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


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:


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:


A privileged life

Peony in May

Peony in May

Growing up as I did in what might seem like the unlikeliest of circumstances for privilege — a baby boomer, living in the household of a self-described “poor country preacher” in the foothills of northwest Arkansas — I consider myself to have lived a very privileged life.  Early on, my parents taught me to appreciate whatever is of greatest intrinsic value, highest merit, for that is what is the longest-lasting.  Seeing this quality in the lives of many of my neighbors, I can credit those formative years of my childhood for instilling in me whatever goodness there may be found.  For, hard at work, even without my knowledge, there was a legion of men and women surrounding me and my entire family, laboring behind the scenes at laying brick by brick the solid foundation of character from stone hewn by their own hands, carried from the vast supplies of untapped resources in each of their lives.  They brought the best of what they had:  truth and fidelity, hospitality and selflessness, forgiveness and acceptance, these were the materials they brought to help build my life.  And, above it all, motivating every word or action, was overarching love as infinite as the wisdom that guided their lives, as vast as the sky. Not enough good things can said about these people who lived their lives quietly, doing good things privately without recognition or reward.  Only now that I have achieved the age that many of them were when I first knew them, and many of them still are in my memory, am I coming to understand the depth and breadth of their influence on my life, and the sweet and very subtle ways that they left their mark on me.

One such person, to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude, carried out her functions in life without fanfare or advertisement.  You would see her on the sidelines, in the corners of a room, always wearing a look of sweetness and content on her face.  By the time I knew her, she had lived a lifetime of service to her husband and to her community, and she continued to do so until she died.  Only once did I hear any details about her life, and it came in the form of a sermon illustration that my dad told.  As he told it, the story took up permanent residence in my mind and heart. It is a story about real heroes that is rarely shared, ordinary people who go about their lives doing extraordinary things.  It has helped me to notice the elderly, the quiet, the unpopular.  Again, I am privileged because my dad took the time to get to know everyone in his congregation — not just those in positions of power or authority.  It gave me a different perspective, one that has enriched my life over and over.

In her youth, Ella was beautiful and Norman was under her spell.  Her thick, long, blonde hair and large blue eyes were as captivating as her smile and her charming ways.  Before they were to be married, Ella contracted an illness that could have been fatal.  However, after months of confinement, she did at last recover.  But the ravages of the disease took away her beautiful hair, and so she hid herself from everyone – especially Norman.  When the news of Ella’s recovery finally reached Norman, not even wild horses could have kept him from going to her.  From behind the locked door, she could hear him thundering up the stairs to her bedroom.  She would not open the door, but hid in disgrace.  But, love conquers all, and so she heard the door smashing as Norman kicked it in.  He rushed to her and gathered her into his arms, assuring her that she was as beautiful as she had ever been.  And so, they lived happily ever after.  In her old age, we all knew her to be fittingly crowned with a head of snow-white hair.  I am sure that the normal vicissitudes of life brought Norman and Ella their share of pain and sorrow.  But, she was known to have said that in all their married life, they never argued once.  Ella was happy to be a homemaker and to look after her husband, keeping the house neat and clean, perfecting the art of home cooking, tending to the gardens.  She babysat children in her home from time to time, and without ever knowing it, she was a role model for women in her community.

I never knew her as Ella, but as Mrs. Maxey, the old, blue-eyed, white-haired woman who lived down the street.  May never comes around on my calendar that I don’t think of her.   For, May was the month school was over for the summer, and soon after that, our church hosted the annual Vacation Bible School.  As was true of most of the women in the church, my mother was always up to her elbows in the planning and execution of the week-long half-days, teaching some of the classes, baking cookies for the refreshments, and getting her four children dressed and to the church on time each morning, in addition to all of the other housework that occupied her time.  It was one of the busiest weeks of her life, and Mrs. Maxey took this very much to heart.  Our entire family knew that once during that week of hurried busy-ness, Mrs. Maxey was going to prepare supper for us.  It would be delivered hot in dishes ready to serve, and we always looked forward to it.  We could be sure that there would be new potatoes and fresh, tender green beans from her garden; the first scallions – hot and already cleaned and ready to dip into salt and bite into; and a peach cobbler made from the fruit she had canned last summer.  From these meals I learned why my mother’s cooking was so good:  it was seasoned with love, and so was Mrs. Maxey’s.  And, it was my annual privilege to walk down the street to her house to return the dishes.  She always greeted me with that broad smile, never asked me if we liked the food, never expected a compliment, just smiled warmly and invited me in while she put the dishes in the kitchen.

