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Thursday, July 19, 2018

With Teeth


Here's a creepy little Winter's tale I penned a few years ago - the ramblings of my runaway imagination during my winter up on the mountain (back deck pictured above). Thought some of you might enjoy a break from the Summer heat. Then again, maybe not.

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Annie listened to the wind howl and watched the fire dance to its song. She heard what had to be a pretty good sized limb snap off of a tree outside. She pulled the blanket tighter around her as her thoughts drifted to her Great Grandpa's WWII stories. Grape Pop - a name Annie had bestowed upon him when she was a toddler who thought that great and grape were the same word - had been dead for a decade now. Still, he was never far from Annie's mind. Shivering, she recalled his story about spending most of an entire winter huddled in a foxhole. When she was little and he would mention how that winter had been one "with teeth", Annie couldn't help but picture a small, vicious creature made entirely of snow and baring teeth of tiny, razor-sharp icicles. As if on cue she heard a scurrying noise in the attic and made a mental note to buy mousetraps next time she went shopping.

This winter was definitely one of those kind with teeth. Even on the mountain, four feet of snow in less than a month was a little excessive. She could count on one hand the days that she'd actually had power, and she had already burned through a quarter of a cord of wood. "I'm not complaining," she said to the scurrying noise in the attic. "I love the snow, and I love living here in the middle of nowhere." The noise stopped as if the maker of it was considering her statement, so she continued. "It's just that if I'm going to live without power, I'm going to have to find an old manual typewriter so I can finish writing my book." Scurry. "Hey! There's no need to be that way. I only hate that idea because those things don't come with auto-correct and there's no delete button."

Annie realized that not only was she talking to an unseen rodent, but that she was also imagining that it was giving her cognizant responses. She'd heard of people living alone in the mountains for so long that they went a little, as her nephew would say, "gone-zers." She wondered if Gone-zers knew they were going gone-zers, if there was a moment of clarity when they thought, "I've gotta get off this fuckin' mountain!" They'd step out of their cabins only to be held at bay by an army of rat-sized monsters made of snow, all gnashing their teeth in anticipation of a tasty morsel of human flesh.

Annie shook her head and sighed. She stood up, clutching the blanket around her, and went into the kitchen. She filled the kettle with water and set it to boil on the camp stove that she kept on top of the electric stove that was failing to be any kind of use lately. She opened the cupboard and brought out a mug, tea, sugar, and whisky. Once her concoction was properly brewed and medicated, she took it back to the living room. She curled up on the sofa in front of the fire and held the mug up to her nose. She closed her eyes and let the steam and the scent coming from the mug wrap around her head in warm fingers. She took a first tentative sip and felt the heat from the tea and the whisky burst in her chest and send hot tendrils into her arms and down her torso. "Take that snow monsters," she taunted the imaginary beasts with icicle teeth. "That's right. We're only tasty when we're freezing, aren't we." Scurry. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. We don't need any opinions from the peanut gallery," she yelled up at the ceiling. Scurry. "Defiant little bastard."

Hours later Annie awoke, still wrapped in the blanket on the sofa. The fire had burned down to embers. Light that felt all wrong was filtering through the window. Annie scrubbed at her eyes with her hands and looked again. "Fuck me," she muttered. The light was all wrong because snow had drifted up to the top of the picture window frame. "That's at least a seven foot drift!" She complained to no one in particular. She stoked the remains of the fire, added some kindling, and as it caught added a couple of logs. Then she went to the kitchen and set up the old percolator on the camp stove. It had taken her one power outage to realize that neither man, nor beast, nor snow would keep her from her daily appointed grounds. "Hyuck, hyuck," she muttered at herself. "You so funny."

An hour later, fortified with hot coffee, wearing four layers of clothing, and armed with a shovel and a broom, Annie dug her way from the front porch around to the back of the house where the picture window overlooked the river. She cleared a spot on the patio to stand in, then began sweeping the snow from the window as carefully as she could. "Wouldn't do to knock a hole in the window, kid. Then the snow monsters would have an easy in," she reminded herself. It was a grueling process, complete with the occasional face full of snow depending on the humor of the wind. First she'd sweep some snow from the window, then shovel it away, throwing it up and over the bank of it that was piled against the patio railing. By the time she was done, she was sweating and shivering. It was no longer snowing, but the temperature had dropped at least ten degrees.

With teeth, Annie thought as she shouldered the broom and shovel and made her way back around the side of the house. She left the broom and shovel under the front porch overhang, took the old snow sled that she used for a wood scuttle and made her way toward the woodshed. Once there, she filled the sled as high as she dared with logs, then harnessed the rope at the front of the sled and began to trudge back to the house. It was only about 30 yards, but in four feet of snow and as many layers of clothing, 30 yards had a way of feeling like a quarter mile. Plus, she thought, I'm already whupped from digging out the window.

