“The problem with the world is that no one is buying into salvation anymore, because no one knows anyone who has made it there.” Admittedly, it was a strange way to start a conversation. I suppose small talk wasn’t really my thing. I preferred to work my way backwards dredging through the deep topics first. Starting with the meaning of life, sharing a personal story, and slowly working my way to the weather.
I sat on a bench that bordered a small but pleasant urban park in the Roosevelt Row Arts District in Phoenix. My long curly blonde hair was being blown around by the wind in every direction. This would normally drive me crazy. I was a firm believer that the wind had always been my hair’s mortal enemy. But today I was unaffected by the taunting of the wind. I was contemplative and lost deep in thought. So much so, I had absent-mindedly sat down on a park bench with my trusty journal in hand, to work out on paper what sort of mood I was in. The birds were singing loudly in the trees. But even their conversation could not distract me from my thoughts. So, I sat there, with the wind throwing curls in my face like tiny insults. Meanwhile, the birds gossiped wildly about the latest news and took turns surfing the wind.
It occurred to me, after some time, that an elderly gentleman was also sitting on that bench with me. Funny thing, I’m not sure which one of us had gotten there first. Did I steal his bench, or had he stolen mine? I looked over to him, pretending to look past him at the grass growing, so that I could get a better look. He had plaid pants and a collared shirt, with a lightweight navy-blue jacket. A trucker hat was really detracting from the golfer image I was trying to give him. I wanted to tell him a newsboy cap would have complimented his outfit so much better. He had to be 90 years old. He sat there quietly; contemplative like me. In his right hand he held the outside seam of his pant leg. I watched his fingers trace that seam up and down. He pulled it out, tested the thickness and patted it back on his leg, returning to tracing the seam with his fingers. As if there was information in the stitches passing through his fingers and into his thoughts, like braille. I became really interested in this man’s all-consuming busy work, when he finally drew up the courage and looked at me. We sat side by side on that bench; me staring at him; him staring at me. Strangers in an old western-style, nonverbal standoff.
My eyes betrayed me giving him the upper hand. I could feel my expression widen slightly as I braced for the confrontation. Nervous sweat was starting to collect on my hands. My fingers were suddenly sticking to the pages of the journal on my lap. Without even realizing I was doing it; my hand snapped the journal’s cover closed. As if he had become highly suspect of plotting to help himself to my innermost thoughts. My fingers started to inspect the leather cover of the little black notebook until they found the bound edge. Slowly, I began to trace my finger up and down the spine of the book while we stared at each other. It was a strange thing to do; mimic his behavior so blatantly right in front of him. But I couldn’t stop myself.
I realized he looked at me with curiosity, not with defiance or anger. I told myself it was the same innocent curiosity that I had used to observe him. Certainly, this made him friend, not foe. Had it been a second, a minute, or more like five? Someone had to give. And then I crumbled and blurted out, by way of explanation, the first thing that came to mind. Which was the last thing I had been silently contemplating to myself. “The problem with the world is that no one is buying into salvation anymore, because no one knows anyone who has made it there.” I saw him struggling to make sense of this non sequitur. So, I went on, because clearly, I needed to say more.
“It’s not money, a big house, expensive cars, fancy coffee, a tequila company, or a ‘Spiritual Gangster’ t-shirt. It is sitting on a park bench feeding the birds and watching the people rush by, remembering when you once had places to be but not wishing you could go back.” I had sparked his curiosity now, or really confused him by making a reference to our circumstances, but I had his attention. So, I went on. “Salvation is available in a moment that too often passes by before you grasp it.”
I fell into silence then. Not sure of where to go from there. Realizing that I was not going to win any conversation starting points today. Then it was his turn to speak. And he replied with, “Salvation is a lost city that people spend lifetimes trying to rediscover.”
I countered with, “Salvation is a state of mind that people spend lifetimes inadvertently avoiding.” He thought about that one for a minute. I started to think that I had coaxed him into a game. I wondered what his next move would be. What would he liken salvation to? But he chuckled instead and said, “You might be onto something there!”