Those meals and her smile belong to another place and time that I still carry with me in memory.  And although I can only return there in my vivid thoughts and recollections, I do know how privileged I am for the experience of them.  And, I have the tangible evidence of Mrs. Maxey in the form of her cookie recipe.  This one is a real keeper!  Soft pillows of sweet cookie that shouldn’t be frosted because they are so good with just a cup of tea or coffee or a glass of cold milk.  Every year I make these cookies at least once, and I love to share them.  I think that Mrs. Maxey would like that.

Mrs. Maxey Cookies

Mrs. Maxey cookies

Mrs. Maxey cookies


3 cups sifted flour

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup melted butter

1 egg

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

enough buttermilk to make a soft dough


Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Mix butter and sugar together.  Add egg.  Add dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk.  Dough should be rather stiff.  Work in more flour till dough is stiff enough to handle. Roll out on flat surface to about 1/2 inch.  Bake on greased cookie sheet until just brown.  I like to cut the dough into non-uniform squares, but you can cut into any shape, any size.  Leave space between the cut-outs on the cookie sheet because they will puff up a little while baking.

Christmas Past/Present/Future


Missouri Botanical Garden Glow, December 2013

Missouri Botanical Garden Glow, December 2013

The ghosts of Christmas Past are haunting me this year. I am happily surrounded by memories so vivid and so real that it hardly seems possible they could be returning from decades ago. Such is the wonder of the human mind! What Proustian cookie crumb nudged my sensate faculties to revive with such accuracy these visitors from my past?

I’m visited by the night we walked through our Miami neighborhood, dressed in shorts, admiring the lights displayed on houses and trees flanked by privacy fences created by 6-foot tall, live poinsettia plants. The year the company car broke down while we were visiting relatives out in West Hampton on Long Island, stranding us there until the New Year. The snowstorm we drove through on the Pennsylvania Turnpike while traveling home for a family Christmas. The snow was so heavy on the highway that vehicles were moving slowly enough for car-weary travelers to get out and walk along beside. There was the Christmas when the flu gave me a dangerously close brush with my own mortality. The first Christmas without one of my children at home. The Christmas I spent visiting a friend in jail. A spectacular Christmas with my daughter in France, when we first heard the Toccata from Widor’s 5th Organ Symphony performed after the Christmas Eve midnight mass at the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon. The last Christmas I shared with someone I loved before he was soon after murdered. The lavish, childhood Christmas when my mother made dozens of stuffed animals to surprise and delight her four children. The Christmas my toddler joined forces with her cousin and painted my sister-in-law’s white boots with red lipstick. The first Christmas my grandmother baked a birthday cake for Jesus, and we all sang Happy Birthday to Him. Each of my children’s first Christmases. I remember Christmases at each of the jobs I have worked at over the years – how we celebrated with co-workers. There were so many magical moments. And then all those happy Christmases that I took my kids to see “The Nutcracker,” all those years of hearing “Messiah” performed under different conductors, different soloists, and especially the year a symphony conductor and I wrote each other wonderful letters in response to one of those performances. The cantatas and school performances I sang in and the ones I heard my children perform in. The annual ritual of hearing my dad’s voice give pure delight to the reading of the Nativity story from the Gospel of Saint Luke. And, how eagerly four children waited until all the prayers had been said, all of the preliminary remarks made, before we could finally satisfy our overwhelming curiosity about the enticingly wrapped packages beneath the Christmas tree.