Annie stumbled slightly, jerking the sled as she did, causing it to ram into her and send her face first into the snow. Half flailing and trying to push herself up, sputtering snow that she had swallowed, she screamed, "Oh, you dirty bastard! You filthy fucking snow monsters!" It was easier to be pissed off at a fictitious creature than to blame herself for being a klutz. Even so, as she felt snow crystals making their way down her neck, the thought flitted briefly, with teeth. "Oh, shut the fuck up." Again to nobody in particular. She managed to get to her feet, gathered and piled the logs that had fallen off back onto the sled, then got it in motion again. She managed to get to the porch without further mishap, but was breathing heavily by the time she pulled the sled in out of the weather and under the overhang. It's so cold that it hurts to breathe, she thought. Like having cold viper teeth in my lungs. Invasive little pricks those monsters.

Annie left the wood where it was on the sled. She'd bring it in later. She needed a break. And more coffee. And dry clothes. "And I'm having popcorn for breakfast. With extra butter! I don't care what any of you have to say about that!" She again addressed the assembly of none, and none argued with her. Half an hour, a mere two layers of dry clothing, and a fresh cup of coffee later, Annie sat in front of the blazing fire, voraciously devouring an enormous bowl of buttery popcorn. With her left hand, the one currently not drenched in butter, she flipped open the magazine article she'd been reading - a fascinating piece about how bees communicate with each other. She heard the scurrying noise again. She looked down at the bowl of popcorn, then looked up at the ceiling. "Oh, you think so! Not a chance. Mine. Mine. Mine, all mine." Scurry. "Whatever. Fuck you."

Annie munched her way through the entire bowl of popcorn and the rest of the bee article. For a while she forgot about snow as she lost herself amid the sound of bees on a warm June day. She forgot about the visitor in the attic. She forgot about snow monsters and icicle teeth as she flipped to the next article, a tear-inducing piece about the healing power of dogs with people suffering from PTSD. So caught up in the piece, she hardly noticed herself setting the empty bowl aside or wiping the butter off her hand onto the old blanket. Once done with the article, she became acutely aware that after a hard workout that morning, she'd been sitting without moving for at least an hour and a half. She felt stiff and her joints popped in angry protest as she shifted. "Medic!" she whimpered, then hissed at the pain in her ankle. She twisted her leg around and looked down. There were two small scrapes. No, that's not right. Tell the truth, they look like puncture marks. But I don't remember being... Her thoughts were interrupted by the scurrying sound. With teeth. "Oh, shut up! Will you really just shut the hell up already about the teeth?!"

Annie shook off the thought and stumbled into the bathroom to get some antiseptic cream. As she passed the front window, she realized that she still needed to bring in the wood from the sled. If she didn't, she'd only have wet wood to throw on the fire and that wouldn't be good. "Nope, not good at all." She giggled a little hysterically at her own voice. Ankle forgotten, she pulled on her boots, propped open the front door, and stepped out to get the wood. It was already starting to get dark and looming snow clouds weren't helping. She started toward the sled and then stopped in her tracks. Heart palpitating, all the spit dried up in her mouth. There, on top of the logs, was what looked like a tiny snowman. Except that it was hunched over. More of a snow rodent, really, if she thought about it, and oh boy, she sure was thinking about it. She didn't want to see, but even in the relative winter gloom, she could see something else. The thing that had stopped her so suddenly and breathlessly. "No... you don't... it isn't...those are not..." But the glint was unmistakable. Teeth. Sharp teeth. Annie's feet seemed to move on their own, taking her backward toward the front door. Her hand found the latch without her telling it too. Annie's full attention was on the snow (ohgod don't say it because saying it means I'm crazy) monster. With that thought she threw the door open, jumped inside, and slammed the door shut.

She leaned against the door, breathing heavily, eyes shut, for what felt like at least ten minutes. It was long enough for the throbbing in her ankle to come back. Annie heard a strange, high-pitched noise and was nauseated to discover that she was the one making it, and that it was the sound of herself whimpering. She clamped both hands over her mouth in an effort to make it stop and thankfully it worked. I'm not crazy. I'm not crazy. I'm not. Ohfuckohshitohdear. She began crying and that was better. It was a mixture of rage and relief and those were feelings she could understand. She limped into the living room, sat down heavily on the sofa. The bottle of whisky was still sitting on the coffee table where she'd left it the night before. She grabbed the bottle and took a swig. It was just the slap in the face that she needed. "I didn't see that. I'm overly tired and my brain is a little wonky from being snowed in for so long." Scurry. "No! You do not get to weigh in on this!" Scurry "Shut UP!!" Scurry. She began to cry again.

Excerpt from Snohomish County Sheriff's Report, 13 March 2009: Subject was found after landlord filed eviction notice for non-payment of rent. The body was well preserved due to cold temperatures. There appeared to be bite marks consistent with that of a rodent, however, no visible signs of rodent infestation were found in the home. Scratched into the wooden coffee table next to the sofa where the body was found, was the phrase, "With teeth."

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Be Loved


You should be loved.

I don’t care if you’re single, married, in a relationship, wondering what if, out on your first date, have lots of friends, are happy that you have lots of cats, or just lookin’. You should be loved. No, this isn’t some Valentine’s push to get all the lonely hearts hooked up. I happen to be one of those freaks who really enjoyed being single. Of course, I really enjoy being in a relationship too. Regardless, what I’m saying here is, you should be loved.

