My three kids are spread out across the country. My older daughter is in Manhattan preparing to graduate from New York University. My second daughter studies neuroscience at the University of Colorado, and my son recently left for college in Tallahassee, Florida. This Thanksgiving Day, for the first time in several years, we will all be together, and for that, I am humbly thankful.
My kids called last Thursday to put in their orders for the feast. Their main concern is that there be no oysters in the dressing. Speaking of stuffing, they asked, will I even be able to make it, given that our family is gluten free? And this was the final mandate: Lauren, the neuroscientist, proposes activating some new neurons in my brain via the challenge of deep frying the turkey.
I promised oyster-free cornbread dressing, which is gluten free if one uses cornbread made without flour, which I believe is God’s original recipe for manna. And I roundly rejected the idea of frying the turkey because I don’t want to burn down my house.
Then they said something that made my ears sizzle. They said, “We’ve been talking about how we’re all so stressed at school that we can’t wait to come home and let Mom cook for us and just take care of us.”
My response to them was, “I’ve been working so hard lately that I was thinking you guys could come home and take care of me.”
The conversation took place while I was driving to Atlanta. My grandfather was in the hospital, and I was on my way to see what I could do to care for him. He’s nearly 91, and his doctors are predicting the imminent failure of a heart that’s endured the Great Depression, the horrors of liberating concentration camps at the end of World War Two, and the death of the woman he loved with every beat of that heart.
He was admitted to the hospital on Wednesday, and by noon on Thursday, when I walked into his room, the diuretics administered to flush out the fluid surrounding his heart had done miracles. He was already grumbling about getting out and going home. On Friday morning, I walked into his room at 7:15, and he was fully dressed and sitting in a chair that he had moved so he could face the door. He had pulled all the monitors off of his chest, and his packed bag was waiting on his bed.
I’d brought him breakfast, but he said, “I’m not hungry. I’m just ready to go home.” When I suggested that he might as well eat while he was waiting, he pulled the bed tray around to the chair and ate. Then, when his hospital breakfast arrived, he looked at the scrambled eggs, blueberry muffin, and fresh strawberries and said, “I’d better mess this up a little so they’ll think I ate.” He ate every bite of that second breakfast, and that’s when I knew for sure Granddad was back.
His cardiologist released him at nine that morning, but we still had to wait for his primary care physician to see him. By three, after repeated calls to the doctor that received no response, we decided the chances of a doctor showing up on a Friday afternoon or evening were not good.
When you’re on the backside of ninety years old, you don’t have time to waste watching afternoon television in a tiny hospital room with bad lighting. So my brother went to the nurses’ station and found a wheelchair. Granddad pulled the IV port out of his wrist, then settled into that chair, and we set the captive free. My brother noted that it was a break worthy of The Shawshank Redemption.
As I drove the getaway car north on Interstate 75, Granddad laughed about busting out of that hospital. Then he said, “I wish I wasn’t causing everyone so much trouble.”
The man fought in Germany and in the Pacific to protect us. He has fixed numerous washers, dryers, dishwashers and lawn mowers for the members of my family over the years. He bought me a piano when I was seven. He let my family live rent-free in his house when my husband was starting a business. And he took me to Shoney’s for hot fudge cakes when I was a kid just because he knew how much I loved them.
I told him it was no trouble, that I wanted to be there. He said, “I need to just go ahead and die. That would be better for everybody.”
“Not for me, it wouldn’t.” I could hardly get the words out because I was crying.
He let me collect myself, and then he said, “Well, I’m going to try to hold out until the Rapture, and then we can all go together.”
We got back to his house, and I made him a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of canned soup for dinner. He wouldn’t let me clean up the kitchen. After he had done the dishes and settled into his favorite chair, I told him I was going to eat dinner with a friend and that I would be back by nine.