And, oh, the trees! Going on the yearly hunt for a tree – first, in the forests of Northwest Arkansas, then in the tree lots of St. Louis, year after year, hunting for the best tree/the best deal. The ornaments, the bells, the balls, stabbing my finger with the large needle while threading popcorn strings. The glue and the glitter, the tinsel, the angel hair, big lights, tiny lights, colored lights, clear lights, steady, blinking, broken, burned-out, tangled, getting them all up on the tree. One grandmother’s ceramic Christmas tree, the other grandmother’s white, music box angel. All of my Christmas music boxes playing at once.  The candles,the colors the carolers, the hugs, the smiles, the smells, the Christmas cookies and baking, baking, baking until just recently when gluten and sugar have become four-letter words.

I greet these happy spectres with open arms! They are my children this year, they are me, and I love them with all the strength of my heart, so much so that I have brought them to life and they dance before my eyes as real as today is real. I open each memory like the Christmas present it is: hidden in its own shiny paper and brightly-colored ribbon until I unwrap it and turn it over in my mind and relive every precious moment of it. Because each moment is precious, is only here for the blink of an eye, and that is why I love these Christmas memories the way I do. They put me in the moment, once again, and help me to remember not to miss even what might seem to be the most insignificant moments as they speed by into the past. Grab them, love them, know them well – so that they may be recalled and relived and loved and enjoyed over and over again.

The Wish Tree

On Saturday, June 29, 2013, it was my joy to be present for the ribbon-cutting ceremony and grand opening of the new wing of the Saint Louis Art Museum in Forest Park. A monument to creativity, industry, beauty, and, yes, art – the picture-perfect day was as beautiful as could befit such an auspicious occasion. We made our way from the Grand Basin up Art Hill–covered in a thick carpet of emerald green grass, in the brilliant sunshine of an early summer day.  I stood in rapt enjoyment along with hundreds of others while the Governor of Missouri, the Mayor of St. Louis, and others filed out in front of the new building.  We heard the National Anthem sung, and listened to the words of congratulation and thanks expressed by the dignitaries on the dais.  Then, in the company of my son and granddaughter, I leisurely explored the exhibition halls of the new wing, equally impressed with the space and the works of art contained within them.

Happily, we made our way that day from one pleasurable moment to the next.  One of the most memorable for me was the opportunity to participate in Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree project: an outdoor patio installation of three live trees upon which to hang hand-written wishes. Begun in 1996, according to the official web site, to date, over a million wishes have been collected worldwide, and are all being housed at the site of the IMAGINE PEACE TOWER in Reykjavik, Iceland.

The dreamer in me wasted no time in fulfilling my wish to join the ranks of lovers of peace in this shared activity. Later, when a heavy rainstorm broke through the clouds, I wondered if all of our wishes, left fluttering on the limbs and branches of those trees, were going to be lost in the storm. To my delight, the next day when I visited the exhibit again, I found everything just as I had seen it the day before – except there were even more wishes hung upon the trees.

The Wish Tree

The walls were made of air and wind, and clouds
The ceiling formed, like shreds of muslin shroudsWish Tree
That fluttered overhead and pulled and strained
Until they knit together grey and rained
Like hot teardrops baptizing every note
Making holy the wish each person wrote
With carefully chosen words, when satisfied,
Onto the trees were hung with string and tied.
Then, fluttering in the breeze and moistened by the rain,
I saw my note and wished it once again:

For every heart – love
For every soul – beauty
For every mind – truth
For every person – equality
For every dreamer – peace
For every captive – freedom
For every society – insight
For every child – a home
For every poet – a hearer
For every artist – a beholder

For every judgment – mercy
For every aspiration – fulfillment
For every difference – tolerance
For every loss – compassion
For every pain – healing
For every sorrow – relief
For every conflict – resolution
For every neglect – a commitment
For every joy – a smile
For every tear – a hug.

