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  1. I Mean You No Harm

    May 21, 2017 by Diane

    I sat alone on a bench in the park having lunch on one of those days when the sky beams blue, nibbling on a chocolate chip cookie, when I heard this:

    “I mean you no harm. I just want to eat my lunch.”

    And a young black man in a green parka sat on the bench next to me.

    A green parka.

    On a hot day.

    I mean you no harm.

    My brain, the lizard part, sort of bolted upright. The lizard part is the deep, dark center of all that gray matter in your head, and when it bolts upright, it sends chemicals zinging through the body. Adrenaline. Cortisol. The stuff that gets the heart pumped and the feet doing a getaway jig beneath the body. It’s the part of the brain that makes you venture out of the cave at dawn and hunt for food in Safeway.

    The lizard brain quickly scoped out the situation.

    I mean you no harm.

    This is something someone will say if harm is exactly what they intend to do. Like the dentist who says, This won’t hurt a bit, and then pulls your lip back and jams a needle into the soft part of your gum.

    I mean you no harm.

    Years ago, in another park, on another bench, on another lunch hour, another black man sat next to me. “Some people stole my stuff. I’m gonna blow them away with an Uzi,” he said, and I believed him. His face was full of angry scars. The nearby businessmen in their suits got up and walked away. The women with their carriages put away their snacks and hurried off. Even the policemen who patrolled the park on horseback had disappeared. I was left alone with an angry black man, and my empty Calistoga bottle. I curled my fingers around it to use as a club.

    Across from that park sat a historic courthouse. The story goes, on a November night in 1933, a crowd of over 6,000 enraged people stormed the courthouse, dragged out two men who had murdered the son of a department store owner, and lynched them. The tree still stood. I was sitting underneath it. That park radiated bad vibes.

    Had my lizard brain been awake at the time, I would have followed the mass migration out. Instead, I tried to talk the angry man out of his plan.

    “You’d be as bad as them,” I said. “Worse. Have you filed a report? Contacted the police?”

    “They won’t do nuthin.”

    We discussed the situation. Something I said reached him. Maybe it was just the fact someone took the time to listen. Park benches seem to invite people to unload on strangers. Free therapy. But I needed to get back to work. When I got up, he got up. When I headed off, he headed off beside me. “We’ve got to stick together,” he said. “We’re alike, you and me.”

    I stopped and squared off,  all 5 feet 4 inches, in front of him.

    “You’re not going to follow me,” I said. Free therapy was one thing, a man with an undisclosed mission was another.

    He backed off, hands raised. His version of  I mean you no harm.

    I didn’t know what the man in the green parka on a hot afternoon meant by his statement, but I felt unsettled, remembering the other park, the other man. I tried to play it cool. Nibbled a little faster on my cookie. From the corner of my eye I saw him reach into a brown paper sack. He started to pull something out. The lizard brain yelled: duck and cover! I scarfed down the cookie.

    The man unwrapped a sandwich.

    The lizard brain settled down.

    I mean you no harm.

    This is something someone will say if they’re afraid the other person is going to do them harm. Like when you come upon a strange dog that may or may not be rabid, but just to be safe, you offer the flat of your palm for him to sniff.

    I mean you no harm.  

    Reassure him, my emotional brain told me. This is the second layer, the one that makes you drop a dollar in the Salvation Army bucket and then cluck the bell-ringer under the chin. It urged me to tell this man he can sit wherever he darn well pleases. Don’t make this about a lone white woman sitting next to a lone black man. Did Rosa Parks say “I mean you no harm” when she sat her tired self down on the bus?

    My rational brain, the outer cortex, told me to leave the man alone. He just wants to eat his sandwich in peace.

    All of this happened in a flash. Sandwich. Rosa Parks. Peace. The time it took to crumple my cookie wrapper. I got up, ready to head back to work, and so he wouldn’t think I was leaving because I felt threatened, I said, “Enjoy your lunch.”

    He sighed. “I’ll try,” he said.

    There it was. The veiled inquiry: is this therapy bench open for business? Or was it something else? A desire to connect with another human?

    I wanted to place a comforting hand on his shoulder, prefaced by: I mean you no harm.

    But office hours were over.

  2. The Mother of All Mothers

    May 14, 2017 by Diane

    The earth in the shape of a heart, elements of this image furnis

    I am the product of a remarkable mother. A woman who saves the hair from brushing the cat, rolls it into miniature fur balls, and stores the balls in a wine glass above the stove for future jewelry projects. A woman with the impressive ability to stretch a single serving of steak from Sizzler into six meals, and who is not above concocting sore-throat remedies from orange juice, crushed ice, and blush wine that comes from a box with a spigot, a box that will last longer than most marriages. A woman who, when I’m wallowing in despair, reminds me: There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not an oncoming train. 

    I consider myself blessed to have such a mother. The mother of all mothers.

