6 Unburned Pieces of The Mind
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A New Year's Resolution

It’s the day after Christmas, and outside is not at all what a wintry scene should look like. Forty-two degrees and raining, what snow we had left yesterday is now mostly gone. Although it may be mild today, winter will eventually take claim again and usher the warm air out, burying us in a thick blanket of knee-deep snow that will last through the sub-zero days of January to come.

This last week of December is good to have. After a month long frenzy of shopping and celebrating and exchanging gifts, it’s nice to be able to unwind before the New Year begins. Perspective these days seems to be in short supply, thus anytime to afford sitting on the couch to relax without music or TV is both welcomed and honored.

Add to that a yellow pad of paper, a pen, and a few good books to read, and what you have is the perfect recipe to help overcome any funk brought on by the doldrums, which for me at this time of year seems to be a recurring battle.

It wasn’t until my son moved away, though, that I’ve realized how much of a battle it has been. It used to be that I thought my transition from being married to being divorced was hard to accept, but that experience pales to the transition I’ve made from being a single parent to a single person.

In some ways, it feels like I’m right back where I was twenty-one years ago, though now older, but not necessarily wiser. The only real difference I’ve noticed between then and now is that then, I was in a hurry to charge on and get going with my life, whereas today I am not.

Today, I find myself being more deliberate about how I spend my time. For instance, not only do I take time to pay attention and observe what I’m feeling at any particular moment, I also take time to pay attention and observe the small things that are going on around me: crows hob-bobbing across the yard, chortling amongst themselves, rain beating against the window, and voices heard out in the hallway. Small things that seem like push pins that hold the sleeves of a new day together. How we unfold and wear it does make all the difference, especially on a day like this when the sky is low and gray.

What this coming year will bring compared to what this last year has brought I hope is more tranquil and forgiving. Certainly this past year has been unlike any we’ve experienced in some time. Starting with the Asia Tsunami that claimed the lives of over 200,000 people, and left countless others faced with the loss of homes, possessions and entire communities, the devastation we’ve experienced in our country with Katrina, and the ongoing struggle that the people of Pakistan are faced with in the aftermath of the earthquake that destroyed the northern mountain region of that country, one cannot help wondering what kind of days we are living in. Coupled with the War on Terror, one can’t help wondering, indeed.

It is my hope, then, that in this year to come, we will begin to find ways to agree instead of differ. The too often insane, political rhetoric from Washington D.C. is fractious and counter-intuitive to bringing a nation together that so desperately needs to be joined in a sense of common purpose during a time that is fraught with peril.

The obstructionist behavior of both the Republicans and Democrats has to stop. Aside from our commitment that needs to be satisfactorily completed in Iraq, there are other issues that need to be equally addressed. Affordable housing, healthcare and livable wages, for example, are issues both parties could work together on to try and find acceptable solutions that will allow the citizens of this country to participate in society in more meaningful ways.

Witness today’s middle-class, for example, which seems to have become an economically endangered species. When millions of two-income families can barely afford their rents and mortgages, or seek necessary, preventative healthcare, or have to make choices between paying bills and buying food, something is terribly wrong. Something that goes beyond being conservative or liberal, something that cries for true, effectual leadership that will join us once again as a nation of people who work toward building a good life together for all its citizens, instead of the rampant greed that holds everyone else back, and makes it almost impossible for our young people to get a good start on their lives.

That is what I would like to see as our New Year’s resolution. The mealy-mouthed rhetoric of Pelosi and Haskell, Reed and Frisk needs to end, and so does the tearing down of President Bush. Such behavior does not solve problems, but instead acerbates and creates more problems, especially in terms of how our sense of unity, purpose and resolve is perceived by other world countries.

A hard rain has begun to fall. In the quiet space of my living room, the only sounds heard are those of the water running off the roof and the purring of my cat curled in a lazy sleep on my lap. With the distractions and the hustle and bustle we contend with each and every day, the dissonance in search of a consonant, quiet moment such as this is a necessary prescriptive in reminding us why we make resolutions. Afterall, we are only travelers on this planet, each of us embarked on this journey through life together in our continual search for validity and truth. As Frost says so well,

"There is our wildest mount—a headless horse.
But though it runs unbridled off its course,
And all our blandishments seemed defied;
We have ideas we haven’t tried." – From, “Riders”

By S. L. Cunningham


December 21, 2005

December 21—the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year. For those of us who choose to live here in Maine, that means about 8 hours and 45 minutes of sunlight. The good news? Starting tomorrow, the days will be getting longer as we now move ever slowly toward the summer horizon.

Although we’ve had several days now of below freezing temperatures, we haven’t experienced anything that could be considered frigid. It’s only been this past week that the ponds and lakes have started to freeze over. Still not much in the way of snow. We’ve had a few dustings, and a four incher, but during last Friday’s storm, the changeover to rain pretty much washed out whatever hope we had for a white Christmas.

