all of the selves we Have ever been
They paved paradise and put up a parkin' lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin' hot spot…
They took all the trees, and put 'em in a tree museum
And they charged the people a dollar and a half to see them
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you got till it's gone
They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot…
As I pulled into the parking lot of a large local shopping center, an earworm wriggled to life inside my head: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot…” an old Joni Mitchell hit. I smiled to myself at the memory and the words, and I thought it might be time to hit the pavement at my favorite tree museum, The Franklin Park Conservatory.
I went into Staples and purchased ink cartridges for my home printer. Finished with the errand, I stepped to the automatic exit doors. As they slid open, I heard it.
Like a graceful flock of birds, the notes rose on the air and danced in the twinkling and brilliant sunlight of an unseasonably warm winter day. I was propelled in the direction of the sound and the light. Somewhere nearby, a violin played Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. The music was so moving that I felt the urge to both weep and dance at the same time. I was not alone in this. At that very moment, the doors of Target slid open and a tiny preschooler stepped onto the sidewalk and immediately froze in his tracks. His mother tugged on his arm, but he was there to stay, eyes wide and pointed in the direction of the music. Surely, the child saw it for the wonder that it was.
We both stared at a man standing next to a portable speaker. We watched as he swayed and slid the slender bow across the strings of his violin. The instrument’s case lay open beneath a sign sharing news of the man’s financial hardships--his need to pay his rent and support two children. As I dug deep inside my purse for cash, I heard a couple walking by saying it was probably a scam.
I was taken aback by the irony of the situation: people flocking to this shopping center to purchase without question food, pharmaceuticals, and other merchandise from companies that overcharge us, produce products that harm us, and create waste that destroys our environment, yet this gentle man producing beautiful music was suspect. His performance was just too foreign in this land of parking lots, boutiques, pink hotels, and swinging hot spots. In the beauty of the moment, I pledged my allegiance to the wide-eyed child still capable of trust and wonder. I took what cash I had and dropped the folded bills into the open violin case. “The world needs more music,” I said. The violinist nodded his thanks and continued to play.
Filled with anticipation each time I step out onto a parking lot, I bring cash…and I listen. I hope to hear the stop-you-in-your-tracks sounds of that magic violin. Though I wish him well and that all of his needs will be met, I pray this street musician never stops playing. The world needs more music and a little bit of paradise in every paved parking lot.
Some might think I learned about breath work and meditation in graduate school on my way to becoming a mental health therapist, but that is not so.
I invented those calming techniques in a dentist’s chair when I was eight years old and having a tooth drilled without benefit of Novocain. I am not sure if filling teeth sans Novocain was a practice typical of the times or if our family dentist just enjoyed inflicting pain on children. To further confuse my young mind, I was growing up in the Catholic Church where pain and suffering could put a girl on the path to sainthood, and so I assumed I was to “offer it up,” though it seemed like an unnecessary dose of redemption for a girl barely past her First Communion.
But yesterday I went to the dentist to have a crown placed on a tooth that recently had a root canal, and I abandoned the fold for a new religion. I suspect my current dentist may be the Buddha.
So calm and spirit-filled is my dentist that he might as well enter the treatment room on a cloud. No matter the time between visits, he remembers the names of each of my grown children and accurately recalls that it has been nine years since he last saw my daughter who now lives in another town.
When this doctor asks how I am and what my problems might be, he is fully present and listens attentively, a better therapist than me. Throughout a procedure, he repeatedly checks on my comfort. Nowhere else in the world do I feel as seen and heard as I do in his office. My dentist works patiently and attentively sculpting my new tooth for a perfect fit. Like Michelangelo, his artistry inspires a sense of awe.
Relaxing into his quiet confidence and competence, I meditate on a silent rendition of the Broadway tune “Nothing’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around.” Were my heart to stop beating or my head to explode, I imagine that my dentist would simply place his skilled, gentle hands upon the broken parts and magically put them all back together again with his touch. Unshaken, he would quickly get back to placing my crown.