When I walked into his house at nine, he was still sitting in that chair. He looked at his watch to confirm that I had made curfew and grinned. He told me he’d been watching a television evangelist who was predicting that the fourth blood moon, foretelling the return of Christ and end of the world, would take place in 2015. “I think I can hold on ‘til then,” Granddad said. And then he told me he was going to bed.
My kids are coming home for Thanksgiving hoping for good food and TLC. I can’t wait to dish both out because I know how good it feels to have someone take care of me.
But I draw the line at deep frying a turkey.
My twin nieces used to keep a list of people who had done something to deserve their ire. And it’s never taken much to make the list. My son got himself permanently on the bad list, for example, simply by refusing to tell them how to spell his name.
We all keep a mental bad list, I suppose. But these girls had an actual notebook with a page in it titled “Bad List.” I never had that strike on my permanent record, but I made a total stranger’s bad list this week.
A friend and I went to dinner Monday evening. Mondays in our tiny tourist town are often slow, so we wandered around a bit before finding a suitable place that was open. The little restaurant had tables set up on the sidewalk, and since it was a beautiful evening, we asked a waiter if we could sit outside.
“Of course!” he said, pointing us toward the only empty table.
I walked over to our table and pulled out the heavy iron chair, accidentally bumping it against the empty chair of the table behind us. I sat down, and as I scooted myself closer to the table, the feet of the chair screeched across the concrete. I was just opening the menu when I heard someone say, “You woke my baby!”
I turned around to find that the woman seated alone at the table behind me was talking to me. I said, “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“I said you woke my baby.” I looked at the chair I’d bumped, expecting to see a baby in a tiny carrier. The chair was empty. Completely confused, I looked up at the woman, and started to say, “What baby?”
She pointed under the table and said, “My dog was sound asleep, and you woke him up.”
My eyebrows might have shot up past my hairline. And I might have rolled my eyes before I muttered a quick “Sorry?” and turned back to my menu.
The woman kept talking. She said something along the lines of how people should be more careful, and then she began talking to her dog: “I know. That loud noise scared you. I’m sorry that woman woke you up, but it’s okay now. You can go back to sleep. Just close your eyes and go to sleep.”
And she wouldn’t shut up. For the next ten or fifteen minutes, she talked nonstop to the little white mop of a dog sitting under her table about going to back sleep, but Rip Van Winkle himself couldn’t have slept through all that yapping.
She finally finished her dinner and asked the waiter for the check. I noted with satisfaction the scrape of her chair on the concrete as she pushed back from the table. And then I watched her walk away from the restaurant. She had that dog on its back, cradling it to her breast like one would hold a baby.
I’ve been thinking about that woman all week. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t help but believe she has been deeply wounded by people she cared about, and normal interactions with people somehow pick at the scab. You see, it’s okay to be crazy about dogs (cats, maybe not so much!), but you cross into crazy when you’re unable to have a relationship or even an intelligent conversation with another being who isn’t completely covered in fur.
My friend Martha was recently flying from Roanoke, Virginia, to Louisville, Kentucky, and happened to witness the spectacle of a young woman attempting to get her “therapy bunny” through security without removing the rabbit from its cage. When TSA inspectors insisted that she take the animal out of its cage or run it through the airport scanners, the girl pitched a fit.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of service and therapy animals. My dog, Pancho, is a therapy dog who regularly visits the VA Nursing Home here in St. Augustine. But I don’t think that people who use animals in place of human interaction are actually doing themselves any favors. Animals don’t question us, and they will never look us right in the eye and say, “You’re as crazy as a shithouse mouse.” People will, and most of us, I think, need that kind of feedback in our lives every once in a while. Relationships with people are the sandpaper that smoothes away our rough edges.
So even though I currently live with alone with a pair of defiant dachshunds and a three-legged Australian shepherd, I actively seek out human interaction. Because I come from a line of people notorious for cutting people off, I occasionally need people to tell me when a confrontation is in order and when I should just let sleeping dogs lie.
This has been a week of firsts. My dad had back surgery this week, and it was the first major surgery he’s ever had – pretty impressive for a 70-year-old guy. It was also the first time in his life he’s been hospitalized. And it was his first encounter with powerful painkillers.