We don’t deserve to be loved. That's a ridiculous concept, and I‘m tired of hearing people say that. Oh, settle down and just listen. I’ve never much cottoned to someone saying, “You’re such a good person. You deserve to be loved!” As if love is a reward. As if love is an extra beer by way of saying thanks for mowing the lawn. Love isn’t on the same level as, “I’ve worked out every day this week. I deserve to indulge in a little dessert.” No, we don’t deserve love - it isn't an award.

We should be loved. Simple as that.

I was folding laundry and I felt his eyes on me. I looked up. “I love you,” he said. I was ready to reply with our usual style of banter and say something like, “Yeah, only because I washed the skid marks out of your undies.” But the look in his eyes stopped me, and I only smiled. Well, I gave him the smile.

We should be adored.

We should be adored, not because our bodies are in perfect condition, or because we have great hair, skin and teeth, or because we’re smart, or funny, or because we did something nice. We should be adored because something about us sitting there in our old sweats, hair knotted up in an ancient scrunchy, doing some every day, mundane task… something about us says, “I’m here and so alive.”

We should be treasured.

We should be treasured not for the car we drive, or the way we dress, or the house we own, or the furniture we have, or for the material things we bring to the table, or the kindnesses we do without even thinking about them. We should be treasured because we have a way of being “there” in each others lives even when we’re not right there.

I know, you’re rolling your eyes right now. You’re giving me that look that says, “See? Yeah. You’ve got Mr. Perfect. It’s easy for you.” It’s not. Mr. Perfect is human and so am I, and we‘re prone to all kinds of human-type flaws. Besides, it’s not the relationship that is significant here. I could just as easily be writing about friendships that touch my life in that same way. I could write about family that touches my life that same way. Well, that's really what I am doing. I can also tell you that I try to treat myself the same way. Yes, I know I'm flawed and, trust me, I don't always get her and I'm not always nice to her, but I do love her.

Yeah.

Nobody knows as well as I do how difficult it can be to look in the mirror and say, “You are loved. You are adored. You are treasured. You are loved by me. You are adored by me. You are treasured by me.” It took me a long time to even say it. It took me a year before I started to believe it. But once I did believe it? Oh, the amazing, surprising, humbling, profound stuff that started rolling my way… my Beloved was part of that "stuff". He came along after I figured out that I should be loved. I wouldn’t be able to appreciate the things he does for me and the beautiful person he is in my life if I didn’t believe that I should be loved, that I should be adored, that I should be treasured.

We are love. We should be loved. We should give love. It's the ultimate superpower, so start throwing that stuff around. But first, you should be loved...

...by you.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Cave of Scars

What follows is a re-write of a post from the old blog. It seemed like it was time to give it some air and a fresh life.
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Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was a woman who lived in a cave. She loved her cave. It was dark and nobody came near. No one could see her ugliness. Of the ugliness she was certain. She knew that her appearance was hideous and that the scars she bore would surely frighten even the most stalwart soul. So, she hid in the cave, emerging only in the deepest night just to feel the breeze on her skin.

One day an old man happened upon the cave. She heard him stumbling around in the dark and pressed herself into the cold stone, praying that he wouldn't notice her, but of course he did. She had a fire burning and campfires don't start themselves, after all. "Is someone there?" he asked quietly in the dark. "Please, don't be afraid. I'm only seeking shelter from the cold wind that's blowing." She said nothing in return, hoping that he would leave. But he persisted, "Please. I'm sorry to disturb you. All I ask is a warm spot to rest. I am getting along in years and the chill outside is so painful to these old bones." Finally she replied in a voice so soft that it was nearly a whisper, "You may stay and rest; come get warm by the fire. Only please don't look at me." "You've no fear of that. I am nearly blind. I can only see lights and large images with these ancient eyes." The woman relaxed at that confession, "Please. Come sit by the fire. We can share a cup of tea."

For a long while they said nothing to each other but for a few pleasantries. They sat on opposite sides of the fire, both sipping tea and listening to the song of the wind as it whistled across the mouth of the cave. Finally the old man broke the silence, "May I ask your name?" "Of course," she replied, "It's Anika." "Hmmm. Anika, what an unusual name." He said. "Ann was my grandmother's name," Anika explained. "When I was named after her, everyone wanted to differentiate between the two of us in some way, so I was called Anika - meaning Little Ann. And now I ask for your name." The old man smiled, "You may call me Tucson. Not my real name o'course, but it's been so long since anyone called me Jeremiah that I'm not sure I'd answer to it if you did." "Tucson it is then," Anika said.

I the companionable silence, Anika took a good long look at Tucson. He was very old indeed, his face so furrowed with lines and wrinkles that his features had all but disappeared into them. If she had to guess, she would put him at close to 100 years old. Surely he wasn't that old though. Nobody that old would be hiking around in this weather, she thought, in any weather, really. She was lost in thought when again Tucson broke the silence. "May I ask another question?" Then he continued before she could answer one way or another. "What are you doing way out here, hiding in a cave?" "It's kind of a long story," Anika replied. Tucson grinned widely and spread his hands in an all-encompassing gesture, "It appears we have some spare time here. Tell on!"

