Eleven eleven

2 sides copyI believe the best place for me to live is on the edge. Chalk it up to my commitment issues if you want to, and you may be right. But, I do prefer being able, whenever possible, to straddle the fine line between seen and unseen, dancing just as close to out-there as one can get without falling off. Maybe go ahead and fall off once in a while, too. Well do I know the tingling sensation that all of a sudden creeps up my spine, making my hair stand on end and covering my entire body with a glaze of cold sweat in that moment when I realize that I may have come precariously close to falling. Then, it is a matter of keeping my balance and making the split-second decision: on which side of the edge am I prepared to fall? Sometimes I’ve entertained the idea, you know, to just go ahead and fall off into the unknown – for the simple reason that I’d like to experience what it is that I’m supposed to be avoiding.

Rollercoaster rides and fast cars, fist-fights, weapons hold no fascination for me. These I accept as encounters with mortal danger.  [Pause for laughter.]  As their outcomes are predictable and documented, there is little left to chance. But, I do remember as a child standing pressed up close to the barricade at Niagara Falls and feeling the overwhelming impulse to jump into that magnificent cascade of energy, although I did not. Some had survived that fall, others had not. How might I fare if I jumped? Nothing was certain. There have been other times when I did yield to a spontaneous surge of adrenaline and often found out that discretion really would have been the better part of valor. I am reminded of the time I went tromping deep in the wintry woods with my grandparents, hunting for their Christmas tree. Off on my own little side expedition, lost in the unfamiliar wonderland of evergreens and snow, magical possibilities seemed to abound. So, when I encountered a barbed wire fence, it blended in quite well with the fairytale building in my imagination. Its hand-lettered “BEWARE” sign didn’t even distract me. I was much more intrigued by the fence’s unseen ends, somewhere for far off in the distance. Unyielding and cold, it stretched out ahead of me and behind me, motionless and silent. Without much thought to the consequences, I impulsively extended my arms like wings, my right hand just barely over the top of the barbed wire, and took off running alongside it, confident that I could lower my hand safely just high enough above the sharp teeth to avoid being bitten, but just close enough to feel the barbs brushing my palm softly one by one as I ran, skimming my hand over the top of the fence. And, one by one, each barb found its mark, ripping into soft flesh and laying open with jagged gashes the bloody inside of my hand. Since then, I have been more cautious; and, I have an extra “life line” in my palm to remind me if ever I should again ignore a hand-lettered warning sign.

[Pause for appreciative laughter.]

Still, I can get close enough to the ‘edge’ to have a full imagination of what it’s like on the other side of the thin, invisible line that separates here from there. I think about it, resist its pull, and usually find myself back somewhere pretty close to the center. Centered and in my right mind. Or left. Or left out of everything that must be happening without me over there. How am I to know unless I go there? Not all of my fanciful urges come with the guarantee of personal danger. Mostly, they are the siren calls of answers to the unknown that I suspect – that I know – are on the other side of the gossamer veil that surrounds our perception of reality.

But, we are designed to enter and to engage all forms and perceptions of reality; and, I can only get a taste of the other side when I allow myself to step out of my comfort zone, the scene I’m most familiar with, and enter into the other one, the one that goes on whether or not I acknowledge it or participate in it. It is the scene that casts a long shadow, fabricating the illusion of the place in which I live, this place we think of as ‘reality.’ If we cross over into that light, we will be educated in the imagery this life in the shadow is filled with. We will see everything as the metaphors they are, metaphors which show only in part the hidden truths of that other place. It is not very hard to step over the line, and we take the first step into that place of fuller understanding by simply listening.  I find it quite effective to pay attention to the sounds of the trees. This exercise is very valuable for the one who wishes to go there, and I recommend it as the prerequisite experience for mind expansion:  listening. By listening we learn new languages and by learning new languages, so much understanding may be gained, especially if we begin with trees.

Tree-talk is coming from every direction and dimension; as the first people on this continent understood: from north, south, east, west, up, down, and from in, out, before and after, carried on the very wind that gives utterance to thought. When you first do it, you are balancing on the one hand the messages that you hear with, on the other hand, the fantastic realization that you are communicating with another species of life.  I listen and the words fill my head with an infinite lexicon of enigmatic ideas. It’s not unbelievable that we can communicate with dolphins and cats or to speak in tongues of ecstasy, so why not trees? In itself, as you are first acquainted with your human native tongue, it’s a complicated endeavor that takes effort to learn and years to perfect.  Each and every language requires understanding a different sort of vocabulary and practicing a unique style of listening. Especially with trees, listening is the key.  You cannot impose your own expectations on the process or the outcome. If you listen too hard, then you’ll hear nothing but indiscernible white noise, like the coursing of your own blood pounding in your ears or the hissing of your own breath. But, if you don’t listen closely enough, then you’ll be rewarded with only superficial leaf-rustling punctuated with birdcalls and the crack of brittle twigs snapping from their moorings. Oh, there’s much more to tree-talk than the accidents of environment.

Take note: trees also carry the voices of other beings who inhabit our environment in other ways than can be perceived through our physical senses.  For this reason, we will not necessarily hear communications that impart facts useful in the utilitarian sense of daily life, i.e., meeting the information needs for things like knowing what the traffic is like up ahead or what to do about paying this month’s bills. It is useful to assume metaphor in this language. But, we are innately capable of doing it, of learning this language of the trees which is so helpful for taking the first steps on the other side of the edge. Once there, we have the resource to guide us as we journey deeper into that paradigm, that alternate reality. In a real sense, we are all already polyglots. Every language includes dialects and jargon and everyone creates their own internal lingo. It’s all here, as some of you linguistics majors know.

To give you some examples of how to understand jargon in the context of the metaphorical language in use here on the shadow side of the ‘edge’ (what some would say the “real” world), consider professional terminology peculiar to legalese, medical practice, real estate, philosophy, cooking, theology, education and academia, in child-play, skullduggery, gibberish, mumbo-jumbo, and gobbledygook. Why, even people who train others in effective communication skills utilize their own vocabulary, and it’s always helpful to familiarize yourself with the local vernacular if you want to get along. Tree patois is primordial and has survived the influence of humans and other animals and other plant species as well as the passage of eons of time. It is a good language to learn. Like our modern human languages, it is fluid and changes; but, we will not witness the impact of erosion or alteration – at least, in our short lifetimes, not until the next and the next if our memories are solid enough to remind us.

Do not be surprised, as you listen and learn to converse with trees, to find yourself pulled right out of this world and into the mystical phenomena of that place just over there, because effective communication with trees is a sure-fire ticket to experiencing other-world. Or not.  Maybe you think you don’t belong there and that’s okay, too. For now.

One of the wonderful things about listening to trees is that they are possessed of vast awareness from every direction and dimensions as yet unknown to us. As I mentioned earlier, they carry messages from other times and places. And, just as in human parlance we have developed many languages, so too, trees speak a variety of languages depending on their own circumstances. But there is no caste system, no barrier that would prevent us from understanding, for all are one in that life where communication is as fundamental as life itself. Trees welcome us to listen and make meaningful contact, to share in our own particular ways in the free exchange of thought and experience.  Go ahead and be a tree-hugger. The trees are hugging you in their own way. And, by the way, the phrase ‘tree-hugger’ is actually a cross-over term invented by trees, first used about 200 years ago! I’ll bet you didn’t know that.

The one who has developed a fine-tuned facility for listening and who already hears the whispers of unseen beings or senses their presence will find no difficulty in fine-tuning their proficiency to encompass trees and beyond. Listening is not the same, in language, as speaking; and, listening must come first.

Thus ended the introduction to my introductory lecture on the morning of St. Valentine’s Day forty years ago, and I remember it today like it was today. I paused and took a breath while looking up from the manuscript and scanned the audience of students, mostly comprised of women in their early 20s. Over the top of the two dark ovals of my glasses frames I saw the over-sized digital clock at the back of the hall. It read 11:11. It was while in the process of indulging myself in a sip of water at the podium that a thought crystalized in my head and I realized what it was that I’d been seeing but not recognizing for a very long time. Here I stood at a point in human development where we had actually documented major physiological changes in the human species for the first time in the annals of recorded history. Going forward from this specific point in time, complex physical alterations to the human form – which were occurring at a much more rapid pace than ever before – were reflected in clothing, and in furniture and food and conveniences, in every possible normative element of routine life in our society and, as goes without saying, on the wings of our trend-setting American culture, to the ends of the earth.

In the beginning, it was the elbow, that funny joint that can cause so much pain when aggravated.  The mechanism, wrapped inside a thin envelope of skin, juts out there completely unprotected from random strikes and awkward falls. And, if you have one, even though an excess of body fat may surround it, those bones cannot be padded or protected enough against the painful repercussions of a hard strike. It isn’t fatal, but it’s completely vulnerable to assault.  Robustly painful when struck at just the right angle, it will immobilize someone quickly even if for just a moment or two. And, even though it takes up but a small piece of acreage in the skeletal property of the human body, it is indispensable to the traditional proper functioning of the whole, as well as to the recently developed function.

This class of students was well into their senior year by the time of this lecture, and to a student, I had recognized the bulge on them all as early as when we had first met over 4 years ago. I’m not sure at what age it became apparent on them, or what year the first generation of balloon elbowed people was born. But, their emergence into society forever changed the world view about humanity and how we saw ourselves in the vast story of life on this planet. I could imagine when the first balloon elbowed people were young and realized they were different from the rest of their older family members, neighborhood playmates, and older schoolmates.  I imagined parents taking their sweet toddlers to pediatric surgeons and doctors who shook their heads as the numbers of these patients increased in their medical records. It didn’t become a public health issue. There were no medical warnings or discussion groups or self-help organizations or immunizations because during this period in our national history such institutions were not functioning, they were illegal. People just dealt with it, as they learned to deal with most health-related conditions that were too far out of reach of the limited access to medical care. Later on when magazines and newspapers started publishing peer review articles and scientific research, those people were identified as the Balloon Elbow Generation.  And, within a short time, balloon elbows were the norm, paling in comparison to other physiological features appearing on the horizon of a new day in human form.

Initially, these were euphemistically referred to as “developments in physiology” and by the time balloon elbow had been observed on a large scale for 50 years or so (about the time of this lecture), it was already reported on 90% of babies born in the US, and over half of babies born around the rest of the world. At that time, when science and research were reactivated in the medical community in the US, the balloon elbow was understood not as a new development or as a mutation, but instead termed a human reformation.

