Blog: Point No Point

The work of love

Regular readers (if they have memories better than mine) might recall that the weekend we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has a special resonance in my author-life. It was on that weekend eleven years ago that a conversation with a friend helped spark the core idea that became my first published novel, An Alien’s Guide to World Domination. That core idea is something like: when we have the opportunity to help, we must.

Remembering the work of Dr. King today, I came across one statement of his which feels significant in our current story:

“That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.” 

Source: https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/23924.Martin_Luther_King_Jr_?page=2

Today I renew my commitment to the work of love: to persist in dismantling evil and unjust systems, to persist in creating understanding and goodwill for all humans.

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Pine Street Episode 124

Douglas and Louise trudged through a cold drizzle on their way to the coffee shop, mostly quiet, with Douglas occasionally pointing out a local neighborhood landmark. They entered the coffee shop’s door, stomped the wet from their feet, both slightly embarrassed at the amount of water dripping from their coats. 

“Douglas!” Franny waved from her table, near the front window. “Hello!” The warm flush of additional embarrassment rising in his cheeks surprised Douglas. Why would he feel shy about being seen in the coffee shop with Louise? No good reason, he decided, and waved back at Franny. 

“Friend of yours?” Louise asked, with a twinkle in her eye. 

“A dear friend,” Douglas answered.

“Shall we join her?” Louise offered. “Why don’t I order us something, and I’ll meet you both bearing warm beverages. What would you like?”

Douglas shared his preference for a strong drip coffee, and Louise smiled at that, too. “Good choice, although at this time of day, that amount of caffeine would prevent a good sleep. I’ll bring it to the table.” 

“I really should treat, you being the guest,” Douglas began.

“Nonsense. You can buy next time.” And just like that, Douglas knew there would be a next time, perhaps many.

He joined Franny at her table. “Who’s that?” Franny asked, face aglow with warmth and happiness, as she sipped her chai tea. 

“That is Louise, Penelope’s sister.” Douglas leaned forward on his sharp elbows. “And how are you, dear? You look exceedingly well. Being in love suits you.”

“Do I? Am I? I mean, does it?” Franny smiled, flustered. “Ah, here she is then. Hello, Louise, I’m Franny.” 

“Lovely to meet you, Franny,” Louise offered a hand as she sat down. “My sister Penelope speaks very highly of you.”

“She does? I mean, thank you, but I’m not sure I know Penelope that well.”

“That hardly matters, of course. Penelope enjoys a tangential relationship with practical realities. If she met you once, and liked you, she will speak highly of you forever.”

Douglas chimed in. “Well, your sister is right about Franny. She teaches, she writes, she makes terrific pasta, and she is a god-mother for dear Precious. Marilyn adored Franny, of course.” Expressing Marilyn’s opinion in the past tense triggered a small, sad, knot in Douglas’s throat.

“Well, then. It’s nice to know my big sister gets a few things right,” Louise said gently, placing a hand on Douglas’s arm.

Pine Street Episode 123

“I shall leave you to become better acquainted,” Penelope said, with a presumption that took Douglas’s breath away. “I must be off to do some errands that Louise would find terribly tedious, I’m sure. And she needs to make friends here. Douglas, you are forever a gentleman.” 

The woman swept out of Marilyn’s house, leaving Douglas to consider how to make this moment less awkward for poor Louise. He thought one good start would be for him to put his cleaning supplies away, and offer tea. He turned toward Louise to say so, but she beat him to it.

“Well, that’s my big sister,” Louise said with a grin. “She lives in a world entirely of her own making. I adore her for it, but it creates a series of awkward moments that would be at home in a nineteenth century novel.” She laughed, a small but delightful bark of a laugh. “It’s lovely to meet you, Douglas, but please don’t feel obliged to follow Penelope’s instructions. I’m very capable of being on my own. In fact, there’s a coffee shop just a few blocks from here that I’ve been quite eager to try. I thought I’d walk down there. Of course, if you’d like to join me, you would be welcome. Please consider this invitation entirely optional. You likely had your own plan for the day before my sister offered up the chance to babysit me.”

Douglas laughed in relief. “A grand plan, as you can see,” he said, gesturing toward his cleaning supplies. “But to be honest, a break for a walk and a coffee sounds lovely. I have no doubt you do not require company, but if I wouldn’t be intruding, I’d love to walk with you.”

The smile Louise beamed by way of answer sent a warm arrow to the same place in Douglas’s chest where the damp fish of anxiety had been so active just moments before, as he pondered how to help his son David. 

It was a most welcome substitution.

Pine Street Episode 122

Kassandra, the barista, art student, and gentle friend to everyone on Pine Street: Let’s peek in on how she began the new year.