Anika was surprised at her lack of reserve. Perhaps it was because Tucson couldn't see her. Perhaps it was because he was a stranger, or that he seemed so kind. She began, "I... I ran away from home when I was a girl. My parents couldn't bear to look at me. You see, I have scars, deep, ugly scars. My mother always told me that my scars were horrible and she couldn't stand to see something so unpleasant. My father said that my scars made him sad and he didn't want a daughter who could never experience life - who could never be of use to anyone, that's what he said. So, not wanting to cause them any pain or concern, I ran. For a long time I wandered the woods, but every now and then someone would come along and see me. I didn't want anyone to have to look at me, so after some searching I found this cave. This is where I've lived ever since."

Tucson didn't say anything for a time, although he nodded a few times as if in response to a discussion going on inside his head. He took a big swallow of his tea and rubbed at the rough, gray stubble on his cheek. "These scars," he began. "The scars. Uh. Are they your own doing?" "No! Of course not!" replied Anika, feeling a bit put out that he would ask such a thing. "These scars were the doing of... others. O-o-others who claimed they loved me and said they needed to prepare me for the cruelty of the real world. Others who said I was weak and didn't know what was good for me, and that it was their mission to show me." At this last part, Anika's voice broke and she wiped a tear from her cheek. Tucson looked as if the tea he had swallowed must have been terribly bitter. "So," he said, "You are not responsible for your scars. They are the fault of these... others. If that's so, why are you the one hiding? It is they who should be ashamed and hiding! Those others, along with your oblivious parents, not you." "Even so," Anika said. "I must shield everyone from having to look at me. I don't want to make people feel uncomfortable or frightened." Tucson said nothing to this. Setting his cup aside, he only said, "Well, it has been a long day and I am weary. If you don't mind, I'd like to rest now." Anika agreed and, on opposite sides of the fire, they both fell into sleep.

The next morning Anika woke to find that the old man was gone. Then she heard his voice coming from outside the cave. He was singing a song, his voice gentle and low and sweet. She crept toward the entrance to the cave to listen better. She saw that his arms were outstretched as if he was gathering the whole world into an embrace. When his song ended, he turned toward her, "Anika, Good Morning to you. You should come out here! The cold wind has left us and this blessedly warm sunshine has taken its place." "I can't," she told him. "I never go out in daylight." "Never? Ah, but to feel this light on your skin! Like being brushed by all the feathers of all the angels that ever flew. You must try it!" "I... I can't." "You can! Who's to see? Please, come out of hiding, even if but for a moment of this bliss."

Anika took a step and then hesitated. I can't, she thought. This is wrong. This is against everything I've been told. She looked at Tucson, standing in the sun, embracing the wind, seemingly oblivious of his age and the aches and pains that must come with having lived so long. Anika took another step. Tucson heard her moving, but stood with is back to her and said nothing. He knew that all the cajoling in the world would be for naught if she didn't decide to take the steps on her own, and if his years had taught him nothing else, they had taught him patience. It wasn't long before Anika was standing beside him. He could tell that she was trembling. "What is it?" he asked. Her voice choked with tears she replied, "It's just. I didn't know that... I... I've never seen anything so beautiful as this day! I should have snuck out here years ago." Tucson only nodded. He put a hand on her shoulder, making it seem as though he was simply an old man in need of a little support. She allowed it and they stood that way in the sun for some time, neither one making a sound.

Tucson knew it was a make or break question, but it needed to be asked. "Anika... may I touch your face? Please, let an old man share your pain and sorrow." Anika was startled, but surprised herself by saying, "Yes. Yes, you may." She turned toward him and he raised a big, gnarled, weathered hand toward her cheek. With more gentleness than she thought possible, he touched her jaw. As he worked his way up her face toward her brow, she was certain that any second he would draw back, repulsed. He didn't. Instead he leaned forward and planted a soft kiss on her forehead. "Child. You've been lied to. I feel no scars. Your face is as smooth as a June rose petal." "That can't be!" Anika exclaimed. "I was always told that my scars were ugly and that I should keep them hidden from people!" "Anika, if you are scarred, it is on the inside only. It is the wounds inflicted upon your spirit that have made you feel ugly and unlovable. But I assure you, neither of those is true. You are beautiful, you are lovable. You deserve to be seen. What's more, you're depriving other people of the great pleasure of knowing you, of seeing the light in you, and hearing the sweet clear voice of you."

Anika was floored. The sky spun overhead as she tried to soak up Tucson's words. It couldn't be true, but the old man had no reason to lie to her. It could be a trick, but what would he gain with such cruel trickery. No, it was no trick. She saw the sincerity in his clouded eyes, heard the truth in his rumbling voice. Still, she said, "It just can't be. I belong in the cave." Tucson's only response was, "I'd like to show you something. May I?" He held out his hand. Although afraid to leave the security of the cave that was just a few steps behind them, Anika put her shaking hand in his. They began to walk.