Medical history classes would later teach that this trait might have been isolated decades before, except for the intervention of a political regime that, in the name of God and the US Government, shut down and criminalized all genetic research. So comprehensive was the purge on science that even the highly popular subscription DNA tests prevalent among ancestry and genealogy groups were also outlawed. No more spit tests in the mail, no more swabs or hair samples. Paternity testing and human sample testing for forensic purposes in a court of law and even drug testing required judiciary approval and oversight. Without the benefit of ongoing medical research, many departments of public service virtually closed up shop; the World Health Organization suffered from the withdrawal of US support and initiative; the CDC was reduced to producing PSAs and issuing annual reminders to get flu shots in the fall and avoid ticks and spiders in the summer.  And, prospective parents resumed the time-honored tradition of waiting 9 months to find out the sex of their new baby.

How a country at one time so connected and dependent upon instant information and mass communication could have been shut out of the worldwide conversation can only be understood by tracing the resurgence of fascism during that era. Totalitarian thought control descended like an iron curtain over the entire country. People were at first entertained, then desperate to decode cryptic official messages such as “covfefe,” questioning their own sanity and worrying themselves into a panic because of the dementia epidemic. State-operated prisons and nursing homes became the fastest-growing institutions, outpacing and contributing more to the GDP than any other commercial enterprise, despite their waivers from paying taxes. Before it was all over, absolute confusion over alternative facts and misinformation virtually shut down efforts to carry on public discourse on national matters of importance on a local and individual level. Chaos reigned.

Ultimately, the success of the American Spring (as the movement was called) brought all that to an end and immediately the repressive aspects of governmental overreach were lifted. Medical research and science were decriminalized and, almost overnight, decades of international research flooded our universities and the media. And, balloon elbows were prominently featured in this first tidal wave of news. Using advanced techniques, researchers around the world had been working on isolating the culprit. A tiny little piece of recessive genetic matter was found hiding behind a chromosome. It had been there all along and we simply didn’t recognize it for what it was.

Within a few generations, balloon elbows would achieve their ultimate purpose and develope into fully extended wings, evolving  – or reverting – the human shape. In the meantime, 8 billion people were rethinking the centuries of beliefs that had informed teaching on the origins of humankind. In fact, as researchers raced to untangle threads of information about the prehistoric goings-on all over planet Earth, they had to concede that human beings descended from not one branch of life, but from all. Sport hunting, incursion into wildlife habitats, exploitation of natural resources for personal gain, isolation from the rest of the known universe, war – clearly, human activity played a specific part in reducing the number and diversity of species on Earth. So, perhaps the most profound discovery was cross-species DNA, long dormant, deep within the genetic recipe for Homo sapiens, waking up – so to speak – and reviving some traits thought lost to species extinction.

Balloon elbows precipitated a re-circuiting of contemporary thought on social acceptability, personal privilege, religion, civil responsibility, oh, the list was endless. For 50 years under the repressive regime, society had been grappling in the dark with the possibility of how limited our understanding had been, how carefully guided our instruction had been, how ridiculously narrow our conclusions had been. Without the pure science to explain what was happening before our eyes, we had not the means to answer or even properly question what we were seeing. If balloon elbows had happened to only a percentage of the population, then those few people might have been ostracized, ridiculed, bullied, hated. But, there was no chance of such a reaction because balloon elbows were universal, the new norm. Still, a degree of stigma was attached as each new trait was observed, and I confess that I shared in this. For, I was among a small percentage of people who were “pure-bred,” not an accurate term, but so called because we did not exhibit reverted characteristics of any kind.

For us, there was always the disturbing possibility that newly surfacing traits were actually due to the underhanded genetic manipulation of clandestine forces, rather than resurfacing after millennia of dormancy. I’ll admit that I took part in abetting ignorance and animosity among my friends who were also pure-breds. Distrustful of the new science, we were skeptical about how these traits could have remained hidden for so long. As an academic, I should have been more open-minded; still, I had a hard time shaking these questions and they kept me at arm’s length from students, colleagues, neighbors, even family members who showed physical characteristics that I did not share. Long after my public life had faded into the dusty shadows of memory, men and women with tails and tufts and talons, the vast diversity of physical traits, was so incalculable that my one moment of self-revelation hardly seemed to matter at all.

Still, something very profound and personal happened that watershed morning when I stood at the podium before the auditorium noticing all those balloon elbows as if for the first time. Being just a few years older than most of my students, it was a statistical fact that I fell within the age range of humans currently displaying genetic characteristics that had been germinating, developing in hiding, and emerging without benefit of scientific study and therefore no warning. And, more importantly, if statistics could be trusted, I was 99% certain to be carrying one of nearly a million possible re-evolved genetic traits that might be latent or might become apparent within my lifetime.

So, it was at the nexus of these two thoughts (recognition of the vast prevalence of reformed genetic traits among the student population seated before me + the undeniable probability of my own body harboring a reformed genetic trait), that an idea, like an explosion from a star deep in outer space, burst upon my consciousness.  I suddenly realized with all certainty that it was true: my body was already expressing a re-evolved human genetic trait.

As long as I live, I shall never forget the moment of this revelation. I was shocked almost to the point of complete immobilization, so close to the edge; still, the voice of reason whispered in my ear, encouraging me to get myself together and come back to the auditorium and the introduction to my introductory class. The paper cup of water in my hand was halfway between my lips and the podium. The time on the digital clock – 11:11 – provided a perfect visual image for me as I recognized my own genetic reformation. Standing there as if frozen in time, I clumsily began the process, inching my way back through what felt like a lifetime of effort. At first, it took what seemed to be 3 years simply to register feeling in the right side of my body – my fingers and hand, my wrist, arm, elbow (not balloon), biceps, triceps, deltoids, and to assert control over them.  Then, using those same parts of my body, it seemed to take another 5 years to move the paper cup of water back down to the podium and settle it there. What seemed another 3 or 4 years was required to release the paper cup from my right hand, and then to relocate and steady that hand on the side of the podium; 3 more years to grip each side of the podium simultaneously with both hands.  Eight long years it seemed to take before I had successfully shifted all of my body weight to my arms and hands, securely anchored by my fingers to the top of the podium on each side; I leaned slightly forward. With every ounce of strength I could muster, over the course of what seemed like 25 years, I corrected my typical standing position, the same posture I had assumed for the last eleven minutes. First, I forced my left foot downward, pushing it with my leg so that the leg straightened from its bent knee. And, I positioned my left foot into a perpendicular aspect with that leg, pushing the foot all the way down to the floor. Then, I fine-tuned the position of the left leg and foot to a mirror image and parallel to my right leg and foot – about 8 inches apart. And, finally, I stretched my torso upward to the full extent of my spine while balancing all of my body weight equally on both feet, and released my hands from the podium. Another 7 years passed, it seemed, before I could bring my arms – extended downward – to my sides, the fingers of each hand also extended downward, palms facing my body. I was no longer standing like a flamingo; I was standing like a man. The digital clock also adjusted its position in time and, changing one number, read: 11:12.

Inviolate

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wp-1477532132780.jpgI will take your liberty

You cannot take my imagination.

I will take your laws

You cannot take my will.

I will take your free speech

You cannot take my dreams.

I will take your land

You cannot take my sky.

I will take your society

You cannot take my muse.

I will take your things

You cannot take my love.

I will take your books

You cannot take my words.

I will take your job

You cannot take my creativity.

I will take away your rights

You cannot take away my optimism.

I will take your future

You cannot take my past.

I will take away your opportunities

You cannot take away my ideas.

I will take away your security

You cannot take away my joy.

I will take your reputation

You cannot take my shadow.

I will take your life

You cannot take my soul.

Birds Of A Feather

100_0712.jpgBIRDS OF A FEATHER

 

If you didn’t mind listening to her snore, or breathing the heavy air that hung like a dense fog in the cozy nest that was her bedroom, you could perch quietly in the corner by Mariel’s bed every day of the week, Monday through Friday, and watch the same scene performed over and over with only occasional, minor variations.  At 6 o’clock every morning, Mariel’s alarm clock signaled the workday with a cacophony of pre-programmed noise.  In exactly three seconds, Mariel blindly reached over to silence it, swung her legs over the side of her bed, sat up, rubbed her eyes, and stumbled into the bathroom, all in one seamless arc of motion.  Her morning ablutions and preparations to leave for work had become so ritualized over half a lifetime of repetition that they required no thought on her part – not so much perfected as practiced, streamlined by the necessity of efficiency required that early in the morning at a time of day well before clear thinking informs action.  And, like any habitual occupation, Mariel adhered to the formula even though the original intent had long been mislaid somewhere back in the cobwebs of a cold dark morning without electricity or when an extended holiday or a bout with the flu interrupted the normal flow of activity.  Change occurred subtly over the course of decades, but it did happen, and often it was so gradual that Mariel was not aware of it.

 

Lest you should mistakenly assume that she was just not a thinking person, on the contrary.  Mariel was a very active thinker with a lively imagination.  And so while she went through the motions of getting ready for work each day, for all appearances incapable of logical deliberation, you’ll just have to grant her this:  that after a night full of vivid dreams after a day of constant intellectual exertion, these first hour of acting by rote rather than by intention gave her mind just enough space to rest and relax before meeting the many challenges of the day ahead.

 

Promptly at 7 o’clock, Mariel was standing at her front door going over her mental checklist for the last time, ticking off all of the things she needed to have in hand before locking up.  At this point, her thoughts were just starting to organize, but not enough to prevent the occasional lapses of memory such as forgetting the hot coffee thermos or bagged lunch on her kitchen counter, her ring of office keys, or the checks she needed to drop in the mail.  As if on auto-pilot, she soon found herself behind the wheel of her car and, like a fish swimming in and out of its school along the eddies and currents flowing around islands of commerce, Mariel joined the formation of cars traveling to their workplaces.  By the time she was parking her car, walking into her office building, unlocking her office door – doing all of the very same things that she did every single day of her work week – her critical thinking was in full gear.  For the rest of the day, she would occupy space in two parallel universes:  one that relied  solely upon the instinctive muscle memory of decades of repetitive work and the other that required her to think about completely unrelated things, evaluating and anticipating this or that or something else that had happened or was about to happen.  “Triage,” she liked to call it, taking care of putting out the brushfires that required quick thinking while she simultaneously continued to carry out the other functions of her job, like a memory-resident program that is constantly running in the background.

