6 Unburned Pieces of The Mind
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As The Shades of Evening Draw On

October is not a month that I usually associate with rain, at least not in the same sense as I do April and May, but with close to eleven inches of rain so far this month, and another two to four inches of rain expected from the storm that is raging outside, I think a long dry spell for November would be welcomed. Maybe even through December considering that here in Maine our rainfall is already twelve inches above average. However, considering the recent weather pattern we seem to be in, I imagine it won’t be too long before I’m looking at snow piled right up to my windowsill.

The lights have been flickering on and off for the last half hour now. I decide it might be best to unplug the computer and TV, and just make an evening of it at my kitchen table, reading and writing in my journal. Nor’easters are always impressive, and this one so far has been putting on an incredible display of wind and rain since mid-afternoon. The trees bend in a frenzied dance, shedding leaves and small branches that scatter about in the yard and street. Bobbing like a bobble head toy, my cat puts on an amusing show of concern as it looks out the window.

The coffee maker makes its last gurgle just before the power goes out shortly. The power comes back on but it isn’t too long before the lights start to flicker again. I decide enough is enough. If I’m going to have flicker, than I’ll take it in the soft form of lit candles, rather than a harsh, sputtering light bulb. I get a couple of candles out and set them up on the table. Once lit, I cut the lights.

I sit down in the chair and marvel at the change of atmosphere I’ve created. The ambiance from the warm hue of the candles, along with the rain beating against the windows, makes me feel as if I’ve been transported back in time. Considering this is the week ending with Halloween, I decide what better night than this to become reacquainted with Edgar Allan Poe.

“The Fall of the House of Usher” has always been a particular favorite of mine. The opening lines especially have a sonorous, mystical quality:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

To read Poe is to read the wrangling of the human soul when it is no longer capable of balancing its connection with the natural world with the spiritual, when it becomes mired in its physical existence, when it becomes relegated to the “unredeemed dreariness of thought.”

Holding to that sentiment I find myself drifting off into the push and pull of the wind against the building: the rain, heavy and certain. And then I wonder how it is that I sit here at this table laden with thoughts of the events that have transpired since 9/11. Something has happened to us since the collapse of the World Trade Center, something insidious and malignant has affected all of us, has changed us, whether we realize it or not, in ways that, though, may not be easily understood, is becoming more evident each day. Al Qaeda has turned our country into a “mansion of gloom.” Instead of a culture of hope and optimism, we have become a culture of fear. And as such, we have become clumsy and ineffective in our response to this war of terror that has been unleashed on us.

Out of fear, we give up our liberties, our freedoms, and our privacy so that we may be protected from those who wish to do us harm. But I don’t feel any safer. When I flew out to California last year, and was subjected to a full search not only of my belongings, but a pat-search as well, I did not feel like I was being protected from ruthless hijackers intent on using my flight as a bomb. As a TSA agent swept me with his wand, I couldn’t rationalize how this end justified any means. Instead, I thought it terribly reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984. Putting my shoes back on, I felt relieved that Big Brother determined I wasn’t a threat, but, nevertheless, as far as I was concerned, the unthinkable had become reality. Our behaviors in society today are being closely monitored, and as long as terrorists wage their psychological and explosive warfare against us, I imagine it won’t be very long before our very thoughts are being closely censored to protect us from Al-Qaeda’s mission of merciless insanity. I pick back up where I left off on my reading and find a passage that seems almost transpicuous of our present dilemma:

"I shall perish," said he, "I must perish in this deplorable folly. Thus, thus, and not otherwise, shall I be lost. I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results. I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of soul. I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect --in terror. In this unnerved-in this pitiable condition --I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR."

We do not have to live our lives in fear. We do not have to succumb to pernicious pessimisms that dictate the tempo of our lives. Though I may not be able to change the reality of our present political and economic situation, I can change how I respond to it and thus affect a change in my reality by choosing to live my life out of courage, hope and love. As the candles I have lit burn down, I reaffirm my belief in our humanity and God, and decide that I am not going to contribute to this “collective consciousness” of Osama Bin Laden butterflies. I like my freedom, thank you very much. And so with that I pinch off the flame of the candles. My cat, nestled against Poe’s collective works, watches me with what seems a curious intent. I scoop the cat up off the table and prop him up to my shoulder.