‘Tis The Season

     It is the Saturday after Thanksgiving and we are well into the Christmas Season.  It started especially early this year because even though there are exceptions, the full-blown commercial Christmas Season typically doesn’t start until Thanksgiving.  And, since the first day of November was on a Thursday, Thanksgiving fell on the 22nd of November, a full week earlier than it will occur next year.  Last year (2011), Thanksgiving came on the 24th of November, and the year before, it was on the 25th.  So, even though it is only by a few days, I know I’m not crazy thinking that it started earlier than usual.

It goes without saying that Christmas seems to start earlier every year, regardless of the date it occupies on the calendar.  And, as with “celebrity death watch” and other cultural waiting games, we begin around Labor Day watching for the first Christmas ad or commercial, the first appearance of Christmas merchandising at the drugstore, the first sound of Christmas music on the airwaves.  I saw Christmas paraphernalia in stores prior to Halloween this year; heard 24-hour Christmas music on the radio the day before Thanksgiving; and, don’t watch enough television to qualify as a reputable monitor for early signs of Christmas advertising in that venue.

Ostensibly, the economy, and by extension everyone who hopes to benefit from a stronger one, depends upon the commercial success of Christmas.  So, although I gave up Christmas shopping years ago, I do not begrudge a positive collective bottom line, if in fact that is going to make a difference in people’s lives.  Can’t say that I am completely convinced of this.  But, I am convinced that people need Christmas in their lives.  Desperately, deeply, people need the comfort and assurance that their ideal of Christmas inspires.  People need to exchange the vitriol of a harsh election year for warm handshakes, sincere hugs, and hearty Christmas greetings that transcend political and religious differences and convey only peace on earth and good will toward everyone.  People need to look at the person in traffic and see a smiling face rather than one wearing road rage.  People need to see lights and colors and shiny things and evidence of plenty and abundance even if it is for just a few weeks out of the year.  And, people need to share with each other – favorite holiday memories, plates of decorated cookies, brightly wrapped gifts – and to give and receive exclamations of thank-you.

This afternoon as I strolled with a friend across the grassy western bank of the Missouri River at historic St. Charles, Missouri, we talked about the annual Christmas traditions that were taking place up and down the cobblestone Main Street ahead of us.  There, as every year, costumed Father Christmases held forth with eager crowds gathered around to learn about the era represented by each; a fife and drum corps marched in precision step, playing carols; horse drawn carriages gaily festooned in holiday gear ferried happy travelers; quartets of Victorian dressed carolers stood singing on street corners to the delight of hundreds of shoppers; and, numerous other traditional and literary characters associated with Christmases from many countries and many periods in history performed street theatre in full character, spreading their infectious joy. The streets were crowded with groups and individuals taking part in this annual shopping experience. Yes, as we both agreed, for better or for worse, Christmas is more and more commercialized.  But, I can honestly say in all that huge crowd of people that I did not see one angry face, I did not hear one harsh word.  It reminded me of the lyrics to Jerry Herman’s “We Need A Little Christmas” from his Broadway musical “Mame”:

Haul out the holly;
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again.
Fill up the stocking,
I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now.
For we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute,
Candles in the window,
Carols at the spinet.
Yes, we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute.
It hasn’t snowed a single flurry,
But Santa, dear, we’re in a hurry;
So climb down the chimney;
Put up the brightest string of lights I’ve ever seen.
Slice up the fruitcake;
It’s time we hung some tinsel on that evergreen bough.
For I’ve grown a little leaner,
Grown a little colder,
Grown a little sadder,
Grown a little older . . .

Maybe something in the American soul has been so bruised and beaten down that it needs to be revived with the annual total immersion into all the joy and hope we can cram into the days leading up to Christmas.  Maybe that is why we allow the Christmas season to start earlier every year.  Maybe we need it for more than just a Black Friday kick-started positive bottom line.  Maybe there’s another way to live in that same joy and hope that does not depend upon the illusion of prosperity created by the frenzy of holiday shopping.  Maybe we can find a way to truly make the pursuit of peace and good will toward everyone last all year and let Christmas really return – not a day earlier or later – to its place on the calendar.