He was suffering from a severe case of spinal stenosis that was pressing on the nerves in his spine and causing his right leg to go numb. He’d fallen a few times, and he was in serious pain. He tried for eighteen months to tough it out, but when a neurosurgeon assured him that cleaning out the stenosis and fusing a couple of vertebrae would absolutely make a new man of him, he signed up for surgery.
He was nervous. What if something terrible happened, and he ended up in a wheelchair? He dispelled that fear by reasoning that he’d be in a wheelchair in a few years if he didn’t have the surgery. But what if total strangers saw parts of him they ought not to see? Or what if they had to catheterize him, and a pretty young nurse was assigned to remove it? He would be under anesthesia and would never know, a nurse assured him. What if his hospital gown didn’t stay tied in the back and he mooned someone? The answer to that, of course, was making a mental list of the people to whom he would love for that to happen.
But the one fear I’m pretty sure never crossed his mind is what he would say under the influence of painkillers, the greatest of all truth serums.
The day after his surgery, my brother took my mother home so that she could shower and rest, and I stopped by the hospital to check on Dad. When I walked into the room, he said, “I’m glad you’re here. Now I’m going to get up and shave and go to the bathroom.” He rang for the nurse to disconnect him from all the contraptions connected to him, and then she followed him into the bathroom to make sure he didn’t fall. She made him promise to pull the call button when he was ready to return to his bed. As he shuffled out of the bathroom and headed toward his hospital bed, my father, the retired preacher who wore a lavalier microphone every Sunday for over twenty years and lived in mortal fear of saying something wrong when he was “on the air,” decided to recite a poem to the pretty young nurse helping him:
“Here I sit all broken-hearted, Came to shit but only farted.”
I’m sure the girl had heard worse. But I still couldn’t look at her. I kept my head down and pretended to check my iPhone for missed calls. Then, as he was swinging his legs back into that hospital bed, he said, “You lose all sense of modesty when you’re in the hospital.”
The painkillers were obviously talking. Practically shouting.
He went home the next day, and there was a conversation about how my little bitty mom would get him in and of the shower. My brother suggested that rather than having him negotiate the side of a bathtub, they should use the outdoor shower on the side of the house. It’s an easy walk from the first-floor guestroom where he’s sleeping until he’s able to climb stairs. Plus, the shower, which is partitioned much like a bathroom stall, is big enough to hold the shower chair the hospital sent home with him. We joked that all he had to do was watch out for the neighborhood Peeping Tom, but even so, a glimpse of Dad in the shower might be enough to cure the guy. Ultimately, he and Mom decided against the outdoor shower idea, evidence that his lost modesty has been found.
But he’s still on the painkillers. I made dinner for them last night. I worked all afternoon, carefully following a recipe for Vietnamese Beef Noodle soup from my Williams Sonoma cookbook. The recipe calls for roasting soup bones with onions, ginger, and garlic and simmering the mixture to make a broth. To the fragrant broth I added rice noodles and thin slices of beef tenderloin, finishing the soup with a garnish of cilantro and green onions, fermented vegetables, jalapeno, and lime juice.
Despite all their many travels to Asia, this would be the first time my parents ever tasted Vietnamese Beef Noodle soup, also known as Pho. About three slurps into his soup, Dad said, “This is good, but don’t ever open a restaurant.”
I think we need to pin a lavalier microphone back on the man, and the first person who asks can have my Ginsu knives.
My dad and my three-legged dog are kindred souls. It’s not because Pancho is missing a leg and Dad limps because of pinched nerves in his spine. Neither is it because both are despised by Bambi, my mom’s obese Chihuahua. Or because Dad’s specialty is ribs, and Pancho adores ribs.
Every time my dad sees Pancho, he pats my dog on the head and says, “You’re a good dog, but the only problem is that there’s not much call for good dogs these days.” Pancho looks up at my dad, tongue hanging out of his mouth, and cocks his ears as if to say that’s exactly what he’s been thinking.