While I may feel like the only person in the universe when I am seated in my dentist’s chair that scenario is far from the truth. He is a very busy man and somehow stays on schedule with the many other patients filling chairs in other treatment rooms. Yet, he never appears rushed and never makes me feel that I am wasting his time or that I need to hurry it up. With three office locations and a young family, my dentist still finds time to travel the world bringing smiles to children who have little to smile about—an international tooth fairy of sorts.
When I was a small child, I believed in the tooth fairy as much as I believed in God and the saints. I imagined a benevolent, magical being, an angel-like specter who, for some strange reason, loved gathering teeth. She loved it so much she paid me for mine. For me, lost teeth were the evidence that I was growing up. Perhaps the tooth fairy presented this evidence to some heavenly court. Maybe that is how God keeps track of his children.
I believe in a new tooth fairy now, a more age-appropriate one. And even if those permanent teeth I grew as a child test the definition of permanent, there is a new magical character who takes away my broken and aching teeth. He does it while I am awake, and I leave him the cash. There has been some price inflation since I was a kid, but this tooth fairy is so wonderful that I don’t mind. I hope that the exchange helps to pay for the smiles my Buddha-dentist-tooth-fairy brings to poor, hurting children in far-away places. Maybe that, in some way, makes me part of the magic, too, a form of redemption I can buy into.
Kahlil Gibran wrote that “work is love made visible.” He must have known my dentist.
I am not so poetic. All I can say is “Back at you, Doc!”
The English language can be slippery,
and a lot of words sound alike. I sometimes find myself living in a parallel universe with others who share my space.
Younger people think that older people can’t hear. That’s not my problem. I don’t need volume; I need context. And maybe a little less background noise.
I experienced a classic case of such confusion a couple of years ago after I was recruited for a two-year contract job in Missouri. I pared down my possessions to just what would fit in my car and started driving. I knew no one in Missouri.
I sublet an apartment and settled in. I loved the small rural community with its two main streets and slower pace of life. Everything I needed was clustered within three miles of my home. The welcoming culture of the town and its conveniences were a nice relief from the aggressive traffic and harried pace of the big city I left behind. This could be home.
One sunny Saturday morning I set out on routine errands. I did not get far before I saw flashing lights and slowing traffic. As I inched toward the scene, I could see that a car had driven through a storefront. Crumbling bricks and shattered glass filled the parking lot where a vape shop once stood.
The sight of a car’s rear end sticking out of a collapsing building was peculiar enough, but what was even stranger? It was the second such accident I had seen in less than a week. What have I gotten myself into?
I called a co-worker who was a new friend to tell her what I had witnessed. My friend was not aware of the fresh accident, but she seemed to know quite a bit about the earlier one. “Oh, yes! I heard Alexis drove through the window of the candle shop.”
My friend said this as though Alexis was someone I should know. I checked off the names on my short mental list of people I had met in Missouri, but there was no one named Alexis.
“Who’s Alexis?” I asked.
“Not Alexis. A LEXUS,” my friend shouted into the phone’s receiver.
Once we cleared that up, my friend proceeded to share another interesting bit of local gossip--some wrong perpetrated on Dee Dee.
“Who’s Dee Dee?” I asked.
“Not Dee Dee. THE DD. The DD Highway!”
I thought this kind of conversation only happened on greeting cards, but my friend and I had a good laugh over it, and not just once. Our friendship was cemented by a case of mistaken homophones. If laughter is good medicine, it is also strong glue. It is inside jokes such as these that help to form the enduring bond of friendship. During the pandemic, my friend adopted a puppy and named it Alexis. Just to be clear, this Alexis was nowhere near the candle shop in 2019.
It is now perfectly evident that Alexis is a pet and an out-of-control Lexus can do a lot of damage to a storefront. Thankfully, a couple of poor gals named Alexis and Dee Dee did not end up serving time for crimes they did not commit. I think we can agree that I should never enter a court of law to provide testimony based on hearsay.
