Lessons Along the Way by Mark Haberstroh
It was a picture-perfect warm autumn day in western Massachusetts. Along a narrow country lane the leaves were turning, the breeze gentle, and now and then was heard the soft, deep, and resonant mooing of cows. Approaching the small field next to the road he counted twenty-two Jerseys all chewing their cud. A large rock in the middle with a nearly flat top beckoned. It was marble, as with most of the fieldstone in this area. The striking thought prompted him over the fence where he quietly walked to the rock and sat down. He intended to study these fine milk-beasts from a view slightly closer to inside.
After many minutes, while still chewing, the cows synchronously turned their heads to observe him. Somewhere a decision had been made. Time passed. He wondered whether his experience of Time was also theirs. What they were collectively pondering he did not know. They were, as far as he could fathom, ruminating upon his presence. He pictured their scrutiny as waves of intelligent feeling passing over, through and between them and him, ebbing to and fro, with each ebb or pulse bringing new and wordless knowledge. Somehow he passed the test. They looked away, continuing on with their important business. His intrusion had been accepted. He had been accepted, or so he thought.
Again considerable time passed until the cows once more repeated their initial ritual with a synchrony that stunned, as if the twenty-two were one. And then a period of rest or unconcern returned until a third time they manifested their interest in his presence. All eyes were now simultaneously regarding him again. This third round somehow resulted in the successful and subtle interpenetration of thought between this group of cows and his small self on the marble rock. Moving as if with one body, all twenty-two descended upon him, and it was downhill to where he was seated. The unstoppable avalanche of their interest, carried by those large bodies, was about to present him with the closer view he had initially wanted, albeit not in the way he had imagined. Memory of the horse that stepped on his foot bade him raise both feet and place them on the stone.
They arrived with a speed he did not expect and could not fathom. This strange and momentary non sequitur in his perceptions and feelings produced a glimmer of dread that needed to be dealt with quickly. Having grown around animals, he was also not naïve to the possible dangers. They were all now head to head with him, nose to nose, and eye to eye. Nuzzles and nudging followed, each of which almost propelled him off his rock. As they were many and he one, they took turns looking and licking and sniffing all his parts until, thoroughly satisfied, and with their investigative efforts concluded, they left as decisively and abruptly as they had come.
Drenched, he continued to sit and thought that he too could ruminate upon their essence. His overwhelming impression of their physical presence was one of cleanness. All sensory impressions he received, especially smells and touch bespoke an incredible purity in their physical organism. It was as if the digestive activity of the cow was so pure that it overcame or superseded the animal part of their nature to such a degree that that which is animal is no longer paramount. Such purity he had previously experienced, he thought, but not with animals. It was like drinking sap from a maple at dawn following the break in the freeze, straight from the bucket hanging on the tree while the sun begins to rise and the crust of snow breaks under ones feet. It was like that. Or prematurely cutting open a honeycomb to drink the flower’s gift of nectar before the precious bee transforms the nectar through Love into honey. Such were his thoughts and feelings as he reflected in the presence of these astounding animals.
He felt privileged to have been chosen as a Being of Interest by the group-soul of the Cow, and could, through close experience, now appreciate that these fine milk-beasts truly represent a cosmos of digestive harmony.
In the university library, the student gathered the “Aurora” and “The Way to Christ” with other books by Jacob Boehme. Why he did this he did not know. How the name Jacob Boehme came into his mind he also did not know. Perhaps it had something to do with those books given him by his Swedish great-grandmother, a painter and an independent thinker. Those old books by Emanuel Swedenborg seemed connected to these written by the shoemaker so long ago. And so, at the age of seventeen, the young man seemed puzzled by his own actions.
The university, teeming with thousands of students, was under construction. All was concrete and mud, and the sky was grey. That was also how he felt, under construction and grey. He had a hole in his soul and did not know what to do, so he withdrew the large books and found his way through the basement aisles to some deep dark corner of a vast room filled with books. “No one ever comes here to read these books,” he thought. The pile in front of him consisted of four or five books, very large and very old. He turned on the small reading lamp, opened a book and read on the first page, “The Way to Christ-The First Book of True Repentance-How Man Must Stir Himself in Mind and Will…” and then stopped. He attempted to read further and, once again, came to a halt. He had no clue. The intense desire and longing in his heart sought to penetrate the pages of those books, but he came up against something as hard as those concrete walls next to his reading desk. Thwarted, he resorted to leafing through those old tomes to observe the print, smell the leather and old pages, imagine, and try to absorb some essence from them, something he could neither define nor describe. What was it that he so wanted? He sensed that within the shoemaker’s book lay something that could ease his torment, but also realized that he lacked whatever was needed to access this content. He kept touching the pages, hoping that through some sort of magic osmosis, his fingers might suddenly sink through and into them, finding a way to open the door to wisdom and love.
