With no advance notice, one day the uncle of a young boy was asked to look after his nephew for a few hours.
While thoughtfully considering a quiet activity to keep his nephew busy during the afternoon, the uncle paged through a magazine featuring a photograph of the earth from space. The image was taken from a new perspective, as it was a recent NASA photograph captured during one of the space missions.
Removing the page from the magazine with the earth’s image, the uncle decided to make an impromptu puzzle of the photograph by carefully tearing the page into manageable puzzle-size pieces. Then, placing the pieces in a random order on a table with a roll of clear tape, he thought to himself, “That should keep him busy.”
When the man’s nephew arrived, the boy was given the impromptu puzzle to work. Retreating to another room to attend to yet another project, the uncle was surprised to see his nephew appear about a quarter-hour later. The boy showed him the fully restored photo of the earth from space.
“How did you put that together so quickly?” the uncle asked.
Turning the puzzle over, the boy revealed another image—that of a person. The nephew explained, “I turned the pieces over and found the picture of a person. I knew that if I could get the person together, I could get the world together.”
And so it is. Blessed be.
*Thank you, Martin Hill, for passing this story along.
Sometimes the best lessons from our university days are those we learn outside of the classroom. –Julian Lynn
On one long weekend while I was attending university, I travelled several hours to visit a close girlfriend’s family. They lived several hours away.
My friend possessed many talents and gifts, yet social affability was not one of them. It was confusing for me to watch the uncomfortable social situations she created through her general suspicion and caginess around other people. From my limited perspective, it was as though she had never really learned how to occupy the space Grace had granted her, choosing instead to alternate between insecurity and a rather intense, blustery indignity which rarely allowed her to shine or even simply relax and be herself in community.
As with almost all of the extended weekend visits I took during my college days, Friday night’s meet-and-greet with the family was more formal in nature than the rest of the weekend. There was nothing during that initial phase of being introduced to my friend’s family that could explain her social awkwardness.
Then, as the sun rolled over onto Saturday morning, I lay in bed considering what I needed to get done in terms of homework that day. The guest room happened to be on the first floor of the home, and it was stationed adjacent to the kitchen. My door was ajar.
As I lay there in bed, contemplating plans for the day, I was amazed to overhear what I assumed to be old family verbal patterns reemerging. The conversation was nothing like those which had been in evidence the previous night.
As my girlfriend attempted to help her mother prepare breakfast in the kitchen, my friend was showered with an ongoing barrage of complaints about the nature of the kitchen’s layout, the inefficient manner in which my friend was attempting to help, how my friend’s contributions were somehow subpar. And, perhaps, most telling was the general prickly refrain, “You are always in the way.”
In defence of my friend’s right to exist, I remember muttering under my breath, “Why did you bother to have children, if you don’t even like them?” Then, becoming more philosphical about the situation, I asked myself the larger question: Why do people have children if they are only going to berate them verbally, withdraw their emotional support, as well as decry their very existence?
In some families, audio tracks are actually handed down generation to generation like a series of precious heirlooms when, in reality, it would have been better for everyone if these soundtracks had simply been erased. From my clients and students, I have learned that the lengthy process of erasure or overdubbing of these tracks can be a struggle. Not everything a parent “gifts” us is meant to be cherished or held onto. Not everything an adult or parent says is meant to go into a child’s psyche. So, if you are a parent, or an adult around children, choose your words carefully. You are on the air. This session is live. What you say is being recorded. The soundtrack you are laying down will be replayed. Words matter.
Trent Palmer sits across from me in the back of Mrs. Patterson’s seventh-grade English-grammar class. He is dark, unusually dark complexioned compared to almost all of the other adolescents in school. Moving through the hallways, among a crowd of third-generation Germanic and Scandinavian immigrants, he is an exotic, ethereal and appears to be almost other worldly.
This trait alone could have set him apart, but he also sports a jaunty limp whenever he walks, setting him further apart from the general, middle-school crowd. When Trent is standing straight, his shoulders do not match and, at the end of the one arm held closer to his body, his right hand curls into a permanent fist. With the diplomacy missing almost universally among all seventh-graders, I tell him it is a good thing he is left handed—attempting to be positive without succeeding at being even remotely socially appropriate.
In the back of English-grammar class, while Mrs. Patterson lectures from her desk in the far, front corner, Trent and I swap one-liners under our breath. He smirks at my quips, and I smile at his one-liners. We have a grand time. And, though I never speak of it, something inside of me loves something inside of him. I love his audaciously rare beauty, his gently skidding speech, his intellect, his brilliant white teeth and, most especially, that we are partners in our own secret comedy club.