They’re a perfect pair, my dad and my dog, because they both know what it’s like to shepherd the unwilling.
For the first 35 years of my life, Dad was a pastor. He preached an average of three times each week for all of those years, yet he was never able to work himself out of a job. Just as often as not, people listened to what he had to say, put twenty bucks in the plate, then shook his hand and said “good sermon” before racing to the Piccadilly. Then they went home and did the exact same thing they’d done the week before and the week before that. You’d think that if a preacher were doing a decent job, his flock would begin to dwindle because they wouldn’t require the same level of guidance as they matured. But that’s not the nature of church congregations. Or people. The proof? That church is bigger now than it’s ever been.
Pancho is an Australian shepherd whose flock is a pair of defiant dachshunds named Laverne and Shirley. You’d think that at 10 and 8 years old, those girls would be slap out of new ways to get themselves into trouble. But their kibble-sized brains are creative. Pancho’s work is never done, and it’s a thankless job. He can pull them out of the pool and set their feet on firm ground, and they will snarl at him as thanks for saving them.
Occasionally, Dad and Pancho’s flocks overlap. When my sister’s kids are in town, both try to herd that pack. Dad mostly uses the verbal and bribery-based methods of kid herding. Pancho relies on circling them and pulling at their shirts. So far, neither has had much success.
A few years ago, I went out of town and asked Dad to look after my dogs. Laverne and Shirley got out of the fence and took off down the street toward the Publix with my dad chasing after them. Pancho watched from inside the fence as if to say, it’s harder than it looks, isn’t it?
The retired preacher now refers to Laverne and Shirley as the two “little shits.” Pancho just flops down on his beanbag chair with a snort.
I’ve been studying the nine Muses of Greek mythology, and I had to laugh when I read that Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, is depicted holding a shepherd’s staff. Throughout the ages, it seems, if you’re trying to lead others — whether they be your own kids, a church congregation, or even a pair of dachshunds – you only come out intact if you have a sense of humor.
Yep, they’re kindred souls, my dad and my dog. Two old shepherds with gimp legs who aren’t quite ready to be put out to pasture.
I’m re-reading Tom Sawyer. It’s neither part of an assignment for my Ph.D., nor am I teaching it to my students at Flagler College. I’m not even reading it for personal pleasure, although it is great fun.
I’m studying the great American classic because I need inspiration. I got a snarky letter from my neighborhood association’s property manager, and I need to devise a clever response.
The letter says that the property manager’s job includes “monitoring the aesthetics of the community and enforcing the Covenants and Restrictions.” Basically, I am in trouble because I have done nothing about the “courtesy” letter she sent three weeks ago pointing out that my fence gate needs painting.
Not the whole fence. Just the 3-foot high gate in front of my house.
I walked outside and looked at the gate. Sure enough, there were two half-dollar-sized spots where the paint had peeled off. I looked across the alley at my neighbor’s house. The railings on both the first- and second-floor balconies have been missing for three months.
I walked back inside and told my son I’d pay him to go to the hardware store, buy a quart of white paint and a paintbrush and take care of the gate. He promised he would do it. I threw away the “courtesy” letter and promptly forgot about the gate.
So did my Tom Sawyer. But in fairness to my kid, he was busy packing to leave for college. The gate didn’t get painted, and that, apparently, did not sit well with the woman charged with monitoring the aesthetics of the community. Because I got a letter informing me that I was guilty of a “First Violation.” I had failed, the letter said, to properly maintain my fence.
An accompanying sheet of paper was titled “ACTION TO SATISFY – 1ST VIOLATION.” It had my name and address and the words “PLAN FOR REMEDY” followed by seven blank lines.
Here’s what I wrote as my PLAN FOR REMEDY:
I will sit in front of my gate holding a paintbrush and meditating on the painting process. In time, a neighbor will walk by on his way to the beach and will say, “You working?”
