I ran into a neighbor from down the street at the Winn-Dixie grocery store today. I tried to avoid being seen but she spied me and immediately pulled her cart up next to me.
I would not escape.
The Usual Interrogation
She’s a nice woman, really. She’s totally deaf and I always try to make sure I can see her face and vice versa when we talk so she can read my lips. She’s quite nosey. And she’s not always the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree.
I encounter her whenever I work on the outer perimeter of my jungle which faces onto the street. The moment she spots me she always stops her car in the middle of the street and yells at me. “You!” she always says. Thereupon she begins her usual interrogation about “my buddy” and I and our lives inside the Green Curtain. It’s one of the names I give the jungle I have grown to limit my contact with the world.
I don’t know how to tell her that “my buddy” is my husband, that we had to wait 37 years after falling in love to actually get married. I don’t think she’d get the symbolism in our taking our final vows on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court under the inscription “Equal Justice Under Law.” Given her Baptist affiliations, I’m pretty sure that “my buddy” is as far as she can go with all that. '
And so, I bite my tongue and go on with our chat keeping it as superficial as possible.
I am always circumspect in how I interact with her. I can hear my sweet Momma’s voice echoing in my ears,
“Now, Son, don’t be ugly.”
And I never am. I remember to call her Ma’am and respect her rather limited boundaries. Sometimes she tells me she is on the way to or from church and I know better than to talk about that. Or to tell her that I am, myself, a clergyman.
What she generally inquires about is the neighbors. Who’s moving in? How much did they get for their house? And who are all these people who cut through our neighborhood at rush hour?
They’re fair questions. We all worry about a neighborhood that has transitioned from aging USAF veterans who stayed here after the war (the Executive Airport across Lake Underhill at the top of our street was part of the Orlando Air Force Base during WWII) and gradually died off giving way to young families with children. Some of their grandchildren have sold their properties which quickly flipped into rentals.
On the positive side (at least from my perspective), the complexion of our little neighborhood has changed in the process. People of color now make up about a quarter of our residents reflecting the diversity of a small citrus and tourist town that has mushroomed into the nation’s 22nd largest metropolitan area.
Today with a captive audience my neighbor was much more direct. Pointing her finger directly at me, like a resident of Salem pronouncing an accusation of witchcraft, she stated with absolute certitude “You hide!”
Truth be told, I was taken off guard by that one. It was all I could do to refrain from coming back with one of my classic smart-ass rejoinders:
“You think? What was your first clue?”
I didn’t say that. I could almost feel my Mother’s hand already beginning to box my ear.
So I simply replied, “Yeah, I do.”
“Why?” she exclaimed with all due incredulity.
In that split second it became abundantly clear to me that we inhabited very different worlds. And it was unlikely I could get her to cross over into mine long enough to understand it - or me.
So, I simply answered, “Because I want to.”
Methods to the Madness
Of course, that’s not entirely true. I grew this jungle in the middle of an urban center of 2.5 million souls primarily due to the 2.5 million souls. Nothing personal. Just an arboreal response to an overwhelming crush of people and cars all around me.
Of course, that says a lot more about me than them.
Anyone familiar with my life at all knows I literally grew up in the woods my Father, Brother and I cleared to build our home outside a small town of then 800 souls. For me, the woods have always been my true home. My corner lot jungle, though an anomaly in the middle of a city, is simply the best version of Home I can now manage.
Within the Green Wall, I am able to meditate, to think, to read, to write. I light candles and incense before religious icons to pray for the world here. In the mornings I touch the good Earth and reach upward to the blessed sky above me, giving thanks for another day as I honor the four directions.
|I honor the West where life comes to fruition....|
It is here that I can lose myself in the planting, watering, feeding and maintaining of the lush flora that shields me from a noisy, overwhelming world and I gladly share it with ospreys, owls, birds of all kinds, squirrels, possums and the occasional garter snake. Inside this verdant barrier of trees, bushes and vines, the front windows of our home do not need blinds to screen us from the eyes of by-passers on the street.
It is an oasis of sanity in a world of noise, competition and conflict.
Some of the neighbors have told a joke about our place for a few years now. Or at least we hope it’s a joke:
“Rumor has it there is a house in there.”
The Frat Boy Did Not Go Gently Into the Night
In truth, I was not always so asocial. For most of my life I would have described myself as a screaming extravert who lived for social gatherings, political campaigns, grandiose liturgies at church and lively parties in our home. It was a life that reflected a man afraid to be himself, constantly seeking the affirmation of others.
The frat boy in me (I was president of the house at UF where my Father had lived) did not go gently into that good night. Even into my 40s I was still the rabble-rouser party animal. It would take a DUI accident in California on the night I was accepted into my Ph.D. program at FSU to wake me up and break me out of that pattern.
But I learned.
That loss of innocence was part of a larger pattern of change. Perhaps it was a function of getting older. Perhaps the industrial strength social life is what I traded in for the ongoing process of spiritual development that began prior to my time in seminary and has only become ever more compelling since.
Perhaps it was my departure from teaching, a retirement that occurred much sooner than I would have ever guessed or desired. There were no gold watches upon my leaving. I was driven from the classroom by heartbreak, resigned to the death of a profession as I had known and loved it, and its replacement by a soulless bureaucratic process of stamping out largely unthinking, obedient worker drones.
To this day I mourn that death.
Perhaps it was all the other deaths I survived, the first being our home, Coverleigh, in the heart of Orlando, destroyed by Hurricane Charley in 2004. The original, more limited jungle I had planted was leveled to remove debris and begin a four year rebuilding process. The result was a beautiful new home we call New Coverleigh. With the city water still available during the rebuilding, I worked out my grief by growing a replacement jungle that made the original look tame.
Perhaps it was the loss of both parents within an eight year period which ultimately precipitated the sale of our family home, Edenfield, where I grew up. That was the site of the Ur-jungle where I developed my arboreal predilections, in the heart of a rural Sumter County which is itself now dying, its rolling pastures and canopy roads rapidly replaced by soulless tract housing of wealthy white retirees.
Maybe it was just a combination of all those things, an ongoing learning experience about an ultimate Buddhist truth: life is impermanent. Whatever it was, I look out the window of my office this morning to a wall of green that shields me from a world I increasingly engage in limited measure, mostly on my own terms.
And I am grateful.
Fortune Teller Road, Sumter County, Florida
The Aha! Moment
Trying to convey even a small slice of that 25-year process of evolution and change in the produce section of a busy grocery store to a nosey neighbor would have been difficult at best on a good day. Moreover, to do so would have presumed that I had a listener with ears to hear that story. That was simply not the case. So I punted. And changed the subject.
“Is your family nearby?”
Standing there among the dried fruits and root vegetables, my neighbor began to tell me about her children. Her son is having trouble making payments on his home in Waterford Lakes, an older subdivision near the university on the east side of town which endures daily gridlock on the highways and surface streets. Her daughter lives nearby but also struggles to deal with the commute from mid-town where we live to the Sand Lake Road commercial district where she works halfway out to Disney, virtually all of it under construction.
Both complain about how overwhelmed they feel, my neighbor said, as does she. And for a brief moment, after that extended litany, we honored that truth with silence.
At that point, I smiled and pointed directly to my neighbor and said, “And that’s exactly why I hide.”
In that moment, I could almost see the light bulb flicker over her head. My neighbor simply smiled. And then she turned to begin pushing her cart into the wine section.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2020