My Daughter Slept In A Cemetery Last Night


My mother, who famously holds very little nostalgia for events, times, or places that have passed from her immediate concern, will often say, when prompted to recall a memory, that she just let that go a long time ago. It’s over. Move on. I understand that point of view more as increasing years of experience add layers upon layers of memories. And, in light of the privileged perspective of hindsight, my mother’s practicality in such matters also puts a bright spotlight on the events and people and places that she chooses to keep present in her thoughts.

So recently, 20 years later, I wondered what made the horrific events of September 11 so personal in the minds of the overwhelming majority of Americans that it has become more like a touchstone, a watchword? To what other event besides The Alamo do we attach “Remember” or “Never Forget?”  Perhaps even more fundamentally, I wondered what is it that makes something important, so important to people that they change in some way as a result?

* 9-11 took us all by surprise. It was something that could not be prepared for. People who went to work as normal that morning never returned home. People who said goodbye to loved ones in the morning never said hello to them again. The shock of it seared the moment in all our memories so that we can recall where we were when we first heard about it, not unlike when JFK was assassinated, or MLK or RFK. It was unexpected, unplanned for, and for the vast majority, completely out of the realm of our experience.

* It was televised and broadcast all day long and all night long for over a week. The events unfolded in front of our eyes in real time. There didn’t seem to be a news channel or outlet anywhere that didn’t run continuous, wall-to-wall coverage. It was hard to break away from this constant barrage of information, and people willingly sat in front of their TVs for hours at a time watching the same horrifying images repeated over and over again to the extent that psychological experts were advising us to set time limits on our consumption of that news.

* Although most people did not suffer the loss of a loved one, the heartbreaking stories of those who did were meaningful. The spouses who lost their husband or wife; the parents who lost a child; the children who lost a parent. The photographs of their faces, lists of their names, stories of their extraordinary valor or their everyday humility. We took these people into our hearts and held them in our thoughts. We shared their stories. We prayed for them. We did not have to be there in person or to lose a loved one in the tragedy to totally understand and enter into the sorrow with hearts full of compassion.

* And, of course, the sheer number of lives lost and injured, the massive destruction of property, the meltdown of community life in New York City. When the events began to emerge as facts and figures, translating all that had happened into dollars and cents, percentages, and statistics, our growing understanding of the scale of loss supported a growing sense of that loss.

* To many, this was an act of aggression by a foreign power on our home soil that had not happened for hundreds of years. It inspired retaliatory and hateful rhetoric, quick rushes to judgment, finger-pointing and jingoistic actions against innocent people. It was responsible for instituting a sweeping loss of personal freedoms under the Patriot Act, to which the majority of Americans gladly submitted for the good of the safety of our country. 

* The response was quick, self-sacrificing, and proportionate to the scale of loss. Men and women rushed to the site to offer the expertise of their specialized training in emergency first-response and some died in their efforts. Those of us who did not go answered appeals for financial assistance with immediate donations from around the country and around the world. Ground-Zero was memorialized and billions of dollars were spent on that and the reconstruction of the commercial landscape. To this day, charitable foundations are ongoing, collecting money to support the survivors and their families and the memorials.

The people who died in the tragic events of 9-11 are gone, leaving behind grieving family members and loved ones. Depending on your religious point of view, they either simply ceased to exist or they left those last few anguished moments of fear and pain and entered into eternal peace. So, what is it about the event that makes it one of such solemn remembrance and still brings forth the same emotions and responses as the day it happened? Which one or combination of many or all of these elements is responsible for the enduring collective memory that still unites people across political, economic, and social spectrums in our country?