“What do you call work?”
“That ain’t work?”
“Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know is, it suits me.”
When my neighbor begs to paint my gate, I will say, “Naw, the property manager of this neighborhood is pretty particular about this gate, so I’d better do it.”
My neighbor will begin pleading with me for the chance to paint my gate and will eventually offer to give me his surfboard in exchange. I will hand him my brush with reluctance in my face but alacrity in my heart. And while my neighbor sweats in the sun, this retired artist will sit on my front porch dangling my legs, munching an apple, and planning the slaughter of more innocents.
More neighbors will stop to look, but they will stay to paint. By the end of the day, I will be literally rolling in wealth. I’ll have the surfboard, a golf cart, a half-full bottle of gin, a pair of flip-flops, a cat with only four teeth, and a worn copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. The gate will have several coats of white paint on it. Unfortunately, every neighbor will be bankrupted by paying to paint my fence, so the neighbor with no railings on her balconies will have great trouble finding anyone to help with those repairs. You might have to send her a “SECOND VIOLATION” letter.
I finished my reply, threw the sheet of paper into an envelope, and put a stamp on it. Then I went out to my garage, rummaged around for a can of Krylon white spray paint, and maintained my fence.
I’ll bet that humorless property manager only read Huckleberry Finn in high school.
I have an uncle who answers the question “How are you?” by saying, “Well, I’m better than a poke in the eye.”
My little dachshund, Laverne, is not better than a poke in the eye today. She looks like she’s been in a bar fight. I let her out to run in the yard this morning, and when she came back inside, her left eye was swollen almost completely shut. I pulled the lid open, and the eye was black. It terrified me because, normally, her eyes are brown.
I raced her to the veterinarian’s office, and their best guess is that she ran straight into a stick. Whatever it was pierced the eye and went almost all the way through. She’s back at home now resting comfortably, thanks to a painkiller hidden in a hunk of lasagna. The vet warned me that even the slightest increase in her blood pressure could pop the eye, so even though it’s pouring outside, all the blinds are closed. I have to make sure nothing crosses in front of the windows to excite her.
I’m researching the nine Muses of Greek mythology as part of my PhD studies, and today I’m reading about Urania, the Muse who inspires astronomy. There’s something to this gal. I never knew this before, but as early as 275 B.C., Aristarchus claimed the earth was a revolving sphere orbiting the sun. Almost eighteen hundred years before Copernicus, the Greeks, aided by the Muse Urania, had figured out our solar system. However, in A.D. 529, the Roman Emperor Justinian, a Christian, closed the Greek pagan schools, believing them to be heretical. That knowledge was, in a sense, lost until Copernicus and Galileo once again challenged the idea that earth was the center of the universe. Joseph Campbell, in his classic Myths to Live By, says of Copernicus, “All mankind’s theological as well as cosmological thinking, up to that time, had been based on concepts of the universe visually confirmed from the point of view of the earth. Also, man’s notion of himself and of nature, his poetry and his whole feeling system, were derived from the sight of his earthbound eyes” (235).
In other words, small minds kept us in the dark for nearly 1,000 years.
I get annoyed at my dachshunds because they bark at anything that moves in the yard or in the alley running alongside the yard. But to be fair, if eye level for me was six inches off the ground and my brain was the size of a large gumball, I guess most everything would be scary. Perspective, of course, changes everything.
Roger Chaffee, an Apollo 1 astronaut who was killed in 1967 during a pre-launch test, said of seeing Earth from space, “The world itself looks cleaner and so much more beautiful. Maybe we can make it that way – the way God intended it to be – by giving everybody that new perspective from out in space.”
Urania’s wisdom, I think, comes from the idea that being in awe of something bigger than ourselves gives us a grander perspective. Education is seeing things in new ways and being open to larger possibilities. It’s the inspiration that Urania calls us to, but it’s also dangerous to the small-minded and those with limited points of view.
Being unwilling to change our perspective makes us prone to getting poked in the eye.
