Sunday, February 26, 2012

Starting to forget, remembering to remember

This story is such a vague memory I almost can't recall the details of hearing it.

But the story, I'll never forget.

I do remember sitting in the living room when I first heard it, watching TV in the rented house I shared with my first husband, a drafty wooden one-story with a giant single-pane glass window that looked onto Delaware Drive in San Mateo.  I know I was in that house because I remember the gold velveteen of the borrowed sofa underneath me.  I kept petting the prickly nap of the cheap fabric as I prayed nervously, desperately, after hearing the story.  Back in those days, I didn't pray much, but I did that night.

We still had the 19-inch vacuum tube TV; flat screens hadn't been invented yet.  My new baby daughter was in bed, baby monitor on, my son not yet born or thought of.  Not sure where my husband was - just that he wasn't there. The show, I don't remember.

I haven't seen or heard the story since, except when I have told it, and again today when I  looked for it on the web.  I found it in the sermon notes of a Mr. Tad Pound, who told it in an Epiphany series at San Gabriel the Archangel Episcopal Church in New Mexico not long ago.  It's from Chicken Soup for the Soul, turns out, told by Dan Millman, about a little girl named Sachi.

I love the web.  It's kind of a miracle.  Connects all the threads of our lives that would otherwise be loose at the ends, and frayed.  Now back to my story.

So here goes.  On the TV show, a mother was telling it, as if it were her story.  Maybe it was.

Sachi's mother was about to have her second child.  Every day the toddler would put her head against mom's tummy and ask to speak to the baby.  Please, can't he come out and talk to me?  Then he can go right back in.  OK?

Not possible, baby.  You'll see him soon.

After the baby was born, Sachi begged to be left alone with her new brother in the nursery, just for a few seconds.  Her parents were hesitant, fearing she might poke or scratch the baby, or try to pick him up and drop him, even if she was well intended.  Still, they had a baby monitor hooked up, so they decided to let her go in alone.

Once inside, it only took her a second or two to ask her question:  Can you tell me about God?  I'm starting to forget.

Now, you may have heard this before, and therefore discount it as a cute urban legend, or let it go by in the background like white noise.  Like the starfish story.  Heard that.  Got the T-shirt.

Even Snopes, that venerable website that debunks legends, has written about Sachi.  Snopes says that there are lots of tales of toddlers professing to have seen or smelled or been held by God, but that there is no proof that it is God whom they saw or smelled or touched.

Whatever.  What this is, is a mustard seed.  And frankly, I believe it all, Sachi, and the baby brother, and almost forgetting about the God she remembers, because she saw Him.

Why do I believe it?  Because I have asked Him many times to show me, as He said I should do, and He has kept his promise to back up my mustard seed with a whole jar of mustard.  Therefore I have tasted and seen the mustard again and again, and it is good.

Try it.  Asking Him to show you, that is.  I tried it the day I heard about Sachi, and it was good.  It hasn't been good every day, but the goodness has rippled out in ever escalating levels of goodness, one layer at a time, as only the Master Conductor could orchestrate it.

In fact, He never fails to remind me He is God, if I remember to ask.  Sometimes it's in little ways.  Like today, when I was looking for the Sachi story.  One of the places I found it was on an Angelfire site called Our Family Page, created by a family in Texas who has taken in several children.  On Our Family Page, Sachi's page is decorated with Precious Moments pictures of a little warrior holding up a sword, his face adorned with a criss-cross bandage, covering his heart with a shield.

When my almost-soon-to-be-second husband was nearly killed in a bicycle accident about ten years ago - seven bones broken, one punctured lung -  that very same Precious Moments warrior was painted on the wall in the room where he lay for ten days, oxygen tubes and morphine and all.  It was in the old hospital on 13th Street in Merced, which has since been replaced by a sparkling new hospital on the north side of town.  So the mural is probably gone, unless they one day rescue it from the wrecking ball when that time comes.

That mural was painted there by one of the surviving sisters of a horrible crime in the Weaver District of Merced County, created in homage to her 7-year-old brother John who had been murdered with a pitchfork while he slept.  A naked crazed man had charged into their home while the oldest girl was babysitting the other three.  He was attacking them one by one, goring whoever he could corner.

In the next cubicle was an homage to nine-year old Ashley, a praying angel, who had courageously thrown herself at the killer, screaming, "Get off my sister!"  That's when he turned on her, running her through.  Ashley perished in that cubicle.  Only the two elder sisters made it; the oldest married last year.  They're Gospel Defenders.  They know the soul survives.

The presence of those babies was still tangible as my husband lay there; the gratitude for flames that  had burned short but well, still tangible.  God had come to cover them there in those cubicles, and it was clear while I sat vigil that He hadn't left.  He was there to cover me, so much less deserving.  So much less in need, yet so much less grateful, even as I was.  Still, He covered me, as He covered my unconscious husband, for whom He had already sent a passing EMT, complete with ambulance, who happened to be crossing the remote country road at the exact moment when he went down, reviving him in time to live another day.

So bring Him your mustard seed.  It doesn't take much.  If you are starting to forget, then remember to remember, and just ASK.  He'll show you, in a million ways large or small.  He'll never fail, His word on that.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Getting strait

Something in my heart was made for luxury.  Calgon, take me away.

Somehow I think I'm not the only one. Much of advertising is devoted to spectating the good life, all those things we crave but don't have time for, or can't afford. There are entire television channels devoted to nothing but eating, or fashion, or travel, or the lush comfort of a beautiful home.