At work today, we celebrated our annual Christmas lunch with the kids who are in our care. Most of the kids will also be going home to celebrate the holiday with their families, but a few of our kids won’t. For them, this is a time of year fraught with anxiety, disappointment and uncertainty. But as one of them said to me, “It’s better than being at the youth center in Charleston.”

After staff meeting, I started to head out when the young man, who I have been assigned to as his 1:1, came up to me and asked if I was able to get him what he wanted for Christmas. I smiled at him and said, “Well, you’ll have to wait and see.”

Compared to the requests made to the staff by the other students, mine was very simple to fulfill: a pool cue and a gift card from Wal-Mart. We have pool cues at the house, but most are warped and it’s difficult to make a serious shot of any kind. He did have a fairly decent cue stick of his own, but it was rendered useless when another student cross threaded it when he tried to screw the two sections together.

When I was at Wal-Mart yesterday, I had found the perfect replacement for him. “Strengthened with titanium. Will not warp. Break resistant.” Considering the young man I was buying it for, I thought it an apt description. It takes a good couple of months before a young man coming into our program can begin interacting with others on a more personable level.

Usually when students first transition into our program, they bring with them all the signs of gang and drug related culture. The piercings, self-tattoos, oversized pants constantly needing to be pulled up, the rap music of Busta Rhymes and others that they listen to, and the lingo that they express themselves in (“Hook me up, Dog,”) doesn’t feel or seem anything like the rebellion of my youth. The semiotics of my time almost seems kinder, if not tame, compared to the expressiveness of the young people I work with. With them, they’re not talking about their generation, they’re succumbing to it.

But getting past that, though hard as that may seem, is what makes the job worth it. When kids start to get a better sense of who they are in a safe environment that allows them to focus on what needs to be done each day, physically and mentally, self-discovery can become a powerful medicine. They start to think of their future—of where they’d like to eventually be or do—and go on to finish high school or obtain a GED.

As I walked to my car it occurred to me how satisfying the drive to work and the return back home has been. In the morning, about three miles out on 52, I get to see the emerging sunrise. Against the silhouette of the pines, the horizon is bathed in a pink hue punctuated by purple clouds. On the return home, the sky to the west becomes fiery red against the slowly sinking orange sun that seems so large at this time of year. Glimmering faintly to the east, the stars poke through the cold, steel-blue sky.

Against such a backdrop, the tired arguments of our elected officials and pundits in regard to Iraq and the War on Terror almost seem petty and inconsequential. A mile, afterall, is still a mile. With the young people I work with, realizing that can make a crucial difference as to whether or not a child chooses to be flexible. I turned the news off, and enjoyed the ride.

By S. L. Cunningham


A Gift of Faith, Magic & Love

The December of the year my son was three years old going on four, I had spent the days leading up to Christmas preparing him for the event.

We made a trip into town to buy Christmas lights to decorate our one story house, which I had been renting at the time. Because of its painted, dark brown shingles, my son had dubbed it The Chocolate House. More like a cottage, it was the perfect place to spark a child's imagination during the darkest months of the year.

Snow had not arrived yet, but the nights were getting colder. When we plugged in the blue lights that we had put up on the front of the house, my son asked if we could sleep outside. I was reluctant at first, but before I knew it, we were setting up the tent inside the cerulean glow that reached across the yard. I went back in the house and got the sleeping bags, pillows and extra blankets.

After a snack of brownies and milk, we washed up, brushed our teeth, and then retired to our tent. Once settled in, I tethered the flashlight to use as a reading lamp. I started by telling my son the story of the first night of Christmas and that what we were doing was almost like what the shepherds were doing as they set watches over their sheep. I then began reading Ezra Jack Keats’ "The Little Drummer Boy," a beautifully illustrated book I had bought him the day before:

“Come, they told me,
Our newborn king to see

However, I wasn't able to read much more than that. He had fallen into a cherubic sleep.

A week later, the snow had finally arrived. With the passing of each night that brought us closer to Christmas day, my son became increasingly anxious.

“Do you think Santa will really stop at our house?” he asked.

“Of course he will,” I had assured him. “You've been good, haven't you?”

“Yeah,” he said, smiling. “But Santa's really big!”

“Yes, he is,” I replied.

My little Socrates continued. “And he's coming down our chimney?”

Yes,” I said.

“But the hole's not big enough,” my son replied. “If he can't come down our chimney, then will he go somewhere else?”

Not having an answer right away, I said, “Well, I'm sure Santa has some way of getting himself down the chimney. He's been going down all kinds of chimneys for years and years, so I'm sure ours wont be too difficult for him.”

“But how?” my son asked.

After a few moments, I blurted out, “Magic dust, I suppose. When a chimney's too small, he sprinkles magic dust on himself to shrink just enough to go down.”

