Sitting here in my coffee shop, listening to the noise and watching the people. At the table there, just over there, far enough that I can pretend to ignore them, close enough I can hear a little of them, four ladies are knitting and chatting. One is young, maybe college age. The others old enough to be her mother and one maybe her grandmother. Maybe they are. An odd thing to be knitting in a public place, it took me awhile to understand it. I wish I could smoke a pipe. If it wasn’t totally bad for me, I probably would. Maybe someday I will anyway. It’s because I understand now about knitting in public. It’s how women smoke a pipe. Meditative. Conversational. Repetitive. It demands a piece of your attention, but not the best piece.
Over there, that table there, a young girl, maybe high school or college is thumbing her phone. She has green and purple hair. It’s not even Mardi Gras. Why does she have green and purple hair? Why don’t I? My hair, aging gracefully, has transformed into a perfect snow white that in a good light can be mistaken - briefly – for a halo. It’s like a blank piece of sketchbook paper waiting to be colored with paints or pizza sauces or maybe have a message written across it.
A person behind me is slouched deep in an easy chair. There is a fat plastic bag on the floor behind him. He’s wearing a baseball hat and every jacket he owns. He’s been drinking the free water and trying to stay down so he doesn't get kicked out before he’s had a nap. He has nowhere to go.
My mother must have been like that guy. I think she’s been all these people at one time or another. Her own madness crept up on her over the years until Dad couldn’t take it anymore and moved out and divorced. She eventually disappeared for several years and then turned up in a nursing home in Chicago, after the cops had plucked her off the street during a Chicago snowstorm. She died there.
Her legacy to me has been a fear for my own sanity. I keep a close eye on myself for signs of schizophrenia or mania, or eventually – more likely – dementia. Life was not fair to her. Nothing special about me either. We’ll see.
I’m a mystic. As I crawl closer to the final moment of my days, my fascination with consciousness and the slippery mystery of sanity grows.
I stop a moment, drop my eyes towards the gray coffee in my paper cup and let my thoughts go quiet. I put my awareness on my breath, moving into my nostrils, let it swell me a little, let it touch down and begin the journey out, slow drawing my attention with it. I let it back in gentle, just watching, feeling its entry carrying the smell of my coffee, the aroma funk of the homeless guy behind me and smell of cookies baking somewhere behind the counter. My imagination drifts out like a fishing net. Comprehending – the women at the table, the green haired girl, the guy behind. If you hold your sense and attention just right, the people begin to melt. They become ribbons of karma in a stream.
The stream flows, the personalities in the stream, with their eccentricities, maybe their medically suppressed madness, their stories, their problems, their chatter, their loneliness, their moving hands, the home waiting, or for one guy here, not, letting the streams of individual drama move around me, trying to visualize all the people in the world with their stories of changing fortunes, an old turtle sticking his snout up in the moving water.
I wonder what their madness is. I wonder what they do, each to each, not their jobs, but what drives them crazy. What keeps them up? Madness is contagious, ubiquitous. It’s sanity that’s rare these days.