It is a cold wind that blows tonight, the howl deep and low, the voice of winter to come. Tomorrow morning the drive to work will be that of a more wintry scene, the leaves having been blown off most of the trees, the gray clouds crabbing across the sky like sailboats heading for Isleboro. I decide that to celebrate my newfound freedom, I’m going to get up an hour earlier and walk to Weaver’s Bakery in downtown Belfast. At 5:30 a.m., a tray of apple spice doughnuts will have been pulled from the fryer vat. I’ll order two doughnuts with a cup of coffee, and then go outside and sit on the bench near Main and High Street. When you bite into a hot doughnut like that on a thirty-degree morning, well, I think it’s about as close to heaven as you can possibly get.

By S. L. Cunningham


Driving Across An October Landscape

After a week of Noah’s Ark-like weather, we have had a couple of days of bright sunshine and cool days. With Halloween just a little more than ten days to go, evidence of the festive occasion is beginning to show up with more and more houses displaying decorations from ghoulish graveyard scenes to orange bloated Gladbag pumpkins.

Things have been a little hectic at work lately with a couple of kids who have just recently come into our program. One kid in particular has proven to be a real challenge just in terms of getting him to stay focused on any one thing for more than five minutes. It's not that I don't like working with young people, I do, but some days trying to help them deal with their frustrations before they have a complete meltdown requires every bit of creative resourcefulness I may have, along with a lot of patience and humor. With most new kids, though, it takes a good two or three weeks before it can be determined whether they are going to be able to participate in our program. Even then, it’s a process of months, sometimes even a year or more. Most kids who do complete our program realize significant success in the process—learning how to overcome emotional difficulties, completion of high school or GED, entrance into a technical college or job corps--and hopefully when they do leave, are able to make the kind of choices that will help them realize a good life free of alcohol addiction and drug abuse.

On the drive home today, I take my usual route. I avoid Highway 1 and follow the back roads that lead me to Rt. 52 that meanders into Belfast. On the few occasions when I have taken Highway 1, I always find myself stuck in the middle of a caravan that moves along ten to fifteen miles under the speed limit. The sixteen miles between Camden and Belfast sometimes can be a forty to fifty minute ordeal. But out on 52, I’m often it, moving along at my own comfortable pace. This time of year the short drive up the knoll from Lincolnville Center feels like I’m driving across the canvas of a landscape painting. To the right are the Camden Hills in a splash of reds, yellows, and orange. To the front of me is Ducktrap Mountain. As I wrap around the hairpin turn I start to pass a succession of fields of thick emerald green—thanks to the recent rains—and mid-eighteen hundreds style farmhouses.

When I finally get back to my place, I feed the cat and then pick back up on what has turned out to be a major undertaking. It’s been a month now since my son went off to Army boot camp at Fort Benning, Georgia. During that time, he’s only called twice. Once, when he first got there to let me know he made it in all right, and then about a couple weeks later when he was allowed to make a five-minute phone call. Within those five minutes, he tried to get in what his whole experience had been so far, and how much he liked the training. By the time I finally got to ask him for his address, he abruptly cut me off. “Well, good talking with you, Dad. Love you. Sorry. I have to hang up.”

I haven’t heard from him since, nor have I received anything in the mail from the Army. I did hear from his mother, though. She had sent me an email last week inquiring about his address and his graduation date. “I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know so I can make plans to attend.”

Tracking down his address was not an easy task. There are many training battalions at Fort Benning, and within those battalions are several training companies that have several training platoons. Finally, after twelve phone calls, I still wasn't sure if I had reached the right desk. “Alpha Company. Good afternoon, sir/mam, how may I help you?”

I told the desk sergeant who I was and that I was calling to get my son's address. "Do you know your son's name and his roster number?" he asked.

“Well, I’m pretty sure his name is Michael Cunningham, but I don’t have a clue as to what his roster number is.” I then heard the sergeant yell out to one of the other drill instructors:

“Anybody know what platoon Cunningham is in? I need his roster number.”

“Hey, that’s my guy,” I heard a voice say in the background. “Cunningham, what’s your damn roster number?”

Very faintly, I could hear my son reply to the drill instructor. The desk sergeant then gave me my son’s mailing address and graduation date. “Anything else I can do for you today, sir?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “Tell my son to get down and do fifty for making his father track down his address.”

“Will do, sir. Gladly,” he said.

I then thanked the desk sergeant for his help and hung up, and then had a good laugh picturing what my son’s reaction might be to my request of him to do a couple of pushups. He always has said I have an odd sense of humor. To say the least, I’m sure next time he calls, he’ll have something to say about that, and we’ll both end with getting a good chuckle out of it.