Sprinkled in between the costly and unreachable is the accessible and do-it-yourself-able, all possible through a few simple purchases.  Just call this number, and for practically nothing you can buy it.  Family around the table.  The smell of home.  Canned peace of mind.  A quiet soul.

Truth be told, I am especially susceptible to promotions of guilty pleasure because I am an inveterate workaholic.  My life is out of balance.  Feast or famine, sweat or sleep.  Little in between.

For years my career as an executive ate my life.  I commuted to a distant university and back, drove for hours in the dark of night as a young wife, to advance myself to higher degrees.  I never took a vacation unless it was somehow tied to business travel, even through the years my children were growing.  Dedication to purpose, to be sure, but also a squandering of blessing.

Even now, as a high school teacher, with the promise of summers off and days that end when the sun is still high, I am bent over my desk when all doors but mine are long since locked, still in the saddle through the dog days of July and August.  Every precious minute I have to sell, I sell. Not sure why.  Perhaps I'm an addict.

So to salve the world-weariness brought on by my addiction, I spectate, and I buy guilty pleasures.  Like tins of refrigerator biscuits.  Ironically, this is so I can save time on pursuits like making biscuits for my daughter, on one of the few mornings we have together.  Most days, she is commuting two hours each way to her dream job in the Bay Area.  Just like her mama.

What's wrong with this picture?

"Strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leads unto Heaven, and few there be that find it." - Matthew 7:14

We'll think about that in a minute, but keep it behind your ear, and let it simmer.

We're believers, my two children and I.  We all live here together.  My daughter is a lot like me.

My son is the black sheep, the prodigal, so we think.  He's undone by the excesses and strictures that come with over-commitment to worldly purpose.  He's angered - overly so - by the small nagging duties of square living and commerce.  He's hard to live with because you can't get too driven around him or he unravels.  He prefers to bask in the presence of his loved ones, to work with his hands just enough to earn food for his belly and clothes for his back (which he has few of).  To laugh at jokes, to watch cartoons, to play with dogs. To mow the lawn without criticism for which way the mower may have turned when it laid out the rows.

He's always hated video games.  He's always preferred living.

Darn him.

That makes it hard for my daughter and I to feed our addictions.  Perfectionism, workaholism, nagging.  Spectating.  My son, her brother, gets upset.  We must handle him with kid gloves, so we think.

In reality, I think she and I have bought into hard-work, perfectionist, works-based religion, to an extent.  I think we both believe, perhaps because I have taught her, that the harder the labor the cleaner the soul; the "better" the behavior, the better your shot at Heaven.  That somehow trying hard will get us to the Promised Land.

But look:

"(E)very man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things (my italics)."  - I Corinthians 9:25

"Cease striving and know that I am God." - Psalms 46:10

"Stand still, and see the salvation of God." - Exodus 14:13

Our lives are out of balance.  Perhaps only a little - let's not beat ourselves up here.  But out of balance nevertheless.

Somewhere between perfectionism and sloth is temperance.  Somewhere between striving yourself to death and sleeping yourself to death is balance.  Somewhere between self-righteousness and willful sin is forgiveness. Somewhere in the middle is a still, alert, and present soul, looking into the face of Jesus.

This middle place is strait, and narrow.  Few be there that find it, prone to addictions and extremism as we are.  Finding it requires a stillness and a patience, a humility, born of discipline.  To find it, we must get strait.  Look it up.

There is no more stringent discipline, in this culture born of striving, than to cultivate a watchful, humble mind, a mind that watches Jesus.  Watches and waits, waits to find His balance.

I didn't have any tins of refrigerator biscuits today so I made my daughter homemade biscuits for breakfast.  We had a slow and dreamy morning, between our bouts of laboring.  Warm, crumbly, redolent with shortening, star-shaped things cut out with a really big Christmas cookie cutter because I don't have a biscuit cutter.  Never took the trouble to buy one.  Too busy working.  My son does all the shopping because I'm too busy working.

"Strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leads unto Heaven, and few there be that find it." - Matthew 7:14

Somewhere in between, in the narrow place, lies temperance, stillness.  Somewhere in between we stop striving and start simply and humbly working, start loving, start watching for direction on where to draw the line.  How much is too much.  How much is just enough.

Somewhere in the middle, we wait.  We stand still, and see our lives unfold before us.  We see the salvation of God.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The substance of things hoped for

Sometimes I feel like I see the number 1 everywhere.  Has that ever happened to you?

I have a special friend - a prayer warrior - who loves those number 1's like nobody's business.  They are up all over his Facebook page.  He posts shots of his i-Phone screen at 1:11 and 11:11.  Some days he has a penchant for 3's, but most of the time, it's all about the 1.

Love him.

Here's an 11:1 for you:  "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." - Hebrews 11:1.

We look for God's fingerprints on things.  We know He's there because we can feel Him, we can smell His fragrance.  We can feel the fine touch of His hand brushing softly across the fuzz on our cheek just as we fall asleep.  If I should die before I wake.

When my daughter moved away at 21, her first apartment was number 11 in building 1A.  When she got an upgrade, it was to number 101 across the courtyard.  My baby surrounded by 1's.  As my friend would say, just sayin'.

Is it Him brushing against our cheek, or is it just us looking for Him, looking for faith?  Maybe both.  Only He knows.

Recently I wrote about a goose who snatched a toddler out of a drowning pool by his pants, only to expose himself to the zone code inspector and sacrifice his neck in the process.  For the toddler, that goose was his number 1 that bright blue afternoon. The substance of things hoped for, a gift of life from the Great One.  Fear not; I am here. Have faith.

Today I am going to tell you a similar story, one I referenced in my last column.