 

There was a lot of consistency in Mariel’s day from week to week, month to month, even year to year that caused a certain degree of complacency.  But, because she was a thinker, even this observation set up an interesting question for her to be bothered by for quite some time.  The question was:  which part of her repetitive day was the most important?  To frame the question, Mariel parsed the hours of each workday into clearly defined blocks of time.  Once this was done, she likened her day to a liturgical celebration, with the separate blocks of time representing rites within that liturgy.  To what other image could she better compare the work of living than something sacred, something that held in one place all of the richness of symbol and belief and sensation?  Mariel came up with the following list of the order:  Rite 1:  INTRODUCTORY RITE – Rising and going to work.  Rite 2:  PENETENTIAL RITE – The procession to work, work, and the recessional home after work.  Rite 3:  EUCHARISTIC RITE – Discretionary time after work/before bed . . . because she was oh so thankful for this time of her day!  And, lastly, Rite 4: FINAL BLESSING AND DISMISSAL – sleep, obviously!

 

Each of the rites or sections of time took on more or less significance at any given time, depending on the circumstances of her life, at times outranking the rest, at other times receding back to lesser emphasis on her scale of importance.  But, Mariel wanted to know which section in particular was overall the fundamental and most important in the grand scheme of all things.  Could they be isolated one from each other in order to determine which was the most important, or were they simply inseparable?  For most of her adult life Mariel had considered Rite 2 to be the greatest in importance because without the successful accomplishment of a day at work, there would be no paycheck to fund her existence, no place to rest her head at night.  Rite 1 sometimes advanced in her esteem, but usually remained as a close second behind Rite 2.  Mariel reasoned that without getting to work on time and sufficiently prepared for the day, the impact upon Rite 2 could be unavoidable and devastating.  Rite 3 took on increased importance in her life during the times when she was involved in a romance or taking a class after work or working on a project or doing volunteer work.  But, only recently had Rite 4 emerged in her ideas as being perhaps the most important part of her day.

 

Apart from remembering her dreams the next day or waking up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason, Mariel realized that the hours when she was asleep were the most mysterious part of her day.  It was nearly inconceivable to her that such a long period of time went completely unobserved by her.  It was unseen and unknown.  How could she measure the importance of this vital part of her day?  And, without the ability to think and reason while asleep, what was she doing all that time which required nothing more than animalistic instincts?  Even in her Rite 1 pre-thinking daze, at the very least, intuition or some innate sense would startle her into recognizing the centipede crawling in her bathtub before she stepped into her morning shower.  But, once she closed her eyes at night, what happened remained completely shrouded in the secrecy of sleep.  It could be very well that this total loss of consciousness, this complete separation of mind from body, left her not only in her most vulnerable state, but perhaps also in her most valued state.  How could she know?

 

Mariel was thinking about all of this one day when she left her office for a little fresh air and exercise.  She loved to walk around the office campus each morning just before all of the shops opened and the sidewalks filled with the hustle and bustle of other people’s daily activity.  Every morning at 9:00, rain or shine, she took 15 minutes to treat her day to this little diversion.  She crossed the parking lot and followed a path that ran behind the parking garage.  The shady path was lined on either side with tall pine trees and sugar maples filled in the spaces between them.  The pines gave an aromatic scent to the air and the maples provided indicators of the seasons with their changing foliage:  the pale green new leaves of spring yielded to the deeper green, denser canopies of summer.  In the autumn, the path was carpeted with layers of deep red, dusty orange, and sunny yellow leaves.  By the time winter made the scene, bare branches and twigs entwined overhead forming a lacy black pattern against a frosty, grey sky.

 

Once Mariel was in the trees and out of sight from the windows of her office building, she transformed into a bird.  It happened every day.  One minute she was the well-dressed woman, professional in appearance and decorum; the next minute she was a bird.  To look at her, you might wonder if she was some rare breed of fowl.  She seemed terrestrial, was low to the ground, and silent.  She had wings, but these were always folded at her sides, and she had never attempted to fly.  She continued walking on two spindly, birdlike legs and feet, strutting along the path, cocking her head from side to side, listening for insects on the ground and using her eyes to their fullest advantage, facing outward instead of forward.  Mariel was outfitted with brilliantly colored plumage and a lovely crest on top of her head.  Her feathers were canary yellow and arctic white, long and silky.  Her tail feathers were also yellow but blended out into a soft sage green and the ends were edged in sapphire blue.  She only knew this because occasionally there were cars parked near enough that she could see her reflection in their windows when she hopped up onto the wall of the parking garage.

 

Mariel had no idea why this happened to her, but, like the other recurring events of her day, she just accepted it.  It was but a rubric in the second rite of her daily celebration of her life.  It happened every work day.  It happened every time she took her morning walk.  She did not turn into a bird on the weekends or when she was on holiday.  This daily transformation was not borne out of volition or will except perhaps for the fact that Mariel did keep up her daily walks.  She couldn’t remember when this had first started and she couldn’t remember ever missing becoming a bird on any workday.  It was just something that took over her, it happened without thought or consideration on her part.  As Mariel pondered the questions that occupied her mind – about what happened when she was sleeping – she did think for just one brief moment of the possibility that maybe she turned into a bird while asleep, too.  What a silly idea!  She chided herself for even entertaining such a thought – as if someone could turn into a bird when they were asleep!

 

There were enough things in her life that did not feel good or that just left her feeling numb that made Mariel relish being a bird for a short time every day.  Being a bird counterbalanced these things, it released something positive that was pent up in Mariel, and it made her feel good.  It felt as natural as not being a bird.  It fulfilled some inner longings that Mariel didn’t recognize until she was a bird.  And, it made her feel complete – as if she were seeing something rare and beautiful about herself that was usually hidden, something that no one else could possibly know about her and that she was fortunate to know about herself.

 

As Mariel continued her walk –sometimes hopping up on the parking garage wall, sometimes walking up the side of a tree, she became steadier on her feet.  The shady path ended at the side of a lake with a lovely fleur-de-lis fountain far out in the middle.  Mariel was still a bird at the lake and she sometimes hopped onto the water’s clear surface and paddled out to the middle, feeling the mist from the fountain spray over her.  It was refreshing, especially on hot mornings.  She felt the air ruffling her feathers and, being so much lighter as a bird, a strong breeze sometimes blew her across the water.  Mariel enjoyed this and when it happened she felt like laughing out loud, although she did not.  It was a great treat to be so freed from the constraints of her predictable life.

 

Once Mariel had traced her steps back along the same tree-lined path, she emerged in full view of her office restored to her human shape, looking exactly as she had when she first left her house that morning.  She resumed her day as she had yesterday and as she would tomorrow.  Things and days came and went as they had for years with no indication of dramatic alteration of any kind.

 

So, it can be of no wonder why Mariel looked at birds differently than, say, you or I or anyone else who does not daily find themselves transformed from a human being into a bird.  She was especially kind to all birds, not knowing if this might be a person she worked with or a relative or even her best childhood friend.  Who could say?  Mariel was a strong advocate for birds and left birdseed, suet, and dishes of clean water wherever she had the opportunity to do so.  Always mindful of the kindness shown to her while in bird form, Mariel felt it was her duty to be as fair as possible to the birds that she came in contact with.

 

But, all of the routines and rituals of her life were about to come to a halt.  For several days, Mariel had increasingly been thinking about the rigid patterns of her life, wondering about sleeping and being a bird.  Things just weren’t adding up for her and finally, one morning, she went for her walk on the tree-lined path behind the parking garage at work, and she decided to see if she could fly.  She wasn’t exactly sure what kind of bird she was, but she knew that she had wings.  She wasn’t even sure if she could make a birdlike sound, but she wanted to try and to hear what her birdcall sounded like.  Mariel waddled down to the end of the path and hopped onto the smooth surface of the lake.  She felt her light body buoyed on the water, bouncing up and down on the crest of a wave pushed along by a chilly autumn breeze.  Suddenly, Mariel exerted muscles in her back and sides.  To her surprise, quite large wings extended on either side and instantly caught the upward draft of the air.  She felt herself being lifted from the water, her wet feet dangling beneath her.

 

“Wow!” she cried out in ecstasy.

 

To her amazement, Mariel herd another voice nearby answer her, “Wow!”

 

Mariel flapped her wings to steady herself midair and, as if born to it, flew higher, spiraling around the lovely fountain below her.

 

“Wow!  Wow Wow Wow!!”

 

“Wow Wow!”

 

“Hey,” she called out to the other bird nearby, “do I know you?”

 

“I don’t know,” she heard the other bird call back to her.  “I work in that building over there.  I sell life insurance.”

 

“Wow!  Wow Wow Wow!!”

 

“Wow Wow!”

 

“Hey, do you want to get out of here and go somewhere?” Mariel asked, surprised at herself for being so forward with a complete stranger.

 

The other bird glided effortlessly nearer to Mariel, circling around her.  From the tilt of his head, Mariel could tell that he was giving her the once-over.  “Yeah,” he said, “let’s get out of here.  By the way, my name’s Bert.”

 

“Cool!” Mariel answered.  “You lead the way.  This is the first time I’ve flown.  My name is Mariel.”

 

“Wow!  Wow Wow Wow!!

 

“Wow Wow!!

 

“Wow!  Wow Wow Wow!!”bull-shoals-lake

The Way We Were

My dad was always called by his middle name, Dale.  Yet, he was known by another name in print and sometimes even in conversation – H. Dale.  I don’t know how many people ever asked him what his first initial H stood for, but one person’s interpretation of it provided the title for one of my favorite cakes and a story from my childhood that I annually revisit by making that cake.

