked confused and uneasy, as if they were not sure why they were riding this train. Like himself, they appeared to have boarded the train at an unexpected moments: one obese man wore pajamas, as if he came straight from bed; a middle-aged man was dressed in suit and tie, as if he was on his way to work; a young woman wore a hospital gown, and had a baby in her arms. Only one, an older woman dressed in a flaming pink jogging suit, smiled broadly as their eyes met.
Able found a seat and sat down as the conductor passed by. “I’m sorry”, said Able to the conductor, “I don’t have a ticket.”
The conductor smiled and said, “no need to worry about that sir, your ticket was paid and punched long ago.”
As the conductor moved past him, Able called to him, “but I don’t know where I am going. Do you?”
The conductor stopped and appeared to think for a moment, “can’t say for certain, everyone’s journey is a little different. I’ll tell you this; there are stops along the way. One for you will be coming up soon. But don’t worry, Mr. Able Fink, I will call your name when it is time”.
The conductor disappeared down the aisle of the train car. Able felt slightly reassured that the conductor knew his name. He slumped in his seat and listened to the sound the train made going down the track…click-a-tee-clack, click-a-tee-clack. Thoughts drifted by: is this the journey I’m suppose to take?….am I just dreaming?…maybe I am still lying on the sidewalk in front of Daemon’s house. Able felt the train jerk as the engine slowed for a stop.
He heard the conductor call out a name: James William Brackenridge.
Able saw the man in the business suit get up and shuffle down the aisle to the door.
Time passed. At least Able thought it did, but he was unsure about this experience. The train stopped several more times before he heard the conductor call out: “Able Fink, Able Fink, this is your stop.”
It took all of his strength to get to his feet. Able felt weighted down by fear of the unknown as he slowly made his way to the train door. The conductor smiled as Able passed him and carefully stepped down from the train. When his feet touched the solid ground, Able looked up to see a small, fieldstone church before him. A path of red brick led up to the church door. From inside the church he heard an organ playing. Able loved to sing hymns. His spirit lifted as he anticipated a Christian service such as he had known as a child. He hurried to the door and opened it.
The single room, sanctuary, was filled with thirty to forty people. A slender, young man was standing just inside the door, a broad smile on his face.
“Excuse me”, said Able, “is there a service about to start?”
“Yes”, said the young man, “and we are honored to have you join us. You’ve arrived just in time to take the last seat”. He motioned to the back pew where there was room for one person next to the window.
Able took his seat and closed his eyes to listen to the organ music. He had forgotten how much he enjoyed being inside a church. When the music stopped, he opened his eyes to see a another young man, with a blond ponytail, standing in front of the sanctuary. He was speaking, but Able could not hear the words clearly. He turned his head, to his good ear, to hear the young man.
Turning his head to hear the human words, Able looked outside the church window that he now saw was open. It was a warm, late winter day. Birds were singing. A patch of snow drops and purple crocuses were blooming in the church yard. Able saw two crows sitting on the branch of an oak tree, it’s buds swollen with new life, not five feet from the window. The crows were intent on the watching the humans inside the church. Able sensed his being here had more to do with these birds of the air than the humans.
First Crow: “humans, humans, funeral mass, I’ll tell you what it will be, a mess of badly chosen sanctimonies.”
Second Crow: “It’s not a mass, it is a memorial service. Able Fink was not a practicing Christian, though he did love the art of religion.”
First Crow: “Well then, let’s memorialize the fact that he never wrote that story he promised himself to create.”
Second Crow: “But he was a good man. He helped many people. How did he meet his end of life? He was helping his neighbor.”
First Crow: “Yes, and he begrudged old Daemon Heath every minute of his time. Helping others was an excuse for not focusing on the work of his own life, his own journey.”
Second Crow: “He did have good intentions.”
First Crow: “Yes, and that brings us back to the story, the story he never wrote because he did not have time, and he always talked about the right time. The problem with humans like Able Fink: they cut themselves off from the stories of the past, but don’t create the new stories to replace them.”
Second Crow: “There is always hope.”
Able turned his head and looked back to the front of the church where the pony- tailed young man was still speaking.