Orpheus was a great musician in Greek mythology. The son of one of the Muses, Calliope, he was said to be able to charm all living things (and even rocks) with his music. He was one of Jason’s heroes in the quest for the Golden Fleece; by playing his music, he overcame the Sirens’ song and kept the Argonauts from crashing their ship on the rocky shore.
Orpheus is also credited with writing the Orphic Hymns, a collection of poems invoking the Greek gods and goddesses. To his aunts and mother, the nine Muses, he writes, “Clio, and Erato, who charms the sight,?With thee Euterpe minist’ring delight/Thalia flourishing, Polymina fam’d/ Melpomene from skill in music nam’d/Terpischore, Urania heav’nly bright,/With thee who gav’st me to behold the light/Come, venerable, various, pow’rs divine/ With fav’ring aspect on your mystics shine/?Bring glorious, ardent, lovely, fam’d desire/ And warm my bosom with your sacred fire” (75, lines 13-23).
I wish I’d heard of Orpheus and his hymns when I was seven years old. I could have used Euterpe’s help in ministering a little delight.
My mom signed me up for piano lessons when I was seven. Back then, school principals still paddled wayward students, and piano teachers gave a real grade for every lesson. My teacher didn’t reward students with M&Ms for knowing where G flat is on a keyboard. Students who didn’t practice their lessons got kicked to the curb.
I know this because I got kicked out of piano lessons. The teacher was the pianist at my dad’s church, and my parents were embarrassed by this failure. Not only that, they were probably terrified for my future, since the conventional wisdom back then was that every girl should know how to play the piano so that she could one day supplement her husband’s income by playing in church or teaching piano lessons.
I was in big trouble, but I didn’t know that Euterpe, the Muse of Music, was available to help me. All I knew was that I went through four more teachers before receiving the inspiration I needed.
It came in the form of a teenage crush. When I was about thirteen, a senior at the local public high school became the church pianist. He was six years older, and he was Schroeder to my Lucy. All I wanted to do was hang on the piano and listen to him play. Practically overnight, I became a piano prodigy, if one may use that term loosely to mean a teenage girl who practices her piano prodigiously.
I began practicing my piano every morning from 6:30 to 7:30. I became our household alarm clock. Even though my brother and sister complained about waking every morning to Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” my parents didn’t dare tell me to lay off the piano in the morning. They didn’t care when, how, or why I was suddenly practicing my little pinkies off. They were just happy that I was finally practicing my piano. I like to think I was ministering delight in the preacher’s house every morning.
When my inspiration got married and moved away, I quit piano for good. Today, I can still find G flat, and I can drive my brother and sister wild by playing the first nine notes of “Fur Elise.” But that’s it. Those nine notes are all I know of any song.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Euterpe has left the building.
The music is playing in my head, and I can’t get it to stop. It’s carousel music, the round and round, up and down tune that, apparently, has no end.
It started when I Googled Calliope. I intended to research the oldest of the nine Muses of Greek mythology, but I clicked on the wrong entry and got interested in steam organs, which were the original source of the music we hear at carnivals, circuses, and on carousels. Did you know that it’s impossible to control the volume or tone on a steam organ?
But back to Calliope, the Greek goddess. Like I said, she’s the oldest of the nine Muses, the goddesses who inspire music, art, and writing. So she’s kind of the boss of the Muses. Hesiod, in fact, called her the “chiefest of them all.”
Calliope is the Muse charged with inspiring epic poetry. An epic poem is a rather long narrative detailing heroic deeds and events significant to the history of a culture or nation. The Iliad and the Odyssey, about the siege of Troy and a hero’s journey home after the Trojan war, are perhaps the most famous examples of epic poems.
I teach Short Story Writing at Flagler College in St. Augustine, and I tell my students that one of the elements crucial to a good story is conflict. As writers, we must decide what our protagonist wants more than anything else, and then our job is to throw obstacles in his or her way. The conflict is what makes the story interesting. If a heroine doesn’t have to overcome a few hurdles on her way to happiness, is there even a story to tell?