 

Martha, a farmer’s wife, lived back in the hills on a goat farm.  Her face was round and dark brown eyes watched from behind her glasses.  Soft, white hair covered the top of her head and her movements were quick and efficient.  She was strong and self-sufficient and a smile always played around the corners of her mouth.  On occasional Sunday afternoons my dad would accept the invitation to bring his family to join Martha and her husband for Sunday dinner.  By the time we arrived, Martha had fried mountains of freshly cut up chicken, was ready to mash the potatoes, and had just taken out of the oven the cake that always met us on these visits.  From the produce of her own land she put into the cake apples, black walnuts, eggs, and “figs” made from Roma tomatoes grown in her garden and dehydrated on sheets of paper underneath her kitchen sink.  This cake was baked with ground cinnamon, allspice, and cloves – the perfect autumn apple cake.  She made it especially for my dad and developed a moniker to suit the occasion.  She called it Hurry Dale Cake – because she said he was always in a hurry.  Yet, on those sunny afternoons, he was anything but in a hurry; happy might have been a better name for the cake.  Sometimes before the meal I helped by picking and shelling sweet peas from the garden, but we children pretty much were called upon to stay out from under foot of Martha and my mother as they finished preparing the meal.  Afterwards, we each took a wedge of that spicy apple cake and went exploring, following the sounds of the bells tied around the goats’ necks, dipping our feet into the icy creek water that encircled the farm, climbing the rocks and hills like the goats who led us on our merry chase.  When we returned to the house for more cake, or perhaps some of Martha’s home-made horehound candy, we’d see our parents uncharacteristically relaxed, resting in the cool, lengthening shadows inside the house, enjoying the hospitality of their two very special hosts.  No telephone.  No television.  Just the richness of kindhearted generosity spilling out of two very large hearts too small to contain all of the love they shared with each other.

 

I sometimes feel that I live a million light years away from my childhood home.  It’s silly to think that way about a place that is more about a time in my mind than a location on a map.  I can cross the distance that separates me physically from that place within a matter of a few hours, but it is not the same.  Still, I go there to remember the way life should be, the way I thought it was, the way I experienced it, the way I want it to be.  Every year I make a Hurry Dale Cake in the fall and bring to life again the joy of those Sunday afternoons.  That cake is very nearly like the accident of something sacramental that, by the anamnesis of this ritual baking, imparts the same grace bestowed upon me and my family as the sharing of it from the bounty of Martha’s goodness those long years ago.

20160917_163601

HURRY DALE CAKE

Preheat oven to 350

Ingredients—

2 cups peeled and diced apples

1 cup granulated sugar

 

1 and ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon allspice

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon salt

 

1 egg

½ cup cooking oil

 

In a bowl, cover apples with sugar.  Set aside until syrup forms.  In another bowl, sift the dry ingredients.  Blend the egg and cooking oil and add to the apples.  Stir in the dry ingredients until thoroughly blended.  Pour into oiled 8-inch square pan.  Bake for 30 minutes.  Vary by adding nuts, raisins, dates, figs, coconut, etc., to your taste.

 

NOTES:  I use cut up dried figs or when I don’t have them prunes.  I substitute pecans for the walnuts.  I am very generous with the spices and highly recommend Vietnamese cinnamon for a robust flavor.  You may frost this cake, but I find it quite sweet enough without any toppings. I like to make ahead, cut into squares, and individually wrap in plastic wrap to preserve moistness.

 

 

 

Can an old dog learn new tricks? Or, how I learned another life-lesson from my daughter

I hameve been hearing about Bari Tessler and “The Art Of Money” for several years from one of the likeliest of sources – in my life – for pure success at a home-run:  my daughter.  As with my son, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that when she has something to share with me from her own personal experience, I’m going to be (1) 100% interested in the subject matter; (2) totally captivated with the information that she has to share with me; (3) so personally enriched by the conversation that I continue my own investigation once our discussion has ended.  This is typically true regardless of my previous interest in the subject.  There’s just something about my kids’ interests and where their lives have taken them that I find fascinating.  Often, they build upon interests that we shared while they were at home with me.  But, very often, it is the case that they have moved into areas of circumstance and experience that are well outside of my sphere of knowledge and expertise.  I have learned so much from them!  They are very good teachers.

 

So, when my daughter first started effusing to me about Bari Tessler and “The Art Of Money,” I was surprised to realize that it was an immediate turn-off for me.  Financial therapy?  Money shame?  My relationship with credit and debt, spending and saving, income and outgo?   This was an area of conversation that I had no interest in pursuing at all.  At first, I questioned (for the first time) my daughter’s usually spot-on ability to assess character, and I feared that she fallen under the spell of some get-rich-quick evangelist.  But, I soon realized that was not the case, and so I simply had to accept that this was a frontier I could not cross with my daughter.  We had come to a parting of the ways where I was concerned, on the subject of money.   She was not pushy about it, no more than she is with other things that we don’t see eye-to-eye on.  But, this money thing was not of an ilk as, say, tastes in music or movies or books or Scotch.  This was a life-changing event, a paradigm shift that I could see inspiring and invigorating her to make a deep commitment to her own personal financial health and well-being.  My own history of dealing indirectly with money by avoiding eye-contact with the deeply ingrained behaviours and thought patterns of a lifetime was about to be challenged with all the terrifying confrontation of a piece of French silk pie and a basket of kittens.

 

It didn’t take but a few minutes of honest self-reflection to realize the source of my skepticism:  I am a person (among oh, so many) who never really learned how to develop a healthy relationship with money.  So, with the gentle encouragement of my daughter, I set aside my personal ambivalence and read with increasing interest “The Art Of Money,” soon to be released in book form by Parallax Publishing.  In a time when, for the thoughtful person, no topic is beyond the bounds for reevaluation, “The Art Of Money” comes along to shine a healing light on hang-ups and personal misunderstandings about money that are inculcated early and can survive a lifetime despite other changes and self-improvement.  This delightful book is the culmination of years of the balanced and thoughtful integration of study and discernment with practical experience and real-life stories – a road map, a traveler’s guide along the sometimes weedy, over-grown path of personal money management.  Money – it is what it is, but each person’s relationship with it is subjective and learned.  This book does not promise to make one rich, does not promise to make one thin, wise, or beautiful.  But, contained in the captivating writing on the pages between its covers, the reader will find clear and concise help to crystalize issues they may have been too afraid to confront, issues that cause misery and unhappiness when it comes to money.  And, once those issues are clarified, the book helps to demystify and deflate the unrestrained power those personal concerns exert over a healthy relationship with money.  The “Art Of Money” is a very healthy and informative book, written with careful attention to detail and sensitivity to the unease of many readers dealing with this topic.  Not only does it provide a very personal, comprehensive introduction to Bari Tessler’s on-line program, The Art Of Money, but it provides a wealth of helpful resources.

 

Did I find myself on just about every page of the book?  Yes, it is surprisingly relatable.  Hard to isolate just one or two places that particularly struck home with me, so I’ll go with this one:  letting go of money shame.  Turns out, I recognize this characteristic in myself pretty strongly – it’s the conflict with money that has risen out of subjective responses to isolated experiences, but lasts and lasts well beyond a healthy shelf-life.  I was surprised at the stance that Bari Tessler takes on this and similar “character flaws,” (my terminology) because I expected her to be unyielding in her insistence to eradicate all such bug-a-boos from her readers’ minds.  However, Bari correctly nips the idea of “tough love” right in the bud.  She leads the reader through kind and gentle steps toward self-healing, citing:

 

“Shaming ourselves is an old, unconscious pattern. Telling ourselves, again and again, that we are not doing it right, that we’re not good enough, or that we’re unforgivable is self-directed violence. It’s unhelpful and flat-out inaccurate.”

 

I’d say this is sage advice and applicable to any area of one’s life, starting with money.

 

UPDATE:  Thank you everyone who’s read this post and for those who are interested in purchasing the book, you can pre-order at Amazon using this link:

The Art of Money at Amazon

 

Hank and Sara: A Love Story

Sara got up at her usual time that morning.  She wrapped herself in her cozy chenille bathrobe and padded barefoot down the hall to the kitchen.  To her delight, sunlight was already just visible in the eastern windows of her kitchen.  There it was:  her touchstone, her benchmark, her favorite celestial body, the beautiful burning ball that lighted her days and illuminated her thoughts.  The sky was clear this morning so perhaps, she thought, this would be a sunny day after all.  After several days of spring rainstorms, Sara was ready for a respite from the dreary weather and the emotional pall it seemed to have cast over her life.  Once the sun ascended above the horizon, she knew how quickly it would complete its overhead arc in the sky and vanish beneath the blaze of sunset on the other side of the day.  Never so much as in the morning was she assured of the dependable passage of time.  And, no matter how dramatically everything else on her personal landscape changed, Sara was always confidently assured of the steady march of time, led by the sun, with the moon and stars following in their courses, never turning back or changing direction or stopping.  Once the morning arrived, too soon it would be over, and a day lasted such a few hours before yielding to the night which, however interminable it sometimes seemed, would eventually be gone just as certainly as the preceding day.  This structural underpinning of time provided all that Sara needed to remain grounded in the midst of unsettled and often turbulent circumstances.  The coming and going of day and night, light and dark, was the ideal of constancy upon which she modeled her character and fantasized a paradisiacal world.  For someone like Sara, whose relationship entanglements seemed always to have kept her busily rearranging her life in order to react quickly to the changes brought about by someone else, the constant passage of time was ideal in its reliable perfection.  Sara had an inner yearning to find the thing that she did perfectly well and could persevere in, in spite of changing circumstances, like the predictable sequence of day following night – nothing more or less than just what it was and had always been and would ever be.

She opened the French doors and felt a cool breeze filter through the screen doors, softly rearranging her hair that, after a night of troubled sleep, was still standing up in all directions over her head like a curly, grey dandelion.  Pausing in the open doors she listened to a cacophony of birdsong and hesitated to move for fear of missing this perfect moment.  Sara glanced at the clock on the wall.  It did not say, “The perfect moment,” or “The best part of the day.”  The calendar on her refrigerator did not say, “Day full of foreboding,” or “Day of wish fulfillment.”  Sara was surprised that in this moment she felt no concern for the day that lay ahead or, beyond that, for her all-too uncertain future.  The stillness of the air seemed to be settling her with a calm peacefulness in the present moment:  no expectations, no responsibilities, no outcomes or probabilities, no fears, no hopes, no plans, nothing but just the awareness of herself in a moment of only being in her place with everything else in its place around her.  Like geese flying in formation across the sky, she thought, recalling the lines of a poem she once read.  Sara allowed herself to remain in the open doors just a little longer, not really savoring the moment, but just being in it, until the irresistible idea of coffee settled into her brain and then the idea of its intoxicating aroma pulled her back in the direction of the kitchen and to the undeniable reality of the day.