Unlike the time I spend in the halls between or in other classes, I actually look forward to English-grammar class and the feeling of wholeness that seems to live there when I sit alongside Trent. No one seems the wiser about my feelings, including Trent. Then, my sense of wholeness comes to an abrupt end when Trent and his family move away suddenly.
Community gossip has it that Trent’s family felt he had been singled out for ridicule, the town was too small and that Trent’s intellectual needs were not being met by the district’s curriculum or teachers. I miss my friend terribly.
Yet, time has a way of gently erasing old hurts. And, the faces and names of middle-school friends become paved-over by the faces and names of those friends we make in high school and college.
Then, decades later, while reading about one of the posters put up in ancient, Roman-occupied Judea, calling for Jesus’ arrest, I read a description of Jesus as being dark, not overly tall, with uneven shoulders and that, if he is seen walking, he walks with a slight limp. From a distant well within my heart, an image of Trent and his radiant Light flood in. At the same time, I also remember some of the most awkward things I said to Trent which must have hurt him terribly.
Recalling how Trent’s one hand formed a permanent right-handed fist, I think if I were he in seventh grade, I would have wanted to punch God full in the face for making my body something less than perfectly symmetrical—especially given the width and breadth of Trent’s joyful Spirit and keen intellect.
My thinking at the time was this: If God had been paying attention, Trent’s whole, radiant and flawless Spirit would have been reflected in a perfectly symmetrical physical presentation for Trent.
But, as an adult, I realize that circumstances on the physical plane often do not work out that way. And, now, when I remember Trent, I know his physical presentation to be a perfect reflection of that which is most certainly of God.
I have a theory that our souls remember every kindness, injury, relationship, pain and Grace bestowed upon us by the actions and inactions of the Light in the souls of Others among us.
Months have gone by since the late morning, early one spring day, when a few words issued from my mouth allowed one teenage boy to regain his Light, after an intense outdoor domestic scene involving his cross and churlish mother.
Walking one of my regular routes to the coffeehouse to work, I see a teenage boy pop out of the same house. The boy is veritably skipping down the long flight of stairs from the front door toward the sidewalk ,where I am passing. From his perspective, the day looks to be a good one.
Almost past the house, I hear the boy shout out to me, “Hey! Are you having a good day?”
A blanket of tense, cogitative fog lifts from around my own dampened Light. Looking over my shoulder to meet his gaze, I give him a standard and socially acceptable reply, “Fine. Thank you for asking.”
Stopping his lank frame at the bottom of the steps, he calls out again, “I want you to have a good day. You need to have a good day.”
His command is a blessing. It is only then that I realize that this may be the same child of Light whom I tried to help one early spring day.
Walking on, I unearth the sacred space in my heart again, and I thank him silently, “And, you too, my friend. And, you too.”
Walking through a neighborhood not far from our own, I observe a woman grab the forearm of her gangly teenage son in vicious impatience. She does this only to yank him closer to herself so that she may spew several ugly, vitriolic phrases in his face about his worthlessness as a human being.
From the looks of the home’s side yard, it appears that the entire family of four has been out working, raking the side-yard dirt to free it from last year’s debris. A new chicken-wire fence is in place. Last fall’s leaves, twigs, sticks and branches, as well as a few scraggily green vines, rest in a heap in the corner of the area which is now cleared dirt.
The only friendly motion in the scene I am witnessing comes from the wriggling swaying tail of a puppy’s unstoppable joy at the undeniable beauty of this early spring day. I suspect the raking has something to do with making way for this family’s new canine friend. I wish that this puppy’s happiness could be magnified and distributed among all five souls present.
Today, I do not hold back. Turning my body halfway around to address the woman, while putting on my very best positive voice, I almost shout, “Wow, are you lucky to have such great help in the yard! Beautiful day to be outside. My own son is all grown up. Hardly see him. Busy. They grow up so fast.”
The woman stares back at me in shocked amazement (maybe at my cheery impudence), loosening her grip on her older male child’s forearm. Her mouth gapes in awe.
Mission accomplished. Further, immediate verbal abuse truncated. But, I can see that the boy’s personal Light is still crumpled up and twisted around his lank physical frame, leaving him vulnerable and emotionally unprotected.
Turning to continue on my walk, I say a silent prayer for this child, “Dear God, please protect this holy child, restore his Light and help him remember who he is—Yours.”
One. Two. Three. Four. Boys were born twelve months apart to a couple living in a house down the block in the community of my early childhood. Talented and hardworking. The parents of all four boys were gainfully employed as teachers.
