323 Monkeys & One Is Named Murphy Brown

Two days before Christmas, I changed the world for the better in one breath.

I was in the check-out line at a local dollar store, just as the sun was relinquishing the day to a full moon.   I stood there frustrated and testy.   Perhaps I should not have spent the day, isolated in my new apartment, sorting through boxes filled with fifty years of unfinished business.

Some bearded guy with a baseball cap painfully counted out his pocket change, as if each coin was a shovel full of dirt on his grave.  Two women in front of me – they looked like sisters –bristled as two girls and a boy – siblings and cousins, I think – milled around the displays.  One of the women half-snapped at the boy not to wander off, which seemed unnecessary as he was pawing various packets of candy.  The girls pushed each other, traded gibes, and then one whispered something to the other and they both laughed.

My impatience grew.  I needed distraction, not dyspeptic observation.  I reached for my cell phone but remembered that I had left it in the car.  I scanned the racks; there were no magazines to be found. “Damn,” I thought. “I might have to be actually present.”

I decided to breathe consciously and ground.  I dropped my shoulders.  I felt my feet.  I like to think of love as God’s gravity, always there to pull me gently back to my center if I will just let go of my resistance.   I did this and felt the comforting embrace of that pull.  This is when it happened; this is when the world changed.

Now the bearded guy seemed troubled, but kind and self-contained.  He wished the cashier a Merry Christmas and meant it.  The sisters and the kids were on edge, but there was something lovely about how they bumped up against each other. Sometimes the best part of family is knowing that grumpy is okay.

As I stepped up, Shelly, the cashier, was telling a teammate that she would be working Christmas Eve but planned to cut back from two days a week to one.   This was not her only gig. There was something about her.

“You ever get a day off?” I asked.

“Not in 385 days,” she said.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“I take care of 323 monkeys,” she said.

“Simians?” I asked, just to be sure.

“Yes,” she said.  “I feed them every day.  Even give the diabetics insulin shots.”

Question bloomed. What if the monkey doesn’t want the shot?   Where do you find 323 monkeys in Gainesville?  How did she end up here?  Why monkeys? Why not cats, dogs, or giraffes? And what about hippos?  How would that work?

“You must like monkeys,” I said.

Shelly said she loved monkeys and had from as long as she could remember.   Shelly had even adopted a capuchin monkey as in infant, that she’s now twenty-three and diabetic.

“What’s her name?” I asked.

“Murphy Brown,” she said.

“Great name,” I said. “Does Candice Bergen know?”

Apparently, Ms. Bergen does know.  I then learned that Shelly had been in the entertainment business in L.A. but had moved here on account of the monkeys.  She said that decision even shows up in the lyrics of a famous artist’s song.

It didn’t take long for Shelly to ring up my items and hand me the bag.  There was a line and I didn’t want to be the guy who lollygagged. I wished her a Merry Christmas and headed for the door.

Three minutes before I was in a world of grim lines moving slowly.  But now I was in a world of wild love where a scrubby man is the gentlest of souls, siblings lean into each other whispering happy secrets, and the cashier casually affirms our deep connection to all sentient beings.

And how about Shelly? She takes care of 323 monkeys and one of them is a diabetic named Murphy Brown! There is a love story here and perhaps one day she will be kind enough to share it.

Stay tuned.


A Shiny Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is coming up and I’ve been thinking about the best love letter I ever read.  It was written by Tommy, a private in the army who could barely spell his name.  

The year was 1972.  Tommy was jailed in the Fort Hood stockade awaiting discharge from the Army.  I was on special assignment there as sort of a clinical social worker.  Tommy was one of my clients.  With an unblemished record and only six months left in the service, he went AWOL.  A few weeks later the MPs found him in his hometown of San Antonio, working in a hospital as an orderly. 

I liked Tommy.  Everybody liked Tommy.  He was a sweetheart. I asked Tommy why he went AWOL – a relevant fact not in the file – and his answer was simple.  His grandmother needed him.  She had been hospitalized and so he went to her.  It did not occur to Tommy to check with his commanding officer for emergency leave or perhaps for an early out.  His grandmother needed him 150 miles to the south and so away he went.