In Marilyn’s house, or rather, in her studio.

Douglas reopened the garage studio Marilyn had used to paint some of her larger pieces, and gave a key on a bright pink glittery key fob to Kassandra. 

“Use it whenever you’d like,” he said. “It’s heated, and there’s a utility sink with running water. No bathroom, but you can come in the house for that.” Douglas smiled through a glimmer of the tears that came so often to him now. “Marilyn would adore the idea that this studio is being used by someone she loved.”

Kassandra wept a bit, too, thinking of her mentor, and Douglas’s kindness. Her response was to take the key and give Douglas a warm hug. 

One thing nagged at the edge of her gratitude. Douglas seemed to anticipate it.

“David’s out of town for a while,” he said. “It will be nice for me and Precious, too, to know there’s another person around.” 

Early on a Tuesday morning, her first day off from the coffee shop since receiving the key to the studio, Kassandra opened the garage door to take stock of the space. 

The early morning light filtered through two large windows on the north, bathing the space in a soft grey glow. A few pieces stood on easels, covered in yellowed sheets. Kassandra resisted the temptation to look at Marilyn’s work, not wanting to invade the privacy of an artist who had not herself deemed something ready for public view. 

Douglas had moved two empty easels to the center of the space, and leaned blank canvases against a wall. Kassandra smiled at his thoughtfulness, and at his assumption that she would paint using the same materials Marilyn did.

Kassandra was just starting her artistic journey, and had much left to learn. But she already had confidence in her own vision, and her vision was far too complex for a two-dimensional medium. She carefully moved the easels and canvases out of the way, and checked the electrical panel. 

Yes, it looked good. 

She pulled her welding mask out of her backpack, and opened the rolling tool box she’d drug from her place. 

She hoped the sound of the welder wouldn’t wake up dear Precious.

Pine Street: Franny’s Christmas Memory

Franny listened to Leo’s tale of the raucous, cousin-filled family Christmases of his youth. Another thrill associated with early romance: learning the history of your new partner, imagining how it helps you understand that person, helps you put the pieces of his current self together in a sensible, rational way, full of new insights that your budding love wants you to share, to show how clearly you see your beloved. 

And equally, the invitation to share your own past, to see it anew through your beloved’s eyes. Franny searched for a suitable memory to turn into a delightful or moving story to share with Leo. She found herself wanting to show him how she, lone among her past family and friends, understood the true meaning of giving. She wanted to make him believe she was deeper, more introspective, more truly generous than she really had been.

Realizing this, observing herself trying to frame a narrative for her new lover, she let out a snorting laugh, nearly spraying coffee across her small table.

“What’s so funny?” Leo asked, wiping the table with his napkin. 

“Me, I guess. My ego. Honestly, there’s only one thing I can remember right now about my own childhood holidays, and it’s not that flattering of a tale.”

“Then I must hear it,” Leo said with an encouraging smile. “Remember, I’ve known your brother a long time. I hope it involves him.” 

“Not this time, at least that’s not how I remember it,” Franny said. “We had a lovely elderly great auntie, who made the best peanut butter cookies in the entire world. She was a spinster, as we called single women back then, and she would bake for days in preparation for Christmas time visits of friends and family members. But as an elderly lady, she was a bit frightening to me when I was small. So when we arrived at her small house, I’d go straight to the dining room where the cookies were set out on platters and plates. I’d eat as many peanut butter cookies as I could before a grown-up, usually my mom, came in and found me. Then I’d sit, crumbs all over my face and dress, pretending to pay attention to the conversations until we left again.”

“Well, you were just a little kid,” Leo said. “Nothing unusual in kids preferring cookies to adult conversations.”

“I suppose not,” Franny admitted. “Still, I wish I’d been able to tell her how much I loved her, and her cookies, back then. See, I feel in some ways…” She trailed off, emotion rising unexpected in her chest. 

“Yes?” Leo encouraging, expectant.

“In some ways, Leo, my whole life, I’ve been too afraid of people and situations to join in, to really participate, to tell everyone how much I love them. I don’t like being afraid, Leo, and I want, I need to change.”

“You already are, Franny. You’re here, and you love me, right?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re not scared, are you?”

Pine Street: Leo’s Christmas Memory

Of all the Pine Street regulars, Leo had the best, simplest memories of Christmas. Raised among dozens of cousins in an extended family with more of just about everything – kids, trouble, food, affection – other than money, Leo spent most of his childhood Christmases at his grandmother’s house.

Her farm house sat at the top of a gentle hill on the distant outskirts of his home town. It had been built by her father and uncles, using hand tools for the finish work, scooping a hole for a basement with mules to pull the digging blades and drag away the piles of dirt and rubble on sleds. The house was solid, small, and cold in the winters. 