It’s Raining Again

Out in the middle of the Mississippi River at St. Louis, on one of the supports of the historic Eads Bridge, there is a marker that simply indicates zero (0). This is the arbitrarily designated water level that serves as the benchmark for water stages on the St. Louis riverfront. Flood stage is 30 feet and The Great Flood of ’93 (1993) marked the highest water level since 1927, nearly 50 feet over flood stage.

Almost directly across from that pier supporting the Eads Bridge, rising from the old cobblestone levee below the national park that is home to the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the Lewis and Clark statue serves as my own, personal marker for water levels at St. Louis. “The Captains Return” by sculptor Harry Weber was dedicated in 2006, and since that time, it seems to me that at least part of that statue has always been under water. One of the captains stands with his hat in his hand, arm fully extended over his head. And, when the water is at 32 feet, the hat is not visible. At this stage it is not even possible to drive on the street that runs along the top of the levee above the statue, but from other vantage points, one can still see and marvel at the surging water that is the Mississippi River.

The Mississippi River has always held great fascination for me – no doubt set firmly in my imagination from an early age by the appearance of this legendary body of water in so much of American history and fiction. She attracts me to her in my thoughts and I often reflect on the twists of fate that have resulted in the good fortune of me living in such close proximity to her. But, my pilgrimages to take in her beauty are usually precipitated by the surges brought about by the annual flooding, when melting snows and spring rains from the north flow southward and swell her banks on their way to the Gulf of Mexico.  The River is an attraction all her own.  But with the Arch and the statue and the bridges and casinos and other amusements and businesses and historic sites that accompany her as she makes her way past St. Louis, this major body of water can be easily overshadowed by all that is there simply because she is.  She is great, and so is everything built around her, so that everything seems to be competing for attention.  Only when she swells and subsides, when she is changing, threatening, does she command our full respect.  Then, we have to admit that what we have here is not a tourist attraction but a force of nature, our close brush with an element of life on our planet that we can neither live without nor control.

This summer, I have watched her at her lowest ebb. The great drought that parched corn and soybean fields all over the Midwest, that fueled fires, dried up gardens, and brought barge traffic on the water to a halt has kept the Mississippi River at record lows, down to -2 feet. Accustomed as I am to seeing the River so much higher, it was quite a new experience to make regular visits this summer to the levee to experience the water at these historic low stages and to find her no less mighty, no less enchanting for her diminished flow. Walking the 30 or so feet from the base of the Lewis and Clark statue to the foot of the cobblestone paved banks at the water’s edge, standing there and seeing the silt of the riverbed that I do not recall ever seeing at this point, I had to fight away the nightmarish daydream of a sudden surge that would restore the River to what I would consider a normal stage and sweep me along in one swift, dreadful undercurrent.

But, nothing like that happened. Even at 20 or 25 feet, it is easy to snap a photo of the Lewis & Clark statue and fully comprehend that water stage. But, this summer I discovered that it is virtually impossible to capture in a single frame a picture of this low-water event that so easily illustrates the water level. It is not nearly as dramatic in a photograph to see a statue on a levee with a river running alongside as it is to see only parts of a statue visible above a swelled river.

The drought has been long and the water level low, but, thanks to another force of nature – Hurricane Isaac – it’s raining again; and, as it is with the cycle of natural things, before long the River will again rise up to the feet of the captains and eventually overtop the hat held permanently in place over their heads. And, as important as it is to me now, after awhile, I will not be among the enchanted souls making the pilgrimage to her shores, but others will come, and others will go. She will ebb and flow. Droughts will come and then it will be raining again.


“Ordinary Time Volume 1” has had 3 publishings in less than one year!  Thank you to everyone who has loved the book, shared the book, and encouraged me to continue sharing my personal enjoyments.  In June, Aramark will be stocking some of my blank notecards, featuring my photographs in the line of greeting cards I like to call Pixcells.  For years, these cards have generated considerable funds for area non-profits, and I’m happy to bring them to a wider audience.  Like “Ordinary Time,” all of the photographs are local and unedited, taken with natural light.  If you are interested in ordering cards or copies of “Ordinary Time,” just send me a message.  I think you might like to send your greetings on a Pixcell card.