As each child arrived, careful plans were made and special funds were started so that each child might attend college at eighteen. Pennies. Nickels. Dimes. Quarters. Kennedy half-dollars. Coins were dropped in jars for the funds. Regular deductions were taken from the checks of each parent.
Wanting what was best for their boys, both parents began taking progressively better jobs with more responsibilities, higher pay and more hours away from home. With the longer work hours, the couple cast about for proper childcare. Care was found. Yet, at times, it seemed as though the boys were becoming feral or as though they existed in two separate worlds—that orderly world of their parents’ preordained desire and the sphere of chaos they created under the watch of even the most trusted childcare providers.
From my childhood perspective, theirs was a house of loosely supervised mayhem down the block, floating like an untethered island on the move in a very large lake.
Turning the corner from boyhood to manhood, each man-child piled into his individual dinghy and left the mayhem of the island behind, setting a course for some point far, far away. Not one of those boys chose to pack his bags, load the family car and make the journey to university with his parents’ carefully planned financial support.
“My mother was dying. She had had several strokes and could no longer speak. My siblings and I had gathered to be with her. Then, she lost consciousness, yet we could sense her agitation at not being able to go out for another smoke–one last cigarette.
“My mother had been a two-plus-pack-a-day smoker all of her adult life. In fact, I think this is why I suffered so many ear, nose and throat infections throughout my childhood. My mother’s habit certainly caused me to choose medicine as a profession.
“Anyway, finally in the hospital as my mother’s agitation grew, it dawned on me that, if we cut a straw down to the size of a cigarette, placing the straw between her index and middle fingers might calm her. And, it did.
“The moment we placed that dummy cigarette between her fingers, something in her spirit relaxed–or her nervous system at least. Isn’t that funny?”
“Our habits certainly wear deep grooves in us,” I affirm quietly.
Moving into the city, where we currently reside, my husband and I were initially amazed by the generosity and open kindness of the local people. Whether we needed directions or help finding a phone number, complete strangers were more than willing to assist us, proving to be extremely patient and generous with their time. While walking our dogs, strangers have not been afraid to slow or stop their vehicles to shower compliments on our canine companions—for good behavior, glossy coats or general demeanor. And, among our closest neighbors, we were and are often treated to shared produce, jams, jellies and helpful local information.
Thus, when I first started my regular and extra-long walks in order to spend the afternoon writing in some of our community’s best coffeehouses, I was not overly surprised by the occasional vehicle that would pause, with the driver turning to address me directly and ask politely, “Do you need a ride?”
As a writer, I always decline these polite offers because I do not know these individuals and my long walks are designed to balance out the time I spend seated. Still, when this first started happening, I would think to myself, “Wow, the people here are so considerate.”
Then, one hot afternoon in mid-July or mid-August, after we had lived here for a few years, I am walking through a neighborhood between our own and the one where that day’s coffeehouse is situated. Across the street from me, two or three small groups of men are sitting outside of a not-so-large manufacturing complex, taking their mid-afternoon breaks in the outdoor heat. The temperatures inside of the buildings must be sweltering.
Suddenly, someone from among these men wolf whistles. Loudly. The whistle is jarring enough that I stop thinking about the book issues I have been mulling over in my mind and shift my focus back to the present moment and into the context of my body. Glancing about, I look for, perhaps, a new car, a custom truck or another situation or person who might warrant such vocal attention. There is nothing and no one else around.
Then, gazing down at my summer garb, I notice the jumper I am wearing. The linen or light cotton jumper is a practical, fashion nod to the day’s incredibly high heat index. In that moment, I also realize that with my being across the street, the man who has whistled probably cannot see my face and most certainly does not realize that I—in terms of age—could have easily be his mother.
“Hmmm. Odd,” I think to myself. My mind clicks and whirs. That wolf whistle grants me something of a non-spiritual epiphany regarding the probable nature of those previously “kind” offers for “a ride” which may have been code for something else entirely different.
Our postal carrier likes to refer to our small section of his route as “The Ritz.” In order to walk to the many coffeehouses I frequent to complete my book projects, I often pass through three, four or five distinct micro-neighborhoods, each with its own flavor, challenges and/or expectations. Interestingly enough, the offers for “rides” which I have received do not come in the evenings, as might be expected, but usually during the early afternoon—somewhere between one and four. So, it is not as though I am inviting this potentially questionable contact into my life by walking at “inappropriate” hours of the day.
After the wolf-whistle event, I return home to sort through my clothing, donating any potentially “questionable” skirts, jumpers and dresses to a local charitable organization for resale. I do not want to experience further future miscommunications due to wardrobe content. A tall stack of stylish, fun clothing in neutral to light colors is traded in for a stack of somber-colored capris, slacks and practical short—all in an effort to prevent confusion.