Florence – Travel Notes
What a dump. So thought the student as he and his two traveling companions approached the city from the north in his Volkswagen. The three of them planned to spend Easter break studying art in all the best places, whatever that meant. But as the city looked poor and dilapidated, he did not understand all the praiseworthy references from historians and other professional people. While stuck in traffic, the car crept into the middle of an intersection, affording him a view to the right. About six city blocks far and straight away he saw the front of an old church. “Did you see that?” he exclaimed to his friends. The church was sparkling white and gold, shining in the sun, like a jewel. He sat stunned at its beauty, surely accentuated by contrast to the surroundings, and found only later that it was Santa Croce, the church of St. Francis. Prompted by horns, he continued onward. This set the tone for his experience of Florence, which soon evolved into a continuous discovery of beautiful jewels as the city unfolded and opened itself to him. His trip began with a critical eye and ended with pure love.
Modern Florence transitioned into old town as concrete pavement turned to narrow cobblestone lanes, which opened now and again into a broad piazza or public square. The cobblestones and the ancient buildings framing the way radiated an impression saturated with human history; it was all there, the blood and suffering, battles lost and won, festive celebrations, quiet romance, the making of boots and clothing, children’s delight, animals braying and feeding, and on and on … all emanating from the stones. To the young artist’s delight, the speaking stones also seemed to lead the way. His distinct feeling of familiarity with the inner city streets grew into exhilaration as he boldly led his friends from shortcut to back alley to shortcut again until finally reaching their goal. The city welcomed him as the prodigal son returning home. And that is how he felt, as if Florence was somehow home. There were no maps, just feelings of certainty. “Yes, it is this way” he said many times. Bewildered, they followed.
Had his heart and mind not been somehow opened by destiny to think outside the proverbial “box” he might have dismissed such feelings of familiarity as chance or simply weird, but this was not the case. He had had his initial experiences taking him into and through matter, somehow releasing him from the physical to a form of spiritual or supersensible experience. Although an infant with respect to this kind of experience, he had seen enough to awaken in him the idea of repeated earthly lives, and from this perspective observed his feelings about the city. His feelings for the stone streets and walls continued to glow with heartfelt recognition, and the conclusion rising from his heart into his mind of a rewarding prior life here seemed, in fact, quite logical.
Somewhere between the pizza, living on espresso, and the endless but invigorating viewing of art, his feelings seemed to find a center of rest in the building called the Baptistry. This small wonder, a domed and octagonal structure, seemed to draw him in through Ghiberti’s famous doors. Those doors, upon reflection, comprised the lure to a deeper mystery. This deeper mystery lay within, both beneath the celestial firmament represented in the tiled mosaic ceiling of the dome above and the mosaic floor upon which he stood, inscribed with signs and symbols of the stars. Above, they were all there, the three hierarchies … from the glorious Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones through the Powers and Archangels down to the Angels just above, all descending and centering on the Christ. Even in the poorly lit and cave like interior, the tiles glistened in their colors, especially white and gold. The young artist felt deeply an idea he had recently found in a book, and recited silently to himself that “luminous beauty arises in the radiance of a constantly dying world.” Standing in awe under the dome, he could now understand how the Baptistry of St. John became the center from which European Christianity spread with the Dominicans in Santa Maria Novella on the one side and the Franciscans in their precious Santa Croce on the other.
In a moment of destiny, the tourists were bidden to leave the building. The Priest, ushering the people out, allowed the young artist and one other to remain, as it was time for the Baptism. The doors were closed and only candles lit. Suddenly the young man found that he was transported back through the centuries into a primal Christian experience. He felt and found later that he had been chosen to participate, to witness … to share in the blessing and consecration of life, and to also realize that Dante, as one amongst many, found here his first beginnings. The entire family, dressed in black, brought in the infant child, clothed in white, to be baptized in the oldest Christian Church in Europe. In the candlelit silence, the child experienced the Word of Christ through his priest, and so began her earthly journey supported by the choir of Angels above.