To my way of thinking, if Calliope is the inspiration for heroic stories, and conflict is what makes a story interesting, then she could be called the creator of conflict.
I’ve met up with Calliope once or twice in my own epic quest for happiness. Maybe even five or six times, come to think of it. But this morning, as the carousel music was playing in my head and I realized I had no way of turning it down, I had the thought that I could just jump off the carousel.
Before you wonder if I’m thinking of offing myself, let me explain. Somewhere along the way, most of us have decided that life is a struggle. If we’re going about life in a noble manner, then it should be hard. After all, when Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden, a furious God told them that was the fate they’d ordered up for themselves and all of mankind with their disobedience.
But before that, life was easy. Everything they wanted and needed was readily available. It was all “good,” as God Himself called it. Let me put it this way: God originally designed life to be a breeze. People screwed it up by insisting upon investigating the alternative. They already knew good, so the knowledge of evil was where they went askew. In Star Wars terms, they went over to the Dark Side.
I played two tennis matches this week, and in both, my partner and I blew several match points. Actually, I blew several match points. I walked off the court and said to someone, “I made that harder than it had to be.”
The tennis pro called it “prolonging the agony.” He told me I might want to start figuring out how to end matches sooner because the alternative is a long, slow death that does more damage to both teams.
But I don’t do that just with tennis matches. I do it all the time. It’s like I believe things just haven’t been hard enough yet, so I call on Calliope to help me create a little more drama. Apparently, I need to make life just a little more difficult in order to believe I earned it when something good happens. The problem is that it’s not the way life was originally intended to be lived.
Calliope’s fired, and so is her stupid music. I’m off the conflict carousel and choosing the smooth, easy ride from now on.
In Greek mythology, Clio, the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory), is the Muse who inspires history.
I had to think about that for a moment. The union of the most powerful deity and memory produced history. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Doesn’t our history come before and thereby create what we remember?
My three-legged Australian shepherd, Pancho, is a certified therapy dog. Every week, I take him to the Clyde V. Lassen Veteran’s Nursing Home near my home in St. Augustine, Florida. We started visiting last November, and on our very first visit, almost every person we talked to asked how Pancho lost a leg.
On our second visit, almost every person we talked to asked how Pancho lost a leg. And they’re still asking. It happens every week.
At first, I told the story of how he jumped out of the back of a pickup truck as a puppy and crushed his left hip. In fact, if Pancho had a Milk-Bone for every time he’s heard that story, we’d never have to buy dogfood again. But after a few months, I started throwing crazy new stories at some of the guys just to see how they would react.
To date, Pancho has lost that limb as a result of wrestling an alligator, jumping in between me and a giant rattlesnake, a shark attack, a surfing accident, and chewing it off to get himself out of a trap.
They aren’t much impressed by tales of Pancho’s heroism. Maybe because they’re heroes in their own right. All I know is that one old guy who I like to call Mr. Frisky will look at Pancho and ask what happened to him. Then he unfailingly says, “That dog loves you, doesn’t he?” Before I can affirm that my dog does, indeed, love me, Mr. Frisky will grab at me inappropriately and say, “I love these right here.” And my heroic dog who loves me doesn’t so much as lift his ears or cock his head. He just looks at me as if to say, “You’re a big girl. You can handle this one yourself.”
One day, Pancho and I were standing in front of about twenty old guys who were playing a rambunctious game of wheelchair beach volleyball. During a lull in the action, one old guy called out, “Hey, where’s that dog’s other leg?”
I yelled back, “He said he didn’t need it.”
On the very front row of the volleyball game was a man who has lost a leg. I looked at him to gauge his reaction. He threw back his head and roared. The whole crowd started laughing, and the man who’d asked the question said, “That’s great!”