The further they were from the cave, the less insecure Anika felt. Finally they came to a small pond in the woods. Tucson said, "I need to rest a bit. This seems like a pleasant spot." Anika agreed that it was very pretty. She knelt by the pond and doing so, caught her own reflection. She saw a woman with long dark hair, green eyes, flushed cheeks, and rose-colored lips. The image blurred as her tears fell and hit the water. She turned to Tucson, "You were right. I didn't belong in that cave. I never did. How can I ever thank you for making me leave?" Tucson smiled, "You don't need to thank me. I didn't make you leave, Anika. You left on your own accord. No, you didn't belong there, but you had to want something more than that cave. You had to know that there was something greater for you to be a part of. Only you could hear the call of the Universe and respond to it. Only you could step away from your hiding place. You have so much to share with the world."

Anika looked at her reflection in the water again. She reached to touch the face looking back at her and felt the cool, velvety water on her fingers. "But what of the scars? What of the horrible things that happened to me? What of all the pain I've felt over the years?" she asked. Tucson took a moment before answering. "Let me ask you this," he said. "Do you consider me ugly? With all my wrinkles and my gray hair and my milky, nearly blind eyes?" "No!" Anika exclaimed. "You're... you're lovely. Handsome even. You have such gentleness and kindness and love... that's all I see when I look at you." "Ahhhh..." Tucson smiled. "But I gained those qualities from my own scars, from my own pain, from my own horrible experiences, just as much as I did from the beauty I've seen and the love I've felt. Your scars... all of your experiences... everything in your life, even that cave. All of that makes you beautiful. All of it. So, walk in light with your head held high. No more cave."

Anika smiled again. "No more cave," she murmured. "No more hiding." This time it was she who held out her hand. Tucson took it and stood. "Where are we going?" he asked. Anika lifted her face to the shaft of light coming through the leaves. "My friend," she said. "We are going as far from that cave as we can. I intend to show the world who I am."

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Listening

Cosmic Swirl by Barb Black
for Black Ink Pad Designs

My Dear Fellow Humans,

I need to tell you some things. No, that’s not right. I need you to hear some things. Please.

You’ve been distressing me lately. I realize that some of that is on me and my proclivity to take the weight of everybody’s anger and outrage as something I can change, something I should be responsible for even though I can’t and I’m not. The truth is, nobody can make you feel anything. You feel what you feel and you are in charge of your reactions to what you feel. Regardless, as I’ve watched the world crumble all over again in the past few days, I feel hurt -- not by any arrows that might have been aimed at me, but by the overall vitriol being flung about. So, I need for you to set it all aside for just a minute and listen. Listen without having, “but…” or, “actually…”, or “well, in my opinion…” waiting on your tongue. Just listen.

Imagine we’re all at a party. I’ll host; welcome to my living room. Kick off your shoes, pour yourself a beverage, and help yourself to snacks. We don’t stand on pretense here -- make yourselves at home. We’ll cover some lightweight stuff for a bit -- the nice change the Fall air makes, how fast kids are growing up, a great restaurant we discovered. Pretty soon though, someone will bring up a topic that will spark some heat. At least one of you will disagree. Someone will say, “Now, wait a minute.” Or maybe, “That’s not how I see it.” There might be some fairly hearty debate. At no time do people begin calling each other names or making disparaging remarks about them based on race, religion, gender or political affiliation. Why? Because we’re all there together and we can see each other’s eyes and hear each other’s voices and understand the intentions behind what’s being said. We recognize each other as fellow humans, and in so doing, realize that we’re all going to have different ideals and levels of comfort and sensibilities. (Hey, it’s my party. Let me have this fantasy.)

At first we might think that Ted over there is a total asshole, until someone whispers, “I’ve never seen him like this. But, he just buried his mother last week, so I know he’s pretty on edge.” Suddenly we have sympathy for Asshole Ted. We probably even go up to him and say, “I heard about your Mom. I’m so sorry.” We see Ted soften, we see the heartbreak in his eyes. We understand that he’s barely hanging by a thread and maybe anger is the only emotion he can handle right now.

See Jane, sitting there next to Suit Guy? I know, she looks like a stuck up fashion plate. But, did you know? She had a double mastectomy two years ago. All that makeup and fashion and accessorizing is her way of saying she’s still here, still feminine. We almost lost her, so even if she laughs a little too loudly, it’s way better than not having her laughter here at all. And now we get that Jane is only trying to be part of the human race again after nearly being removed from it. We go over and tell her, “Hey, it’s nice to meet you. You have a great laugh.” Suit guy says, “Right? I’ve never met anyone so down to earth.”

There’s Bob, who bleeds red, white & blue, talking to Nina, who just became a citizen last year. She’s explaining the horror she lived through in her birth country and how her family sacrificed so she could move here and have a better life. She’s in tears as she tells him what it means to her to live here and to have the opportunities she now has. She tells him that she sends half her paycheck home every month to help her family. Bob clears his throat (because of allergies, no doubt) and asks if he can get her another drink. He’s proud that he lives in a country that others look to as a beacon of hope and of haven. He still thinks something should be done about illegal immigrants, because that’s what Bob believes. His belief doesn’t mean that he hates every foreigner; he’s just scared and he hasn’t had the chance to see what’s on the other side of his fear.