Sara filled the hot water kettle and plugged it in, fitted a fresh filter in her chemex, and reached for the coffee grinder.  That’s when she saw the box on the floor.  Oh.  The Box.  After nearly a lifetime of working for the same company, Sara’s position had been eliminated just the day before.  This was her first morning, her first day of unemployment in 40 years.  To add insult to injury, her employer had given her the news on the exact date of her 40th anniversary of employment, and without even so much as the chance to say goodbye to the few coworkers in the office that she might have wanted to bid farewell.  It was a management decision, executed by a young supervisor 25 years her junior who had been sent on his bloody errand by his boss, Hank, a man that Sara had considered a friend and colleague within the hierarchy of the organization.  Hank and Sara had both been with the company about the same number of years and had been watching with increasing concern as the owners surgically whittled away at the workforce with the most seniority.  In some ways it was incredulous to Sara that just a short 12 hours or so earlier she had been in her office, numbly packing things into The Box that had now taken up residence on her kitchen floor. Sara recalled many scenes in recent months when she had been the bearer of just such tidings of bad news, sent by Hank to deliver separation notices to coworkers.  Typically, with key management personnel or employees in positions of critical sensitivity to the company, the owners allowed no advance notice at all, severing them like limbs from a tree instantly.  This was the best way to make sure that there were no high-level snafus engineered by disgruntled former employees as parting shots before they and their Boxes were escorted to their cars.  At least she could take small comfort in her inclusion within this circle of elite, not being officially on that level of the organizational chart.  In a twisted sort of way, Sara felt her similar treatment was, in that respect, an acknowledgment of her years of service and importance.

She stood at the kitchen sink and looked over her shoulder at The Box on the floor.  The fledgling angel of death had not watched her very closely while she filled The Box, so he was not aware of the things that Sara had taken.  Whatever was she going to do with those things, now?  This must be similar to when a bereaved spouse has to go through closets and dresser drawers, picking through the lifeless bits and remnants of a lost love.  Thankfully, she had never kept personal belongings in her office, so the things she took were just about as meaningless as her 40 years of loyal service that were dismissed without recognition or reward, not even a kind word of thanks.  How could anything in The Box give her joy or comfort now?  The lid was taped shut and Sara looked at it with disgust.  She wished that she had never brought it home.  In the sanctuary of her home, it was an intruder from an alien world.  It symbolized a Pandora’s Box full of ills, shut up with packing tape against the possibility of being released into the safe nest of her home.

Sara recalled that while filling The Box she had mentally ticked off an unseen list of actions that she knew had been set into motion just beyond her office door.  She knew that she had already sent her last email from her company account, for no doubt the IS manager had watched until he saw the death angel enter Sara’s office and then cut off all her rights to the network and email system.  Protocols were in place that Sara had helped to design to safeguard the company’s assets – of which Sara had been proud to be numbered until the visitation from on high and the dreaded appearance of the dreaded empty Box.  Sara didn’t need to hear the speech, she already knew it by heart, but she was cooperative and listened anyway as he explained that her position had been eliminated and after two days she would be in receipt of a package of materials containing severance agreements and payoffs, if applicable, for her to review and sign.  He had no shred of dignity to offer her except to say that he would wait outside while she packed her things in The Box before walking her to her car.  Sara surrendered her keys and knew that even as she exited the building, locks would be changed, her voicemail box would be deleted, her emails scoured and purged, her office would be “cleaned” in a routine search of any incriminating evidence, and passwords would be updated. There would be an emailed notice sent to all employees informing them of her sudden departure, written in creatively vague terminology to make it seem as if it might have been Sara’s idea to leave, and wishing her well in her future endeavors – although she would never see that email or read those wishes.  At some point, she would be counseled by the HR manager – Hank – to seek legal advice before signing anything and she would be reminded on paper and through other communications that the company had the right to terminate her employment, as no contract existed between herself and the company.

Sara knew from watching this same scenario happen to others that resistance was futile.  Before her, many had tried and all had failed.  Although this was the worst possible time in her life to lose her job, Sara knew that there was no choice but to be cooperative.  At least, she thought out loud, I have my health.  Hearing her own voice jolted her back to reality, away from the fantastical graveyard specters of her imagination, their bony, long fingers reaching for her throat.  Instinctively, Sara looked up at the wall cabinets above her head and gently knocked on the nearest wooden door.  For the first time in her life, Sara felt fragile, vulnerable to the capricious whims of fate – and viruses and accidents and insults and unpredictable harms.  Any number of surprises, both good and bad, could be waiting just around the corner to catch her off guard.  Reaching for her bottle of multi-vitamins, she drew in a long breath, vowing, as she did, not to fall prey to adverse wish fulfillment.

On the exhale of that breath, it seemed that her immediate surroundings were flooded with the enormity of the change of her situation.  She stood there almost as if hallucinating, seeing a complicated web of problems displayed before her eyes.  What to do first, whom to tell, where to go, the complexity of it all seemed impossible to navigate and endless because all of the relevant questions appeared tied to so many other questions that the unraveling of it all compared to an impossibly knotted tangle of yarn.  If only it were yarn, then well might she just take a pair of scissors and snip out all the tangled bits, hoping to leave behind salvageable, meaningful lengths that on their own could be resolved and then reconnected into a more orderly outcome. She noticed her breaths were rapid and shallow, distanced as she had become from that overall sense of peace and calm she had earlier enjoyed.  How quickly things can change, she thought, and the distraction of this observation was just enough to remove her from the brink of despair.  Sara decided to table the thought processes required to address the overwhelming list of challenges.  It seemed like the ultimate luxury for her to make the choice to put off dealing with sudden joblessness – in whole or in its innumerable parts.  She laughed out loud at the prospect of not meeting problems head-on for the first time in her life; but, instead, diffusing their anxiety-producing power by simply eliminating them from the equation of her day.  What if she should do such a thing?  So what?  If things turned out badly, then tomorrow when the sun rose again, she would simply have one more in an incomprehensible number of issues to manage.  And, in the overall scheme of things, what’s one more?  Maybe that would be just the added ingredient to change things for the better, tip the balance in her favor.

Perhaps she was just too overwhelmed, or maybe in a state of shock.  But, maybe, she was being prudent in waiting for the severance materials to arrive.  Anyway, Sara decided that she would be careful and deliberate in her actions, and this morning too soon to be either.  She would follow her instincts and before doing anything she would just be a human being on the face of the planet for this day. She would give herself a day, perhaps two, before starting the process of processing all that had happened and was going to happen.  And, if that wasn’t enough time to reset her thinking, recharge her energy, and give her a fresh outlook on the future and her place in it, then she would give herself another day, or two, or three.  Rather than act in haste, she would create a cushion of space within which to move slowly and sanely.  Soon enough the pressures of her personal responsibilities would clamor for her attention and she would not be able to ignore them.  As if to demonstrate that fact, the electric kettle switched off and announced hot water by sending up a hissing plume of steam.  Sara slowly poured hot water over the coffee grounds, listening as the first drops of fragrant coffee hit the bottom of the empty glass container below.  Only then did she hear the cooing of the mourning dove from outside on her patio.  She stood very still, hoping not to frighten it away by a sudden movement, and wondered if she had missed this same bird calling from outside every morning.  She remembered as a child thinking that these birds were so sweet, so gentle, and she had tried to mimic their soft trilling sound hoping to lure one to her to keep as a pet.  Only in her adult life had she seen what real monsters those birds could be, and she had many times observed them engaged in bloody battle.  Even so, it was pleasant to see and hear this one today.  Maybe this bird had been coming every morning while she had been rushing to get to work on time to her important job where she was just as expendable as the coffee grounds she was about to toss into the trash.  And, what else had she missed on those tiresome, long days spent inside her office from first light till last, while she was occupied with the business of making money for her employers?

Sara poured her first cup of coffee into her favorite “Saturday mug,” the mug that she only used on Saturdays because it was delicate and beautiful and festive and helped her celebrate the weekend away from the office.  The daily mug that she had been using at work for years and years was packed in The Box on the kitchen floor.  It would have to stay there indefinitely, maybe forever.  She took a deep breath, inhaling the smell of very good, fresh coffee, coffee that she only drank on weekends because during the week, she was at work drinking the commercial brew that always tasted stale no matter when it was made.  Even though actual coffee breaks had been rare during her tenure at the office, Sara had managed to consume vast amounts of very bad coffee at her desk.  Breathing in, I drink my coffee, Sara thought to herself.  Breathing out, I enjoy it.

Sara topped off her Saturday mug and carried it outside onto the patio.  She left the doors open to allow the fresh spring air into her apartment for later enjoyment, and settled into her favorite chair, let her body relax, and focused her attention on her breathing.  From her fifth floor perch, she was privy to a view of the world below that at that height she shared only with the local birds.  And, seeing it this early in the morning on a week day was quite rare, almost like watching a television show.  She observed an unknown person making his way down the alley, stopping as he did to climb into each garbage dumpster, pry open the heavy lid, and then disappear within its gaping mouth.  Sometimes he emerged with objects in his hands which he then loaded into a shopping cart that clattered and rattled as he pushed it on down the alley.  Sara closed her eyes to the dumpster-diver and tried to meditate.

But, it was to be a short exercise in meditation for very soon the seamless quiet was rent by the jarring buzz of her front doorbell.  The sound startled her so suddenly out of her reverie that she spilled hot coffee on her robe, eliciting a string of expletives that shocked all of creation – or so it seemed to Sara.  When she checked her anger, Sara sensed that even the shadows on her patio floor, tracking the rising sun, had stopped while the sun paused mid-arc on its morning path around the sky and waited for Sara to hush and for balance to be restored before resuming its upward journey.  Woops, she thought, and then apologized out loud to the universe.  But, the doorbell buzzed insistently again, and so Sara turned to address her unexpected interruption.  She could only imagine it was a wrong address because there was no reason why anyone would be at her door so early in the morning on a work day when normally she would by now be rushing out that very door.  Of course, it might be a courier delivering the severance package from her office.  It would serve that person right for disturbing her peace to see Sara appear with bed-head hair, no makeup on, teeth unbrushed, dressed in her lumpy, coffee-stained bathrobe.  She got to the door just as it buzzed for the third time and swung it open, ready to be amused at the look of surprise on the face of the person who would see her there.

But, it was Sara whose face registered the most surprise when she saw standing before her in the open doorway none other than Hank, her now-former coworker who had sent his underling to Sara’s office yesterday afternoon to unceremoniously sever her from her paycheck.