It had been a long day, and my husband back then was driving us back from San Diego.  It was the day before New Year's Eve in '10, and our marriage was in the dying days.  The trip was a mandatory one.

We had come up over the Grapevine, ink black sky to match the pavement, rain slanting sideways.  A man pulled up beside us and waved at us, pointing. Turns out we had been driving without our headlights on.

My husband softened for a while after that.  Just for a while.

We continued to amble over the rise, down into the flat, up the long stretch flanked by redwoods either side, center lane, idle chat, mostly silence.

As we came into the heart of the Valley, my husband's love of the back roads and the hinterlands got the better of him.  Sharp hook off the 99 into the dark parts unknown, the places where I get lost.  The rain had subsided some.

But this time he got lost.  Narrow potholed roads, tight with barbed wire dairy fences and abandoned clapboard storefronts.  Vineyards.  No lights, no curbs, no gutters.  Plenty of mud to turn around in.  Plenty of time to think.

Once long ago when we were first dating, he had taken me to the Woolgrowers, a Basque mainstay on the west side of the county known for its Portagee diesel and lamb stew (I have lived in Merced County long enough that I get to say Portagee diesel, and people know not to take offense).

On the way home from dinner, warm with diesel, again a rain-slanting-sideways night, we hit a tumbleweed the size of Texas, then bunny hopped through a puddle that nearly covered the hood of his truck.  He chatted me through it, patting my hand like a grandma while he steered with the other.  That's how we found that we had been born two days apart in the same year, and had gone to the very same Disneyland grad night in 1971, the night Smokey Robinson had played.  That time, our hides dried out to drive another day.  Prelude to a traffic accident.  I teach this to my English students as foreshadowing, or in this case, flashback.

But I digress, as I often do.  Still, there's a theme here.

Back to my story.  On the drive back from San Diego, I finally lost count of how many times we had doubled back, the vineyards seemingly new ones, but then we would see a landmark and know we had only driven in a circle.  Finally over the rise, we saw it:  the freeway overpass in the distance, shimmering and fresh with rain, a shot at the 99, freedom, safety.

I know a road, he said.

About an hour later, the warm glow of Dinuba showed on the horizon.  Breathe.  We were on the main street of town.

Straight, I said.  The freeway's ahead.  Left, he said.  It's quickest, and the freeway is right there.

Inky road, two way, no traffic, black as hell.  Clapboard cottages, blustering winds, ravines either side, black.  Thickness of black.

In the road, the headlights unveiled something, nothing.  Half a second, and we were in it.  The highest winds of the season had laid it down, a dry leafless silver branched eucalyptus, the dry color of cloud and winter sky, and we were through it.

Brakes locked, whipping left, right, over, galloping down, snap behind me, branches grazing the back of my neck, shatter of glass, twist, and we were nose down, 180 degrees around, backward and teetering an inch from the ravine.  Scratched against the dead black wet silence, cree-ee, cree-ee, we rocked.  Elbows locked, hands still on the dashboard.  It's ok.  I haven't left you.  Rocking.  Smell of coffee all over the front of me.

We popped the doors open and somehow were out, the car lurching and scraping as we climbed.  The branch had shot through the right rear window and stabbed through, an inch behind my head.  Up twenty, maybe thirty feet, was the road.

And then the glare of headlights were in our eyes as we stood in our depths, and he was there, cut out in silhouette on the horizon of the ditch.  His beret I noticed first, then the broadness of his shoulders, and his hand outstretched.

"Are you ok ma'am, sir?  Take my hand."  One by one he hauled us up light as air from the ditch so deep we could not see the road.  Could his arm really have been that long?

I don't remember his face.  I only remember wondering if I was really dead, and I was being invited into Heaven.  I remember his silver grey camo fatigues, not a drop of mud, color of the tree we had just been birthed through.  Us staring aimlessly, turning in circles, disoriented.  Meanwhile, he laid out flares.  "I hit it too," he said.  "I was right behind you."  I didn't notice his car, not at all, just light.  And him.  He waved traffic around the tree, waved it to safety.

Cherry-on-top and blueberry lights spun in the distance.  We turned to look, camo soldier still waving behind us.  When we looked back, deep in our minutiae of statements, he was gone.

"Did you see him?" we asked the officer.  "The soldier.  He hit it too, helped us out of the ditch."

No, he hadn't seen a soldier.  No car. No waving.  No beret.  Only the flares, and the cars filing neatly around the tree, safe.

And all the way back home in the tow truck, I continued to wonder, am I dead?  Is this Heaven?  Or is it merely the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen?

I don't know if our soldier was real or not.  I don't know if he was an angel.  I don't know if he was just on his way to the airport, back to duty, and didn't dare miss his flight.  All I know is, his arm was long enough, longer than common sense would allow.  And there was not a drop of mud on him.

If we trust just one iota - one mustard seed - He shows us the evidence that there is something we cannot see, without fail. 1's. Geese.  Silver camo soldiers.  He brushes our cheek ever so softly with His hand just as we are falling asleep, and thereby feeds us substance.  He feeds us faith.

His arm is long enough, longer than common sense would allow, long as hope.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

This year's balance sheet: winning

"All things work together for good for those who love God, for those who are called according to His purpose." - Romans 8:28

Definition of word up:  "I comprehend what you are saying and verify that what you are saying is true, my good brother." - Urban Dictionary

Romans 8:28.  Word up, for my life.  Thank God.  Glory to God.

I have recently been going over my lifetime balance sheet again and again, classifying major events as blessings or hardships.  Somehow, after everything hits the list, no matter how many things I put on the hardship side, the blessing side keeps winning.