The reason I am curious about this is because my daughter slept in a cemetery last night. She is in severe chronic pain and suffers an array of disabling physical reactions to toxins in the air, clothing, food, on other people, in buildings and vehicles, in forests and farms, cities and countryside. After driving about 18 hours yesterday, she finally gave up and parked inside a remote cemetery to try and get a few hours of sleep. For over 2 years, she has been just one of hundreds of thousands of American men, women and children – including infants – who suffer from the serious and chronic effects of toxic mold contamination. In fact, just this morning, waiting for the oil change on my car, I struck up a conversation with another customer waiting for her car. Within 2 minutes, she looked at me and said, “Wow! You know about toxic mold illness?!” She and three of her four children have been suffering from this condition for several years and it was hard for her to believe that I knew about it. They are all around us.

* There was no way these people could have planned for this to happen to them. Very often, they live in the same moldy homes and towns as others, most of whom do not seem to be affected by mold. Many are unable to address the problem until they are living with disabling and chronic symptoms. Almost all have amassed enormous debt for medical tests and treatments. Rarely does an MD pick up on the root cause and tell them to get out of mold while they still have time, before it’s too late. The shock of realizing my daughter has this illness is as painful and traumatic today as the day we first talked about it. I remember her telling me about her discoveries and her intention to leave everything behind – home, career, possessions – in pursuit of health. It is seared into my memory.

* There actually is wall-to-wall coverage of this ongoing tragedy but it’s a private, closed loop of communication. Because family and friends tend to not believe that their loved ones are actually suffering from something “real” (not made-up in their heads), these sufferers go underground with their illness. There are numerous private social network sites where thousands of toxic mold sufferers safely communicate with each other, seeking support and answers to the hard questions like, “Is it worth living to be tortured this way”, and “My baby is so sick and we used up all our money trying to find a non-contaminated place to sleep,” and “My husband doesn’t believe that I am so sick and he is taking my kids away and I may never see them again,” and “I slept in my car by the side of the road for the first time last night and I was so afraid and felt so disgraced,” and “I was reacting so badly to the smoke from the fires that I was convulsing while trying to drive away.”  If the general population of America was bombarded with wall-to-wall coverage of these innocent people and what torture they are enduring and what lengths they have to go to in order to just stay alive, I wonder what kind of outpouring of merciful, compassionate help they would receive. How could anyone possibly still disbelieve?

* Before my daughter realized over 2 years ago that she was suffering from chronic toxic mold illness, I’d never heard of it. I was in my early 60s and I had never heard of it. That’s what most of my friends and family tell me – they never heard of it. The woman I talked with today said none of her friends or family had ever heard of it before. However, as I began to research the illness, I found countless stories of other people that were exactly like my daughter’s. Heartbreaking! Within just a few days, I was on the phone with a dad I’d never met, weeping with me, describing how devastating it was and how it had changed his family. And yet, it is next to impossible to elicit that same compassionate response from most people without firsthand experience. The general response is, “I never heard of this so it doesn’t exist.” Or, “it’s a mental illness” or “they are just pretending.” I’m stunned. Where is the compassion? The most comforting words I could think of today when I said goodbye to the other car shop customer was, “You are not alone!”

* Since the CFS outbreak at Incline Village in Lake Tahoe in the 1980s, there has been surprisingly little research into the problem of toxic mold reactivity, which is odd since the incidence is growing exponentially every year, and toxic mold patients are begging for help from the scientific community. They hold a vast catalogue of shared information on what they react to, how quickly they react, how their bodies react, long-term and short-term symptoms, what weather conditions and manmade chemicals exacerbate their situation to the point of total disability, and more. Conversely, what works to help alleviate the distress and symptomology. They live with this torture 24 hours every day so they know it very well. As I listened to my sister car customer this morning, without asking her for a description of her symptoms, she listed off everything that I’ve heard my daughter say, everything I’ve read from other sufferers. Disappointingly, the response from family and friends and the medical community and society in general does not equal or come close to the mushrooming pervasiveness of the problem.