The hostas (above) is one of a framed trio that netted $150 at the recent Trovare di Spada (http://trovaredispada.com/) Fence-a-Thon for breast cancer services at the SLU Cancer Center.  It was great to be a part of such a fantastic, one-of-a-kind event!!

Many new images are making their way to the pages of “Ordinary Time Volume 2,” which will be rolling off of the NJC (http://www.njcprint.com/) presses this fall.  In the meantime, some will be premiered as Pixcell greeting cards.

More later . . .

A good eye

Boulder Skies

When people look at the photographs I took for my book, “Ordinary Time,” there are a lot of reactions, but usually everyone says, “you have a good eye.”  This gives me a little chuckle.  It always makes me think back over my years of picture-taking.  I received my first good camera for Christmas from a friend back in 1982.  When we moved to Miami, I spent hours and hours learning the subtle and often complicated techniques of 35 mm photography with that camera.  I enjoyed color, black and white; landscapes, seascapes, skyscapes, and portraits; everything about taking pictures (except getting sand in my camera!).  The fun lasted until my first pair of reading glasses.  After that, I simply could not, try as hard as I could, figure out how to see what I was taking a picture of, and focusing was simply out of the question.  I put my cameras away and just gave up, thinking I’d probably never take another picture again.  Thank goodness and technology,  in the last few years, digital cameras made their way into my life and my entire world changed.  If you’re over 50, you know what I mean.

When I was a young child, I remember when a friend of our family, a professional photographer, gave my dad a camera.  After that, there was no Sunday morning, no birthday, no graduation, no special event or holiday that did not provide my dad an opportunity to get out the Yashika and tripod, and set to work making portraits of everyone.   Early on, I remember how excruciating it was for me, sitting there with my hair pulled tight into pigtails on either side of my head, suffering from what I would only find out decades later were migraine headaches, trying to smile while my dad focused for what seemed like hours at a time.  More than once, someone in the family was reduced to tears waiting for that shutter to click.  If I’d only known then the passion for getting that perfect picture that drove my dad.  Photographs were not inexpensive to take back when you had to pay for film and developing.  My rule of thumb in Miami was if I could achieve one good shot per roll, I felt it was worth it.  Now, I can take literally hundreds of pictures and it costs me nothing at all to shoot them, look at them, and decide whether to keep or delete them.  I can share them at no cost via electronic delivery systems.  The whole activity has changed.

If my dad were alive today, he would be amazed to see what I can do with my cell phone camera!  I’m certainly amazed.  And, I have no doubt that while he might be hesitant to use a laptop or a cell phone or any other “modern” communication devices — once he saw what kind of pictures he could take with a cell phone, I’d bet he would own one, even if he never used it for a phone call.

How to buy a book or a box of cards

Break forth, O beauteous heav'nly light, and usher in the morning. - Johann Rist

If you’d like to purchase a book or a box of cards, simply send me a comment or e-mail with your snail mail address and what you’re interested in.

I took almost all the photographs in my neighborhood. My desire with this portrait album is to hold up a mirror and reflect into your eyes the way I look at the world, so the pictures have been printed without any enhancements of any kind.  The world is so beautiful!  I had a wonderful time adding the wisdom comments.  Interesting note:  The order in which the photos and quotes appear are completely random.  You will never believe this when you see how perfectly they fit!

In many ways, I think I can understand something of what Saint John went through in exile.  He wrote those beautiful letters, dictating to his trusty deacon the revelations of his mystical experiences.  And when it came to imparting the bottom-line most important wisdom, basically, all he could say was, “Love.”   All you need is love. So, it seems sometimes that even though I am constantly having ah-ha moments of great insight, there really is nothing new under the sun.  My profound revelations are the same ones that have delighted human beings for centuries.  I love it!  We are all connected in so many ways.  Neither time nor space can separate us.  What ever gave anyone the idea that anything else could?  How liberating is that?!