“How you see, is what you see.” –Father Richard Rohr, OFM
It’s like my little dog Bobby can read the clock on the wall. Between 5:30 and 6 every day, he gets himself right in my line of vision and gives me the face, this puppy-eyed plea to load up in the Subaru and head for our walk down by the bay.
It doesn’t matter if I’m stirring a pot of black bean soup, Googling how you say Bysshe (as in Percy Bysshe Shelley—and it rhymes with fish), or twisting brass chain links into S-hooks for hanging a string of patio lights, nothing matters except I stop whatever I’m doing and look for the car keys. If I dawdle, he’s been known to ramp it up and bark at me. He might even stand up both ears for his scolding bit, calling into action the ear he usually lets flop for cuteness points.
Today I was ready for him, and the two of us started toward the car at the same time. Most of the day I’d been fending off a mild case of blues and needed some medicine—something like me and my happy little dog strolling the sidewalk between the American Legion and the Pier Street boat ramp, like the silent articulation of the trees, like the clouds following the sun over the edge of the world and Photoshopping-in colors I couldn’t name over Mobile Bay.
Bobby, for his part, was glad to oblige. He jumped in and assumed his position, riding shotgun with rear paws on the bucket seat and front paws on the dashboard, nose to the windshield. Ready to let any other dog, cat, horse, man on a bicycle, woman on a riding mower, ”Hey, I’m going to Fairhope for a sunset hike! Gonna take in all the smells, meet some more from my planet, hear some passers-by tell me how good-lookin’ I am.”
We pulled into the Orange Street parking lot. I snapped on Bobby’s leash and we piled out. Bobby wanted to head off to the south end of the park. Good by me. And he kept us going like we were late for a bus. Good by me. Just what the doctor ordered.
In fact, as I walked along, following a sailboat silhouette down toward the Grand Hotel, I could hear the voice of my old friend, Cap’n Ray, the retired doc and sailor I dedicated my first novel to. He’s now a hundred years old and living in La Jolla overlooking the Pacific. Probably still doing Hatha yoga and giving sage advice, talking about the illusions we create that block our view, trip us and make us fall face forward onto stony ground.
He used to remind me often that what’s real can’t be threatened, and what’s not real does not exist. “Children can agree with that, you know,” he’d say. Reaching across the country and down through our years-ago time aboard his sailboat, his spirit still laid a hand on my shoulder. Almost scolding me for this little funk I’d been trying to shrug off, telling me to just take a more honest look at things, try a little gratitude.
Bobby gave a tug on the leash, veering off the sidewalk, and rousted me from my reverie. There on a bench just ahead, sat a man in blue jeans with his long legs stretched out, sandals kicked off and hands behind his head, black ball cap snug on shoulder-length silver hair, dark shades, and a huge cigar in his mouth. A sweet, expensive aroma drifted toward me. The sun was orange and dropping quickly, clouds following, already trying on a palette of colors.
He took his cigar. “How ‘bout it?” he asked in my direction, like a Hollywood cowboy.
“Don’t think a man could ask for much more,” I said, tilting my head toward the western horizon and a glistening sunset coming on like some Yaqui Indian sorcerer on peyote might have imagined.
“I’m from Louisiana, land-locked at my place. I don’t get treated to this kind of sight back home,” he said, sounding more Texan than Cajun. Bobby seemed to like the fellow, his tail was moving at high speed, and both ears were up.
“Well, welcome to Fairhope,” I said. “Enjoy.” He nodded, too deep in bliss to say more. And Bobby and I kept moving, making another roundtrip from one end of the park to the other, Bobby sniffing out more of the day’s canine gossip, before turning finally at the boat ramp dock to head back toward the car. Peace had returned to my valley, and my appetite was chiming in.
A man with black pants rolled up almost to his knees came off the beach and up the steps into the parking lot. He carried his socks and shoes, and had on a white muscle-builder’s tank top, way too big and through the armhole you could see a roll of pale fat creasing toward his bicep. He was loud into a conversation on his cell phone, telling someone not to worry, that it was probably not as bad as it seemed. Bobby and I let him cross in front of us, as he said, “Well, let me call you later. I gotta get out of this weird little town. Just something about it…I don’t know. Yeah, anyway, catch you later.” He got into a new-looking Jeep Cherokee with Oklahoma plates, and turned north on South Mobile Street, on his way to someplace he could trust.
Bobby and I climbed into the Subaru. And it was almost like Cap’n Ray took a seat beside me, while Bobby scampered to the back of the station wagon. I was tuning in to one of Ray’s favorite Buddhist sayings, “When the student is ready for the lesson, a teacher will appear.” And hearing Ray ask me, Do you have eyes to see that, what just happened? Two men, both out-of-towners, a pair of landlubbers, each a witness to the same scene, not a hundred yards apart. One was in a state of grace, and one was looking for the getaway car. Can you doubt that we make our own reality?
Then, quick as that, it was just me and Bobby. I drove away slow, and held my speed all the way home. I didn’t turn on the radio, but I heard an echo from a Richard Rohr line, and it morphed into a lyric I put together for something like a blues number playing in my head.
Got to keep on singin’, mama, ain’t no doubt truth gonna set you free,
but it makes you moonshine crazy, mama, ‘til you raise up your head and see.
What I was thinking, as I pulled up to a stop sign, would be better said, raise up your soul and behold. But that doesn’t rhyme with free in the couplet.
Still, it’s the soul’s beholding that reveals what is real. What I apprehend with my soul is not the same as what I see with my body’s eyes. The former will go with me through eternity and the latter will go up in smoke if my funeral instructions are followed. Plus, perception’s drunken wobbly picture, what I see with my bleary eyes, can be denied and distorted, into an illusion stretching from here to Oklahoma.
But if I can be still, and call on my soul to light up a Cuban hand-rolled cigar (or pour a glass of Sauvignon blanc, or kick off my shoes in dewy grass, or rub Bobby’s belly), then I can behold what’s before me. Take it down deep. I can see beauty. I can be transformed. Not just by spectacular sunsets, but by really everything that the trinitarian force of atoms configures itself into.
All stuff in this ever-expanding universe is miracle-work.
As I type this it’s almost midnight, and it’s black dark on the other side of the plate glass window right in front of my desk, and a lightning bug just landed there. I mean, the tiny fluorescent bulb that it’s blinking on and off, on and off, no wires, is like some head-shaking crazy superpower Stan Lee thought up.
Some science guy knows how a lightning bug works, but I don’t want a dissertation. I want to be a five-year old boy on a front row seat for the magic show. Like the one that’s queuing up for a daylight opening in green treetops over a Waterhole Branch morning as ten thousand birds wake up. I mean, what does a woodpecker know that I don’t know about what goes on beneath a layer of pine bark?
When earlier we pulled up to the cabin and climbed out of the station wagon. Bobby pranced up the steps, stopped at the top and looked back at me. As if to say, he’d send me a bill tomorrow, but right now, move my butt and rustle up something good for supper. The least I could do for a Zen-pup guru lesson in soul-seeing my way out of the blues. And no extra charge for snuggling at my feet as I write about it.