* Not 3,000 Americans, but hundreds of thousands – by some estimates, over a million new cases every year – are suffering right now from toxic mold illness. The effect is catastrophic, not only individually but societally. In terms of dollars and cents, these people lose homes, vehicles, clothing, jobs, friends and families – everything due to toxic mold contamination. Everything is lost and there is no insurance coverage for this. There is no national foundation set up to help them stay alive and work to heal their bodies. There is no community help organization. No bake sales. No t-shirts. They are on their own and sometimes literally alone. You can figure the financial toll of living without any income, then double that by cutting out the stability of a home (i.e., live in a rented vehicle while you drive in a constant search for clear air) that removes your access to indoor plumbing, kitchen appliances, and storage space. They cut corners and deprive themselves and sometimes make their situations worse just trying to save money. These are your neighbors, your friends, your loved ones.

* There are some brilliant people in this subculture of environmental refugees who write books, publish podcasts, admin chat groups, interview experts, and lobby the government and medical community to throw some money at this growing problem. Typically, they are ignored or suffer the personality trashing that our society has become so adept at employing as a means to discredit and shut up an unwelcome voice. The woman I talked to this morning said she was grateful for her high intelligence because she is constantly required to think about things ‘normal’ people never consider. She has to manage so many life-threatening situations. For example: don’t try to kill yourself right now, this is a symptom of mold; get out of this place right now.

Just in terms of scale of the problem, toxic mold illness is responsible for an incalculable financial cost, loss of work productivity, and loss of contributing members of society, loss, loss, loss. These innocent people spend their time staying alive, trying to heal, and problem-solving and providing emotional support to the growing ranks of their fellow sufferers. For so many, there is no other ‘safety net’. Many of them have healed and others have learned how to manage their symptoms. And, as a wise friend of mine pointed out, they are the canaries in the mine shaft. They are here to tell us that we are irresponsibly destroying our environment and we are not taking care of our own. They have been forgotten. I mentioned the “canary in the mine shaft” to my new friend this morning and she replied with a tired, forlorn voice, “I don’t like being the canary.”

It is a long, long road to recovery and healing that could be shortened if the rest of us – who are not actively living with toxic mold illness – demonstrated compassion and concern. This is something we know how to do.

You can learn more about toxic mold illness and also help my daughter by visiting our GoFundMe page:


PixCell Original Art Notecards: A private sale to my Facebook Friends


SET #1 & #2 – 5.5″x4.25″ cards:

#1= Merry Christmas Ornaments, with MERRY CHRISTMAS printed inside in holiday blue. Ten cards and envelopes per box. $20 per box. Packaging and postage additional $7.

#2=With a St. Louis theme, this December holiday set includes 4-MERRY CHRISTMAS cards; 2-the Arch in winter; 2-the Grand Basin in winter; 2-snow-covered tree (Hydra). All but the MERRY CHRISTMAS cards are blank. Ten envelopes included. $20 per box. Packaging and postage additional $7.

Sets #1 and #2, St. Louis Holiday cards.

SET #3 – 5.5″x4.25″ cards: Ten blank cards and envelopes per box. Includes 1 each of: scenes from Forest Park, Missouri Botanical Garden, Bull Shoals Lake in Arkansas, sunflower, shrimp flower, sun breaking through clouds. $20 per box. Packaging and postage additional $7.

Set #3

SET #4 – 5.5″x4.25″ cards: Ten blank cards and envelopes per box. Includes 1 each of: scenes from Missouri Botanical Garden, sun in clouds, salmon rose, pink rose, iris, and autumn tree. $20 per box. Packaging and postage additional $7.

Set #4

SET #5 – 5.5″x4.25″ cards: Ten blank cards and envelopes per box. Includes 2 each of: bee on aster in Forest Park, the Arch in summer, hostas opening, Tower Grove Park fountain, and the Nathan Frank Bandstand in Forest Park. $20 per box. Packaging and postage additional $7.