What the student did not expect was his feeling of Wonder at the possibility of this experience having come to him. He had been raised without religion, and now found a confounding newness accompanying the inflow of spirituality from the Baptistry, radiating toward him from above and through the quickening light of the ritual and, above all, the overwhelming warmth from the Catholic Church … streaming from that core source of its existence, that is, the heart of Christ. Reaching back through time, his heart seemed to access that fountain of warmth and wisdom out of which the church had grown, but which was soon lost amidst the turmoil and tumult of its external or exoteric development. After the Baptism, he and the Priest talked, but that is another story.
The three weeks camping in Fiesole on a steep hill overlooking Florence brought the young travelers twenty-one sunsets on that beautiful city. The trip home through northern Italy to Switzerland brought them to Milano. The three had been charged with a task to retrieve an instrument for their teacher’s four year-old son, and transport it back to Switzerland. Their painting teacher, The Master, had decided with conviction that his young son would be a cellist.
The cello was very old and well worn with obvious respect and tenderness. Although inanimate, like the stones in the buildings of Florence, it radiated a similar glow, emanating that ineffable, yet tangible link to the human heart through decades, if not centuries, of human experience. It sat in the chair close to the three students as they sipped tea provided by the old man to whom the cello belonged, and from whom it was being generously relinquished. He, like the cello, radiated culture and spirituality. After a short and pleasant conversation, the cello found its place as fourth traveling companion in the back seat of the red VW, ready to set out on yet another journey in its long life among humanity. Both men, the Master and the old Aristocrat in Milano, treated the affair, the issue of the cello transport, in a manner so matter-of-fact and so reasonable that one could only assume their complete trust in people, life, and the universe. “How could anything possibly go wrong?” would be their question while, on the other hand, the three students, although energetic, resourceful, and pure in heart, actually lived their life constantly on the edge of disaster and chaos, always improvising in the moment and negotiating every emergency with the flair of courageous and oblivious youth. They treated their passenger with reverence and respect, but were never fully awake and aware as to the essential personality of this instrument or, rather, its existence as a channel through which the instrument maker provides certain exceptional human beings with access, through the cello’s heart, to the spiritual world … for this cello, now the young boy’s cello, was a Stradivarius.
The Four Temperaments
Jill was in 4th grade. “I will!” she blurted out, having shot up her hand in response to Miss Tilden’s request that four chairs be taken to the music room. She immediately walked to the wall with chairs lined against it and picked up two chairs in each arm to begin the ascent up the stairs at the very back of the room. After climbing up three steps, the chairs crashed to the floor. Jill picked them up and began again. After the third crash, she called Molly over to help. Molly offered, “Here, let me take two and you take two.” “No, you … take … that one!” Jill said with irritation. Afterwards they returned and quietly sat down. “Thank you, girls.” Miss Tilden said.
The next day Fletcher was sitting in the back of the classroom when Miss Tilden said, “Fletcher, please be so good as to take four chairs up to the music room. Thank you.” He was mildly irritated as he was engrossed in studying the condition of his coins, especially the Mercury head dimes. Putting them back in his desk, he got up, walked over to the chairs and said to himself, “I must really do something about this.” He then sat down to think. Miss Tilden then observed him walking over to Theodore and Jimmy. She did not overhear what was said, but the two boys accompanied Fletcher back to the chairs. He gave one chair to Jimmy the Short and two to Theodore the Tall. Following them up the stairs with his chair, Miss Tilden heard him say, “Thanks guys, really excellent job!”
On the third day Miss Tilden said, “Sarah, would you move four chairs up to the music room for me, please?” “Yes, Miss Tilden.” Sarah replied. She promptly got up, walked to the first chair in the line of eight remaining chairs, and brought it upstairs. As she arrived she quickly surveyed the entire music room to determine where the chairs must be stored when the room is tidied. Sarah put her chair next to the upright piano against the wall and straightened the chairs brought up earlier. Walking back to the top of the stairs she saw a banana on the stool. She was hungry but did not veer off her path to take it. Besides, a few steps later she realized that it was not hers to take, anyway. She proceeded to bring up the other three chairs without incident or distraction. She quietly sat back down. Miss Tilden said, almost in a whisper, “Thank you so much, Sarah.” Sarah beamed and smiled just a little.
