Becalmed in the First Circle of Hell

by Bernard Brandt


I sit here, like most other semi-retired moribund white guys, in my pajamas, with a sweater on, because it’s just a bit chill in Southern California right now. I look on the interior of my 1920’s Craftman’s style cottage, built in San Pedro, along with whole bunches of other such shacks, for vacationers who would summer or winter here. I’m sipping a cup of a good medium roast Kenya, done quite nicely in a french press, and with two teaspoons of white sugar and a jigger of a pleasant domestic brandy. I’m listening to KUSC, the classical station, and I am counting my blessings, such as they are. And they are many.

On Saturday morning last, I drove from my home for about six miles to Ride To Fly, where I volunteer. While driving there, I could see the Pacific Ocean, the outline of Santa Catalina Island, and a beautiful wilderness vista. When I got to the gated community where RTF is, I punched in the number which would open the gate, to let me in so that I could drive through a rural wonderland, up to the acre of land and barn where a group of volunteers take care of four horses, and where they do equine therapy for the young, the disabled, for those on the autism spectrum, and for the very shy.

I’ve been doing this for a number of years now: first, when my wife Beth was alive, and had asked me, after her retirement, to find her a place where she could help the disabled through equine therapy. I went up and down on teh Interwebz, and to and fro in it, until I found RTF’s website. We went to their orientation in December, and Beth was immediately pressed into service to become one of their sidewalkers. We hunted down the requirements for her to become an instructor through PATH, Int., and by the next December, Beth had returned to RTF as a full instructor herself.

Getting back to that Saturday, though, I sat on the front bench, talked with the families of those who were doing equine therapy, took the money for the lessons, and wrote down the records for the volunteer accountant. I walked on down to the place where many of the volunteers were gathered, because a horse had injured her knee, and the volunteer vet was there to examine and treat the mare. I then spoke with the instructor there, whom Beth had herself trained. A brilliant and multi-talented woman, the instructor has also helped her significant other to write, direct, and produce an excellent independent film.

But I spent most of the time at the front desk, reading the books I had brought with me, and on occasion, going over to look at the lessons, where there were beginners who had to have the horses led by one person, and with two sidewalkers on each side, to make sure they stayed on the horse. Over the years, I have seen many of these children become accomplished horsemen and women, and who used this to overcome, or at least to reduce, some of the terrible effects of autism. I have seen mute children suddenly explode into language. I have seen miracles there.

And after the lessons were over, I went to the local Trader Joe’s at the corner of Hawthorne and Palos Verdes Drive East, and bought some sliced cheese and salami, and an aluminum can of a nice pinot noir, walked over to the nearby Starbucks, and sat at a table on the deck facing the ocean, and watched the clouds move slowly through the sky and over the sea. While I could have stayed at my shaded corner perhaps a few minutes longer, I offered my place to a couple of lovely Japanese ladies, and sat for a few minutes in the sun.

Later that day, I walked a few blocks to a friend’s house. He had invited me and a few neighbors to dine with him. We had pork loin chops, started on the pan and finished in the oven, with a fine honey garlic ginger glaze, together with a marvelous Caesar salad and a nicely done asparagus. All this was accomplished by a visiting chef from Costa Rica, who was staying in a made up day bed in my friend’s front room, which I suppose considerably beat the hostel in which he otherwise would have been staying. Dinner was accompanied with a couple of bots of cheap but good red wine (BV Vineyards and Dark Horse, if you must know), and some very pleasant conversation.

The next day, Sunday, I woke up early to make a brown rice rotini pasta with puttanesca sauce for my church’s parish luncheon. Normally, I would have used a whole wheat pasta instead, but there are a couple of parishioners who have problems with gluten. That done, I drove the half hour from San Pedro to my little church in El Segundo, and got there more or less on time for rehearsal. Our choir is small, normally a SATB quartet, but today the soprano couldn’t make it. Not to worry, though: our choir director, an alumnus of the New England Conservatory of Music, had long worked with our remaining trio of alto, tenor, and male melody to get an acceptable blend.

That day’s singing was particularly fine, and, for once, I was in good voice. I’ve been teaching myself vocal technique, using books such as Richard Miller’s The Structure of Singing, and in consequence, in addition to my bass-baritone voice, I am now the proud possessor of a nice lyric tenor instrument, which can get all the way up to the G and the A above in full voice. And the liturgy itself was as near to heaven as I could probably get in this life.

And afterwards, we had a nice pot luck lunch, where some really fine cooks contributed a great deal of fine food. I sat with a brilliant software engineer/systems administrator on my left (together with his lovely wife), and a retired professor of Near East languages on the right. We talked of cabbages and kings. The conversation was superb. Then I visited my mother at her home in Manhattan Beach, and had a pleasant dinner that evening with her, my two brothers, and my brother’s wife.

So, all in all, while I have very little in the way of money, I am richly blessed. I live in a good place that covers my head, and keeps me dry and warm. I live in a neighborhood which, while it includes the homeless, also includes some very good friends (including the homeless. I am rich in friends, who are all good and wise and smart. I eat cheaply, but well. I have books and music, and the time in which to make use of them. And I see glimpses from afar of the Kingdom of Heaven in which both my wives now dwell. Though I can not get there now, I rejoice that that fairer Kingdom exists, and that there are some who have entered into It.

I suppose I should be satisfied with the First Circle of Hell. After all, there are much darker and deeper Circles below.