Thoughts: Lessons from the Diner

Diner

It is Tuesday, and my favorite diner is closed on Tuesdays. I am in a little place in the next town over. The food is not as good. The music isn’t even close. And they don’t have internet. Still, it’s a place to get away and write.

The people here are louder. I can hear the conversations throughout the diner without trying. There are complaints – about jobs, about spouses, about the weather, about the government. Anyone who was sitting here would think that complaining was all people do here.

Or at least part of all. There’s a drunk at the counter. An artist who, it appears, doesn’t do art. He is talking to an older woman. If we were a Raymond Chandler novel, we’d call her a floozy, a generation or two past her prime. The two are flirting and lying to each other over eggs and hash. I know just enough about each of them to recognize the lies. But they are happy, laughing at each other’s jokes. You’d swear, watching them, that was a bar in the wee hours of the morning instead of a diner at breakfast.

There are two young men. Maybe twenty. Construction workers if their t-shirts, bulging with muscles, are telling the truth. They eat like hungry animals. Eggs. Bacon. Sausage. Ham. Toast. Potatoes. Pancakes. Seconds. How they manage to eat so ferociously and talk at the same time is some sort of minor miracle. Their life, it seems, is full of stupid supervisors, demanding wives and more demanding children. Not a positive word passes their lips. Ten minutes in, pretty much everyone in the diner knows their woes. I can’t help thinking that if any of the other patrons know either their supervisors or wives, these guys are in for a rough tomorrow. It’s a small town.

At the far end of the one-room diner is a middle-aged couple. Evidently, they are mad at their church, which has done them the discourtesy of not believing exactly as they do on some minor point of theology. As a part-time pastor myself, I have to smile. I have yet to know a church that believed exactly as anyone in the congregation. Life and faith are too complex. All we can do is find a place where we feel loved and cared for, and where we can worship. The couple is loud as they wave their arms and give a running litany of the flaws of all the churches they have been part of for at least a decade. Normally, when I overhear people looking for a church, I insert myself into the conversation and invite them to Rupert Methodist. Today, I am quiet. If people can churn through so many churches in that short a time, I’d just be another stopover point.

There’s a young woman halfway across the room. Early thirties maybe. She is talking to her baby about her baby daddy, and he has, it seems, no redeeming social value. The baby is small and cannot possibly understand what she is saying. But he will.

There is another older couple at the counter. They don’t like the food. It is, they say, greasy. And they are right. They mutter about it throughout their meal, finish and pay their bill. As they leave they call out to the waitress “See you tomorrow!”

There’s a bearskin on one wall, complete with bear head. There’s chatsky (I am sure I spelled that wrong) on a shelf over the counter. Old faded vases. Old faded plastic flowers. Wires drape over the 1950’s pine board walls for speakers and lights. Homemade wiring abounds.

Just across the aisle from me is a man about my age. He is recovering from a recent heart attack. For a moment, I feel my own mortality. And then I rejoice in my relatively good health. For all the stuff that is not working quite right in my sixty-two-year-old flesh, most of it works admirably. Nothing holds me back physically.

And that is how I leave the place. Rejoicing. My life has the normal amount of full-fledged screwiness and less than perfectness. I could, if I was inclined, have joined the chorus of complaints. I’d fit right in. But my life also has a lot of wonder and joy in it.

Do I have more of that good stuff than most people? I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t think so. I think it’s a matter of focus.

I am sure I was the aberration. Most of the crowd were obviously regulars. The waitress called them all by name as they came and went. And me, I sat at the back corner table. A stranger. Quiet. A little smile of gratitude on my face. I thanked her for the coffee. Complimented the food and the good service (and the service was indeed good.). And then off to start my day.

I didn’t end up writing all I expected this morning. All the noise got in the way. Too much. Too loud. But I got a lesson in gratitude and that was worth the break in the routine.

Oh, and the hash was good.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

PS – The picture is not of the diner I visited today. I didn’t want to give away the location of the place and town. The picture is of the Trolley Stop in Poultney, Vermont, a place I have previously referred to as the relentlessly cheerful diner. If you go there, get the chicken and gravy. It’s to die for.

Poem: Still Standing

cabin 2.JPG

Still Standing

The logs are dry,
hand sawn sixty plus years ago,
and left to weather ever since.

Built the year before you were born,
its age reminds you of your own,
rough skin, tired bones, the subject of innumerable storms

and still standing.

About this poem

The picture was taken last fall at a mill pond back in the woods at the family farm. My father and grandfather built the cabin the year before I was born.

Tom

Poem: A Choice of Landscapes

5BW_resize.JPG

A Choice of Landscapes

I prefer the lonely places,
where peace and truth
are part of the landscape,

Where there are no neon lights
and street noises to distract me.
No one selling from street corners and windows.