Knowing my son would look for physical evidence, I bought a bottle of glitter from Ames Department Store the next day. On Christmas Eve, after I put him down to bed and read "The Night Before Christmas,” I sprinkled the “magic dust” from the chimney flue to the Christmas tree.

My imagination, however, didn't stop there. I had to do something more--something special--something other than the glitter, cookies and milk, something that once and for all would convince my son that Santa Claus was real. I went out into the barn and pulled out the scythe I used to whack the weeds with during the summer. I then found a six-foot pole. With a couple of tight wrappings of duck tape, I fashioned an extension to the scythe. I grabbed the ladder, climbed up the backside of the house and went to work.

I positioned myself at the top, being very careful not to break the snow covering on the front of the roof. For the next hour, I used the scythe with the duck taped extension to etch out sleigh tracks. Wanting to make it look like Santa had come in for a landing, I started the track closest to me slightly from the eve, and then I made the next track about three feet in from the other one. I kept both tracks about four feet apart.

Next, I worked on the reindeer tracks, which took more doing than I had thought. After I had finished with that, I guessed the spot where Santa would have exited from his sleigh and made footprints leading right up to the chimney.

When I had finished, I stood up to admire the work I had done. Just as I did, though, my left foot shot out from under me, and the next thing I knew, I was sliding off the roof. I tried to stop, but the scythe wouldn't grab hold.

Realizing I was going over, I chucked the scythe into the back yard as far as I could. I wasn't taking a chance of it landing on me or vise versa. Even with two feet of snow on the ground, I hit hard flat on my back with a thud that knocked the wind out of me. I stood up and walked around gasping for air. After a few minutes, I caught my breath and cursed myself for being so stupid.

The next morning, however, the smile on my son’s face as he woke up and discovered the magic dust, and the marvel of seeing the tracks up on the roof after I carried him outside to show him, had made the entire effort worth it. He believed.

We went back inside. As he unwrapped the toys and books given to him as presents from Santa, I realized I had given my son the greatest gift of all, not placed under the tree, but a gift given from within, a gift of faith, magic and love. After we picked up the wrapping paper, we sat down to a breakfast of banana pancakes and hot cocoa.

By S. L. Cunningham
Published in The Village Soup Citizen, 12/14/05: 27


Least a Half-Foot – Our First Snow Storm of This Winter

Since Thanksgiving, we’ve only had a few dustings of snow, but today I left work early as the snowstorm that had been promised actually arrived. With the road covered in snow, and little sand, the ride home was a second-third-gear affair. Anything faster than twenty-five, thirty miles an hour was certain to make the rear end of the car fishtail out of control. Four-wheel drive I’m sure is a convenience, but with my front wheel drive Chevy Cavalier, over confidence was one thing I didn’t have to worry about.

The luxury of leaving work early was that I didn’t have to be in a hurry. Knowing I had a twenty-mile best-be-careful drive, I took in the scenery as the swirling curtain of white enveloped the trees and fields in a blanket of heavy snow.

As I meandered down 235 heading toward Lincolnville, I passed by a Christmas tree lot. In the middle of the lot was a warming shack, its outline blurred by the falling snow. There wasn’t any smoke coming out of the stovepipe, but just to the side of the shack, an elderly man wearing an orange hat and a red/black parka, sat in a chair rubbing his hands over a wood fire. I imagined what customers he’d have today would be few.

It took almost an hour to make it home. No sooner than I did, though, I found myself digging out my snow pants and heavy wool socks. Fifteen minutes later and I was trudging a path through the snow. First stop was the post office to pick up my mail. Not finding much in my box except Christmas sales flyers, which I promptly tossed into the recycle bin, I headed to the co-op for a cup of coffee.

The snow was covering Main Street faster than the city could plow. A Ford Taurus slowly made its way up the street, its tires spinning as the car slid from one side to the next, just barely missing a parked car. Behind the Taurus, a Dodge Ram with a plow looked like it was becoming increasingly impatient. At times, the Ram was so close to the rear of the Taurus that I thought for sure it was going to give it a good push up the rest of the hill.

I bought a cup of French roast and sat down at the table by the window, looking out at the falling snow. When I finished my cup, I got up and tossed it in the trash. “Looks like we might get a half foot before it tapers off,” said a grizzled man who looked like he was on break from a construction job.

I smiled at him. “Least a half-foot, I’d say.” I turned and headed out the door. As I walked along High Street, I marveled at how the Christmas lights glimmered against the falling snow. On top of the Colonial Theater, the giant carved wooden elephant wearing a Christmas wreath around its neck stood sentry against the swirling storm.

It felt good to be back in the warmth of my apartment. I sat down on the couch and started to pass the time by reading Bukowski's sifting through the madness for the word, the line, the way : New Poems:

the way to create art is to burn and destroy
ordinary concepts and to substitute them
with new truths that run down from the top of the head
and out from the heart.