Oddly, things I put on the hardship list keep popping over to the blessing side somehow. How can this be?

Here.  Look.

I'll start with the hardships, just because.

1. Get autoimmune disorder which causes complete hair loss.  Hair still gone. (1996)
2. Get new boss. (2008)
3. Reassigned to lower position from dream job I've held for 25 years. (2008)
4. Sent to teach at a school for the highest risk teens in the school district.  (2009)
5. One third cut in pay. (2009)
6. Other driver nearly totals my car with me in it. (2010)
7. Husband leaves me. (2011)
8. Lose the home my children grew up in. (2012)

Hmm.  Bad scene.

Now here come the blessings over the same time period.

1. Both of my children become believing Christians.  Still are.  (1996)
2. Profoundly discover my own inner beauty and the accepting love of my fellow humans. (1996)

Wait a minute - that last one was because of the hair.  So that makes the hair a blessing. Check off one hardship.

3. Get a whole year off with executive pay. (2008-09)
4. Sit down and write a novel which considers how the arc of a life story is impacted by the love of God. (2008-09)
5. Feel the tangible hand of God upon me through the writing process, which renews me from the inside out. (2009)

Sheesh.  Those three were a direct result of the "new boss" and "reassigned from my dream job" hardships.  And of course those hardships directly caused the "cut in pay" hardship, but the blessings were worth every penny in lost pay.  So check 'em off.  All three, check - check - check.

I think we're almost even.  Next blessing:

6. Sent to teach at a school for the highest risk teens in the school district.  (2009)

Wait a minute - that was on the hardship list!  But the students - they're so smart and so passionate, and at the same time so neglected and so sad, that all one can possibly do in their presence is love them.  And when you love them, the love they return to you is from a heart of gratitude, deep and rare.

BIG time blessing.  Check it off the hardship list.

7. Had car completely rebuilt and got a new paint job.  Improved my relationship with insurance company and super nice people at the body shop. (2010)

This one's obvious.  Check off the car crash hardship.  Besides, it's only a car, and we met an angel on the roadside when we should have been dead instead (but that's another column).

8. Find complete peace alone in the presence of God while enjoying a nearly drama-free life.  (2011)

'Nuff said.  You can guess which hardship gets checked off for that.

9. Find viable opportunity to move out of a property which is financially breaking me, just two years in advance of my retirement.  This leaves me free to move wherever I please as soon as I retire without the burden of selling. (2012)

Besides, the house was only a shell.  The love has always been separate from the bare walls, and our collected stuff which makes the house a home comes with us.  That, and the love.  Besides, the kids are in their twenties anyway.  Check it off.

10. Add the blessing of deeply embracing the fact that love is more important than things, even though we have always known this.  Now we know it better.


Hardships, 8.  Blessings, 10.  And most, if not all, of the hardships were blessings in the first place anyway.

Who but God can see what is for our good?  His view is high and wide, while we lie on our bellies in this world, under His care.  All we can know is one thing:  He took on the ultimate hardship because He loves us passionately.  He has promised to never leave us nor forsake us, and I believe Him when He says that He won't.

And He has never proved me wrong in that regard.

Word up, it has all worked together for my good. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Love in the right places

Sometimes, when we are at our weakest, what we value most is safe haven.

But just as often, that which appears safe, isn't really all that safe anyway.

In real life, I'm a teacher to at-risk teens, and in truth I learn way more from them than they have ever learned from me.  Many of them have never experienced genuine safety a single day of their lives, except perhaps at school.  Yet they believe, because they are children, that those who are in charge of them are at least a little bit good, and that they are safe because of this.

The world is in fact a very dangerous place, more so for some than for others.  Because of this, discernment and a fervent commitment to purpose are key.  The last thing we need is an overweening thirst for safety.

Now, I am not talking about the safety that we seek from common sense, because we want to live to serve another day.  I am talking about bad safety, the safety that puts you to sleep, that makes you lazy, the safety that makes you too comfy to see the wolf crouching behind the door.  The safety you seek because you are afraid to live.

This is the kind of safety we are tempted to seek when our lives have been thrown into chaos, such as by cancer, or a shocking childhood, or an exceedingly bad marriage.

If we're more fortunate, it's the safety we snuggle into when life is better than we have a right to expect, and we have become lazy out of habit.  Shame on us for that.

Now, for many of my students, danger unfolds right under their noses as a matter of course.  I am talking about real danger, the kind that can cost you your life in the middle of the night when the rest of us are sleeping.  And yet, wherever they see strength, my students, especially when that strength professes love, they seek shelter there with a childlike faith.  Sometimes they can't tell the good safety from the bad any more; other times they simply have no choice but to sit in it, because they are children.  And they get burned, and they never knew what hit them.  They see the wound, and they don't know how they got it.

What's our excuse?

In my real life, it has become about praying for their souls and minds all the while I am high-school-English-teacher-ing the dickens out of them.  This is partly because my judgment in my own life has not always been a whole lot better than theirs, and I know where things could head for them.

Safe haven is not where it's at.  It's about asking a few hard questions:  What needs doing in this world?  What needs building?  What outrageous thing needs correcting?  What are we driven to do about it?

It's about fearlessly grasping the ember God planted in your soul and fanning it till it catches fire.  It's about machete-ing out the unseen trail in front of you and then walking it brazenly, torch held high.

Not all of us, but some of us, look for love in all the wrong places, desperately seeking safety at any cost; or just as wasteful, we find a good safe thing and hitch our wagon to it, and park.

