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Nadine

There was a chilly mist in the March air, but I love my early morning walks and this gray gloom wasn’t going to keep me from today’s. I stopped midway on a bridge over the creek to watch a pair of mallards silently pick and poke along the muddy bank. Nothing could ruin this perfect serenity.

“Hey!” the shrill voice called. “Beautiful, right?” The spry old woman pointed towards the ducks as she marched enthusiastically onto the bridge to stand beside me. She twirled her arms in several rapid circles, stretched her back, then leaned on the railing and began doing standing push-ups. Dressed in sweat pants and jacket, baseball cap and sneakers, she had all the markings of devoted walker.

“Hi.” I said tentatively, unsure of what was happening.

“You’re from the South, aren’t you? Hiiiii. That’s how you said it. Hiiiii.” She spoke with her back to me as she stretched her calves. “I’m betting from the South. Keep talking until I say stop and I’ll know if I’m right, but I bet from the South?”

“Yes Ma’am.” I answered.

Her head whirled around towards me.

“No need to say more.” She laughed and raised her arms over her head to bend from side to side, counting slowly to herself. “Hiiiii” She said again. “I won’t forget that!”

She stood straight and adjusted her cap. “I’m from Wisconsin.”

Introductions seemed in order. “My name is Stuart and…”.

“Oh, I won’t remember your name.” She stopped me. “But I won’t ever forget what you said.”

A quick set of jumping jacks, a couple of leg kicks, and she stopped to stretch again. “Walk much?” She asked as she jogged in place.

“Most days. And I always see something interesting.” I nodded towards the two ducks now swimming in the creek.

“Love them.” She said. “I see a lot of birds out here.”

The old woman told me about her own morning walks and rituals. Each day she got up and tried to find ways to keep herself busy. She retired thirty years ago, bought a home in the area, but now at age ninety-three had watched all her friends “move away or pass away”.  She looked down at the creek.

“Old age was ok for the first twenty years!” She giggled slightly. “I used to wonder what the point was because nothing new ever happened.”

“I understand.” I said in my most empathetic tone. “I’m fifty-six and getting older can be rough.” I awaited her sympathy.

“Fifty-six?” She adjusted her cap again. “Why, you’re just a little squirt!”

Forced to defend my comment I agreed with her that I wasn’t elderly, but she herself said the older she got the more she wondered why. She couldn’t see the point.

“I said I used to wonder.” She corrected.

“But it dawned on me.” She continued. “I can walk and move and see and enjoy. I shouldn’t start the day just waiting for good things to come and find me. That’s the wrong approach.”

She took off her jacket. I held it as she finished a final set of standing push-ups.

“It’s like this.” She took back her jacket and stared me in the face. “I woke up this morning and that’s more than some people did. The rest is up to me.”

At ninety-three years of age this little whirlwind of a woman had the perfect attitude. I was impressed at the start by her jumping jacks and push-ups, but now she had captivated me with her words. I wanted to hear more. I listened for the next nugget of advice but she clearly had places to go. She put her jacket back on and zipped it up.

“My name is Nadine and…”

“Oh, I won’t remember your name.” I smiled as I interrupted. “But I won’t ever forget what you said.”

Stuart M. Perkins

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Eagle Eyes

“And class don’t forget, tomorrow we scratch!” Miss Martin struggled to be heard over the deafening combination of dismissal bell and scuffling feet.

Earlier that week, each of us in my seventh-grade art class had prepared scratchboards by brushing layers of India ink onto 8.5 x 11 inch sections of art board. Once dried, our assignment would be to create something for the school art contest. The technique, a new one for us, involved scratching away dried ink to reveal the white board beneath until the desired image was formed. The individual subject matter would be up to us, but the overall theme was “nature”. Miss Martin would choose just one piece from our class to be entered in the contest.

The next day, Miss Martin handed each of us a scratchboard and a small metal tool to be used for removing the ink. Over the course of the next few classes we worked diligently on our middle school masterpieces. I decided to scratch a bald eagle into the dried layer of black on my board.

To my left, Sylvia etched away at several clouds. To my right, Todd scraped the outline of a tree. I leaned forward to look over Rob’s shoulder and saw the huge head of a snake taking shape.

I sat back to begin my eagle.

Still a bird lover today, my interest began long before that art class. I found myself lost in the assignment, enjoying the process, and proud of tiny details I put into the work. Sharp talons, well-shaped wings, perfect facial features. I was downright proud of myself. By the time the final class session began I had produced what I considered the perfect bald eagle. His stature regal, his form sublime, and his face magnificent.

“Buddy.” Rob said as he looked back over his shoulder at my artwork. “You got eyelashes on him.”