The nights are definitely getting colder. It’s only been an hour since sunset and the temperature has dipped from a pleasant 54 degrees to 42. Jack Frost’s artistry might be evident when it comes time to head out for work in the morning. Looking out the window, I see a couple of squirrels scampering about a thick spread of acorn droppings from the two oaks that line the sidewalk adjacent to my apartment building. The Farmer’s Almanac is predicting a long, cold, snowy winter this year. From the way the squirrels seem to be going about it, I’d almost agree.

By S. L. Cunningham


My Pygmalion Dreams

During the night, I am given to some rather strange dreams, almost all of which have to do with women. Someone once told me I should write these dreams down. But I usually don’t unless it is truly out of the ordinary. Many years back, I bought a book on how to interpret dreams. I gave up on trying to interpret mine. I found I could no more interpret my dreams than I could my life. But at least with dreams I don’t concern myself whether I make sense of them or not. I categorize them as either amusing or weird. Sometimes I reflect on them, sometimes I don’t. But the dreams I have of women have a special category all their own. I refer to them as my Pygmalion dreams.

Last night was a good example. In my dream, I was sitting on my couch listening to Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou” when someone knocked on my door. When I got up and answered it, I found myself looking at a young woman in her mid-twenties, though no one I knew or recognized. “I was on my way to pick up a pizza at Jack’s when my car broke down. Could I borrow yours?” she asked. “I’ll bring it right back.”

“Sure,” I said. I handed her the keys, which strangely enough just happened to be in my hand. She never came back. Me? I woke up in a panic. Realizing that it was still dark, and seeing I was still in bed, I felt relieved that I hadn’t actually been so obliging. I felt even better when I went to leave for work this morning and saw that my car was still parked where I had left it. Yet even still, there was something about this dream, something oddly unnerving that put me in a real conundrum of sorts as I drove to work.

An even stranger dream was one I had many years ago. I was out walking on a beach when I came upon a naked woman lying on the sand. I never had such an experience like that, and as usual in these kinds of dreams, I felt a sense of panic. I didn’t know what to do. She didn’t seem startled by my presence and looked up at me. I wasn’t sure if I should turn around and walk back the way I came, or just keep on walking by, trying as best as I could to ignore her. But I couldn’t help staring at her. Pure white, radiant, adorned in jewelry, with long flowing brown hair, I found myself trying to figure out how I could possibly introduce myself. “Ah, I was just out for a walk, and I couldn’t help noticing . . .” No, no, too apparent. “Oh, hello. I just happened to parachute from a plane and wouldn’t you know it . . .” But as more often than not with dreams the subject ends up changing long before a solution is ever found, and so when I decided I would just walk right up to her and introduce myself, the scenery had changed and she was gone.

In these dreams, the women who appear are usually in their mid-twenties, early thirties. Usually there seems to be a peculiar familiarity with how they manifest themselves. The woman who shows up at my door and asks to borrow my car, the woman who appears naked on the beach, innocuous and beguiling. Yet nothing ever comes of them, just snippets of unanswered questions, I suppose, of why I failed in my relationships and marriage. With the women who I encounter in my dreams, I find I am completely trusting and accepting. Entirely relaxed with who I am, I don’t find any request odd or unusual. Yet in my day-to-day life, I don’t think I have been as trusting as I thought myself to be. Most times, I would find myself weary or guarded in my relationships, and in my marriage, I struggled with balancing my priorities with the demands made on me by work, my ex-wife, and our two children. What I didn’t realize then is that relationships—work, school, friends, marriage, and children—need to be attended to every day. It’s as if these dreams, these women who appear to me, serve only to give me shades of feelings or intentions that I had been oblivious to, or have not yet come to fully understand.

Perhaps it is because when it comes to love, I have shown myself to be a total idiot, a fool of fools. I am a hopeless romantic, and have been quite skilled in making the smallest infatuation into the love story of my life. Relationships have always been such an enigma to me. I grasp the ideal of being in love, but the reality of actually being in love, and being able to grow in love, I have found to be an unsustainable, illusive tendency. Feelings are hurt, accusations of being inattentive or playing games are made, and then when all is said and done, two people sit across from each other at the table over dinner one night, wondering how they got in such a mess with something that at one time seemed so full of promise and hope. Such as it was with my ex-wife and I. Fortunately we have come to a quiet understanding over the years while our son and daughter grew up. At first, it was an uneasy, awkward friendship maintained more out of civility toward the children rather than out of any mutual feelings of likeability toward each other. Because of the children, though, we stayed in contact and found a way to discuss the larger issues of parenting without being oppositional toward each other. But that was it.