The Jew is telling the Catholic about the time he went to Rome over the holidays and how he ended up going to midnight Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. The Catholic laughs and asks why he would do that. “I love the mystery that seems to surround a mass, and the music was particularly lovely. It really was an astounding experience.” The atheist standing near them chimes in, “I know what you mean! I love all that old architecture, and there’s something about Christmas music that always stirs me, even if I can’t get behind the belief system.” The Catholic stands there, mouth agape, but believing more firmly than ever that God is in everything and everyone. He doesn’t even realize that he just agreed with every Buddhist on the planet.

On the sofa sit a Baby Boomer, a Generation-Xer, and a Millennial. They’re talking about how much things have changed in 60 years. The Millennial wonders why we don’t just “get it” and let people be who they need to be. The Baby Boomer explains that today is very different from her growing up years, but her generation has done a lot of changing and growing, and they are trying. The Gen-Xer says, “For real! My Dad once said that gays deserved AIDS. Two years later I came out to him and he completely changed his tune.” The Millennial understands that they weren’t left a world in ruins, but a world on the cusp of real change and possibility.

There are thousands of conversations we need to have, but we need to acknowledge that a conversation is a two-way avenue. If you begin a conversation (and you often do so by stating an opinion), then be prepared to listen. Remember when we were young? “But Mom, why do I have to go to bed now?” “Because I said so, and that’s that.” End of conversation -- nothing answered or resolved. It wasn’t a conversation at all, but an edict. Remember how cheated we felt at not getting a reasonable explanation? And at not having our side of it heard? If only once Mom had said, “Tell me why you want to stay up. Why is it so important to you?” More often than not, my answer would have been, “Because I’m afraid I’ll miss out.”

At the heart of anger is fear. Usually that fear comes from the thought that whatever is happening, being done, being said, will somehow personally hurt or affect us. If we understood how rarely and how very little someone else’s views actually do that, we’d stop being so angry. Nobody can change us unless we allow them to.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with anger. As an emotion, it gets a bad rap. It’s actually a fairly useful emotion. It galvanizes us, true enough, but it’s also one of the bigger proofs of our weaknesses and strengths. If you only use your anger to shout at people and belittle those whose opinions and lives differ from yours, then you’re going about it all wrong. If you use your anger to take action, make phone calls, start a fundraiser, or even walk off into the woods until you can organize your thoughts, then you’re doing it right.

But, before we do anything, we need to listen. We need to listen and not simply dismiss. We need to understand the part we are playing in the conversation - are we truly making it a conversation, or are we nailing an edict to the wall? We need to listen and not simply throw answers back. We need to listen, and if we don’t understand, we need to say we don’t understand. Please explain how this hurts you. Please explain why this is so important to you. Please tell me what you’re doing to change it. Please tell me how we can work together to make this better.

I’m so glad you came to my party. It was nice to have you here. We should talk more often, and listen even more. Really. Please. I’m listening. Are you?

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Moment


Did I think about it? Of course I did. Unless one lives under a rock and/or is brain dead, it's impossible not to. Since neither of those scenarios apply to me, yes, it was on my mind. Like millions of others, I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing when it happened. I can do that with all of the more defining moments in my life.

Those kinds of memories don't have the grainy, aged film look that many other memorable moments do. They are high definition and they are larger than life. They are so big and so well defined that not only can I see the peach fuzz on a face, but each individual hair that makes up the peach fuzz.

I know each line on the back of my father's massive hands as the tremors of end stage lung cancer shook them. Shook them so much that he couldn't unzip and re-zip his pants when he had to use the bathroom. So he asked me, his then teenage daughter to help. I did so willingly, but with a tremendous, painful lump in my throat. I understood all at once what it must have taken for him to ask for my help. No man should ever have to ask his daughter for help zipping his pants. In the few short seconds it took me to help him, his hands trembled at his sides. And I remember every line on the back of his hands.

I remember the way the sunlight hit the dust on the monitor the day I clicked open an email from a friend only to read that a beloved mutual friend of ours had died very suddenly. Six words stole the air from the room, "I'm afraid our girl is gone." As the world spun away, the dust and the sunlight and the monitor remained, and only those three things. Jesse was gone, dust, sunlight, monitor, Jesse gone, sunlight, dust, monitor, how can that be, monitor, dust, sunlight. I watched as the first chuff of a sob broke free from me and made the dust dance in the sunlight.

I can see the reflection of my office building in his black truck. The building number above the door is backwards. I approach the driver side window with a smile. He's early. I'm happy to see him. Then I see his face, the streaks of gray in his mustache, the way his lower jaw is working - he always did that when something troubled him deeply. I stop short at the look on his face. "What." I say it not as a question but more as a definition of some great heavy beast standing between us. His look is one of mixed shame, fear, and almost anger. He knows he's going to break something in me as he answers with one word, "Cancer." I sigh, and then I can move forward to grasp his shoulder. "Oh, my love." It's all I can say. It's enough. I look down and notice that the backwards number is wavering. I don't want him to see my tears. Not yet. He has enough to deal with.