“Able Fink, Able Fink! All aboard! Train’s waitin’, but time waits for no human!” Suddenly Able was aware of the sound the steam engine outside the church. Quietly he stood up and slipped out of the pew unnoticed by anyone but the young man at the door who smiled warmly again and whispered, “safe journey”.
The engine was already building a head of steam as Able Fink caught the handrail and lightly climbed the steps and passed through the door of the railroad car.
The conductor smiled and said: “good to have you back on board, Mr. Fink”.
As Able made his way down the isle to his seat, the obese man in his pajamas smiled and said, “glad you made it back”.
The woman with her baby called, “come say hello to my little girl”.
The soldier in camouflage fatigues gave a thumbs up and called out, “Hey Fink, you made it through, good move”.
Able smiled at the obese man, admired the baby, and responded to the soldier with a thumbs up in return, then dropped down into he seat again. The train was pulling away from the church as Able looked out the window and caught a glimpse of the oak in the churchyard. The tree reminded him of his story. The tree was in bud and nearly ready to open it’s leaves.
“Excuse me Mr. Fink, it was the conductor standing over him, “mind if I sit down and rest my dogs a minute?”
“No, no, I don’t mind” said Able as he turned from the window.
“These journeys get longer and longer, but you don’t want to hear about my problems. How did you make out on your stop?”
“Well I’m not sure, said Able shaking his head, “I did learn some things about myself; that is, how I could do it differently.”
“That’s good, you’re a knower, knowledge is important for some” said the conductor, “course love is most important, but you will get that in time. It takes a few journeys.”
For some time neither spoke, the conductor closed his eyes and appeared to doze off. Able listened to the sounds of the train for a time until a human thought grabbed hold: “Excuse me, sir, I’d still like to know where we are going. Can you tell me?”
Through a gray roughage of beard, the conductor’s brown skin wrinkled, one eye opened and a smile cracked the corner of his mouth, “Celestial City! Train’s got but one destination Mr. Fink. Celestial City, yes sir!”
“But, but”, stammered Able.
The conductor stood up slowly, paused, then looked directly into Able’s eyes, “no buts, Mr. Fink, you’ll do fine. Take my word for it.” He turned and headed down the aisle to the door.
Able closed his eyes and his thoughts drifted back to the story of the tree. He thought about the oak in the churchyard nearly ready to open with new foliage. He thought about when he was a child, his mother used to force forsythia to bloom before it was ready in the spring. He felt a lot like that right now, like he was being forced to bloom ahead of his time.
“Excuse me, Mr. Fink.” Able opened his eyes and saw the woman in the flaming pink jogging suit standing beside his seat. “May I sit down?” Able hesitated. “I think I can help you.”
“Please”, Able motioned to the empty seat beside him.
She sat down and took Able’s hand in hers, “I know your story, the story of the tree. I can help you understand it.
Able liked having her hold his hand. “I can use all of the help you can give me. I mean I am not sure I understand what is happening to me.
The woman smiled. “I can not help you tell your story, but I can help with understanding the story. Do you remember the tree outside the churchyard?”
“I do”, said Able.
“What was different about it?”
“It was late winter, the leaf buds on the tree were swollen like the forsythia my mother forced to bloom before it was ready”
The woman squeezed Able’s hand.
“I feel like that forsythia right now”, said Able,” forced to do something I am not ready to do.”
“What is that something”, asked the woman
“I guess it is dying”, said Able as he turned to look out the window to capture a last glimpse of the familiar.
“More than that”, said the woman, “it is finding a purpose for being, a wholeness. It is knowledge that burst forth in love.”
The world of the familiar, the human, began to dissolve before Able Fink.
She continued. “Love supports all of life. Love is patient and kind. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things. Love never ends.”
Able Fink felt himself rising from the seat. He felt light as air. Like a bird on the wing, he flew out of the window; or, was it a door? Who knows when all we have to describe our journey is a story. Nevertheless, for this story, a train to the Celestial City was not needed to carry this strange bird home.
I do not have a lot to add to this story about routines; except, I identify with Able Fink. I am both motivated by the practical chores of daily living –witness blog for Aug 29, 2012- and the exploration of the spiritual questions that are part of my journey through life. And in truth, I need these routines to help me live a normal life. They are different routines, but in many ways, they share much in common. What is difficult, at least for me, are the times like the past three weeks when my routines have been broken. It is good to be back to normal!