Staring out the window, I became lost to the swirling flakes that carried me away deep in frozen thought.

It occurred to me that when winter finally looks like it’s suppose to, I really don’t have a problem with it. I thought back to the elderly man I saw earlier today as he warmed his hands over the wood fire, how comfortable he looked as he sat in his chair while he waited for someone to pull in to buy one of his trees to take home and decorate. The Old Farmer’s Almanac is predicting this winter will be long, cold, and snowy. For once, I think they might be more right than ever.

By S. L. Cunningham


On the Advent of this Holiday Formerly Known as Christmas

Last month I had been considering the possibility of moving out of my two-bedroom apartment to a one-bedroom that had become available over at the next building of the complex I live in. The rent would’ve been sixty dollars less than what I pay now, and when the landlord said she was going to have a full remodel done, I became excited and asked her to put me down on the list.

Since my son has left home, a two-bedroom almost seems too big for my cat and me. Although my cat may mew to differ. A few weeks later, I decided to walk over and look in the windows to see how the work was progressing. The apartment had been gutted and a couple of walls had been taken out to make the living room larger.

As I surveyed the work that had been done, though, I noticed the apartment was trapped by the shade of the other buildings and trees. Two hours of sunlight left, and not one single ray was filtering in any of the windows. Whatever thoughts I had of moving were dashed. Compared to the sunlight I enjoy all day, a northwest exposure would mean little to no sunlight. My bedrooms face the east and the living and dining rooms face the southwest. Giving that up to save sixty dollars a month, especially with the darkest days of the year, didn’t seem to be a sensible trade off.

I’m not one who depresses easily, but given the right environment and circumstances, I can be bummed out to the point where I just sit on the couch all day and stare at the wall. Having learned several times before that it is not wise to act contrary to your intuition, I called my landlord to let her know I had decided to stay put.

With the advent of the Christmas season, I find myself experiencing a bit of melancholy as I look at the spot in the living room where my son and I had put up our last Christmas tree a few years back. My daughter was able to fly out from California for a visit. It had been eight years since the last time that the three of us celebrated the season together. Now with my son in the Army, and my daughter in college, it may be a sometime before we get a chance like that again.

Tonight as I watch the news, I’m surprised to see how much consternation our latest campaign of political correct-madness has caused us. It seems that even “Christmas” is considered offensive to those who do not recognize or celebrate the occasion. Oh, really? Who would’ve thought, and so in deference to their sensibilities, our civic leaders have taken it upon themselves to proclaim that from now and hereafter, Christmas will be known as “Holiday.”

Those who wish to celebrate Christmas may continue to do so in their own homes or churches, but any public celebration of Christmas will no longer be accepted or tolerated. Instead of “Christmas trees,” we will have “Holiday trees”; instead of “Christmas lights,” we will have “Holiday lights.”

I have never appreciated euphemisms, especially when used to substitute words that represent or describe specific customs or beliefs, like Christmas, for example, for words considered less offensive or neutral. The more we resort to the use of euphemisms to replace words that others might be offended by, the more we euthanize another aspect of our culture. What’s peculiar about this, though, is that of all the words to replace “Christmas” with, “Holiday” may have given us traditionalists the last laugh as the word happens to have a bit of an ironic twist to it. Derived from the Old English hāligdæg, “holiday” translates simply as “Holy Day.” Hmmm, go figure. Whose sensibilities are we protecting now?

It seems to me that as of lately our culture has become maladaptive. Instead of a society that builds on shared beliefs and customs while assimilating new ones by enculturation, we now have a generation that says the beliefs and customs our society is based on and lives by is offensive to those who have chosen not to respect our beliefs and customs, all the while insisting we respect theirs.

It is good, then, to see that a few of our political leaders have come to their senses by saying, “Bah, humbug,” to the fodder all. By deciding to preserve tradition by renaming the “Capitol Holiday Tree” back to the “Capitol Christmas Tree,” though not in time to have the brochures printed to reflect the change, shows that perhaps confusion is not necessarily a good trade off for trying to respect the diverseness of those who, because of different customs and beliefs, do not recognize Christmas.

Enough of the news. I turn the TV off and head out the door and amble toward the Christmas lights downtown. Twenty minutes later, I find myself at the city landing looking out across the bay. I haven’t decided whether to put a tree up this year or not. A light breeze begins to pick up. Mesmerized by the rhythmic clanging of the lines and pulleys against the masts, I feel akin to the shepherds tending to their flocks on the night that Jesus was born. Oh, what it must have been like to witness such a star shimmering brightly across the desert sands. As I stare out at the buoy light, I sense the power and beauty of the annunciation, the acclamation that on this day our Savior was born, the humility of the magnificat:

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen

By S. L. Cunningham