Tommy was arrested at the hospital where his grandmother had been treated.  He was teaching himself to take blood pressures because he thought he could get paid more for that than just mopping floors.  He was unfazed about being kicked out of the army because back in San Antonio he had a grandmother who still needed him, a job at the hospital, and the girl-fiancée he loved.  

One afternoon I found Tommy at the empty mess hall, on his knees cleaning with a toothbrush the crack between the molding and the floor.  I asked him why he was still there, given that KP had ended more than an hour earlier. He said that he wanted the mess hall to shine and he wasn’t going to leave until it did.  To my eyes the place was already shining, but I had sense enough not to interfere.  I left him there, toothbrush in hand, happy with his work and happy working.

A few days before his release, Tommy came to my cubicle with the letter to his fiancée.  It was written in pencil on lined 5” X 8” paper.  It’s been 46 years and I don’t remember the name of the girl, nor do I remember the letter word for word.  But I can come pretty close.  He had filled the entire page in pencil with a childish scrawl:  

Miss you. Be home soon.  I love you very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very much.  Love, Tommy  xxxxoooo 

That last “xxxxoooo” slanted off into bottom right hand corner where it ran out of room.   

“No, I can’t make this better,” I said. “It’s perfect.  But I can make it sure it gets to her.”   The envelope had his fiancée’s name as the addressor and his name as the addressee. I said something like, “the name of the person you’re writing to goes here and your name goes here.”   Tommy was pleased to learn this new thing, and happy to hear that his letter was good and that it would soon be in the hands of the girl he loved.

Tommy’s love letter still moves move me.  In my more jaded moments, I see romantic love as a rush of endorphins and neurotic projections destined to fade, more of an addiction than something rooted in the divine.  Even when I am not as dyspeptic, I weary of the fact that love demands in us the inner strength to do the challenging work of surrender, self-discovery, and transformation.  Love is not satisfied by cheesy cards of sentiment or by pie crust promises, the kind Mary Poppins warned against as easily made and easily broken. 

But then I think of Tommy ‘s letter and I recall occasions, both recently and in the past, when my heart was pure and I said to another, “I love you very much” just the way Tommy did.  There must be a timeless place where love sinks its roots, and, maybe, like the Dude, it abides.   Maybe love just abides and the vicissitudes of my character cannot screw that up.  Maybe this is true for everyone who has loved like Tommy.  There is a whiff of redemption here and I am in need of it.  

So I close my eyes, breathe; I remember how it felt to read Tommy’s letter, and how sweet it felt to say to someone “I love you very much.”   This sweetness, however, is mixed with the sadness of loss, which has me think of my late daughter Claire.  As always, the loss hurts but this time I chose not to turn from the pain. There is a memory from 1994. Claire has heard Love Is All Around, by the Troggs.  She’s delighted that someone “did it before” the song showed up in Four Weddings and a Funeral.  I tell her that the Troggs were great and that Love Is All Around was a favorite. And now in this moment, a quarter of a century later, I feel the connection we had and continue to have; I feel our hearts resonate; and I hear the tick tock percussion of the song, as the Troggs begin to sing in my head,

I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes 
Love is all around me and so the feeling grows …

I let it grow.  I feel it in my mind, heart, and belly. I feel myself surrendering, opening, resonating.  And I feel a very deep peace as I unfold into an unplanned loving kindness meditation.  

I feel love for myself, for Claire, for Ben, for my family, for everyone I have ever loved.  I feel this love for everyone I’ve ever hated, disliked, resented, or held in contempt.  I feel this love for everyone I have ever hurt and for everyone who has ever hurt me. I forgive and ask for forgiveness.  I feel this love for all beings and wish that they all may be happy, joyous and free from suffering.  I feel the mysteries pulling me into that place where I am able to find refuge in the spaciousness of the moment and its ineffable beauty.  And here I abide for a while.

It becomes time for me to rejoin the day.  I open my eyes and look around.  I see that the world has been born anew, just in time for Valentine’s Day.


Chillin’ At Publix

Before relocating from West Palm Beach to Gainesville last week, I dropped by the local Publix to say goodbye to Mr. W.

I first noticed Mr. W. while shopping for green stuff to throw into my morning smoothie. He was ahead of me to the left, restocking salad mixes on the refrigerated shelf, whistling in free form. As I passed by I said, “love the whistling.”

“Thank you,” he said. “Need help?”