That's not what we were made to do.  We were made to burn.  We were made to shine.  We were made to be a conduit for the love of Someone bigger than ourselves, to leave the world better than we found it.  We were not made to hide, not in an alley, not in a gang, not in a dysfunctional relationship, not in a drug.  Not even, for the lucky ones, in the bosom of our safe little home, even if it really is pretty safe by comparison.

If we were blessed to find human love in this world, we were meant to use it as fuel, not as a drug.  We are the creation of Another, not our own, and it's time to start living that way.

I feel like sharing a chapter from my novel Corners today, one in which the misbegotten Shelley is again looking for love in decidedly unsafe places, all because she is desperate to feel safe.  In this chapter, you can see the stupid coming; you can see the wreck before it ever happens.  These are the lessons we learn, when we choose to learn them the hard way.  Such is life.  Mistakes, we make.  But then we get up, and we forgive, including ourselves, and do it for the right reasons the next time.

Because at the end of the day, if we don't do the good work we were put here to do, all because we were busy groveling our way to safety, then we haven't done what we came to do.  And that, good friend, would be a terrible waste.

* * *

The store was empty except for me and Bruno one December Saturday night, with lights already turned out everywhere but the kitchen, the loft, and the night lights in the front window.  It was starting to get cold, and you could almost see your breath in front of your face even inside the store now that the heat was off for the day.  I was hurrying to finish up for closing, lost in thought over my work, picking out recipes for the  next day so I could grab the freshest ingredients early before the customers came in.  Bruno and I had been bantering back and forth all day, him “meep meep” -ing around the deli like my shadow; and me noticing his antics more than he realized, tracking his every movement with my eyes, smiling my Mona Lisa smile whenever he noticed me noticing him.

“Merry Christmas, Tranquilla,” he whispered, suddenly out of nowhere, his lips barely touching the back of my hair. 

I gasped and wheeled around, the shock of his unexpected presence, the unfamiliar heat of his breath near my ear, and his granite body behind me causing the fine hairs on the side of my face to stand up.

He laughed as my chestnut mop whipped into his face, catching him in the mouth.  I had been leaning over a little file box in front of the pass through, studying a recipe card, when he had sneaked up and abruptly planted his hands on the counter around me, sheltering me in the space he created.  He let go of the counter as I turned, and backed up, grinning at me.

“You smell nice, bella,” he said.  “What is that?”

“Irish Spring and Tide,” I flirted.  “If it smells like more than that, it must be my natural sweetness.”

“Awwh, you beat me to it,” he joked, pressing his clenched fist into his heart like I’d shot him there.  “So tell me, Tranquilla, do you still have to stop and think about Graham whenever you see me?”

We stood there staring at each other for a moment, the air between us thick with surprise and the electricity of emerging connection.  I looked him over thoroughly as he calmly observed me, waiting for me, while I took in his skin, the thick, loose black hair that he was constantly smoothing out of his eyes, those eyes, like ice but somehow warm, eyes that penetrated deep to the center of me and melted there, leaving something of his behind that didn’t go away.  And the well muscled frame that I didn’t dare look at, not yet.

“No,” I said simply.  “No, I don’t.”

“Well, good for me,” he said huskily, a slow smile still playing around his lips as he held my gaze.  He cleared his throat. “So here I go.  Can I take you out for a drink tonight, bella?  You know I missed your birthday, and I have something to give you I’ve been keeping.  I’ve been waiting, you know, until you didn’t, you know, have anything on your mind any more.  You know what I mean.”

I knew exactly what he meant.  My 21st birthday had been in October, and even though he and I never talked about Graham, he knew that my heart still ached from something back then, from whatever that thing was that had been hovering over me when he and I shared the bottle of Chianti months ago, the thing I couldn’t tell him about.  And he had waited for my eyes to clear and my heart to lighten all this time.  He had known just the right moment, to the day and hour, when it was time, not a moment too soon, or too late.

I took in a breath. “OK.  Right now?”

“No, next week. Yes, hippie girl, right now.  Can I help you clean up?”

“No, you goof, we’re already clean.  I’ll think about recipes later.  I want a Kahlua and cream.  Two.”  I fake-punched him in the jaw, and he craned over backwards like I’d really jabbed him.

“Oww, Tranquilla, you knock me out.  You can have as many as you want.  I got you.”
We walked the grocery aisles together, looking for items out of place or fallen; then he locked down all of the outside doors and turned out the lights in the kitchen and the loft.  He came back out to grocery, where I was still waiting between the canned fruits and vegetables and the bread aisle, up by the cash register.  He stopped about eight feet back and stood, hands in his pockets looking at me.  His left eye twitched a little, and a smile broke across his face.   He approached me slowly, reaching up and weaving his hand into my hair as soon as the length of his arm would allow.  His fingers came gently around the back of my head, pulling me toward him, bringing my face to within inches of his, his eyes boring into mine.

“I’ll arm the store and meet you at the truck,” he whispered.

 Once we were bouncing along in the little red market pickup, the newness melted away again, giving us the respite of our old easy friendship and gossipy chatter to fall back on.  The conversation came in a flood, almost like a reaction to the intense silences of moments ago: what were Ray and Nannette doing for Christmas; was he giving bonuses, or a party at his big house in San Bruno.  We all loved parties at Ray’s house because he had a home version of Pong, a computer ping pong game that was built into a game table where the top should be.  We would sit around that thing for hours until our brains shut down.  He was going to add Pac Man to it for his two little ones for Christmas, and we were trying to talk him into putting one up in the loft. 