“Yeah” I responded. His remark seemed silly.

He looked down at my board again, then back at me. “I’m putting some on my snake?” He said as if asking permission.

“You can put curlers in his hair if you want. It’s your snake after all.” I responded.

Rob began feverishly scratching out what promised to be very impressive snake eyelashes.

Miss Martin took a lap around the classroom to give each of us a few mid-work critiques. She stopped at my desk and I held my already completed art board in the air, awaiting her praise. She touched her fingers to her chin as she studied my effort.

“Your eagle has eyelashes?” She asked in a tone that clearly indicated disapproval.

Rob began feverishly scratching over what had promised to be very impressive snake eyelashes.

Was she expecting an answer? Of course it did. All birds have eyelashes. I kept waiting for praise.

“Have you ever seen a bird up close?” She continued her inane questioning.

Had I ever seen a bird up close? Irritated she hadn’t instantly pegged me as the next John James Audubon at the mere sight of my inky eagle, I thought about what to say. I felt highly offended. I mean really. Had I ever seen a bird up close?

Before school that morning I fed my parakeets. I also had two zebra finches in my room. There were always chickens around home. Ours was the house where people dropped off orphaned nestlings to be cared for and we currently had a baby robin in the house. I owned a little incubator and had recently hatched quail and they lived in a pen out back. I had even raised baby turkeys because I’d heard they could be a challenge. They were not. I knew my birds.

“Well?” Miss Martin asked again. “Have you ever seen a bird up close?”

Incensed, indignant, and full of teenage hormones I looked her in the face and said all I knew to say. I even stood to say it.

“Lady, just how stupid do you think I am?”

I sure was hungry that night, having to go to bed with no dinner.

Class the next day lasted an eternity. My palms sweated as Miss Martin casually lectured on pottery wheels. She seemed to have forgotten yesterday’s unfortunate incident. I’d been given strict instructions from home that I was to apologize, so maybe she hadn’t brought it up, but I would have to. As the dismissal bell rang, Miss Martin motioned me to her desk. She shut the door as the last student left.

“Oh no. Here we go.” I said under my breath.

She stared at me for a few seconds.

“I want to apologize.” Miss Martin began. “I looked up a few things and many birds do, in fact, have small modified feathers around their eyes.”

“Yep. Eyelashes.” I thought as I bit my adolescent tongue.

“Now.” She continued. “Do you have anything you would like to say to me?”

Oh boy, did I. She didn’t seem too intelligent. How dare she doubt the knowledge of a budding ornithologist?  How dare she criticize the artwork of the next Audubon? I could feel the irritation building as I thought of just what I really wanted to tell her.

But we were having lasagna for dinner and I didn’t want to miss it.

“Sorry about yesterday.” I said instead.

She smiled.

“It is a beautiful eagle.” She stated as she straightened the jar of paintbrushes on her desk. “It will be in the school art contest.”

She suddenly seemed very intelligent. With all forgiven on both sides, we parted ways and I dutifully reported to my parents that I had apologized. They already knew. She’d called them.

Several weeks later, in the middle of my sculpting a frog, she summoned me to her desk. This time in front of everyone.

“Oh no. Here we go again.”  I said under my breath.

“I want to talk to you about your eagle.” She walked towards me.

“What?” I thought sarcastically. “His toenails were crooked?”

There, right in front of the entire class, she handed me a little blue ribbon and grabbed me by the shoulders.

“You won the contest!”

I kept my winning eagle artwork for many years. Much of the India ink was lost over time, a bit scraped off here, a bit peeled off there, but I loved it just the same. It surfaced now and then as I went through closets or boxes and I’d often hold it and stare in admiration. One day I stared a little longer than usual and really studied the prize winner.

It wasn’t very good.

The poor bird’s body was extremely portly and his feet were different sizes. I wasn’t quite sure whether he had two wings or three and his tail was far too short. Much of the ragged eagle was way out of proportion, but one thing was clear…

His eyelashes were fabulous!

Stuart M. Perkins

 

 

 

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Forty-Third Ring

Halfway through the tedious count my eyes began to cross. I put a finger on one of the wider rings to mark my place.

“Ninety-seven… ninety-eight… ninety-nine.“ I said to myself as I finished counting. “Wow…”

Ninety-nine clear rings. Taking in to account questionable layers near the bark and several areas made uncertain by chainsaw damage, this oak was easily a hundred years old. But for last week’s ice storm it would still be living. Fallen across the park trail, the city had cut the hefty trunk into several pieces to remove the obstruction.

One hundred years.