Quickly she brushed her fingers through her hair and stuttered a greeting, “Oh, hello, Hank!”  Despite his polished, GQ-ready appearance, Hank wore the sheepish look on his face of a person who knows he has crossed a boundary, but it is simply too late to turn back.

“Sara, I am so sorry to bother you like this, but I needed to talk to you,” he said, gesturing with empty hands that did not carry the envelope of materials Sara might have expected from an emissary sent by her former employee.  “I’m so sorry.  May I come in?”

“Of course,” Sara said, shrugging her shoulders.  She stepped aside and allowed Hank to come into her front room.  “Why don’t you just have a seat here and give me a minute to put something on,” she said, adding, “I just brewed a pot of coffee.  Would you like a cup?”

“No, that would be asking too much.  I’ll just wait here,” Hank said, settling onto the couch with an agitated look about him.

What on earth!  Sara marched down the hall to her bedroom rolling her eyes and slammed the door behind her.  This guy has some nerve to come barging in here at this hour after what happened yesterday!  But, maybe there has been a change of heart at the office already.  Maybe the wrong person was fired, or maybe the owners realized they can’t operate without me in the organization, she thought.  Any number of positive possibilities could have emerged after she left the office.  She quickly threw on a pair of leggings and a button-up shirt, rolled up the sleeves, and then attacked her hair.  A once-over with a toothbrush, a little mascara, and a pair of sandals before she returned to the front room.

“Just let me warm up my coffee,” she called over her shoulder as she walked past Hank and into the kitchen.  “Are you sure I can’t get you anything?”

“Maybe a glass of water if that’s not too much trouble,” Hank replied.  “Tap water is just fine for me.”

Forgetting it was there, Sara tripped over The Box and spilled cold coffee on the floor.  She had to bite her lower lip to keep from swearing out loud again.  Then, she accidentally overfilled the cup, spilling hot coffee on herself for the second time that morning.  She mopped up the spill, filled a glass with cold water, and returned to the front room in no mood for small talk.  She handed the water glass to Hank and then sat down in the easy chair across from the couch.

Hank thanked her and took a long drink of water.  Over the rim of her Saturday mug, Sara watched Hank and could see that he was visibly calming himself.  He was a handsome man of a “certain age” – same demographic as Sara, a piece of information that she had confirmed many times over the years when updating databases for the office.  Tall and well built, he had a full head of beautifully razor-cut silver hair, a well-trimmed mustache and beard closely trimmed to his face.  Hank always looked like he was dressed for a photo shoot and this morning was no exception, on his way to work in a dove grey suit, his gold wristwatch hanging loosely from his left arm, making a jangling bracelet sound every time he moved his left hand.  Hank leaned forward, reached in front of him, and started to set down the glass on the coffee table between them.  Sara noted that he was looking for a coaster for the glass, but she sat in silence, refusing to be the first person to speak, not troubling herself to offer him one.  Hank returned to a sitting position, glass in hand, without saying a word.  Sara counted the seconds and at 33, Hank cleared his throat and began with another apology.

“Sara, again, I want to apologize for coming this morning.  I also want to let you know that I was completely blindsided by what happened yesterday in the office.  If I had known, I’m sure that I would have told you to expect it.  That may be why they didn’t tell me.  Fact is, they went around me entirely.”

Something in Hank’s voice caught Sara off guard.  He was not his usual glib self, but still seemed ill at ease.  A wave of compassion washed over her and she decided to reserve judgment about him until hearing the rest of the story.

Hank continued, “Truth is, I expect that I am next on the chopping block and I know that is none of your concern, but I did want to clear the air about this whole thing because there is something else that I need to talk to you about and it has nothing to do with work or jobs or being fired or any of this.  Let me just assure you of that.”

Sara felt herself blush.  Could it be that after all these years Hank had finally seen her?  Really seen her as a person and not just another cog in the wheel?  For a woman of her age, Hank was more than just a good catch, he was the ultimate catch.  She knew he owned a large house in a good neighborhood, took vacations, and drove a Lexus.  There must have been many years of good income leading up to his present circumstances and Sara could predict a happy retirement in his future with trips and restaurants and shows and, as far as she knew, no one with whom to share that good life.

Now that she looked at him from a new perspective, she quickly noted an ever-so-slight grimace on his face, as if there was an underling chronic pain just beneath the surface of his polished outer appearance.  Poor man, she thought.  He is tortured by the thought of our never seeing each other again.  I will not be coy with him, but relieve his mind immediately and let him know that I am available.  Of course, we will need time to get to know each other better, but if losing that job means acquiring Hank, then I am okay with that!  She smiled sweetly at him.

“Hank,” she said, with a decided change of tone in her voice, “why don’t you just catch your breath for a moment while I freshen up your water?  Would you like a slice of lemon or lime in it?  I have both.  Maybe some fruit or toast?”  Sara got up and reached for Hank’s water glass.

“No, thanks, Sara,” he said.  Please, I, I just want to clear the air between us and make sure that we are okay.  Really, I’m fine, but thank you.  Thank you.”  And, as if to prove his satisfaction with the water in his glass, Hank took several gulps, licked his upper lip, and looked tentatively at Sara.

“Well, if you’re sure,” Sara replied as she returned to her seat opposite him.

For a moment they just looked at each other, as if calculating the distance between them in units of syllables.  After what seemed a respectable space of time, they both began to speak at once, laughed, and then Hank nervously yielded to Sara.  Understanding that Hank might be reluctant to prematurely divulge his feelings before he felt confident in her reciprocity, she decided to demonstrate her congeniality and amiability by inquiring about how the rest of the staff had reacted to her departure, wishing them all well and hoping that it would not be disruptive to the office culture.

Hank seemed a little too distracted to fully engage in this line of conversation, but he pointed out that he was not able to gauge reactions since the firing had only happened yesterday and he had not yet been to the office, today.  But, he thanked her for asking.  The silence that descended between them after this exchange was one that Sara honored, letting it be the line of demarcation between obligatory pleasantries and what Hank had really come to talk about.  They were about to cross into a new country, one she hoped would be full of surprises for them both.

Hank nervously took another drink of water, set his glass down on a magazine, clasped both his hands in front of him, looked intently at Sara, and began.

“Well, I really don’t know how to tell you this, and again, I apologize, but Sara, I feel we’ve known each other for a very long time and I trust you and don’t really want to bring anyone else into this thing, whatever it is.  I’m not really sure what it is.  But, I actually thought about talking to you about this sooner, and then work got in the way, so, it almost seemed providential to me yesterday when I found out about their letting you go, you know, in a twisted sort of way.  Not that I think it was a good thing for them to do, and I’m really very sorry about it; but, at least, at the time, it did seem to open up a way for me to approach you about this.”

Hank stopped long enough to take another drink and Sara felt her heart pounding.  She could hear the blood rushing in her ears and her palms suddenly felt cold and sweaty.  Apparently this man had some very deep feelings.  How could she have missed the signals?  He was certainly professional at work, one had to grant him that.  She wondered how long this had been going on for him.  Poor guy!  She held tightly inside of herself an almost irrepressible urge to take him in her arms and assure him that she understood and would not disappoint him.

“The thing is,” Hank rose to his feet and walked over to the open doors, looking outside as he spoke, “I simply do not know what to do and I am hoping that at least, with the level of professional respect that we have for each other, that you will be able to listen to me and take me at my word when I tell you about this thing that is happening.  I, uh, I can’t talk to anyone at work about this, obviously, and my daughter would just not know how to take it.”

Sara recalled hearing that Hank had a grown daughter from a previous marriage that had ended in divorce long before she had met him.  It would make sense to her that a daughter would want to protect her father from another woman.  She nodded her head, knowingly.

“Hank,” Sara interjected, “of course you can trust me to listen and to keep confidential anything you say.  I’ve always had the greatest respect for you and I admire you a lot.  You have nothing to worry about with me.”  She didn’t want to say too much, fearing that it might be off-putting to him, so here she stopped and waited for him to pour out his heart to her.  If only she had taken the time to put on deodorant or even to spritz on some cologne, for she regretted that in the next few seconds they would be in each other’s arms and she was going to smell like an older woman who has not bathed, one with coffee breath and unbrushed teeth.  But, she had faith in the sort of true love that would drive Hank to her this early in the morning.  And, so, she wore the gentle look of a Madonna, beaming serenity and domestic bliss in Hank’s direction.

“Well, okay,” Hank said.  He turned around, facing her, put his hands in his pockets and said, “here it is.  The thing is, and please just hear me out, but the thing is that I’m in love with an alien being.”

Sara had already allowed herself to begin reacting after hearing the first three words, “I’m in love,” and so she felt her face instinctively reverse when the end of the sentence was delivered to her disbelieving ears.  After saying this, Hank, waiting to get a reaction from Sara, watched the look on her face change rapidly from joy to surprise to confusion to consternation until she finally settled on a look of utter disbelief.  Hank understood that look of disbelief appropriately to mean that she did not believe in alien beings.  However, of far more importance to Sara was her disbelief that Hank was professing to be in love with anyone else, anything else, it didn’t matter, it was not herself. While she tried to collect her composure, he continued.

“I know it sounds incredible, but you simply must understand that I am utterly,” and here Hank’s bewildered eyes scanned the room as if searching for the correct word, perhaps written on a wall or piece of furniture, until he found it and blurted out, “besotted with this creature.  I am not sure exactly where she comes from or even if she is a she or not.  I do know that her name is Rehinndella or something like that, and I can’t live with her or without her.  I am barely able to function thinking about her the way that I do all the time.  It has got to the point where I am questioning my sanity,” he let out an uncharacteristic nervous giggle, then sobered himself, “which I’m sure you can understand is one reason I wanted to talk to you about all this for a little reality-check.”