I returned to Ohio just ahead of the pandemic. Cars protruding from collapsing buildings now seem like a minor social problem compared to disease and conspiracy theories. Confusion is everywhere, and troubling news easy to come by. Some of the news is so strange, in fact, that I find myself full of doubt and afraid to speak. Not everyone is a good friend who will find humor in auditory mix-ups. Today, it might even get me killed. And so, I find myself questioning everything: Is there a heroin problem in my community or a heroine problem? Given the current state of politics and reports of corruption at the Columbus Zoo, is it guerilla warfare I should fear or gorilla warfare? If someone tells me that a hummer interrupted the school’s choir performance, should I call a tow truck or the principal? It’s all too much—a classic case of homophonophobia.
And to whom should I turn for treatment?
A Colonel of truth perhaps.
My phone rang three times
this morning before I could get to it.
It was a surprise. I am accustomed to receiving text messages throughout the day, but the phone does not ring often any more.
As I ran for the phone, I was reminded of my youth. When the phone rang, it generated excitement. Everyone in the household dashed toward the landline wanting to be the one to answer. If the caller was a relative or someone known to everyone in the family, the receiver was passed around until each person had a turn to talk. On the phone or in person, parents trying to civilize a child would never tolerate offspring who did not courteously respond when spoken to. And much of the time, children were expected to hold onto their thoughts and just listen.
Now people show up at state capitols with assault weapons.
They gather in the streets.
Burn down buildings.
Take over police headquarters.
Bury people with tweets.
Is this what it now takes to be heard?
How do I ignore thee? Let me count the ways.
First, there are in-person encounters. I would say face-to-face except people don’t look at one another any longer. They are busy staring into their phones and scrolling with their fingers, giving an occasional “uh-huh,” as you speak. Folks gather in the lunch room, at a meeting, or around a dinner table with others and occupy themselves with their phones. They might even laugh and talk out loud to no one in particular as they read quips from their screens.
Then there is the old-fashioned letter. What a surprise to get paper mail! But how likely is a person to receive a letter anymore? And what is the likelihood someone would answer if you took the time to write? A person has better odds of discovering cave drawings than getting a letter in reply.
Email was great at the start. Fast. Efficient. An exciting new technology. Now? Forget about it. People are entombed in email. If you get an answer, it might take weeks. More often, there is no answer. Ever. Recently, someone I know shared frustration that an important colleague had 200 unopened emails! Ouch! And is that just the tip of the cold shoulder? Probably. I called a business associate one day to follow-up on an email. As I waited on the line for him to search his inbox, he told me that he receives approximately 300 emails a day. I would be on life support by the end of a week if I tried to thoughtfully answer that many emails.
And don’t think you can sneak up on someone with feigned urgency by calling them. Folks rarely answer their phones unless they want to chew out or humiliate a telesales person. “Let it go to voicemail” is the company song. We all know that voicemail is hopeless. Too much effort. You have to dial your voicemail box, listen, maybe jot down a number or a piece of information, and dial back. A person would need a boost from a bottle of Ensure to support all that effort. And who keeps Ensure on hand?
Your best hope might be a text message, but don’t look for deep or thoughtful communication. Short messages might appear curt. Acronyms can lead to confusion. Suddenly, someone stops speaking to you because a typo lead to a new acronym that unintentionally insulted the receiver…The alphabet was once something decipherable by preschoolers, now you need an interpreter. Does that statement deserve an OMG? A WTF? IDK. And I give up.
And then there is the interplanetary universe of customer service. Phone menus. Holds. Chats with AI. Scripted responses. Little that is helpful. Much that is infuriating. What is the actual goal of customer service? Drive up the sale of psychotropic medications and mood stabilizers?
There is a lot of discontent brewing among the ignored and dismissed.
It is a sad day when it is easier to storm the capitol than it is to get a return phone call.