Here, storms come from a distance.
You see them coming
and there is time to prepare.

The survival rate is high
when there are fewer dark corners and alleys
waiting stealthily for your blood.

About this poem.

I prefer my people like my landscapes. Open.

Tom

Poem: Zombie Dolls

IMG_9589.JPG

Zombie Dolls

Leather bodies. Ceramic body parts.
Perfectly painted faces.
Dolls.

the kind you see on city streets
or the opera
in various stages of dress.

Zombie dolls, ready
to be whatever they are told to be,
whatever will make them
loved,

 

a poor excuse for the real thing,
but it all they know, all
their life’s dictionary has taught them,
pretty things
with empty eyes.

About this poem.

I see too many broken people, who have never experienced real love, the stuff of 1st Corinthians 13. Instead, they are caught in love lies of abuse, gaslighting and emotional captivity.

It makes me sad. It makes me angry. It makes me incredibly grateful for my wife and children and the love they share with me. No zombie love for me.

Tom

Poem: He Was My Friend Once

IMG_9705.JPG

He Was My Friend Once

He was my friend once,
souls bared and laughter shared
over coffee and walks.

A fine man. Loved and reviled
in just the right amounts,
the mix an assurance of character,

Just enough to know he stood for things,
that he was human enough to fail,
sometimes spectacularly, sometimes secretly,

Just enough to know he lifted others up
at some considerable cost to himself.
An interesting soul

That paired well with my own stumbling walk.

He was my friend once,
and perhaps still is.
There was no falling out.

There is no anger or disagreement that separates us
into our different worlds.
more a slow, continental drift, oceans now between us.

I watch from a far shore now.
I can see him. I can see snippets of life,
what is revealed, no more,

A careful choreography of truth,
always know there is more,
for he is a man of character

And character is always complicated.
His. Yours.
He was my friend once.

About this poem

We all have friends that have drifted, or who we have drifted from. The older we get, the more we have.

The picture was taken at Cape Cod, near Provincetown.

Tom

Poem: Still as the Dance

bird

Still as the Dance

The beach is empty.
A single gull flies landward.
The air is still.
You too, are still.

It is low tide.
Your eyes scan the salt marshes.
Everything is exposed,
ugly, lumpy, muddy as truth.

This is where survival lies.
In the low tide.
When the worst is exposed.
When there is no beautiful cover.

Things die in the low tide,
withing in the exposure,
drying out in the morning sun,
desperate from water, before it is too late.

If you look closely, you can watch things die.
You can see the carrion birds waiting
for the moment when weakness becomes
helplessness.

You breathe. A tear slides down your cheek.
One. Then another. Liquid memories
of your own low tides
and the carrion birds.

These are not tears of sadness.
There is a smile beneath them,
Wide and full as you await the new tide.
and the disappointment of the meat eaters hovering above.

 

Poem: Still Waters and History

mill pond 3.JPG

Still Waters and History

When you were fifteen you ran here.
It is a hidden place, this mill pond
with its ancient cypress and black water.
There are bass in the water the size of your arm,
and snakes drop off tree limbs.
At the far end, beaver live,
their humpbacked home of limbs and mud
housing families of these industrial pests
who build their dams and flood the water.

Back then, in the days of running away,
my grandfather would dynamite their homes and dams,
and the work would begin again.
Now that he is decades gone, the beavers have won.
It is their pond. I am just a visitor.

There is a cabin at one end.
My father and grandfather built it the year before I was born,
a one-room lean-to, logs and concrete caulking with a tin roof.
Rustic doesn’t begin to describe it.
There is a grate for fire in one corner.
A dirt floor.
Here and there, daylight shines through the walls.

Ducks swim, then fly as you walk to the shore.
You hear a buck snort in the distance,
alert to your presence,
not yet afraid, but ready to be at the slightest wrong move.
It is their pond, I am just a visitor.

I come here far more often than my presence indicated.
It is where I go, deep in my mind,
When things become overwhelming.
Not a hiding place, as it was so many years ago,
but a place to go towards, a peace found nowhere else.
Eyes shut, I am fifteen again, and the peace of that place
soaks into my overwhelmed bones,
near to breaking,
but saved, time and time again by still waters
and history.

About this poem

There’s more truth than usual in this one. There is a mill pond on what was my grandfather’s farm in Surry County, Virginia. It was then and is now, the most peaceful place I know.

I once ran away from home at fifteen. I ended up there. My grandfather knew and I suspect he told my parents, who did not seem unduly disturbed when I came back home.

When life is crazy, I call this place up in my head to calm myself down. I’ve become quite proficient at it in the last twelve years or so.

Tom