Sara’s face was now hopelessly blank, devoid of any expression that might reveal the gamut of feelings now leading her thoughts on a merry chase behind the betrayal she felt for having roused her own hopes of a romantic involvement with this man.  She looked at him – yes, he was still there, standing in her room looking exactly like a person who she thought she knew very well but who now was revealing something about himself that she really didn’t care to know.  This new revelation made Sara see Hank in an entirely new light and in the bright glare of that reality he didn’t appear as handsome as he had when he first entered her room.  The transformation was sudden and complete.  It reminded Sara of occasions when she had seen a former lover of her own or of a friend, a man newly in the throes of self-doubt and awkwardly adapting to being single, like someone who’s just learning to skate.  There is something about a man suddenly bereft of his significant other that strips him of all the gleam and glitter that love brings to a man and leaves him looking insignificant and weak and dull, like a deflated balloon, until enough time has passed so that he is able to re-inflate himself through other means than the constant approval and ego boost of that lost, adoring admirer.  In many ways, Sara hypothesized, men really were just as weak-kneed about love as women.  Hank was obviously suffering, and the maternal instinct in Sara that always made her reach out to the downtrodden, disadvantaged, underprivileged, disenfranchised people and animals that crossed her path now impelled her to not abandon Hank in his trial, but to at least try to be of help to him in some small way, even if only to refer him to a good psychologist.

“Hank, you say that you don’t know much about, was that Rehin . . .”

“Rehinndella,” Hank finished softly with a shy smile.

“Yes,” Sara continued.  “Rehinndella.  You don’t know much about her.  Then how do you know that she is an alien?”

“Sara,” Hank replied, with a little more energy in his voice, “it is the strangest thing. The way it all began was early one morning before sunrise when I heard the birds outside.  They woke me up, sort of half-woke me up, you know how that happens.  I was half awake, dreaming, listening to the birds outside, like I always do, and realized all of a sudden this creature was in bed with me. Breathtaking, beautiful, just all-encompassing of my attention and senses and she nearly smothered me with her soft, her soft clothing, I guess.  So soft.  So fragile.”  Hank stopped as if lost in the thrall of the memories of that first encounter until something called him back to Sara’s front room.  It was Sara, clearing her throat.

“Sorry,” Hank said.  “Anyway, the thing is that after that first morning, she would come back to me occasionally but only for very brief visits in the early morning.  We talked very little because, I have to admit, mostly we simply held each other and slept together.  And – I’m sure you’ll want to know this – our talking wasn’t really talking.  It’s like we can just read each other’s minds.  And, oh, her thoughts!  Just so rich and beautiful and full of love way beyond anything I’ve ever known or imagined.”  Hank paused again and looked at Sara, searching her face for some sign of recognition that she was understanding him. Sara obligingly encouraged him to go on with a half-hearted, “Mmmm-hmmm.”

“But,” Hank started up again, “at some point I would drift off to sleep and when I woke up, she would be gone.  Every time.  I tried to find traces of her left behind and I would even ask her to leave something for me to remember her by, but she would just laugh very sweetly.  She’s got the sweetest-sounding voice, sort of trilling and very soft.  Anyway, she would say things like she would be back tomorrow or she didn’t have anything to give me.  Honestly, I can’t even say with any certainty what she looks like because it’s always dark when she is with me.  And, to be honest, it’s gotten to where it doesn’t matter to me anymore.  It just doesn’t matter.  I know we speak different languages, but I think I now understand when she says, “I’ll see you tomorrow,” what she means is, “We will see each other again at some point,” because we can go weeks, months without seeing each other.  It’s just awful.  All I need you to know is that when I am with her, I am a different person.  I am completely in love with her and I have no idea where to find her except in my bed on certain mornings which I can’t even predict.  Do you think she hypnotizes me and maybe that is why I can’t ever seem to be awake when she leaves?  I’ve asked myself this question a hundred times.  And, how else could she do all this and then only show up when it’s dark without coming through my door unless she is an alien?  She doesn’t even have a key.  Do you think I’ve been hypnotized by her?”

Sara stared at Hank and then shook her head.  “Hank, I’ve never heard anything like this.  I have to ask, are you sure you aren’t just dreaming it?”

Hank sat back down on the couch and put his head in his hands.  Then he looked up at Sara, red-faced, holding back tears.  “Sara, I was afraid anyone else would ask me such a thing, but I felt sure that you, you of all people, you wouldn’t.  You have always been so fair about things and you know me very well.  Am I the sort of person who would make all this up or be confused by dreams and think they are real?  Am I?”

At this point, Sara couldn’t give a truthful answer that she thought Hank would accept.  But, she felt it best to play along with Hank a little further and see if there weren’t some way for him to accept a rational explanation for what had happened.

“It’s not that, Hank,” she reassured him.  “But, think about it.  Surely there is some small piece of evidence left behind, something you can think of that is different about the room or you or anything that might give you some concrete proof that Rehin . . .”

“Rehinndella,” Hank helped Sara with the name, again.

“Yes, Rehinndella,” said Sara, “proof that she really exists as you have come to know her.  I mean, from what you are telling me this might be some intruder breaking into your bedroom.  And, what if she is hypnotizing you?  This could be a serious problem down the road if there are more people involved.  Surely there is something you can think of that would put you on the trail of finding and understanding who she is, what she is.   I mean, you say you don’t talk but hear each other’s thoughts.  Have you never even heard her voice?”

Hank pursed his lips together and looked up at the ceiling for a moment as if running through a catalog of memories of his impressions of Rehinndella.

“Well, there is one thing,” he said, just a little sheepishly.

“Yes?” Sara asked.

“Well, it seems that on the mornings after she has been to visit me, I find tiny little tufts of white feathers in my room, almost like down feathers, and it does seem as if she uses my window to come and go because I find most of the feathers in the window.  But, she’s so quiet about it.  How can she come and go without me being aware of it?  Those windows are new, but you have to give them a good yank to open them and I am quite sure the first night they were all locked.  After that, I left them open just in case she came back.  Too, there is the fact that my bedroom is on the second floor. How on earth could she get up there?  I just don’t understand it.  She’s amazing!”

Sara frowned as she tried to process the new information and added an impression next to the most obvious one of Hank being utterly in love:  he completely believed in Rehinndella and in her alien-ness.

“Well, that is something,” she said to him.  “Think about this a little more.  You don’t communicate with your voices – so, how did you learn her name?”

“That, now that is a very good question,” Hank said, seeming very eager to share more about this strange love affair.  “You see, occasionally she and I actually do speak using our voices, well, my voice.  I’m not sure if you’d say she has a voice.  She makes a sound that is beautiful, trilling sort of, melodic yet it has a piercing clarity to it almost like a flute.”

“Like maybe a bird?” Sara ventured.

“Yes, yes, very much like a bird,” said Hank matter-of-factly, pointing at Sara to emphasize each word.  There was a sound in his voice that sounded very much like, “Thank you” to Sara, and she realized how much meaning is communicated through the inarticulate sounds that accompany the vocabulary that makes up a language.

“And that is how I learned her name. She told it to me and we rehearsed it over and over until I could say it, well, approximate it, because her language, well, you might compare it to a tonal language, for example, like an Asian dialect.  It’s just so different and you have to say things with just the right inflection in order to get the intended meaning across.  When we are together, it’s easier for me to say her name closer to the way she does, but, if you’d like to hear it, I’ll certainly give it a try.  I mean, saying “Rehinndella” correctly is kind of like saying “Pay-Droh” when you mean “Pedro.”

“Sure, I’d love to hear it,” said Sara, thankful that Hank had turned away from her so that he would not see her rolling her eyes heavenward.

“Okay, well, here goes,” Hank said and then he shook himself, swallowed a few times, and put his lips together almost as if he were about to kiss his unseen alien being in the air, and then warbled, “Rrrrrrrrreh Rrrrrrrrreh Rrrrrehinnndelll-UH.”

Sara didn’t know a man’s voice, especially a man of Hank’s age, could vocalize in such a high, shrieking register.  It was more like a whistle, except for the rolling r’s in front of the name.  And as high-pitched as the name was when it sang it – or spoke it or intoned it – on the last syllable at the end of the name, Hank’s voice shot up even higher, accentuating that last syllable with an ear-splitting vibrato.  Sara had to employ every bit of self-control she could collect to convey surprise or delight rather than to fall apart in uncontrollable laughter at what was to her the most comedic spectacle of Hank warbling that name.  Every last ounce of self-restraint was barely enough to quell the side-splitting laughter that was tearing at her to come out and confirm what a fool Hank was making of himself.  Still oblivious to the spectacle he was putting on, Hank carried on passionately trilling his alien girlfriend’s name as if it were an aria from an Italian opera.  Eventually, Hank stopped and looked at Sara for some sign of approval.

Sara choked back the laughter and put her hand over her mouth, feigning deep concentration while she asked, “What language is that?”

Hank tilted his head to the side in a thoughtful gesture and said, “I don’t know.  Good question.”

“Hank,” Sara went on, “has Rehinndella ever said anything to you about where she comes from?  I mean, surely she can appreciate the strangeness of the situation enough to offer you some information about herself.”

“All I know is that she lives up there somewhere,” Hank replied, waving his hand up in the air in the general direction of the windows.  “I can only take that to mean that she is from another planet somewhere out in space.  I just don’t know.”  Then he turned back to face Sara and looked at her squarely in the face.  “But, you know, it just doesn’t matter to me where she is from or what language she speaks or what she looks like.  I mean, it used to, but now what matters most is how I feel when we are together.  Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Sara nodded in solemn agreement.

“What would you like me to do now that I know about this?” she asked.

Hank sat back on the couch across from Sara and spoke with such a sense of urgency in his voice that Sara knew they had at last come to the real point of his visit.  “I want you to know about it.  That’s all.  It’s crazy to me to be so in love and not be able to share it with anyone.  It’s just driving me nuts.  I want the world to know about us, but what can I say?  What can I do?  I don’t think anyone is ever going to meet her – certainly not my daughter or anyone I work with, none of my relatives or close friends, you know.  Maybe some scientist some day or some astronaut or someone who’s out there looking for extra-terrestrials will run across her because they are trying to document such things.  But, as far as bringing her into my ordinary, everyday life, taking her out on a date to a restaurant or a movie, well, I just don’t know how that is ever going to be possible.”

Hank and Sara looked at each other for a few moments as the fading emotional charge of Hank’s words fell into the carpet beneath their feet where it sank in silence into the pile and disappeared.  At least, when he was talking, the words – no matter how crazy they sounded – actually seemed credible because of the conviction with which he conveyed his story. But, once he stopped talking, silence wrapped around his face like a contorted mask of confusion and that look only accentuated the probability that his tale was impossible.  Worse, as the seconds sped by in silence, it seemed as if even time were trying to distance itself from what Hank had said.  Hank became more and more conscious that he was losing his audience and that he needed to keep shoring up his credibility by talking more, even if just to convince himself.  There was something reassuring about the sound of someone else’s voice in this conversation.