That would mean a tiny acorn sprouted and began to form its first ring around the time Woodrow Wilson signed the Treaty of Versailles. Perhaps it emerged just as the Grand Canyon became a national park. Or maybe it struggled towards the light as Congress guaranteed voting rights to all women.

A year passed, a ring formed. Repeat. No matter what… years and rings. Years and rings upon years and rings and Amelia Earhart was flying solo across the Atlantic, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president, and wind whipped across the growing tree just as it did the flag that flew over the Winter Olympics in 1932.

The same year my father was born.

Passage of more time, formation of more rings. Growth was never deterred. Through the horror of the Boston Marathon bombing or NASA’s breathtaking photos of Saturn, a ring was forming. Even as the extraordinary life of Nelson Mandela came to an end, yet another ring formed, in 2013.

The same year my father died.

From the time it gripped earth as a sprouting acorn until the day heavy ice brought it down, the tree not only survived; it grew. Regardless. This majestic beast existed during years of peace and years of war. From its first to its last, so much happened between the rings.

As a sapling, it was already on its way to grandeur before my father was born and it continued to grow after he was gone. One ring the year of his birth, another the year of his death. All he ever did, and was, happened between those rings.

Touching the center of the cross-section of trunk, I dragged my finger towards the outer edge, moving slowly over each of those circular markers of time. I stopped for a second on the forty-third ring. If my calculations were correct, this one was the year I was born, 1962.

I’m unable to articulate what I felt at that moment. There I sat, straddling the trunk of a fallen tree, deep in the throes of profound thought due to the sight of a jagged circle inside a tree? I pressed my finger tight against that forty-third ring.

It was beautiful, I thought, as I noticed a young sapling growing nearby.

“It’s making rings.”  I said out loud. I glanced back down at the one beneath my finger.

My first.

Somewhere in the sapling will be another.

My last.

But what am I going to do between the rings?

Stuart M. Perkins

 

 

 

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Wait…

I’m watching from my window today.

For a few minutes more, at least. Saturday errands call, but right now the view into the garden has my willpower paralyzed. Soothed by the peaceful nothingness happening out there, I stare blissfully through the glass a little longer.

Oh well. I need to start those errands. Yawn, stretch, and one last glance outside before I begin. I stand up.

Wait… I sit back down.

There’s a bird. A little yellow bird. He flits and darts to the top of a frost-covered evergreen. Stops, hops, poses, and drops to another branch to repeat his mesmerizing moves. He struts and prances along several branches then flies away in a blur. Gone. How lucky I was to have shared that moment!

It doesn’t matter.

I have to get the car inspected. It’s too important not to. I stand up.

Wait… I sit back down.

Those leaves. Those five little leaves left clinging to a twig on the winter-bare crepe myrtle. They were yellow a second ago. Wow look! In one fluid move they drift from yellow to gold to fiery orange as a shifting morning sun illuminates them from behind. Amazing to have seen that magic display!

It doesn’t matter.

I have to get to the post office. It’s too important not to. I stand up.

These errands and many others! Now I have to hurry! So much to do today! Urgent rushing and running!

Wait…

Just wait. Maybe I’ll get the car inspected tomorrow. And the bank is open next week. What’s one more day for a few insipid tasks?

How often does a yellow bird dance in the trees for me while the sun turns tiny leaves into fire? Moments like these happen every day, but I won’t see if I don’t watch.

I really should watch. It’s too important not to. I sit back down.

Saturday errands call but I know what they can do.

Wait…

I’m watching from my window today.

Stuart M. Perkins

 

 

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Get Dirty!

This is another re-post from a few years ago I was reminded of when I walked outside this morning. Nothing gives me an instant shot of happiness like the smell of spring, and more specifically, the smell of good old earth in spring. I played in dirt as a kid, I play in dirt now as a gardener, and I certainly expect to become a dirty old man. In the garden!

Get Dirty!

I’m going to be dirty today.

As a kid, Mama often met me on the back stoop as I came in from playing outside. With a broom in her hand she’d have me slowly turn in a circle while she brushed dirt from my blue jeans. She wasn’t against sweeping my bare legs either if I happened to be wearing shorts.

“Don’t bring that mess in this house.” She’d say. “Did you plan to get dirty?”

Well no. I hadn’t planned to. I was a kid. There was dirt. We met and fell in love. The end.

I remembered that this morning as I thought about where to plant some things in the yard. I still love dirt. Not potting soil in shiny garden-center bags. I don’t care for the sterile smell of plastic and perlite. I love real dirt. Earth.

One of the finest smells of spring is that first whiff of good clean soil. Sealed in by frigid winter, spring unlocks the distinct scents I first noticed as a kid. Dirt in our garden had a plain chalky smell, dirt in the yard had a more sour smell, and digging in the woods provided pungent aromas too delightful to describe.