Set #5

All cards professionally printed by NJC Printing in St. Louis, MO. Please send me your questions and orders via Facebook PM. I can accept Cash App, PayPal, or check. Money from the sale of these cards goes to help my daughter, so I am deeply grateful for your purchases! These make lovely gifts. I hope you enjoy the way the world looks through my eyes.

Gross Anatomy


The first thing any judge or prosecutor should ask a prospective panel of jurors is not what they typically ask. I found this out today fulfilling my biennial trip to the Circuit Courts building. After nearly 20 years, this every-other-year pilgrimage has become a tradition for me. I receive the colorful summons by mail, return the requisite information, and avoid arrest by showing up on the appointed morning for what might be one, two, three days, or even several weeks of jury service – if selected. It’s like a lottery drawing: you never know what you might win until the day of the event. Pepper in a healthy sprinkling of summonses received for Federal Court jury duty and it can seem as if jury duty happens in St. Louis every year, unlike other cities where one can live a lifetime without ever seeing the inside of a courtroom. Our jury supervisor explained the high demand for jury service among City residents when she told us today that the City of St. Louis starts each week of the year with an average of 250 cases on the docket. This number exceeds Kansas City and St. Louis County combined. Given its lower population, the stress on City residents is understandably greater.

The system is remarkably well run, all things considered. Still, after being asked individually and as a group no less than five times the same qualifying questions (are you a US citizen, are you over the age of 21, do you reside in St. Louis), it seemed to me at least one of those times someone would have switched up and asked something more pertinent, such as: Would you be able to serve on a murder trial?

Especially after the prosecutor’s opening remarks in voir dire, in which he disclosed the nature of the charges being tried, I kept waiting for the question to be put to us. It never was. And as the hours droned by, the questions become more and more discomforting to me because there is a well of painful memories just below the surface that were waking up, warning me not to go deeper unless I was prepared to pay an emotional price. I had already raised my hand in response to so many questions that the prosecutor, the judge, and the defense lawyer were obviously scrutinizing me, yet still not asking the right question. So, once again I raised my hand and asked if I might speak to the judge at the bench. “Yes,” the prosecutor replied, “we will do that later.”

After that exchange, I was glad that they stopped returning to me and settled in to wait for the opportunity to explain that I was getting more and more anxious by the minute. My thoughts were not clear. My memories were pulling me into a very dark place. Finally, we broke for a short lunch and were dismissed. I walked outside and realized I was seeing the world breaking up into pieces of shattered glass, like a kaleidoscope: I was having an ocular migraine. After lunch, we reassembled and the defense lawyer began his line of questioning. From these questions, I learned interesting things about the group. Over 50% of this eclectic cross section of men and women had been arrested at least once in their lives for offenses ranging from DUIs to not showing up for jury duty. Yes, that’s an offense punishable by arrest! At least one-third had a relative or friend with a serious drug addiction and most of those were heroin. Then, starting at the far end of the room, he asked each prospective juror the same questions: Are you a native St. Louisan? If not, from where did you move here and why? Where do or did you work and what do or did you do at your job? This was going to take a long time, and at one point about halfway around the room, the judge asked the lawyer to speed things up. In our group of 60, there was a surprising number of transplants. If the person moved from Illinois, they never specified what city, just answered, “Illinois;” if from another state, they gave the name of the city without the state. The most prevalent job occupation was some form of IT, followed by various medical occupations. As I listened to the questions and answers, I was still waiting for the opportunity to speak to the judge about my unsuitability to serve on this case when a man sitting in front of me rose to his feet to take his turn answering the three questions. The court reporter could not hear him and so he repeated over and over that he was a retired professor who had taught gross anatomy. Gross Anatomy. GROSS ANATOMY. In desperation, he extended both of his arms outward and shouted G R O S S A N A T O M Y. When he did this, I instantly visualized DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man. In a flash, my imagination connected this image back to a previous question asked earlier in the morning by the prosecutor:

“We have the police report, but we can’t show it to you. We will quote the police report, but we can’t show it to you. Are you okay not seeing the police report?” Over and over, all around the room, the question was asked of each person, “Do you need to see the police report?”