On the fourth day Zachary was cutting up an apple on his desk when Miss Tilden said, “Zachary, I want you to take the remaining four chairs up to the music room.” Zack dropped his pocketknife, ran over to the chairs, picked one and ran upstairs. Shortly he could be heard bounding down the stairs like an elk, probably three at a time to get the second chair. “Take it easy, Zack.” said Miss Tilden, pleased to see him so happy. After the second chair, though, Zack never came back. A short while later was heard the trilling sound of a recorder being played far and away up in the music room, reminding her of forests and trickling streams. Snickers were heard somewhere in the classroom.
At week’s end it was time to hand out the gold stars for work well done. These were not the small stick-on gold stars bought at the store, but large stars the size of half-dollars, made by the 5th graders and presented to Miss Tilden as a gift in thanks for being their teacher last year. For their work with the chairs, one star was presented each to Jill, Fletcher, Sarah, and Zachary, with Jill and Fletcher also presenting stars to their helpers. Miss Tilden then pulled Zack aside and said, “I would like you to do one more thing for me and that is to get your recorder and play your song for the class. I did hear you yesterday.” Zack’s eyes brightened, “Sure, Miss Tilden.” It was Friday and almost time for everyone to go home. Everyone was talking. Soon after beginning his song, the class grew very silent. One child thought she heard a big gust of wind blow the window open. Another dreamed a most peaceful dream. Yet another felt the deep loneliness of a friend sitting next to her. And the last child felt he was running and jumping from stone to stone down the middle of a shallow stream. By the end of the song everyone seemed stunned.
Jill blurted out “Wow, Zack!”
Fletcher said “Excellent, really excellent!”
Sarah remained silent. As she sat in the front row with her long dark hair, only Zachary and Miss Tilden could see the tears forming in her eyes. After the class had gone, Miss Tilden noticed that, regarding Zack, there were no more snickers in the classroom.
Theo and Bill
He walked around the front of the truck and was pleasantly surprised to see that she had come. They were up in the backcountry, miles from the familiar territory of quaint towns and manicured lawns. Noting her jeans and plaid shirt open at the top, he considered her the most beautiful of women. Several years older than his girlfriend, her younger sister, she chatted with him pleasantly while they took in the goings on at the all day event. Sensitive to boundaries not to be crossed, he merely observed and enjoyed her glowing beauty. All senses were intensely alert as he felt her presence; every movement, glance, word, scent, breath, hair wafting in the breeze, sun gently dappling her skin, parted lips, white teeth, and full breast ... everything about her radiated harmony and health. His was a very high altitude feeling. And his response to these feelings, to her, was an ineloquent, “Nice day, huh?” “Yes,” she said, eyeing every horse with an appreciation that can only arise in someone expert in their field, for she worked with and loved horses. She knew horses.
And so it went at the horse pull. The plowed field, about the length of two football fields, was bordered on the near side with the noses of cars and pickups facing the activities. The far side sported a tractor, sled, trucks, and horse trailers. The deeply furrowed field with its soft brown dirt lay amidst other untended fields interspersed with forest and there was neither farm house nor outbuilding to be seen. The small community attending the event hustled and bustled behind the arena of activity with scattered barbecues between pine trees, refrigerated wagons with ice cream and cake desserts, soda, water, and beer. Children scurried about as lawn chairs were placed in front of the vehicles for all to watch the show.
The horse team that pulls the most weight the farthest wins the blue ribbon. Teams were divided into lightweight, or ponies, middleweight at about 15 or 16 hands, and the heavyweights or draft horses. The owner would back his team up to the sled loaded with railroad ties piled high. At the perfect moment another man, in this case a teenager, would drop the harness pin through the sled eye and with a Gee-up off they would go. After several pulls it became clear to the young man that the unseen tripartite relation between the horses and the driver was the primary ingredient in the success of the pull. Fourth in line came a dark haired man with a mustache and week old beard. He seemed intensely determined, and serious. While backing his pony team to the sled, he began to snap and pull the reins, whipping the ponies into an increasing state of anxiety. By the time they had reached the sled he had also wrapped the reins several times around each wrist. Somehow he had concluded that the more fear, upset, and anxiety the ponies felt, the more powerful would be their pull. He could not have been more mistaken. With his team wound to their most fevered pitch the man gave the nod to drop the pin, and off they went like a gunshot. However, the harness pin had missed its mark. The cruel man was consequently jerked into the air in a forward arc and then fell to be dragged by the reins tied to his wrists. He had been pulled clean out of his shoes, which remained in place at the sled.
