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Existential Questions From The Ladies' Crazy-Quilt Society

AT the happy end of hitchhiking my way from the West to the East Coast many years ago, I stopped one drizzly evening in a little town in Maine, tired but grateful to treat myself to a supper at the hotel. Only about half a dozen middle-aged to elderly ladies were in the big, rather chilly dining room. They were all eating at one long table and, as a banner hanging over the table proclaimed, ``We give thanks for another year of the Ladies' Crazy-Quilt Society.''

Thinking I'd interrupted a private banquet, I headed for a corner table. But a friendly waitress appeared and asked me please to go sit at the table with the others.

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``Here we like all our guests to fill up one table before we start another,'' she explained in that bewitchingly tart twang I'd heard all over my travels in New England. She laughed when I told her I'd thought I was violating the ladies' privacy.

Putting my knapsack under a chair, I took off my jacket and sat down at the table; it seemed warmer there. The waitress brought me some vegetable soup, told me the remaining courses of ``tonight's feature'' were laid out on the table, and then, winking at the others as if to say, ``Here's a live one!'' went away. I sipped my soup and looked up at my fellow supperers.

They were all looking at me out of eyes that ranged from wary to curious-friendly.

``Greetings, all,'' I said, smiling. ``Good soup, isn't it?''

A lady across the table from me leaned over her plate and said, ``Haven't I seen you here in town before.''

``I've never been here before,'' I said. ``This is a first for me.''

A lady at the other end of the table, wearing a bright red dress with white polka dots, like a fashion out of a '30s or '40s movie, asked me, ``Are you here to do some bird watching, perhaps? I myself am an ardent bird watcher, and I often sew outlines of my favorite birds in a quilt.''

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I sipped some more soup and smiled at her. ``I am not myself a bird watcher,'' I said. ``Do you ladies all work together on one quilt, or do you each do a quilt?''

The lady sitting next to her answered for her. ``We all work together on one quilt. I love birds, too, but my favorites are butterflies. Our butterfly quilts are very popular. Do you like butterflies, young man?''

``I am as fond of butterflies as I am of birds, but, I'm ashamed to say, I don't really know very much about either of them.''

What happened next just proves that you never know when, or where, somebody is going to ask you an existential question. One that probes the very nitty-gritty of your life style.

``If you don't particularly fancy observing and recording the beauties of birds and butterflies,'' asked the lady in the polka dot dress, ``what do you think is worthwhile doing in life?''

The eyes of Maine were upon me.

When not hitchhiking, I was doing then what I am doing now, practicing the craft of writing and scheming in honorable ways to survive. I didn't know how to say that to these old-fashioned, formal-spoken ladies without sounding slightly pompous. Luckily, there was a way I could answer without having to utter a word.

I opened my knapsack and took out my sky-blue sweat shirt. Not only was it a wonderful alternative to the weather on gray days, but I'd stenciled on it, in block letters of daffodil yellow, a poem I'd written in my deep-thinking youth. What better way to answer the heights of the lady's question than with the depths of my poem?

I held the front of the sweat shirt up for all to view. First there was the title, ``Exchange between Hero and Wise Man,'' and then the first stanza, the Hero speaking: ``I've slain the Minotaur/ And spanned the giant's girth./ Poison I've had, and more/ Than I could tell of wrath./ Who bids me sheathe my sword/ While Beasts still dog the world?'' And on the back of the sweat shirt, where the Wise Man replies, the last stanza: ``Young man, no crone or witch/ Can point your way through woods/ Where dreadful dragons hiss./ No falcon caged in hood/ Can intercept the dove/ That's sent to bring you love.''

If this poem, young as it was, did not bespeak the worthwhileness of desisting from all heroics, all armaments, and of accepting love as the only way to change things in this muddled world, then nothing would.

All the ladies eyed us keenly, my sweat shirt and me, assessing the poetic tidings we had brought to their celebration. Then, smiling approvingly, the lady of the existential question said in a benevolent voice, ``It's time we passed this ... unprecedented young man the beans.''

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