I wonder about clothing signals specific to this region. Still, even after the change in wardrobe, a few vehicles do pause, on occasion, stopping long enough to ask me whether or not I need “a ride.”
Over the years I have lived here, I have looked in the faces of men ages twenty-five to seventy-five, searching to fill the void of loneliness inside of themselves with the specter of love which commercialized, sexually intimate touch attempts to provide. Yet, Grace is the only thing capable of filling that chasm of emptiness which forms when we experience long periods of unwanted soul solitude. And, so, for now—I continue to pray that the hearts of these passersby become filled with God’s unremitting Light.
Recently, while travelling to promote books in a region where I had once functioned professionally, I took time off to care for my physical frame by having some bodywork done. Bodywork seems to redress the compression travelling produces in my body.
Because I was in an area where I had once worked, I still know a few of the regions most long-standing alternative-care professionals. Still, for this trip, I opted to work with a practitioner who was completely new to me.
While working through the compression in my body with this new practitioner, the name of yet another of the community’s stalwart alternative-care providers came up. My sense was that this new-to-me bodyworker was about to recommend the work of this other woman. Yet, taking a deep breath, I felt the need to stop her short.
Hearing this other woman’s name for the first time in many years, I informed the new practitioner that although this other woman may be a completely competent alternative-care provider in her chosen field, she behaved uncharitably toward me during my professional tenure in this community.
Because I felt the statute of limitations had passed on my self-imposed silence, I explained to the new practitioner that this other woman had insisted–among friends and clients of hers–that I had “taken her job.” This was her widely propogated story and not the reality.
After this other woman had been released from her job at a local center, I was in fact the “hire” who had replaced her. This employment circumstance did not turn me into the person who “took” her job.
Ultimately, the experience taught me this. We all tell fetid little, or big, lies to protect ourselves, cocoon our egos, shore ourselves up professionally while undermining someone else’s constructive efforts or blind ourselves personally from the various truths in certain of our life circumstances.
In the end, I had to move into forgiveness because, upon carefully combing through my own uncensored history, I unearthed select junctures in my own life where I too had told myself fetid little lies, which kept me separate from the Light in my heart and may have dimmed the Light in the heart of another.
We have something of an informal gardening club in our extended neighborhood. There are no scheduled meetings. No one keeps track of who gave what to whom or when—nor do we track whether we are exchanging a medicine-bottle full of saved seeds, a shovel with flowering rhizomes, egg-carton grown seedlings or some recently separated tubers, which had to be split due to overcrowding. In our neighborhood there is a free flow of thingsglowing, flowering or fruiting. We exchange the plants and seeds we love to cultivate.
A “weed” has been described as a plant that grows where someone does not want it to grow, which in my experience is pretty much true. A lot of what we term “weeds” also has to do with how useful a specific plant is to us as human beings. In terms of categorization, I like to imagine that somewhere in a person’s brainstem there is a little room, where a singular, primordial agent sits with a green visor and a nineteenth-century bank clerk’s cuffs sorting things of this world into overly simplistic categories labelled, “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong.” And, we need to remember that these designations tend to come about as a result of our personal experiences, me-based opinions (from who knows where) and impressions which we have taken on as a result of our society’s or culture’s molding influences.
Next garden day. Next garden channel. An older neighbor came over recently to invite me on a short walking tour to look at everything in bloom. Her granddaughter tagged along. Neither of us were really following the young girl’s activities closely, as she skipped along our quiet streets beside us and, then, otherwise trailed politely behind so we could talk.
Then, as we stopped near a particularly amazing garden location, the woman’s granddaughter came forward, thrusting her arm out toward me.
The young girls heart was wide open. She had entered the enchanted, “green land” of plants. In a very short time, the girl had amassed a bouquet of beautifully arranged dandelions, forming a perfect umbrella in form and of singular color. With her outstretched arm, extended in my direction, she said very simply, “These are for you.”
As I reached for the flowers, the girl’s well-meaning grandmother, bent upon teaching her social etiquette, gently smacked the girl’s hand and stated emphatically, “Those are ugly. She doesn’t want those. They are weeds.”
The dandelions fell, scattering across the sidewalk. I saw the girl’s heart close. I watched bewilderment take hold of her emotionally, as the young girl’s face flushed red.
I would like to report that I said or did something to save the day—or at the very least the moment. The abrupt shock of the exchange rendered me mute, as did my deep fear of offending the girl’s grandmother. All I can hope is that the sunshine, held in that perfect act of innocent generosity and present in the bouquet of yellow flowers that day, will return to that girl’s pure heart…someday.