Since disharmony brought about through fear can never, out of itself, produce harmony, the two unleashed ponies were not immediately able to coordinate their individual movements, resulting in still further feelings of panic at their entrapment in the harness. The resulting loss in speed allowed the man to regain his feet, shake loose the reins, and run barefoot between the ponies in an attempt to halt them. His heroic attempt was rewarded by being again thrown to the ground, trod upon and run over by the stampeding pair. Ground into the dirt, all eyes quickly left him to follow the unhinged team. The ponies found their rhythm and momentum and, driven by frenzy, were now free to run wild.
The spectators stood aghast, as people will in dread emergencies, where time seems to stand still as they wait for the impact to translate hopefully into right thinking and action rather than dazed paralysis. The young man and woman carefully traced the uncontrolled team’s arc from field center to a course headed directly toward them. They both held their ground and waited for the right moment to spring out of harm’s way. The completion of the arc of travel in the very last moment led the team to crash into the truck adjacent to where they stood, a few feet away. Frothing at the mouth and screaming while on top of the truck’s hood, the ponies were calmed by the young horsewoman who rushed to their aid. The truck was crushed. In the ensuing and hushed silence of the gathering crowd, there was suddenly heard a blood-curdling shriek, and a panic stricken woman came plowing through screaming, “My daughter, my daughter, she was sitting there in front of the truck!”
At this moment the cruel man walked out of the field toward the gathered crowd, arriving with bloodied hands, feet, and scrapes on the face. Although his straight bearing indicated a certain stoic strength and forced pride, his profound humiliation was clear to all. He endured the crowd’s silent lash of judgement as he did his wounds. Chastened by the results of his misguided and ineffective over-confidence, outed as an abuser of animals unable in any way to justify such abuse, and shamed at his complete upending and embarrassing defeat by the very animals he ruthlessly ruled without feeling or remorse, he chose to quiet himself. While walking to the truck to pull the ponies off and away, a sensitive soul could see in his smoldering black eyes that his inner response to his own undoing would not be self-knowledge and change, but a further entrenchment in cruelty. The horsewoman said to the young man, “I feel for those ponies when he gets them home.”
As the calmed ponies were led away, it was clear that they were unhurt, unlike the truck. In front of the truck lay the mangled lawn chair where the young girl had been sitting, but neither blood nor body. The panicked mother continued to call for her child while others helped in the search. After a few moments the daughter appeared as she rolled herself out from beneath the truck and stood up. While being embraced and a little embarrassed by a weeping and hysterical mother, she was also congratulated by all on her presence of mind and quick action, especially as she was only thirteen.
Since disaster had been averted, the horse pull continued without further incident. Everyone was pleased when the heavyweight teams finally appeared, awaited by all as the highlight of the afternoon. Several of four teams performed their amazing feats of pulling unimaginable poundage. A mild-mannered elderly farmer the young man knew as Amos drove the fourth team. His two Belgians were huge like the other draft teams, with gargantuan proportions, bulging muscles, and quiet strength. The young man became keenly aware that an exceptional relation existed between the three, between Amos, Theo, and Bill, a relationship that bespoke years of harmonious work plowing fields, logging the forest, and pulling stumps to clear the land. Virtually all communication between them consisted of looks, gestures, and one word commands gently spoken and willingly obeyed. Amos had cared for them as foals, groomed and fed them daily, worked with them through all manner of inclement weather and hard times, suffering, and sickness. They had, through time, grown together and now functioned as a single unit wielding a great power, a heart-centered, blood rushing, living entity filled with a calm delight in existence and one central desire, and that is to pull. Of course, there were sugar cubes and apples, too. But together they pulled, and they pulled because they loved. It was that simple. It was also complex because the love they shared existed independently of blood, sinew, flesh, and bone. It lived in a place unfettered by material thing, passing through, within, and beyond, carried on waves of pure feeling, of goodness and a most intimate and implicit trust one within the other. It is the place where an animal’s heart lives without separation or pause and a place where a man can take rest and refuge. Amos said, “Go” and, through love, they pulled and won the blue ribbon. This special triangle of souls pulled, plowed, and won blue ribbons for several more years until Amos had a stroke and was soon gone. Theo passed away soon after and Bill soon after that. Amos’ elder son bought a John Deere.
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