For some reason, this police report made me very uncomfortable. Even though I was not asked the question, every time it was asked, I answered internally, “I don’t want to see the police report!” Now, as I listened to the retired professor, and when his physical representation caused the Vitruvian Man to flash into my thoughts, I saw another graphic depiction. It was the outline of a man’s body in a police report from 1986. It has been over 30 years since I saw that image and today was the first time in all those years that I remembered it. Arms and legs spread outward on the page, both front and back of the body were marked where wounds had been inflicted; so many, in fact, that the report indicated wounds within wounds. It was a savage killing and an image that I have, understandably, suppressed, along with so many other things that I saw and heard and witnessed during the horrifying days surrounding that death, not the least of which was the police report.

Suddenly, not being picked for this jury was taking a back seat to a more important goal: just getting through this day.

Which I did. And, gratefully, I neither had to explain myself to the judge or legal teams, nor was I picked to serve on the jury.

It felt good to walk the half mile back to the parking garage, rather than take the shuttle bus. I let the cold wind whip around my face. I whispered his name and allowed a tear to roll down my face. The gift of 30 years passage of time was that I found more than a small measure of self-confidence to face this moment alone, with nothing but my own internal resources to rely on for strength. As I walked, I remembered that image in the police report and understood the deeper reality – that it was a map of my own emotional wounds, still there whenever I look; never too far out of mind even if I never do. I can trace every broken place in my life, every emotional scar, every loss, every failure, every regret. Some are wounds within wounds. They are all there, below the surface, because they were once a part of my life. Some of them still hurt. But, not one or all singly or in total makes up the entirety of who I am.

Perhaps we never completely heal, but we are not static beings; we do learn and grow, and I believe our wounds help shape who we are and become, for better or worse. We can use them to ignite a desire to offer a hand to someone who might need it; to help prevent something horrible from happening by showing a different way, showing that we care; to not just hear – but to listen to what someone might be saying; to tell the people we love that we love them. This is the process of living. Trust the process.vitruvian woman



Sitting in a metal patio chair at an outdoor table. This is my personal space. I am early enough that there are miles and miles of empty space between me and the next coffee drinker at this neighborhood café. The table has uneven legs and see-saws back and forth every time I pick up or replace my coffee cup. A minor annoyance. I am relaxed, absorbing the fresh air, the morning, the space.


A heavy rain fell early this morning, but stopped by the time I began my half-mile trek to this space. Water no longer pours from low-hung storm clouds but continues to drip from every single summer leaf overhead and from the wooden plank awning that is the only obstacle between me and the big, blue July sky. Between the slats of the awning I hear thunder rolling off in the distance. Goodbye, thunderstorm, like an unhappy child being sent to her room, noisily complaining as she stomps her feet, loudly marching on her way eastward through Illinois. Who is she? Where did she come from? What is her name?


This café is a petting zoo of companion animals of the dog variety who accompany their owners to their favorite neighborhood hang-out. Near enough to their homes, by daily coming here, dog owners can get their morning dose of coffee while their dogs get a little exercise.  I’m a cat person, but I get it. The rising sun has burned off the last of the clouds and the air is damp, humid, warming up fast. The odor of wet dog hair permeates every breath I take.


I imagine these are mostly single guys, older, in their 60s and upward judging from the looks that I am not always competent to analyse. They are the first wave of patrons to arrive. They walk past the row of tables beneath the awning, stop at the entrance of the café, tie up and leave their dogs at the door, and disappear inside after promising their dogs they will return, which they do –cup in hand. They untie their dogs and mosey along the length of the wooden plank awning, past mostly empty tables, out to the sidewalk and back home. There’s a distracted quality to their demeanor; they hardly seem to notice the animal attached to the end of the leash they hold. But, familiarity works both ways, and their dogs walk along, nonchalant, unconcerned about that man on the other end of the slack line. They know each other. The shine has worn off. They get along.

