Braided in a no frills, no-nonsense fashion, her hair style complements her work ethic … no frills, no-nonsense. The simple gold wire rimmed glasses which frame her eyes, shine brightly against her ebony skin. A force field of experience and knowledge swirls around her as she moves swiftly and efficiently behind the customer service counter of the Shop N’ Save. In her orbit are the girls working with her, decades her junior, looking to her for orders, direction and guidance. When I suggest that it is she, not the manager, who actually runs the store, the hidden source of power, she laughs and waves her hand at me as if it’s the silliest thing she’s ever heard of, yet she is a constant force in her realm and has outlasted several managers. Two or three times a week, for years, our paths have crossed. I call her by name, I have the advantage, it’s printed on the employee badge pinned to her chest. I’m not sure she knows mine. Our conversations run no deeper than casual chit-chat about work schedules, the weather, or wishing me luck on my most minor of vices, the purchase of a weekly lottery ticket. I don’t know or care who she voted for in the last presidential election. We are not friends on Facebook. By any measure or standard, we are the most casual of friends. Ours is the most minor of relationships.
Like a well-mannered child, who gathers up their art supplies after they are finished coloring, the sun starts to gather up all the colors it has used during the day as it descends toward the horizon. In one last grand gesture before it disappears, the sun splashes those pigments across the clouds and spills its paint on the surface of the ocean. Armed with cameras and cell phones, we gather on the beach, ready to record the event. The display only lasts for a few minutes and the crowd of photographers and observers quickly disperse. Unwilling to leave its precious pigments behind, the sun gathers them up as it starts to brighten the other side of the world. We are left with the muted shades of dusk, the light becomes soft and the crisp edges of the landscape that were so sharp during the day start to lose focus.
As our hemisphere slides further and further away from the sun, the color palette on the island becomes more restrained until we are left only with hues of black, grey and deep satiny blues. The sun no longer has dominion over the sky and the stars and planets start to appear, Venus first, then Polaris the north star. They emerge almost timidly while the glow of the departing sun still lingers in the western sky. Gradually more and more stars make their entrance until the night sky becomes a dome filled with celestial celebrities, the constellations Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Cassiopeia, Draco, Orion and Pleiades the seven sisters.
Our family beach vacations are usually spent on Sanibel Island or St. George Island. These are barrier islands that sit off the coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. They have many things in common, both underdeveloped, no high-rise buildings, no tacky tourist attractions, no stop lights and both have ordinances requiring lights on the outside of buildings be turned off during the summer months, which for sea turtles is nesting season. Female loggerheads, leatherbacks, and green sea turtles return to these islands, the place of their birth, to lay their eggs. The turtle hatchlings when they are born need to head to the sea. If they emerge at nighttime, a bright bulb will appear to them as a shining moon, potentially causing them to head off in the wrong direction. The lack of outside lights is important for baby turtles and even better for star-gazing.
I don’t exactly sneak out at night. Sometimes it’s a thinly veiled excuse like taking the dog out one last time, sometimes it’s more direct. No one in my family shares my passion for walks on the beach after dark. I understand that to a certain extent. The beach is a totally different place after dark and the pitch darkness can be a little scary. For this city boy the main attraction is the night sky. The canopy of stars that stretches from horizon to horizon is nothing like my vista back home where the view is marred by buildings, trees and light pollution. When I tilt my head back to take in this spectacle, the effect is dizzying. My mind can’t grasp the scope, the time, the distance displayed before me. I start to understand my smallness, my insignificance. For the moment I understand that the world does not revolve around me and I am content to be one little guy in God’s great big old creation.
As I gaze at the constellations above me, I realize they don’t exist as a singular unit, whole unto themselves. Only by one star establishing a relationship with an adjacent star, then another and another until the sum of their parts is greater than any individual star do they become the constellations we know. For all its brightness, Polaris is just another star until it connects with other stars to become part of the little dipper or the larger constellation Ursa Minor, Little Bear (yes I’m a nerd). It is that relationship of position, brightness and arrangement that make up all the constellations that we know.
I think about the people in my life. I consider the relationships, the connections, the arrangements, the distance or the closeness.
I think about my family waiting for me back in the rented condo. I imagine each family member as a star. In my limited galaxy of constellations, my family shines the brightest. In the center of that star cluster is my best friend, my love, the mother of my children. Nearby are the stars of my daughters, my grandchildren, my brother, my in-laws. Beyond that are the constellations made of old friends, never wavering, always constant, shining brightly. Circling them is the nebula of co-workers, many of whom I spend more time with them than most family members.
I’ll admit I’m not always the quickest to get things. I’m the guy that chuckles at the punchline of a joke about 10 seconds after everyone else has quit laughing (if I get it at all). But I’ve collected enough years to understand some things, or at least some things about myself. I’ve slowly learned that my true wealth is not determined by my bank account, the car I drive, or the paintings I own. The richness of my life is in those myriad of relationships, those people formed constellations, from the most intimate (my spouse) to the most casual (the customer service lady at Shop N’ Save). Some relationships can last for decades, others come and go as quickly as a meteor that flashes across the night sky for a few seconds, then is gone. Once I learned that there is value in all those affiliations, it changed the way I view them and to some degree, how I treat them. We treat things of value differently than items of trash. I might kick a tin can down the street, but would never treat a diamond ring that way.
I’m a little bemused by all the “unfriending” that has occurred during the last presidential election. Sadly it’s not all just “cyber-friends”, the friends made just by clicking on a hyperlink on a social media site, but relationships that have had real meaning in the past. Mrs. Poppy has experienced this personally. A former supervisor, a friend, has shunned everyone whose political and social views don’t match up with hers. I want to, at least metaphorically, drag her down to the island at night and force her to look up at the night sky. I want her to understand the quality her life has not been improved by surrounding herself only with people who think exactly as she does, that she has become poorer by discarding those other relationships. The constellations she has enjoyed in the past, no longer exist because they are missing key elements.
“Variety is the spice of life”, may be a cliché, but it is also true. I can’t imagine eating only one type of food, listening to only one genre of music or associating only with people who look and think exactly as I do.
I am hardly perfect in this regard. I have my share of fading stars, friendships that I have neglected. Too busy, too lazy, too self-absorbed, too distant, the excuses and reasons are endless. My New Year’s resolutions may come early this season. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some emails to send, some phone calls to make.
Merry Christmas, Poppy
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