So long ago, a lifetime ago, we had Dick and Elizabeth over for dinner.
After dinner we re-located to the sunroom porch, an after-thought room which was kind of sliding off the side of the house. Settling into the slant, we re-found our way back into conversation as Dick started in on a story. He’s a masterful, high voltage storyteller and I especially love it when he throws in a profanity because it’s an art form with him, full of articulate but animal-level passion. Not many people have the talent to swear in a way that can make you like them more.
That night he was telling us about a woman who was trying to convey something of great import to him. There was one phrase in particular that struck him as the crux of her message but — and he said this part with searching intensity — he couldn’t locate its meaning. She was using words differently than is customary and it was adding a dimension that he couldn’t access.
Locate. He couldn’t locate the meaning.
Locate, locate…The word kept going over and over in my mind. I, personally, had never heard the word “locate” used in the way he was using it, in reference to meaning as opposed to the location of some place or some thing. There was a dimension to his usage I wasn’t accessing, tripping some hyper alertness, as if this hyper alert part sensed something of grave importance in “locate” for me.
A good 25 years later, some of my clan and I were sitting out on the deck after lunch during our annual family reunion, half dozing in the sun. I’d been thinking again about that word “location,” and felt like I was closing in on the personal significance of the word. Exploring it a little, I asked my brother John what he needs to know at any given moment when he gets somewhere, whether it’s the grocery store or a foreign country or the bathroom. What are the questions he needs answered in order to get oriented? How does he locate himself?
He acts like this isn’t an unusual question to be randomly asked, like he’s just been waiting for someone to finally bring this up, and immediately launches into a far out explanation of deep time and space that ultimately points around to an ever present and comforting reminder that while his role in the celestial organization of life is speck-size, he can say that he has at least been able pave the way just a little for the next generation. And that answers what he needs to know.
I am not able to intellectually understand at all his deep time and space exploration enough to do any more than follow on a sort of sensory, pre-language level, but by the time we head back home and pick up the next generation I’m doing better, though it’s not exactly apparent to me, in practical terms, what checking in with infinity clears up for him when he gets to Wal Mart.
That’s the problem for really smart people I think. Wal Mart is just Wal Mart and it really needs to be so much more for some people. John is so smart he leaves dummies in the dust, but I always love knowing what’s in his head because it’s fascinating and you never know where you will get to go with him.
I move onto Mom who delights in saying wacky things or wacky things delight in coming out of her, I’m never sure which. I ask her what question she needs answered at any given point in time in order to orient herself, and with an entirely straight face she says, “Is the fabric rotten?”
This isn’t as entirely non-sensical as it sounds given the fact that she has sewn mountains — I mean literally mountains — of things over her lifetime. We all laugh because we love the absurdity, which Mom sees and which pleases her, too, as does getting a laugh, but then she gets dissatisfied with her answer and wants another chance. After a moment she amends her answer to, “Are the children wearing shoes?”
Way to bring things around to normal, Mom! However, this answer, too, starts to make a little more sense when I remember we’d been to the beach the day before and, true enough, Mom had spent some time fretting over the safety of small feet, though at the time it struck me as a wee bit cautious given the location.
At any rate, both her responses were highly practical on the micro level. She’s highly tuned into fabric and children. This is what she sees and this is what places her. Fair enough.
Next up is Dad. He takes his time with this, not given to uncareful thinking. He qualifies that orientation changes over time, that what is essential for orienting oneself during one era is not at all what may be needed in another. Very true. That being said, at this particular point in his life, he sees the world in terms of integration. How does it all fit together? Where is the unification, the coming together?
This is one I file away for more thought. I sense integration as being in the realm of the profound, like integrity and the tensile strength of things, so I need to return later to squeeze more juice from those words. But I’m facilitating some mind mining at present, so I have to move things along. It’s Amy’s turn, my sister.
She’s a practical one and knows exactly how she lands on this question. It’s a one-word no-brainer: space. Not deep space like John, but ground-level space. On an entirely literal plane, she needs to know where her feet are on the planet.
This does not surprise me. She’s one of those map people. Upon touching down anywhere, her internal compass is immediately calibrating true north while her eyes and hands are exploring the coordinates of whatever mapping system she has in her possession. She is the unquestioned lead in all hikes anywhere. She knows Maine better than I do. When people on the trail ask for directions, she’s the one who answers. If the conversation goes deeper and they find out she’s from Minnesota and I’m from Maine, then they look at me with confusion like what’s wrong with you?
What does surprise me about Amy’s orientation is that she has no big concern about time, which is curious because she frequently travels the world. Time is another highly practical consideration but somehow it’s not essential to her. I can’t get over this because it is huge on my list. Huge.
I so need to know what time it is, possibly because I need to know when the next time I eat will be. I’m highly regulated. Well, I’m highly regulated around food and many other schedule-associated things precisely because this is so very regulating. If I know it’s 10 o’clock in the AM then I know I will be drinking a kombucha. If I’m drinking a kombucha, then I know it’s 10 AM. See how beautifully circular and all-emcompassing that is? The way food and time relate to each other is mind blowing, actually, for how ingeniously it can stitch me to my day, nail me to the ground.
It’s handy, also, that I love food and love to make it and love to eat it and love to plan it and think about it. For instance, right now it’s 10:46 am. That means in about one hour, give or take 15 minutes, I will be out on the deck eating the salad I made. Afterwards, I’ll have a mug of hot water to make the piece of mint gum I’ll be chewing all soft and melty. By 3 pm there will be a cup of coffee and the most phenomenal protein bar on the planet. Dinner comes early around 5:30 – 6 with breakfast following just shy of 12 hours later at 5 AM. However, just to show that I don’t live in the tiniest of tiny, rigid boxes, know that I can play all of this on the wild side if it’s vacation or we’ve got non-routine plans. But otherwise, I pretty much know on any given day that I won’t slide off the side of the earth because I’ve got to be home in time for dinner.
Beyond time and food, the only thing missing in my orientation equation is the story. What is going on here? Who are the players and how do they feel about each other? What’s the subtext? Where is the mystery? The heartache? The longing? The despair and shame? What’s driving each and every one of us? Where is our blindness and our submerged truths? What don’t we know and where is all this going?
That’s what I need to know. I need to know how we are all feeling and what those feelings are doing to us and what they will make us do. I need to know the narrative line. I need to know how the great themes of human literature play in us.
And if I know those three things — the time, the food, and the story — then I have located myself. I know where I am.
I know I am right here.
The stories in this blog are excerpts from my memoir, The Organization Project. While they are true to me and reflect how I see, I acknowledge there are multiple truths, including my own which change over time, even as the events themselves remain the same. What I make of an event 5 years out may not be what I make of it 10 years out.