As we got closer to the wharf and could see Alioto’s Restaurant in the distance, Bruno told me word was that two Italians were going to run for mayor, and we debated who our favorite of the two likely contenders would be, Moscone or Barbagelata.  We were kind of leaning toward Moscone, a man of the people who didn’t hide out in his St. Francis Wood home, but spent time in the stores and cafes of the city’s neighborhoods, keeping tabs on people.  Plus he had been majority leader of the State Senate, while Barbagelata had just been a Supervisor, and Willie Brown liked him. And I liked Willie.  He used to give parties for us poster factory kids, since we worked for his friend Jeff, another man of the people.
Solidly back in our comfort zone together, we pulled into the narrow alley beside The Tide, a little bar right down on the wharf where it turned out Bruno was connected.  That meant when he walked through the door, the owner came out and said, “Eeyyy, Bruno, goombah, come stai?” and patted Bruno on both shoulders with his hands.  It also seemed to mean that Bruno could park wherever he wanted, avoiding the need to circle the block countless times to wait for a space to open on the street, or to pay the freight for a garage space and walk.

“Eeyyy, Pietro, non c’è male,” he replied, gathering up the broad-chested barman in a bear hug and patting him on the back.

“So who’s da dish, my friend?” our host asked, wiping his hands on his apron as Dean Martin sang “C’e la luna, mezz’o mare” from the little nickel jukebox in the booth next to where we stood.

“This, my friend, is Tranquilla, of whom I have spoken many times.  Or Shelley, to you.  Shelley Hobson.  Shelley, this is Pietro.  You can call him Petey if you want, or whatever.”

I extended my hand to shake, and Pietro took it in his and turned it, backside up, raising it halfway to his lips and bending down as if to kiss it, but just bowing low over it instead.

“My honor, Miss Shelley.”

“You’re a gentleman, Pietro.  So nice to meet you,” I said lowering my eyes shyly.

“It’s good you didn’t kiss, goombah, cause you should not be gettin’ spit on the lady,” Bruno cracked, and they both chattered off something in Italian, laughing and punching each other in the chest, faking heart attacks in turn.

“OK, Tranquilla, let’s sit.  Petey, can we sit here?” Bruno asked, nodding his head to where Dean – no, Dino – was crooning.

“Be my guest.  My house is yours,” Pietro replied, sweeping his arm across the front of himself like a doorman.

“You are too kind.  No, exactly kind enough – meep meep!” said Bruno, taking my hand and ushering me into the booth.  “One large White Russian for the lady, and a Michelob for me.”

“You 21, paisan?  Just kidding,” joked Pietro, laughing in strange little barks.

“Shaddup, stunad.  Bring a frosted glass, OK?”  Bruno smiled and shook his head.  “We love each other like brothers,” he said to me as Pietro went for the drinks.  “We went to high school together and he graduated a coupla years before me so he likes to bust my balls.  Excuse me, give me a hard time.  You look beautiful, by the way, deli girl.  But that little aroma of mortadella behind your ear I like the best.”

I wadded up a napkin and threw it at him, just as Pietro brought the drinks.

“Kids, kids, let’s keep it quiet in the house now or I’ll have to call the authorities.”

“Funny guy.  This is a funny guy,” remarked Bruno winking, cocking his thumb toward Pietro.  “You make me laugh, Petey.  Now make like a tree.”

“You are a tree,” said Pietro, snapping Bruno on the shoulder with a kitchen towel and scuttling back over behind the bar, with that same rolling shuffle Bruno meep-meeped around the market with.

“You guys almost look like brothers,” I observed, looking around the place and taking in the waterfront paisano ambience.  The tables were thick with lacquer over brightly colored Italian ads for Campari, Galliano, Coca-Cola, San Pellegrino, and Bolla Valpolicella and Soave.  The entire back wall was tight with bottles stuffed into shelves, with liquers, syrups of every flavor and color, and sparkling waters packed in alongside the Johnny Walker Red and Black and the Wild Turkey.  There were mirrors all the way around, making the tiny space look three times its size, and the booths along both walls were upholstered in alternating tufted stripes of shiny, thick red and green vinyl.  The little juke boxes on each table top had a mix of current hits and Italian standards, including C’e la Luna, Volare, and Oh Marie, Bruno’s favorites.  I knew this because he liked to sing little bits from them when he was meep-meeping around. 

But the best part was the sidewalk outside, now dark and covered over with canvas for the night, where the crab pots boiled during the day on either side of the glass cases, filled with whole cracked Dungeness, shrimp, calamari, oysters, clams, and whatever came back fresh from the traps and nets that morning.  Wooden barrels full of French loaves, Colombo and Boudin and Francisco, stood out front, inviting you to grab something in white paper with a plastic cup of wine along with your loaf, and dine by the water.  I had only ever walked this sidewalk as an outsider, but being here with Bruno made me feel like I had more cousins on a new side of town now, where I never had before.

Pietro walked up with a tray. “Here’s your drinks.  Enjoy, brother.  You call if you need me, Shelley, OK?  Don’t you let this one give you a hard time.”

“I can take care of myself.  Besides, he’s a good boy for me,” I replied.

“We’ll see,” said Pietro, winking and walking away, Bruno whacking him on the forearm as he turned.

“A character,” said Bruno.  “Is that good, bella?”

“Wow!  It’s strong.  Is that what Kahlua and cream is, a White Russian?”

“Pretty much,” Bruno answered, taking a swig of his beer, eyeing me.  “Do you like it?”

“It gets better with every sip.  Better order another one because this one’s going down.”

“You got it, Tranquilla,” and he raised his arm over his head without turning around.  In seconds I had another one with a fresh tiny red straw and a little square napkin sitting in front of me.  I almost didn’t notice Pietro come up.