I’m not so sure any more that the old guys forget Pancho’s story every week. Maybe they just get that who we are today is a product of the stories we told ourselves yesterday. I’m not talking about lying about the past. I’m just saying that the way we choose to process our memories is God’s way of allowing us to transform both the present and the future.
If you were a figure in Greek mythology, who would you be? Are you Bacchus, a partier known for being able to hold your liquor? Maybe Thalia, the muse of Comedy? Would people compare you to Hercules, or would you be more like the belly goddess Baubo, who is also known as the goddess of Obscenity?
Because the ancient myths are the product of the collective psyche, the truth is that we are all a compilation of bits and pieces of these archetypes. We can read these ancient stories and recognize friends and family members who display qualities of, say, Demeter, the Earth Mother, or Hera, the wife of Zeus who was constantly worried that he was cheating on her.
Me? I found out today I’m an oracle.
I was researching Terpsichore, the Muse of Dance, when I came upon these words from the story of Jason and The Golden Fleece: Beware the man with one sandal.
Those weren’t my exact words, but I prophesied the same thing a few years ago.
It was the summer of 2008. Eight of us went to the Jimmy Buffett concert in Atlanta. We tailgated for a good part of the afternoon, then made our way to the lawn at Lakewood (technically, it’s Hifi Buys Amphitheater, but for native Atlantans, it will always be Lakewood). After the concert, as we were gathering our things to leave, the man I was with asked everyone in our party to look for his shoe. We spent half an hour searching for his flip-flop, but it was nowhere to be found. Finally, the guy threw his arms around me and another person and hopped on the foot that still had a shoe over the array of trash left on that lawn all the way across the street to the gas station parking lot for the ride home. Our driver hadn’t shown up yet, so he sat down on the curb in a corner of the parking lot to wait. The corner was strewn with broken glass, bottle caps, and crushed cans. He crossed his shoeless foot over the other so it didn’t touch the ground and then began to grumble about losing his favorite pair of flip-flops. He even mentioned how expensive they’d been.
Maybe it was the margaritas talking. Or maybe it was just a flash of brilliance. I looked down at him and quoted a line from Jimmy Buffett’s most famous song. Pointing at his flip-flopless foot, I said, “Hey, look, everyone! It’s ‘blew-out-my-flip-flop-stepped-on-a-pop-top!”
The shoeless man sat stone-faced as the rest of the group laughed. He, apparently, did not share my sense of humor. It was the last time I ever saw him.
In the story of The Golden Fleece, the hero, Jason, is the son of Aeson, the king of Thessaly. Aeson was overthrown by his brother, Pelias, who killed the descendants of Aeson in the coup. But Jason, an infant at the time, was saved because his mother hid him with the centaur Chiron. Pelias, fearful that he would one day be overthrown, sought the advice of an oracle, who warned him to beware of a man with one sandal.
As a grown man, Jason comes back to reclaim his father’s throne. He stops to help an old woman (the goddess Hera in disguise) cross the river Anauros and loses his sandal in the river. When Pelias sees the man with one shoe, he says, “The dead Phrixus bids us bring back the Golden Fleece and thus bring back his spirit to his home. The oracle has spoken. . . . Do you go upon this quest, and I swear with Zeus as witness that I will give up the kingdom and the sovereign rule to you.”
The Goddesses Hera and Aphrodite help Jason by convincing Aphrodite’s son Eros (Cupid) to make the sorceress Medea fall in love with Jason so that her magic can help him. With help from his band of heroes and Medea, Jason steals back the fleece and wins back his rightful kingdom. Then the man with one sandal gets too big for his britches. He finds a younger, prettier woman and dumps Medea for her. Bent on revenge, Medea kills the new bride. Then, fearful that her two sons will become slaves when Jason finds out, she kills her own children. Jason comes to kill her for what she has done, but he sees Medea stepping into a chariot drawn by dragons. The story ends with these words, “They carried her away through the air out of his sight as he cursed her, never himself, for what had come to pass.”
You see? Never trust a man with one sandal. Nothing is ever his own damn fault.