    Not everyone is so blessed. I’ve known mothers who would rather nurture a stiff drink than their own child. Mothers who care more about what others think than the thoughts of their own offspring. Mothers who will protect their abusive husband, not the child who is abused. The only wisdom these mothers offer is: Leave me alone. If you have such a mother, heed her advice. Leave her. Alone. She has issues to sort out, and you don’t need to be the one she sorts them out on.

    This Mother’s Day, if you don’t have a mother to honor, is there another woman who offered guidance, support, affection, or protection? A friend, wife, lover, sister, teacher, relative, or just a stranger you met once who made a difference in your life? If so, honor her. If no such woman comes to mind, honor Mother Earth, who offers this nest we call home.

    And if you, too, had a mother of all mothers, but she’s now with the Divine Mother, or God, or wherever divine spirits go after leaving the body, honor the gifts she gave that now flower in you.

    Speaking of making a difference, this story illustrates how every act of kindness matters. I urge you to read it. Trust me, it will make your day.

  3. Counting Bugs

    May 7, 2017 by Diane

    Black ant on white background

    One person’s nightmare can be another person’s walk in the park. Let me explain.

    In the car, I was listening to the audio version of Robert Fulghum’s What on Earth Have I Done?—a collection of fun essays that made me grin like a goofball rather than grind my teeth like a raging American, which is what I usually do when driving and listening to news on NPR. But Fulghum has the soul of a child in the body of a white-haired minister, with a child’s sense of play. So while I drove, I grinned. If you’ve never heard Robert Fulghum read his work in his soft, gentle voice, I urge you to do so without delay.

    Anyway, in one of the essays, he talks about counting the bugs in his home.

    I decided to do the same. I’d perform a census of sorts, on the bugs residing in my cottage.

    The day I counted, I found one ant zipping along the window sill. I squashed it with a tissue. One down. A moment later, I saw one ant zipping along the window sill. The same ant, un-squashed. I’m sure it was the same ant, because there were no other ants as far as the eye could see. Ants don’t travel in pairs. There’s the one ant, scouting for whatever it is ants scout for, who later returns to the tribe to relay whatever information they’ve found. The ant I squashed was the scouting ant. If the scout goes missing, the assistant goes scouting for the scout. I had just squashed the head scout, so technically, he had only been missing for sixty seconds—not enough time to alert the assistant. Which proves my theory: even though I had squashed the scout, it came back to life.

    Which reminded me of that episode on The Twilight Zone where a man flushes a spider down the toilet and it comes back bigger, so he flushes it again and it comes back bigger, and so on until the spider is as big as the house and flushes the man down the toilet. At least I think it was The Twilight Zone. It may have been my vivid imagination.

    Something else: the day I decided to count the bugs in my cottage—a cottage normally overrun with bugs—all I found was one ant. Where were all the spiders and mosquitos and mosquito-eaters and crickets and caterpillars and fruit flies and those little orange things no bigger than a dot? Did I imagine them? Am I like that woman in the movie Gaslight where her husband schemes to drive her mad?

    Are you scared yet? Because I am.

    So, one ant. And several teensy-weensy black thingabees that looked like rat poop, but upon closer inspection were the husks of bugs that had been eaten by some spider nowhere to be found.

    I basked in the buglessness of my cottage, until two days later when we had a heat spell. Suddenly, every flying insect on the planet plastered itself to the outside of my windows. When I opened the door, they followed me in. They batted my head with their hard bodies. They congregated in the upper corners of the ceiling. They swarmed the lamps, clicking against the plastic shade over my bed, and in the glass shade over the bathroom mirror. I spent half the night smashing them, and for every one I smashed, two more appeared.

    But this is nothing compared to what Dave endured.

    He had just gone to bed, and heard a gurgling sound coming from his bathroom. He thought, God, I hope it’s not the sewer backing up into the shower. He flicked on the light, checked the shower. All clear. Then he glanced in the toilet.

    There, blinking in the sudden light, was a giant barn rat.

    That’s right.

    A barn rat.

    In the toilet.

    Having scurried up from the sewer pipes.

    Evidently, the rat was as startled to see Dave as Dave was to see a giant rat peering from the toilet, because it turned tail and scurried right back down the pipes.

    “Wait a minute,” I said a week later when he told me. “You found a rat in your toilet? And you’re telling me this now, a week later?”

    If I had found a rat in my toilet, here’s what I would have done:

    1. Run screaming into the night.

    2. Driven to Dave’s and banged on his door, yelling, “Move over, I’m sleeping with you!”

    3. Never gone to the bathroom again. Ever.

    I’ll take a whole tribe of ants and a gazillion flying insects over one barn rat in the toilet any day.

    Dave will take one barn rat over one snake in the toilet any day.

    And some poor schlub who pulls down his pants and hears hissing will take one snake in the toilet over six half-eaten cockroaches in his cereal bowl any day. Gulp.

    Any day can add up to a walk in the park, depending on what it is you’re counting.