September 11, 2001. I was finishing an early morning workout on one of the treadmills in the small gym that was part of the apartment complex where my late mate and I lived. There was a woman on the other treadmill. I think she had blond hair. We had TV turned on to the news chatter of local weather, traffic, blahblahblah... "We interrupt your regular broadcast... breaking news..." We both watched as the first plane hit the tower. "Oh, my god..." the woman next to me said softly. "That didn't look accidental," was my response. I finished up and went home to shower and get ready for work. I walked in the door and told John to turn on the news. "A plane just ran into one of the World Trade Center towers," I said. I went into the kitchen and poured myself a cup of coffee. I heard the tell-tale click of the TV as John pushed the on button of the remote. The image of the tower, smoldering in the middle, filled the screen. "Holy shit!" he exclaimed. "I don't think it was an accident," I repeated. I couldn't shake the heavy feeling in my chest. I was taking a sip of coffee when the second plane hit. I quickly set down the cup and propped myself on the edge of the sofa. I remember thinking, "Smoke and ashes... oh the people... smokeandashesohthepeople..." as if I was about to write a poem. There was nothing poetic about it.

Yes. I thought about it this morning, the same way I often think about those clear, hard-edged moments of my life. The moments that show me how easy it is to feel wounded and how tough I can be despite that. I thought about it and proceeded with my day in the only way I know how give credence to those unthinkable times and to honor those people who have suffered agony that I can't completely understand - the people I've loved and the people I'll never know who have been taken in death.

I thought about it. I thought about it and then and set about living deliberately. Bringing honor isn't so much in a totem or a memorial or a moment of silence. Honor is in living anyway. Honor is in living well and fully.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Inundated

What the Night
by Barb Black

It’s not often that I feel completely overwhelmed. I feel things deeply and forcefully, but it rarely leaves me at a loss for words, at least not for long. Even so, this is where I find myself now, and as I’ve learned, writing it out helps. In my life, writing is where the hidden words come to light.

Unless you’ve been unconscious this past week, you know that Texas got the shit beat out of it in a fight with a guy named Harvey. Yeah, that’s my glib way of saying those guys got walloped by a hurricane - huge loss of property and property damage, lost lives, lost jobs, lost pets. But you already know all that.

I barely watch the news. I can’t take it on an ordinary day, and when tragedy strikes, I find it even more difficult to endure. When tragedy strikes, I also pare my social media glances to a minimum. I become so emotionally pained and weary when people are hurting that I just don't need to see constant reminders. Most of the time I feel that way because I’m a helper; I like to help people feel better. If I can't do that, it has a profound effect on my general outlook.

So, there I was last Wednesday, checking out the weather forecast for my area on The Weather Channel on TV. Naturally, as my forecast scrolled across the bottom of the screen (more stupid sun and hot weather in store for the NW), the anchors were covering the devastation Harvey continued to wreak in Houston and surrounding areas. I felt the energy drain right out of me despite the 83 or so cups of coffee I’d had. How could I go about my day when so many were hurting? I had no “extra” money to give and I’m not physically able to do much of anything, and yet I ached to do… something.

So, I did nothing. I moped, which means I watched episodes of something and had snacks and traded banter with Facebook friends. I finally went upstairs to my studio. I marveled again at how nice it looks since I gutted it and rearranged and organized things last month. I looked at the group of paintings I had leaning against a wall, half wondering if they’d ever find a loving home, half wondering why I was keeping them at all.

It hit me. “You silly woman. You have a tremendous resource - quite literally at your fingertips. Why don’t you sell these things and give that money to help with Harvey relief?” My other voice, the voice of my petulant, unsure 14-year-old self spoke up, “Pffft… who’d want that stuff? You think an awful lot of yourself. And how would you market it? Bigwigs are donating huge sums of money, and it’s not like you’d make much and….” That was when I duct taped her mouth shut. Sometimes that chick needs to shut the hell up.

I thought about it. I wrestled with ideas, even as I slept and dreamed that night. And then, during my 47th cup of coffee Thursday morning, the Aha! burst into view. I’d auction it off online with a simple Facebook album post and a "have at it". I floated the idea by my Facebook tribe and it was met with good reception. So, I went right to work, set up the album of artwork, complete with instructions and minimum prices and such.

You know what? I built it and they came! Within seconds of posting it, people were bidding. Honestly, I sat here in tears watching the notifications come in. So much generosity. So much love. The bidding ended at noon today, and I’m beyond thrilled to tell you that my humble little art auction raised $1000 that will go toward helping folks in Texas.