“So, Tranquilla, I have a little belated birthday gift for you.”  Bruno took a small square box out of his jacket pocket and slid it across the table.  I felt a little intimidated at the sight of it.

I opened gingerly, and inside tacked to a little loop was one half of a heart with a broken edge, very thin delicate gold, and engraved with what looked like Hebrew letters on the back.

“It’s a mizpah,” he said.  “When I can’t be around to watch over you, you know I have the other half, and I’m thinking of you.  You’ll know I’m always there, always your friend.  See?  I’ll keep the other half with me.”

He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out his wallet, opening up the picture section and showing me where the other half was inside one of the sleeves.  “Now you have to give me a picture of you so I can put it in here with my heart.  OK?”

I was touched, and uncomfortable, but not so much that I wanted to push it back across the table.  “It’s beautiful, Bruno, thank you.  I’m going to put it on my chain right now, next to Bob‘s locket.  You know Bob . . .”

“Sure, Tranquilla, I know all about Bob.  Great guy.  I would be proud to share a chain with Bob.”

I took off my chain and added the mizpah, then put it back on and held it up to show Bruno.  “I love it.  It makes me feel very safe.  Thank you.”  I was about two-thirds of the way through my second drink by now.

“You want one more of those, Tranquilla?” Bruno asked, holding up his hand.  Like magic, another one in front of me.  I definitely did not see it arrive this time, and before I knew it, I had finished it.  Bruno, I thought, might still be nursing his first beer.  Or it might be my imagination.


“Hell, no.  I think you’re growing another head.  No, it’s a whole twin.  I might be ready to go home,” I said, holding my hand up to my cheek, wondering why it felt clammy on the outside when it felt so hot on the inside.

“You bet, Tranquilla.  Here, let me help you to the truck,” and he came around beside me and lifted up on my elbow, starting to lead me outside.

“Don’t you have to pay?” I asked wanly.

“No, bella, I have an agreement.  You’re always welcome here now too, and come for lunch if you’re ever down here without me.  Petey’s treat.”  Bruno and Pietro nodded at each other, both of them looking very far away to me, and small.

I was both impressed and impaired.  I tripped a little going over the doorstep.

Bruno poured me into the truck and maneuvered it backward out of the alley, then through the narrow, criss-crossing streets around the wharf, and down Beach over to Hyde, making the long pull straight up the cable car tracks, manual transmission and all, without a single slip or grind, the muscles of his forearm rippling under his taut skin.  It seemed like only a minute to me before he pulled into the alley beside Lighthouse and turned off the engine, probably because, admittedly, I was out of it.  Suddenly it got very quiet in the cab of the pickup, and stuffy.

“Why don’t you come inside with me a while, bella,” he said soothingly.  “We can sit in the loft and talk before you go home to Graham.”

I was thinking coffee actually sounded pretty good and had opened the door of the truck, stepping out into the alley ready to go inside for a hot cup.  But as soon as my feet hit the pavement, I was hunched over, all my snacks from the dinner hour at the deli and the White Russians in a puddle between my feet.

“Aayyy, madone!” Bruno cried out.  “Poor Tranquila.  What have I done to you?”  He scrambled over the stick shift to the other side of the cab, reaching over to pet my hair.  “And to me,” he said to himself more quietly.  “It must have been the vodka.”

“Vodka?!!? What vodka?  All I had was Kahlua and cream!” I moaned, retching up nothingness.

“Well, really Tranquilla, you had a few White Russians.  White Russians have just a drop of vodka in there.  Just a drop.”

“A drop of vodka?!!?  I can’t drink vodka!  Ever since I binged on screwdrivers in high school I can’t drink vodka.  It makes me sick.”

“I know,” he mourned.  “I’m sorry.”

“Well, me too.  But next time don’t do me any favors with drinks, OK?  I’d give you a kiss, but I just had vodka.  Again.”

Bruno moaned softly, tilting his head back. “Ay, bella.  Can I walk you home?”

“What, no ride?  Just kidding.  Yes, you can.  I would appreciate it.  Oh, my head,” I groaned.

“Wait, take these.”  Bruno pulled out a bottle of Coke from behind the seat and a bottle opener, handed me three aspirin from a bottle in the glove box, and popped open the Coke.

“You take these now, and you won’t feel a thing in the morning, I promise.”

I obeyed, and walked around behind the truck, meeting him in the middle of the alley.

“I had fun anyway,” I said.  “And thanks for the drinks.”  I poked him a good one in the chest with my free hand and took a swig of Coke with the other.

He took his jacket off and draped it around my shoulders, taking my hand in his and walking me silently all the way to my doorstep, waiting until the door closed behind me.  And I only had to stop and bend over the gutter twice on the way there.  

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Shed a little light, oh Lord

They told him not to go.

The police escort left him as he entered the black Indianapolis neighborhood where his next campaign stop was to be.  April 4, 1968.  Senator Kennedy knew that Martin Luther King, Jr., had just been felled by an assassin's bullet in Memphis.  The crowd did not.  Bobby would be the one to tell them.

They were on their own, he and his staff.  It fell to him to underscore in his own words what the fallen Reverend had said:  darkness does not drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate does not drive out hate; only love can do that.  That's what King had said.  That's what he had lived.  That's what they must now do, that and grieve, as Kennedy still did for the loss of his own brother: grieve, and wait for grace.

"My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus, and he once wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

"What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."  - RFK

He gripped his speech in his hand, but he didn't look at it.  He looked them straight in the eye.