Leo and his cousins would share a drafty attic room on Christmas Eve night, grown-ups gone to church, rowdy children left at the house to fend for themselves. They would stay up as late as they could, promising one another to stay awake, to see Santa, to wake the others when he arrived. 

Snuggled under piles of blankets, each and every cousin was asleep by the time midnight Mass ended. The adults returned, mounded gaudily wrapped presents under the tree, and miraculously found places to sleep in nooks and crannies around the tiny farm house.

At first light, the cousins roused, cursed their lot at missing Santa once again, felt the delicious anxiety of wondering whether there would be any presents for them, and cascaded thumpingly down the narrow stair to the kitchen.

Leo’s grandmother was always up before them, always pulling warm biscuits out of her oven, always stirring gravy, scrambled eggs, and hash browns in vast cast iron skillets. Each cousin kissed the cheek she offered, flush with warmth from labor and stove, as she sternly reminded them: “Breakfast first, then presents.”

The flood of cousins then broke into the living room, issuing a collective gasp of delight at the mountain of gifts and tree, waking up the rest of the grown-ups, and launching the raucous barely-controlled chaos of Christmas morning. They ate rafters of eggs, potatoes, biscuits, and gravy, tore into wrapping paper and boxes, oohed and aahed and shouted at one another about their haul, and, as if following a magical signal, took their toys, miniature trucks and tractors, fake weaponry and stuffed animals, outside to the yard that surrounded the farm house to play. Snow or not, they would spend the rest of the morning out of doors, coming inside for the occasional restorative hot chocolate, or to report to a parent the dreadful transgression of a sibling or cousin. The grown ups drank coffee spiked with brandy or whiskey, sharing gossip and playing card games with rules that were impenetrable for the cousins.

“We fought, we skinned knees and rolled ankles, we got cold and wet, we broke the toys we’d just received, we made each other cry, we made each other laugh,” Leo told Franny as they sipped unspiked Christmas morning coffee of their own together. “Some of the best days of my life, until now.”

Pine Street: David’s Christmas Memory

Sasha had invited David to spend Christmas with her. He accepted, knowing it would be a complicated experience, given their history and her wishes for their future. 

Anything but watching the sappy, sentimental Pine Street group celebrate in their sappy, sentimental way, finding new and subtle ways to emphasize his exclusion. 

At least his father had seemed genuinely disappointed that they wouldn’t have Christmas together. “Maybe new year’s day, then?” Douglas had said, wistfully. “A meal together on the first day of a brand-new year, with my son. That would be wonderful. But no pressure. You have your life, David, I understand.”

Do you, David had longed to say. Do you understand anything about me?

So he spent a cold and windy day in Seattle, trying, to his credit, not to inject too sour a note into the gathering Sasha planned with a few of her straggly sort of friends. He strove to project good cheer, out of consideration for her good, if misguided, intentions in making a place for those who had no family they wanted to spend Christmas with, or who wanted to spend Christmas with them.

After the last guest left, though, he could not help himself. He blurted something about the kind of people who spend Christmas with their second (or third) choice of company, and Sasha, on her last nerve after cleaning, cooking, prepping, and hosting, burst into tears. 

“I’m a jerk,” David said, “I’m sorry, Sash. I really am.” And he meant it. “Let me make you a cup of tea.”

“Why do you have to be so mean, sometimes?” Sasha asked, her voice plaintive, her legs curled under her on the couch as she took the cup of sweet-smelling peppermint tea. 

“I wish I knew, Sash. Maybe it’s Christmas. I’ve never loved it. When it was just me and my mom, you know, she’d do her best. I’d wish my hardest that my dad would come around, the years I wasn’t with him. The years I was with him, I’d wish my mom could be there, too. It always seemed like the day of the year when everything conspired to remind me that I wasn’t part of a real family.” A memory flooded back, surprising David with its emotional valence.

Sasha, perhaps seeing the shadow crossing his face, leaned forward, touched his knee. “What is it, David?” 

“I just remembered this one Christmas, when my dad’s schedule changed, and he was able to drive me home, instead of putting me on the bus. We spent about eight hours in a car together, stopping at roadside diners for our meals, and just, you know, talking. I think I must have been about eight years old, maybe nine. Old enough to wish that drive would never end.

“And then, when we got back to mom’s house, she came out to meet us, and for about five minutes we three were together. Like a Christmas card, standing by my dad’s big old car, as it snowed around us, and that’s what I thought: If someone took a picture of us now, snow falling, suitcases on the driveway, it would look like we were going on a vacation together, we’d look like a family, this would be our Christmas card for next year.” 

The best picture of my family ever, he thought, and it wasn’t even real.