Dirt smells good.

Dirt feels good too.

The powdery dirt in the garden stuck to our sweat when we worked the long rows and red clay in the yard felt almost oily as it clung to our fingers and hands. The different soils in the woods provided a variety of textures from mushy sludge along the creek to sandy light mix up on the hill.

As a kid who spent almost every day outside, I knew my dirt. Mama ended up sweeping off quite a lot from my pants before allowing me into the house. She didn’t sweep off mere dirt, she swept off ground-in goodness and muddy proof of the fun I’d had that day. I didn’t plan to get dirty, it was just good luck.

Excited to get into the yard this morning, I remembered the happiness that digging, feeling, and smelling good old dirt can bring about. Coming home with blue jeans caked in mud for Mama to sweep off was never my goal. I’d had great fun in the dirt and the muddy jeans were just a byproduct of my good time. I never planned to get dirty.

Today I’ll put on blue jeans to dig in the yard and plant a few things. Along the way I’ll wipe my hands on my pants, feel the gritty soil stick to my skin, and marvel at how sweet the earth can smell when you stir it up a little.

Today I plan to get dirty.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Raker Man!

This is a repost of a piece I wrote after vacationing in the Dominican Republic. It’s been a good while since this was posted, but interestingly, two followers asked me about it within the last week or so. Both mentioned how it’s nice to be reminded that a kindness offered to another doesn’t have to be grand to have meaning. Sometimes a small effort can still make a big difference.

Raker Man

The tropical sun was intense, but from the shade we sipped Pina Coladas and stared at the blue Caribbean. A vacation in the Dominican Republic! We staked claim to our favorite cabana and by afternoon were chatting with beachside neighbors. Diane in the next cabana knew a lot about the area and in the balmy breeze we compared notes on favorite restaurants as we enjoyed the beach.

The next hot day while eating lusciously ripe strawberries I caught sight of the trio working in the sun. We’d noticed the daily routine of these three whose job it was, apparently, to clear the beach each day of seaweed washed up during the night. They were a motley band in ragged clothes. Locals in need of work I supposed, and hard work it was. Each day they scoured the beach, raking and hauling debris. An older worker lagged behind. The effort it took to push a loaded wheelbarrow through soft sand slowed him down. He usually raked alone, stopping often to wipe sandy sweat from his face. He has to be thirsty I thought, as I sipped ice-cold coconut water.

On the following morning, just as I devoured a heaping bowl of chilled watermelon, I saw the old raker man diligently working over the beach. Mere yards from chattering sunbathers, clattering dishes filled with tropical delights, and Mimosas clanking toasts to vacations, this old barefoot man in torn pants worked silently. Unnoticed. Head down as he worked, I waited for him to look up.

He looked up. I waved.

Puzzled, he stared at me and returned to his work. He has to be hot I thought, as the waiter served our Pina Coladas.

I took a sip of mine. It tasted like guilt.

“How much do you think he’s paid?” I asked Francisco and nodded towards the raker. Before he could answer I heard a groan from the next cabana.

“Well, don’t you give him money.” Diane yelled. “He’ll get lazy. Anyway he’ll never even thank you.” With that, she told the waiter to hand her a magazine, brush away the sand stuck to her back, and bring lunch to the cabana so she wouldn’t have to get up.

Judging me over her magazine, Diane said nothing.

“That’s hard work he’s doing.” I continued with Francisco.

“Well, don’t tell him.” Diane yelled again. “He’ll whine about having to do it and he’ll never even thank you for noticing.” With that, she told us she was staying on vacation an extra week because she was sick and tired of the rigors of her job.

Staring at me over her vacation calendar, Diane said nothing.

I watched the raker struggle with another load of seaweed. He sometimes tripped and fell as he shoved the heavy load down the beach. The ceviche and slices of fruit the waiter set down in front of me looked nice, but I couldn’t eat them.

Days passed and I continued to wave to the raker each morning. He eventually waved back and towards the end of our vacation he even waved first. I never saw interaction of any kind between him and anyone else on the beach. Was this man invisible?

“Is it ok to give him some money?” I asked Francisco. I’d hesitated to do so, less from Diane’s comments and more for fear I would offend the man.

“It could be a tip. How much would a little cash mean to him?” I continued.

“It would mean the world.” Francisco responded.

Diane yelled to us. “Well, he’ll become a beggar if you give him money. Like I said, he’d never even thank you!”

On the morning of our final day I saw the raker as usual, head down, combing the sand.  I’d still not given him a tip and I was sorry about that. I mentioned my regret to Francisco, but it was our last day on the beach and I had no cash with me.