(*Cue Ron Popeil voice*) But wait! That’s not all. It didn’t just raise $1000. Here’s what else it did. Least of all, but so needed, it validated what I do. As an artist, that validation is gold. We sit and pour our hearts out into whatever we do, and when someone comes along and says, “I’ll buy that.” Well, we just about can’t handle it. (I say “we”, but it might only be me - I don’t think so, though.) It also made my heart swell to see how generous my friends were with their donations and their encouragement and their good-natured banter as they “fought” over pieces. I feel proud of my fellow humans (as a collective) for the first time in a long time. It has also sparked my creative energy to jump back into the pretty colors and make things magically appear. Finally, the overall action of it has had me grinning non-stop - I was doing something and they were doing something. Together, we were doing something! Action always defeats despair. Always. Always.

So, yes. I am overwhelmed. Once again, I have found beauty that is anchored in something horrible. I’ve come to learn that it’s where true beauty lives. It’s how Life balances her little ballerina toes on the head of a pin. “Look at me! Precarious and scary, but so pretty!”

I won’t hesitate to do this again. Art counts for something and as artists, we must stand and be counted. For now, my heart is full. I thank all of you who participated, whether all you could do was lend encouragement, whether you won your bids or not, you made it better. You changed my life… and I never even saw that coming.



Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Gone Dark


There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who get and appreciate dark humor (gallows humor, if you prefer), and people who can't breathe without proper instruction. I'm kidding. Maybe. Not really. (They're certainly stifled.) I am most definitely of the Dark Humor Peoples, and proudly so. Humor has been the one constant in my life. It has taken me through everything and has been my friend when all else is lost. Dark humor is my way of whistling past the graveyard. It isn't that I don't take things seriously. I take too much too seriously. Dark humor is the mechanism that allows me to cope with it in a way that keeps me getting out of bed every morning.

I've always known that I tend toward the shadow side of humor. As a kid, friends would give me the sideways glance when I'd joke about certain things. Growing into adulthood, my attempts at humor were often met with a polite, "Heh..." and a face that looked as though someone farted in the elevator. All of which convinced me that there was something wrong with me, that I was too off-center for anyone to understand me. I was a stranger in my own world, making my smart ass comments and laughing to myself. For a long time I kept my mouth shut. The only problem with that was trying to explain to others why I was laughing at inappropriate moments. "Oh, nothing... just had a thought..."

Then, in the Autumn of 1994, I learned that I possessed a great gift - one that kept me from completely losing my shit and wallowing in it.

I was a nanny back then. I had started with the family in 1987 when the youngest boy was barely 2 years old and the eldest nearly 7 years old. A few years later when the youngest began kindergarten, I started the search for employment elsewhere, as they really didn't need a full time nanny. But, just as I was sending out resumes, their mother, Cindy (who had become a dear friend by then), was diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer almost immediately metastasized to her spine, causing mobility issues. So, I ended up staying on to help with her care.

During what was to be the last summer of her life, the older of the two boys (Jon) went to a party and returned home with a bag full of party favors. Among the various tchotchkes in the bag was a battery operated pen that squiggled when switched on. We all had great fun with it, trying to write legible notes and draw faces. If you're having trouble picturing it, let me put it bluntly. It was, for all intents and purposes, a vibrator with a pen on one end. I don't know what innocent soul thought this was good swag for a child's party, but I imagine Cindy and I weren't the only adults to bite down on our lips to smother a giggle after giving the apparatus and each other knowing looks.

A couple of months later, the ravages of the disease and chemo treatments left Cindy completely bedridden and unable to perform even the most basic human functions. The first time I had to change her diaper, I fought hard against the tears that threatened to blind me. All I could think was that as much as I was feeling, how much more could she be feeling? I imagined her humiliation, this proud beautiful warrior, at having me, the woman who'd been hired to change her baby's diapers now changing hers. I rolled her on her side and held the warm washcloth in my hand, hesitating. Finally, I gulped back the tremendous lump in my throat and said gently, "Please pardon my familiarity..." Without hesitation, she replied, "That's okay... as long as you're not holding Jonathan's pen." I snorted out laughter through my tears so hard that snot flew onto her hip. I wheezed out, "Oh, grossss... I'm so sorry!" But she was laughing too hard to care. I finished cleaning her up and getting her settled again, both of us laughing hysterically the entire time.

It's one of the best laughs I've ever had at one of the darkest times in my life. It was a moment that defined me. I realized in that moment that what I carried within me was a gift and one of life's finest. If there was humor in that dark moment, there was humor everywhere. And, let me qualify this here, humor isn't always funny - sometimes its sole purpose serves to be a momentary breath, a pause to face what is. After all, how many times do we hear or see something "funny", yet we don't laugh. Instead, we nod in recognition - the ol' "ah, somebody out there gets it."

Humor, dark humor especially, opens up a conduit that allows us to acknowledge the most horrific stuff in our lives. More importantly, it's a gigantic "fuck you" to that horrific stuff. It says, "You have not beaten me. I am still here. I may be wiping my own snot and tears off a dying woman's ass, but I'll be able to walk away from this and I'll keep going. And I'll be stronger for it."

It's no surprise that the people closest to me are those who also willingly go the depths. I admire fellow humans who are willing to walk through the dark and see it for what it is - a place where any light thrown becomes a spotlight that reveals the true nature of a thing.