However, since coming back from California after I went out to attend my daughter’s high school graduation, it seems both my ex wife and I have found a way to let go of the hurt. After arriving in Arroyo Grande, I called to let her know I made it in okay. She surprised me by inviting me over for a cup of coffee. I was reluctant at first, and wasn’t sure how I would feel meeting her husband. But I went and soon after being introduced to him, any feelings of awkwardness were short lived. Our daughter’s now attending college and our son is in Army boot camp. My ex and I email each other to share any recent news we’ve had in regard to our young adult children. The tone? Not reserved but cordial.

As I wrap up this day, it occurs to me that maybe the dream I had about loaning out the car wasn’t so crazy after all. I let her have the keys without question or hesitation. And as it turned out, I didn’t have anything to worry about afterall, because in the morning, my car was still there. It would seem, then, that in the absence of questioning and hesitation, of creating expectations, I am beginning to find a quiet acceptance of others, and myself, and that is all that really matters.

By S. L. Cunningham


Living Life Deliberately

In the periphery of change, October seems to render me in a contemplative state more so than any other month. It is mid-evening and I am sitting here in my chair looking out the window. The rain has been falling steadily for the last several hours and the balminess of this morning has given way to a damp chill. It would seem that the days of Indian summer we had last week are over. This storm tonight is ushering in the colder air spilling down from Canada. Come tomorrow, a coat definitely will be needed as I head out the door for work.

My cat seems to have sensed the change, too. After several minutes of looking out the window while sitting on the desk, it turns and gives my hand a nudge. Mewing, it pounces from the desk to the futon, and then climbs into its round bed and curls up into a tight ball. It isn’t too long before its slight snores start to punctuate the sound of the rain cascading off the roof.

I’m not sure why but it seems that I’ve become more acute with the events that have transpired in my day to day life, and I find myself savoring each day as if it were a gift. It used to be that I would dread thinking about the future. Even worse, though, was how I spent time agonizing on past events, either because of circumstance or choice, before finally realizing that what is done, is done. At one time I was a warrior; another, a teacher. And yet another role in my life was that of a husband and father. But now long since divorced and my two children beginning their own lives, it occurs to me that a life lived really is no more than a composite of experiences that shapes and forms who we are at various stages in our life. For once, I think I am beginning to understand and appreciate what this process of being and becoming is all about.

The wind has started to pick up and is blowing the rain into a pelting swirl against the building. I open the window just a crack. Each gust that comes now creates that eerie, inconsolable whistle of tormented souls. I turn the light off and then sit back in the chair, leaning back and stretching out my legs. It’s starting to rain even harder still. As I fixate myself to the sound of wind and rain, I find myself drifting back in memory to my childhood room at the time I was nine years old. Lying in bed, I listen to the branches of the Meliads with their twiggy fingers scratching, tap-tapping on my window as the shadows of their forms dance on my ceiling and wall. I remember my mother telling me not to worry, that these are friendly spirits, but even still, deep in my pillow I pull the covers up close and turn my head to the side.

Yawning, I am brought back to the present. I reach for my coffee mug and take a sip. Almost every October I’ve lived since I was discharged from the Marine Corps after sustaining a severe injury aboard ship has found me struggling with the question of purpose. And for all those thirty-four years since then, I haven’t had an answer. I’m still not sure if I do, but for the first time in my life I feel that I’m beginning to have a better sense of what this is all about. Reflecting on my experiences has made me realize that purpose in life is not necessarily the careers I chose, the relationships I had, or the family I brought to bear. Instead, it is, as Thoreau says, about having lived my life “deliberately” within those experiences, to “awaken” myself, and keep myself “awake” by having “an infinite expectation of the dawn.”

Looking out the window again, it occurs to me just how satisfying and enjoyable it is to contemplate the circumference of this odyssey called life, for doing so, I feel centered and firm just as surely as the four legs of this chair that I sit in. I stand up and head to the kitchen with my coffee mug. Rinsing it out, I call it a day. Retiring to bed, I await once more for the playful dance of the Meliads.

By S. L. Cunningham


Do the Hike – A Change in Perspective

October has arrived, and like May and December, it is a month of marked transition. There’s the noticeable change in temperature, the cooler nights, the days that are becoming increasingly shorter, and the pungent, hardwood smell of chimney smoke wafting through the early evening air. The trees are beginning to stop producing chlorophyll, and as they do, the pigments of color that are within the leaves are beginning to show a palate of red, gold, and orange.

With the last of my summer clothes put away, I start breaking out my long sleeve shirts and sweaters. This is a good time of the year to be out and about, and short hikes and forays into the woods should be taken advantage of whenever a good day of clear weather presents itself.