In the wake of Reverend King's assassination, many communities burned.  But not the Indianapolis neighborhood where Kennedy had spoken, where he had watered the seeds of peace that King himself had sown over the months and years previous.

King was not a perfect man, but he had lived a life soaked in light, bathing in it and shedding it.  One day while in Atlanta, I walked the whole distance from Peachtree St., around the curve, under the freeway to Auburn Avenue NE, to where King had been born and lived.  It was a hot day, a Sunday, and the further I walked, the deeper the legacy soaked into my bones.

The sidewalk is old near the freeway, a channel down the middle where many feet have trod.  The businesses appear untouched as you round the corner, restaurants with the menus still painted outside, shoe repair, handyman, tobacco, records and books, as I remember.

The old Ebenezer Baptist Church, the one where King's father preached, is on the right as you come close to his birth home.  That was my church that Sunday, the one I chose over the large modern Ebenezer across the street, where the great ladies in their glory, picture hats for crowns, worshipped.

From a hard narrow wooden pew, one of three people, I counted pictures of long passed elders adorning the walls.  Steep floor, Victorian carpet, velvet drapery, gilt altar. Smell of must. Taped voice of the young King.  "I have a dream . . ."  Shed a little light, oh Lord.

King in Memphis, the day before his death
Outside, next door, the eternal flame still burns today, a wreath adorns the monument, murals tell the story.  A little further, in a wood frame row home, creaking steps, tiny patch of grass perhaps for a dog, clothesline still hanging, he was born.  Born into light, born to shine unto death.
He knew he would die for it, but he gave anyway.

The day before he was killed, he preached in Memphis, before a packed congregation, and said:

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about a thing. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." - MLK, Jr.

King's light glowed over that Indianapolis neighborhood on the day of his death, as if from a city on a hill, just as it had shone over Montgomery, and Greensboro, even as it shone in the darkness of Birmingham and in Mississippi.  Just as it danced on the Reflecting Pool in the capitol city of this great nation.

It falls to us now to tend the flame, to keep the bushel basket at bay.  He dreamed, and he acted, even in the face of death.  He knew what freedom looked like, and he lived it.  Now we must live it, and remember those who trod there first.

So onward, to the promised land, and take a moment to remember on this beautiful warm Sunday those who went before you.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

If you build it, they will come

This is the story of Leonard Knight.

Leonard Knight's life had taken many directions.  As of 1966, at 34, he wasn't entirely sure exactly where he had arrived.

Then one day, to get some space from his sister Irene's relentless prayer and talk of the Lord, he retreated to his car.  In there, he found himself repeating The Sinner's Prayer, over and over and over.  He was pulled into it inexorably, seemingly by a force outside himself.  "Jesus, I'm a sinner.  Please come onto my body and into my heart."

And then it came:  the revelation.  Leonard Knight had been transformed by the renewing of his mind.  He asked, and it was given unto him.

After briefly seeking a place unsuccessfully inside the mainstream Christian community, Leonard retreated to the desert - for many more than forty days and forty nights.  He tried to sew a hot air balloon stitched with The Sinner's Prayer, but it wouldn't fly.  He tried to build a mountain, with his bare hands and found objects, proclaiming the love of God, but the County Board of Supervisors stopped the project.  They said it violated the separation of church and state because it rested at the entrance of an abandoned military base which was now a public park.  They went after it with claims that the soil was contaminated with toxic waste from years of government dumping.

But Leonard persisted.  He had been transformed through the renewing of his mind.  He saw nothing but the One Thing.

Leonard's vision by now was visible to others.  People came from all around to see Leonard's growing masterwork, a veritable mountain of salvation. Petitions were mounted.  Increasingly important folk advocated on public television.  And Leonard's vision bore fruit:  he had gone into the world and shared the good news to creation.  Today, the result is more than a field of dreams.  He built it, and still today they come.

Salvation Mountain is Leonard's song, the song God gave him to sing.

Was Henry David Thoreau right, that most men live lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them?

Maybe the more important question is, who among us is "most men"?

No two of us are really the same, are we?  NO ONE is most men, not really.

Sure, we can try to generalize.  But check the fingerprints.  That means you get to be whoever God and you decide you will be.  You can be quiet and desperate, or not.  You choose.  God lets you.

You can choose to choose Him, and He will unleash the song He wrote for you: raw, unvarnished, or impeccably refined, but in all cases viscerally you and incomprehensible to you at the same time.  He will mine it from within you and it will bubble up like warm water from underground.  He promised.  Just ask.

You can also choose not to sing at all, or to make up your own song.  Good luck with that.

Since this is my square, I get to say what seems to me.  And it seems to me that most people go it alone, without His effervescence of holy inspiration, and are often cranky or sad.  Or fussy.  Or whatever you want to call it.

Even when we don't choose to go it alone, we spend most of our time trying to grab the wheel from Him and aiming it for the ditch.  Good part is, if we have let Him in the car, He will guide it gently to the ditch for us, saving our hides, even if we are in the middle of a full blown tantrum.  After which we complain mightily that He didn't deliver the car undented.  And He keeps loving us anyway, because God is love.  The Bible and Leonard say so, and they are right.

Dents are part of the ride, I'm afraid.  That's how we learn to relinquish the wheel.  Leonard knows this too.

I hope you will visit Leonard at  You can see pictures of his mountain there, and find his physical address.  He likes it when you visit, but if you write him, his friend Bob will answer, because Leonard will be busy building.

That's because building is the song God gave Leonard to sing, and he sings it very well.

Are you singing your song today?  Is it bubbling up from your soul like magma from deep places?  Share, please, and be blessed.