The tension dispelled and we fell into a more comfortable silence. We both pondered the birds as they took turns riding the currents of the wind. I asked if he knew what kind of birds they were? And he confidently answered, “Red Birds!” Well, he had me there. We tested several topics to see what type of conversation we could engage each other in. He brought up politics, but I wasn’t buying. I was able to get him switched over to grandchildren, his favorite song, and then he told me about his wife. Now we were on to something that mattered.
She had passed 10 years earlier. I could see it was going to be a long story and one that he needed to tell. I decided to make a date out of it. I made a call to the sandwich shop across the street from our bench, ordering us two sandwiches. We sat on our bench, eating the sandwiches like we knew each other. He had chosen pastrami on rye, mine was turkey on squaw. He introduced himself as Wendell, and I told him my name was Wendi with an I. I silently noted that we had 4 letters in common, unsure if he made the connection.
He had returned home from the war and back to life on the farm with eyes that had seen so much more than the good people of Arkansas could understand. He met his future wife in Arkansas after the war. She had been engaged to another man in Hartford, Connecticut, until she came down with a mysterious illness. The doctors told her she was going to die, so she moved back home to be with her mom. But she didn’t die; her health improved after returning to Arkansas. He had originally been put off, thinking she was engaged. Until he heard through a mutual friend that she had broken off the engagement when she moved home. He decided to act fast and ask her out before she called the other fella up and tried to rekindle things. Their mutual friend set them up on a double date. He told me he liked her because she was pretty and made easy conversation. And unlike the other girls in town, she had lived outside of Arkansas for a while. I imagined she had liked him because he was a handsome 20-something with a wild streak, and he had seen the world during his time in the service, unlike the other boys in Arkansas.
Together they made plans to get out of that small town near Little Rock. Shortly after they were married, her mother died. They inherited $20,000 after the property was sold off. That was a real fortune in those days! They were raised humbly and had no intention to squander the money away living like bigwigs. They had both grown up on a farm but didn’t want to be farmers. It was a hard life. They had each had a taste of the world and shared a dream of getting out of Arkansas. He heard there was an abundance of jobs up north. They planned to save the money but used some of it to relocate to Michigan.
They bought a modest middle-class home in Royal Oak, a small suburb northwest of Detroit. He found work with one of the major car companies. And they put the rest of the money into the stock market, which would eventually prove fatal for their nest egg. They were not educated people and didn’t understand the ins and outs of the market. They were easily taken by a fast-talking Yankee broker who made bad investments with their money.
They eventually made their own way. A decent middle-class living, raising two daughters, as the typical nuclear family of the 60’s. He mentioned how his wife had never gotten over the money that they lost and had been drawn to lamenting about it often.
It sounded to me like they had done well for themselves without it. So, I prompted, “Well you know what they say, money can’t buy happiness, or salvation, come to think of it”. He added, “But it cangive you the means to chase your dreams.” I was tempted to quote Mick Jagger at this point in the conversation, about not always getting what you want. But I thought my humor would be lost on this boogie woogie bugle boy.
He finished his story and was rekindled by the past. I imagined the shadow of her ghost must be overlaying him now. How else could this quiet old gentleman have become so lively? We had talked for quite a while and finally, fell into a new silence. I imagined that he reminded me of my own grandpa, who was now long passed. The birds had picked up our cue, dropping into their own silent contemplations. In the quiet peace that had fallen around us, I sat transfixed by the birds’ deft acrobatics above. Numb from his story of love and loss it appeared as though time had stopped.
I imagined one of the red birds frozen in the space above us while we had time traveled back to the 50’s. Newton’s Laws of Motion danced on the edge of my consciousness as I tried to remember where I had gotten the notion that you could either travel through space or travel through time, but not both simultaneously. I knew the speed of light was in there too. Something about, the closer you get to traveling at the speed of light the slower time moved. But we were traveling through time, so does that mean, matter was frozen in space? I was getting close to an ah-ha moment, but just then my brain flagged it all as a limiting belief system, shattering my thought process. The bird in the sky became unfrozen, flapping its wings once and with a controlled swoop made a great arc around the perimeter of the park, causing the trees to come back to life and erupt with chatter as the other birds scored its performance.
My friend seemed to have missed this great feat as he sat lost in memories of younger days. Perhaps he had not come back in time yet and chose to remain staring off into the tranquil depths of salvation. I decided to test if he was really with me or not, and asked him, “Funny weather we’re having, isn’t it?”