Today was a perfect example. With the temperature in the mid-seventies, it felt like Indian summer. My colleague at work and I decided that instead of having our usual therapy group with our students today, we would instead take them on a hike up Bald Rock that’s part of the Camden Hills. “But do we have to?” one of the kids piped in. “Hiking sucks.”

Mike spoke up. “I know we do group inside, but today’s about the last of any real nice days we’ll have for awhile, and so we’ve decided to get you guys outside for group today.”

Mike and I are responsible for conducting a dialectical behavior therapy group once a week for our eight students who live at the residential facility where we work. What we basically try to do is teach kids how to learn skills that will help them get their needs met in more appropriate, positive ways. For some of them it can be quite a long learning curve until they start using skills to cope with negative emotions or feelings of anxiety and depression. With most of the new kids who come into our program, it’s a pretty simple script: Can’t get what you want right at this minute, fine, yell obscenities, punch the wall, slam the door, and throw something down on the floor. That’s pretty much how most of them try to deal with any given situation that’s contrary to what they think they need or want, or when they’re reminded of an expectation.

“We’re only going to be out for a couple of hours.” Mike continued; “Besides, it will give you guys a chance to practice the skills you’ve learned.” We gathered up what we needed and piled into the van. Fifteen minutes later we were hiking up the trail that led to Bald Rock. No sooner than two hundred yards into it, one of the kids came up to me and said, “This is really stupid.”

“Oh? Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because I could be back at the house playing my new game on the Play Station."

”You seem to really like playing with the Play Station. What's with that?"

"It's the only thing I like doing," he said as he picked up a rock and threw it into the woods.

Looking at him, I decided to give him a nudge. “But you’re not at the school, are you?”

“No, but I could be if I weren’t on this stupid, boring hike.”

“Yes, but you’re on the hike,” I said calmly.

“Yeah, thanks to you and Mike.”

I slowed my pace down a bit and took a few moments to reflect. “Does thinking about being back at the house and playing with the Play Station change anything?”


“If it doesn’t change anything, then why continue to dwell on it?”

At this point I reminded the student to start thinking about his skills. I asked him to think about what he could do to try and make his situation better.

“I could stop being pissed off that I’m on this stupid hike.”

“And how would you do that?”

“By accepting that I’m on this stupid hike?”

“Okay, you could accept the situation for what it is. Good. What else might you try to change the situation?”

“I can stop being pissed off about it because there isn’t anything I can do, so I might as well do the hike, I guess,” he said as he kicked up a rock.

The student may not have realized it, but he had grasped a simple truth. Often times when we are given to any one thing, especially when it’s something that we might not particularly enjoy or want to do, we become scattered and frustrated when we start thinking about other things we could be doing or other places where we could be instead. Sometimes, as with the student, we label or judge what we are committed to in negative terms. But by changing our perspective, we can “do the hike.” Focusing on the one thing we are doing, without labeling or judging, allows us to experience activities more fully, especially activities we may not want to do but have to, either because of duty or necessity. Whether it’s work, or washing dishes, or getting our kid to the dance, we can be in the moment. As Goethe said, “There is nothing worth more than this day!”

After the student walked just ahead of me for a ways, he stopped and asked, “What kind of tree is that?”

“Black birch,” I replied. I walked over to the tree and broke off a couple small twigs. “Here, chew on the end of this,” I said as I took the other twig and gave a demonstration.

He looked at me with a reluctant stare and then smelled the end of the twig. “Kind of smells like a Lifesaver,” he said. He then took the twig and started chewing on it. “Hey, that’s pretty weird. What is that?” he asked.

“Wintergreen,” I replied. “You can also use the sap from the tree to make birch beer from. It’s kind of like root beer.”

As we picked back up the pace, I noticed he was actually looking around and observing. He plodded on ahead of me with heavy, deliberate steps. “If you feel yourself trying to catch a breath, pick a spot to take a sit for awhile,” I reminded him. He didn’t answer, but continued on slow, but sure. After reaching the summit, we sat down with the others and looked out at the ocean. The students were surprised by how high up we were, and marveled at how small the houses looked in the village below. The shore was wrapped snug by a blanket of fog that stretched to the horizon. The students then took different places to sit alone as they looked out over the carpet of trees and beyond. For once they were all quiet. As Mike and I observed them being self-absorbed, I could almost imagine the beauty of what such a view must be like for them to perceive for perhaps their very first time.

By S. L. Cunningham