“Nope, I’m good,” I said. That was pretty much it. He returned to his work and I went on my way.

Over the next four months, I saw Mr. W. maybe a couple of dozen times. He was always in good humor, whistling, going about his work with unhurried grace. I made it a point to swing by and say hello – no conversation, just a quick “how you doing?” or “it’s a beautiful day.” Mr. W. would look up and smile and say something like “doing fine” or “yes it is, yes it is.” Those little exchanges, to borrow from Jackie Wilson, lifted me higher and higher.

One evening I saw a lady with a label gun working the fruit. “Are you the manager?” I asked.

“Yes sir, what can I do for you?” she said.

“There’s a gentleman who works in this section who’s always whistling,” I said.

“Yes sir?”

“He’s a light, isn’t he?” I said.

She brightened, “Mr. W.,” she said. “Yes, he is! He’s a joy. Everybody loves him.”

Mr. W. is in his sixties, small of frame and wiry, hair well past the salt and pepper stage. He looks like he might have played second base in his younger years and that he would have fed the double play as easy as the tossing of an apple. His hazel eyes are alive and kind, with a hint of hard times seen. When he turns his attention to you, it feels like there’s no other place on earth Mr. W. would rather be.

The last time I saw Mr. W., he was stacking avocados, gently whistling. I called out to him. “Mr. W.!” I said smiling.

“Yes, sir!” he said.

“I’m moving away tomorrow. I wanted to say goodbye.”

“Well, God Bless you,” he said. He removed his glove and extended his hand. “Thank you very much.”

“Are you always this happy?” I asked.

“Try to be,” he said.

I paused wondering whether I should go further. “Well,” I said, “you really are a light. You brighten this place up, you lift folks up.”

He shook his head loosely. “I’m just chillin’,” he said.

“Just chillin’?”

He nodded slowly. “Yessir, just chillin’,” sliding the glove back onto his hand.

And then, because I can’t help myself, I went into interview mode. “How long have you worked at Publix?” I asked.

“Well, let’s see,” he said. “Started here in 1999.” Mr. W. explained that he took an early retirement when the distribution company he worked for moved to Lakeland. They wanted him to relocate but his wife preferred to remain in the area. Smart man. He asked me where I was headed.

“Gainesville,” I said.

“You got work there?” he asked.

“I’m a writer, lawyer and mediator,” I said. “I’ll be writing and getting my practice going. That’s the plan, anyway.”

“Then you’ve got things to do,” he said. “That’s good.”

“That is good,” I said, and meant it.

I felt that compulsion arise again, to keep asking questions. But this time it didn’t take hold. I wasn’t there to do an interview. I was just there to say goodbye to a man who whistled while he worked and made people feel better. And maybe to get one more shot of his mojo.

“Well, I’ll let you get back to your work,” I said. “Just wanted to say goodbye, wish you well.”

Mr. W. retrieved his hand from his glove again. We shook hands goodbye. “Thank you,” he said, “thank you for taking the time.”

Mr. W. then returned to just chillin’, which I am confident he continues to this day. As for me, well, by the time I hit the parking lot I had returned to my thinking, trying to make sense of the world. Habits of mind may not be impenetrable, but they are sticky.

The Dixie Chicken in Dementia

My brother Steve is three years older than me to the day.  He has rapidly progressing dementia.  For the past four months Ron, my oldest brother,  and I have been doing our stumbling best to support Steve so that he can live the remainder of his life safe, secure, and free of suffering.  It has not been easy.

Part of the problem has been logistical.  Steve lived in a trailer park  just north of Titusville, Ron lives in West Palm Beach, and I lived in Saint Petersburg.  We formed an imperfect three-hour-drive triangle.   Beginning in June, it seemed like Ron and I were continually on the road.  To relieve some of the burden, I relocated to West Palm Beach so that Ron and I could team up.  Meanwhile, our youngest brother Mick provided support from Little Rock, talking me off the ledge on more than one occasion.  Last month we were finally able to find a suitable location for Steve in Tequesta, about thirty minutes north of West Palm Beach.