Perhaps Sara sensed Hank’s self-doubt.  Without thought, she heard herself ask, “So, you’ve not told anyone else about this?”

Relief washed over Hank’s face as Sara returned to the dialogue.  “Actually, I had to say something to my daughter and there are a couple of people that I have talked to because they have all noticed a change in me since this thing started up.  I guess,” he said with a boyish grin, “I just can’t help it.”

“What did you tell them?” Sara asked.

“I just said that I met someone, at first, and that I was very interested in her.  Of course, my daughter wanted to know everything about her, to meet her, you know.  So, I just explained that was not possible right now because of her job.”

“What did you tell her that Rehinndella does?” Sara asked, very curious to see how Hank had been able to disguise Rehinndella’s invisibility to anyone but himself.

“I said that Rehinndella is a consultant, so she has to fly around a lot, always making presentations and visiting clients, etc.  And, it’s understandable that she would be called away on a moment’s notice.  That’s why we can’t ever make plans . . .”  Hank’s voice trailed off again.  He had clearly given this much thought and Sara decided that this version was a Rehinndella whom she could possibly like.

“What about her name, or where she lives,” Sara questioned.  “How could you keep your daughter from trying to find out about her?  Surely she’s tried to Google her by now.”

Hank shrugged his shoulders and said, “I simply asked her to give me some time to sort through things and make sure that this was a relationship that we both wanted to pursue.  She doesn’t ask me about it anymore, so I think she gets the idea that I just want to keep this private.  I mean, it’s not like I’m missing any family events or anything.”

Sara wanted to suggest that Hank would have done better if he had kept the topic private and not shared it with her as well, but she wasn’t sure that he might not fly off the handle and react violently.  Not until the words were already out of her mouth did she realize that what she said instead was probably even more insensitive.

“Well, what’s the chance of you just flying off with Rehinndella to see where she lives?  Ever think about that?”

The words hit Hank like a slap across his face, evidenced by the involuntary wince of pain, which he attempted to hide by turning away for a moment.  Sara was immediately sorry and tried to ameliorate the effect of what she’d said.

“I just mean,” she said, trying to patch things up, “that if Rehinndella can’t live in your world, then have you given any thought to living in hers?  I don’t mean to be flip, really, just have you thought about this?”

“Of course I have,” Hank blurted out, his words hard and razor sharp.  “Don’t you think,” he continued in a hoarse whisper, “that I’ve thought about this and turned things over in my mind a hundred different ways trying to find some way to make it possible for us to be together?  Don’t you think I would if I could?”  Hank stopped abruptly, cramming the knuckles of his left hand into his mouth.  Sara turned away, afraid to look at him for fear she would see a man crying in her front room.

She wished for the hands of time to turn back so that Hank could return to being the strong, skillful, successful man she had always admired.  Finally, she said, “It sounds like you both love each other.  Surely, given enough time you will be able to figure all this out.  I mean, how long have you actually, well, known each other?”  Even Sara felt the ultimate betrayal of this question, because she didn’t mean a word of what she said.  She only hoped to somehow disentangle herself from this conversation and help him to regain his composure so that he could leave her house and never come back again.  Sara couldn’t believe in this relationship any more than she could believe in Rehinndella or in Hank.  She wondered how she had sounded to his distressed ears.  Hank shot her a glance through the cloud of torment that enveloped him, assuring Sara that he was not duped by her mock concern.

“Sara, I think I should go.  Thank you for letting me talk to you and I am truly sorry you lost your job and that I barged in on your day – today of all days.”

Hank stood up and made his way to the kitchen sink with his water glass.  Sara made no effort to stop him, breathing an inward sigh of relief.  She hoped that she would never see or hear from Hank again.  What a crazy way this had been to start the first day of the rest of her life!  She wondered if she ought to call the office and let them know that he was not responsible for himself, not thinking clearly, maybe drinking.  If she knew how to reach his daughter, she might just do it.  But, then, someone in as deranged a state as Hank might come after her seeking revenge if Sara stirred up any trouble with his daughter or the office.  No, better to let him leave and then just never see or talk to him again.  This would be an absolute close to the chapter of seeing him every day at the office, fantasizing about him on occasion.  What a nutcase he turned out to be.

Hank had turned from the sink and started for the door when he tripped on The Box and knocked it over on its side.  The edge of a piece of tape stuck to his shoe and as he attempted to detach himself from it, the tape tore across the top of the box, pulling the lid off.  Sara jumped from her chair but Hank had quickly righted himself.  “Just leave The Box,” Sara said.  “And don’t worry about me saying anything to anyone, Hank.”  They both moved awkwardly around each other the few short steps to the door.  “As far as I’m concerned, this conversation never happened,” she assured Hank, plastering a fake smile on her face.

As Hank stepped out of the door, Sara stopped him, “Oh, Hank, just a minute.  There’s something I want you to take.”  She turned and sprinted back to the kitchen to The Box, repositioned the tape across the top of the lid, and returned with it.  Handing it to Hank, she said, “There is absolutely nothing in here that I have any interest in.  You might want to look through it and see if I accidentally took anything I shouldn’t have.  Just throw it in the dumpster if you want.”

Hank did not make eye contact with Sara.  His downcast gaze said it all.  He left without looking back.

Sara shut and locked the door behind her.  She realized that she was shaking as she settled back down into her chair, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.  Outside the cooing of the mourning dove had been replaced with sounds of traffic in the street below, and the sun was making progress marching across the sky.

The Prophetic Voice

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UPDATE:  Not long after I published this post I learned that there had been another murder reported that was discovered this morning.  Dan will be starting from Day-0 again.

*************

In his sermon preparation as a Baptist minister, my dad took the pragmatist’s approach to help explain the faith that he professed, and he applied every tool available to him to teach the Biblical texts that formed the bases for these sermons.  It was as much a mental exercise as a spiritual one to hear him preach.  His explanation of what a prophet is came from his pulpit long before the advent of Wikipedia and other resources that are now at our fingertips anytime curiosity strikes.  He said that a prophet is not so much one who predicts the future as one who delivers a message for God, one who in essence is a mouthpiece for a divine communication, one who speaks the truth to those around him.  In the vernacular of my youth, one who tells it like it is.

As I spoke with The Billboard Guy this morning and watched the endless stream of supporters and well-wishers brave the summer morning heat to bring him cool drinks, I knew that I was in the presence of a modern-day prophet, and we talked about his prophetic role in St. Louis.  Like Jeremiah or John the Baptist before him, doing something outrageous like taking up residence atop a billboard in a vacant lot in midtown was nothing short of inspired.  It was Dan’s way of bringing awareness to the senseless killings in St. Louis the only way he knew to do it.  The owner of a billboard company in St. Louis, Dan was – like most St. Louisans – heartsick over the daily stories of murder on our streets.  Strangely, as Dan pointed out to me, as of this morning, the last period of 7 consecutive days when St. Louis witnessed no murders was a year ago, in the week immediately following Michael Brown’s August 2014 death.  At that time, the attention of the world turned to St. Louis for several months, focused on the property destruction and tragic violence that marred expressions of outrage and sadness.

But, Dan, like so many St. Louisans, was focused on the less glamorous headlines that were being overlooked by world media.  The rate of gun violence in St. Louis was setting new records for murders in our streets. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2014 homicides were at their highest since 2008, up 30%, and that rate continued to rise through the early months of 2015.  In May alone, 22 homicides were reported, and the murder rate was nearly doubled from the previous year.  Time and again, neighbors watched their loved ones gunned down and cried for help and an end to the violence.  There was no “Day 1, Day 2, Day 3” count in the national news for these murders of ordinary citizens by ordinary citizens. Children were killed, elders, young people in the prime of their lives.  So many were African Americans killed by African Americans – it gave a whole new meaning to the yard signs dotting the lawns throughout St. Louis, “Black Lives Matter.”

And so, Dan, The Billboard Guy, first held an on-line contest where he solicited original art in these categories: Community Unity, Racial Understanding and Healing; Anti-Bullying; Put Down the Pistol/Ceasefire/Anti-Violence.

The response was overwhelming and Dan had a hard time narrowing down the three winners.  But, he did, and these pieces of art will now become fixtures on billboards in high-crime neighborhoods.  The top 100 entries (of 350) can be seen online:

 contest.drawcast.com

One of Dan’s ongoing projects is to erect more such billboards with positive messages. While I visited with Dan, two people talked to him about underwriting the cost of billboards that will bear the names of their lost loved ones, victims of the street violence in St. Louis.

But, today, happy news was being celebrated by Dan, by me, and by countless numbers of passersby:  St. Louis passed a 7th consecutive day without a murder in our streets, and so Dan will officially come down from the top of his billboard.  Almost every person who stopped or slowed down, waved, or walked up for a hug — an off-duty police officer with his little boy in the front seat of his car, a neighborhood woman who has brought Dan breakfast every day for nearly a month, a young woman whose fiance will be remembered as 2014 St. Louis murder victim #117, a church member waiting for services to start across the street — almost all were African American.  But, skin color, racial heritage, economic status, religion are of very little consequence when a much larger commonality binds us all together:  life.

Dan used his prophetic voice.  He caught the imagination and interest of St. Louisans – even if the national media failed to pick up on this.  He has not been without his detractors.  One woman chased him on foot, calling him a “white devil”, and that altercation resulted in Dan having a broken foot!  Even so, for every negative encounter, Dan has ten positive ones to recount.  Dan told me that he had actually witnessed opposing gang members meet and shake hands at his billboard.  This morning, everyone who came by thanked him, crediting his determination and deep heart of love for raising awareness in our community.  His prophetic voice was heard and they believe that Dan’s efforts had something to do with the current cessation in violence.

I had to confess to Dan my skepticism that he would ever come down from that billboard had more to do with my disbelief in human nature than belief in his ability to help effect change.  Without even realizing it, I had lost my belief in the goodness of human nature and allowed myself to become so hardened against violence that I could not imagine anything prevailing over the dark forces that muster and motivate inhumane actions.  But, I stood there and cried tears of joy along with him and others, and when I admitted that I was his latest “convert” in the belief of the fundamental goodness of human beings, Dan jumped up in the air, waved a triumphant fist heavenward, and said, “Yes!  Thank you! That’s what I love to hear!”

Thank you, Dan – your voice is just what we all needed to hear!

View Dan’s web site:

http://adunitystl.com/