“I have cash!” Francisco said, and instantly rifled through his bag to see what he might find.

As the raker’s work brought him nearer the cabana, he and I waved. This time Francisco stood too and motioned the man to come over. Clearly perplexed by this new routine the raker slowly left his wheelbarrow and approached us. We quickly realized he spoke absolutely no English but in an awkward conversation consisting at various points of Spanish and then French, we learned he was Haitian and had come to the Dominican Republic in search of work. He was in the middle of a rough and miserable time.

Francisco held cash towards the raker and pointed at me. “He wants to thank you for working so hard to keep the beach clean.”

The raker stared at the cash. I waited for him to smile. Instead, he stepped back and threw his hands over his head. Oh no. We’d insulted him.

He looked back and forth at us, his eyes filling with tears as he stepped forward to shake our hands. He shook our hands for several minutes before even touching the money which he took very slowly from Francisco’s hand. He spoke rapidly the entire time. I don’t know what his mouth said but his face said thank you. He wiped his tears and returned to the wheelbarrow. We sat back down fighting tears of our own.

“Well, now you’ve done it.” Diane yelled over the heaping plate of lobster on her lap. Butter dripped from her chin. “He’ll be back. He’ll be back ten times today begging for more! Did he even say thank you?”

I just shrugged my shoulders at her. I was sure the man was thankful but I had no idea what he said.

With a disapproving look, Diane said nothing.

Francisco and I returned to our Pina Coladas. I sipped mine, a bit tastier now, and watched for the raker. If he did return for more I just hoped Diane wouldn’t notice. It was the end of the day before she got the chance to say she told us so.

“I knew it!” Diane yelled.

I looked in the direction of the half-eaten drumstick she pointed down the beach and saw the raker running towards our cabana.

“He’s going to ask for more and never even say thanks. Not once.” Diane said smugly.

The raker stopped in front of us and leaned down. Knowing he knew no English we waited for him to say something, anything. From the next cabana, Diane waited too.

The raker leaned down so that we were face to face. He was clearly concentrating as his lips slowly began to move. “Thank you.” he said in English.

Before we could respond, he smiled and ran back down the beach.

Diane said nothing.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Triggers

We remain stunned by the unbelievably brutal attack on innocent high school students in Parkland, Florida. Who knows why the individual, obviously disturbed, felt compelled to do such a violent thing thereby ending seventeen lives and damaging so many more. Hindsight cannot help too much now.

The trigger has been pulled and there is no going back.

In the wake of the horror, debate rekindled over gun control and the meaning of twenty-seven little words. They have been dissected countless times but the conclusion has remained largely the same. Gun advocates cling to that decision because parts of the Second Amendment provide quite a sturdy position from which to take a stand.

But so do parts of the First. Enter the students.

Regardless of one’s political leanings, the organization and determination of the kids at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School must be admired. Their collective response in speaking out was not a left-wing or right-wing reaction; it was a human reaction. And parts of the First Amendment provide quite a sturdy position from which to take a stand.

As clearly (or not, depending on interpretation) as the Second Amendment allows some to declare their right to bear arms, the First Amendment allows others the right to declare they should not. It presents a poignant battle during which each side feels offended by the other’s perceived inability to understand the point. Gun control is a gargantuan dispute.

I have no answers. Never having purchased a gun I have rarely given ownership or control a second thought. The right of anyone to own a gun was a given. But when gruesome gun-related events repeatedly occur they give one ample reason to reconsider based on common sense. It is a natural response. The same response Parkland students had after surviving the attack by a crazed individual whose weapon of choice was a gun. They had seen the same play out too many times, felt fed up, and are now letting the world know.

These kids understand the power of free speech. And they will use it.

These kids also understand the power of the vote. And they will use it.

Outraged by another tragedy where “thoughts and prayers” were substituted for realization and action, a handful of students spoke out. Inspired by their force, thousands more are swelling the protest. Lawmakers have largely avoided the gun control controversy, dodging and side-stepping their way around any resolution. This approach has worked for decades and may have continued as the preferred pattern, but the Parkland outcry grows stronger all the time.

Who knows the intention of the disturbed young man when he attacked students at the high school. What was he trying to prove? One thing he did prove, unwittingly, was the ability of a dynamic group of expressive young voters-to-be to consolidate their power. “Thoughts and prayers” go out to lawmakers now… they do not know what they are in for. Perhaps they hoped to continue the stalling? Pushed into action by the witnessing of death, children are forced to step up where adults never did. Something will happen now.

The trigger has been pulled and there is no going back.

Stuart M. Perkins

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