Somewhere in the third month of this brotherhood journey, I began to ask myself, “Okay Big Boy, where are the luminous moments you’ve been talking about?”  I had to confess that I had none.  There had been moments that hinted at something deeper.  Steve, Ron, and I each experienced a love for each other we might not have otherwise realized.  Ron and I have done our best, me with more irritability  than I would have hoped, and Ron with more good humor than I would have thought possible.  You could also say we have  become closer, but the relief that offers is tempered by the  knowledge that we are  watching a brother we love suffer as he experience his own gradual demise,  a brother whose resourcefulness is being progressively claimed by delusion.

I had all but concluded that epiphanic moments were the luxury of those not worn to a nub.  I never doubted that the graceful, glowing, expansive, loving Sea of Awareness remained ever-present as the ground of our being.  I still believed that we could direct our intention toward God’s love, that we could surrender into a Self-Awareness that transcends our contraction, that we could abide in joy.  I had to confess, however, that  my body was too tired and my heart too heavy to know how to even try.  And some perverse part of me took pleasure in taunting, “I always knew you were full of crap.”

On my final two hour drive with Steve, I thought it might be useful to play some tunes.  I asked him what would be on his playlist.   He rattled off a bunch of songs, some familiar and others obscure.  “And I like zydeco,” he added.

“I think this is zydeco,” I said and played From Good Homes’  Fruitful Acres,  which he very much liked.  We found ourselves on a roll, sharing favorites from  Jack Scott to Credence.  I turned to him. “Do you like Little Feat?”  I asked.

“Dixie Chicken? I love it.”

“Coming right up,” I said.  As the song began, I found myself singing along with Lowell George,

I’ve seen the bright lights of Memphis
And the Commodore Hotel
And underneath a street lamp, I met a southern belle
Oh, she took me to the river, where she cast her spell.

“You sound good,” Steve said.

That was something I had never heard Steve say to me at any time under any circumstances.  Our sibling rivalry aside, we are not a singing family.  I can’t carry a tune and neither can Steve. I’m afraid to ask Ron.  To the best of my memory,  we have never sung in front of each other, much less together.  Not at Christmas, not at birthday parties, and not at church.  Never.  “Well, he is delusional,” I thought.

We listened to the next two stanzas, Steve tapping time on his knee and me bobbing along with the music in my dorky way.  But when the lyric found the protagonist in the lobby of the Commodore Hotel,  I jumped back in.

But then one night at the lobby of the Commodore Hotel
I chanced to meet a bartender who said he knew her well
And as he handed me a drink he began to hum a song
And all the boys there, at the bar, began to sing along

And then, to my amazement, Steve joined in full throat for the chorus.

If you’ll be my Dixie chicken I’ll be your Tennessee lamb
And we can walk together down in Dixieland
Down in Dixieland.

We sang those last four lines as one.  I teared up.  We were together, one connected to the other through song and heart, sharing a moment of purity, love and unrestrained, off-key joy.  Steve reached over and placed his hand on my knee.  I had never felt that love from him before.  “There it is,” I thought.  “There’s that glowing easter egg.  Delivered by a dixie chicken.”  The tears were now streaming down my cheek.

The song ended.  Neither of us spoke for a moment.  Then Steve said,  “That was good.”

And it was.

That’s What I Like About The South

(From A Previous FB Post)

In late May of 2017, my friend Brendan and I drove up the Blues Trail from New Orleans to Memphis. On a Sunday morning we found ourselves standing in the crowded breakfast room at the Comfort Inn in Clarksdale, Mississippi. I had just about concluded that we would be eating standing up, when a black gentleman invited us to join him at his table. He was from Springfield, Illinois, and had returned to Clarksdale for his 40th high school reunion. He asked where we were headed.

“Memphis,” Brendan said.

“Doing the Blues Trail, thing,” I said. “Mississippi Sax Blues Festival yesterday, Memphis today.” I was stoked.

A black lady passing by our table pivoted on her church pumps and leaned into our conversation.

“Excuse me,” she said looking at the two white boys at the table.
“Did I hear you say that you’re going to Memphis?” She had a soft Mississippi accent.

“Yes, Ma’am,” we said.

“Then there is something you must know if you are going to Memphis.”

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“It’s very important. You really need to know this if you’re going to Memphis.””

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“So please listen carefully.”

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“Elvis is dead,” she said. “He’s not there. He’s gone and he’s not coming back.”

And then she was gone, not like Elvis, probably to church.


The Guest House at Graceland – where an Elvis film is shown nightly.