Next comes a wave of younger guys with younger dogs and younger women with laptops. The owners and their dogs are more energetic. One seeing-eye dog, a Shih Tzu mix, a Labradoodle, a Schnauzer, a 6-month old Golden Lab, three Chihuahuas prancing in sync with each other as if professionally choreographed, a Great Dane, a Bulldog, a Beagle, a Yorkie, a 3-legged Pomeranian, 2 Cocker Spaniels, and a frisky Greyhound. The dogs are one by one reined in and presented to the coffee drinkers now settled in their seats at the patio tables. “Would you mind?” “I’ll just be a minute.” “Could you please?” Incomplete sentences but fully understood meanings: I’m going to leave my animal(s) unattended over here right next to you because there’s an empty table and I don’t want to lose it while I go inside to get my coffee because, you know, dogs are not allowed inside. I want you to guard my laptop/knap sack/book and also keep an eye on him/her and take responsibility for making sure that he/she does not attack the other dogs in the parade as they pass by and are left with other non-owners in the safe-keeping of other strangers, perhaps even you. The standard reply: a nod of the head, assenting to the unspoken request.

Occasionally, a beautiful young ingénue with makeup and hair beautifully done – far too perfect for this time of morning, dressed to kill in a form-fitting body stocking type of running suit, will chirp and coo and ask about the dog: its name, sex, pedigree, age, food allergies, favorite color, favorite toy, favorite treat, litter mates, zodiac sign, place of birth, training, etc. The communal water bowl is refilled, the cooing and chirping ceases while the owner is gone. But, when the dog owners return with their coffees in hand, they often end up abandoning the staked-out table in favor of uniting their space with the space of the person who watched their dog while they were inside. Years and years ago, back before Internet dating web sites, I occasionally participated in a Friday night cruise through the aisles of what was known as “The Pick-up Schnucks” – a grocery store, in the heart of an affluent neighborhood, that developed an interesting reputation as a place to shop for companionship as well as canned artichokes and wine. Maybe this neighborhood coffee shop has taken up the mantel of that long-gone enterprise.

“Are you Karen?”

My space is invaded with the question that lands on my ears like the scratching of fingernails on a blackboard. I look up and scan the personage standing in front of me. “Are you Karen?” she inquires again. Only now do I realize that I’ve sunk so deep, deep into my personal space that it takes effort and a few seconds to swim up to the top and process those three words repeated for clarity. I look around to get my bearings and recall that I am still alone at my table so maybe I am Karen. But, no, I am not.  “Excuse me, are you Karen?” she asks again. There is a dog attached to her hand by means of a red, retractable leash.  Still not yet completely emerged from my bubble of solitude, I shake my head ‘no’.

“Are you sure?” she asks.

“No, I’m not Karen,” I answer.

Unconvinced, she looks me over from top to bottom and I have the feeling that I’ve been sniffed. She is jealously eyeing the 3 empty chairs around my table. I get it: there are no more empty tables underneath this wooden awning and she is looking for a place to sit or to tie her dog. It’s early, and I haven’t yet accessed sufficient verbal communication skills to offer her a place to sit with me, so it probably seems to her that I have been tied up to this table to wait for someone. But I have not.  If only I could prove to her that I am not Karen. If only I had some form of ID with me, a tag engraved with my name and phone number.

At last I gain control of the language center of my brain and put together the words she is waiting to hear. I offer her a chair at my table. Great! She says, and turns her back to me, signaling 3 other women and their dogs, who are waiting at the far end of the awning, to come and join her at this table. A quick count around the table and they are openly disappointed to find that they still require one more chair. Every eye is on me, every dog is on me. The third wave has arrived. I’m a cat person. Okay, it is time for me to go, but could I wait until they get back with their coffee?blur





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.



Preheat oven to 350


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


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.