Where God Lives

leaves

Church is good

Church is fine

If you’re looking for

   White bread and red wine

(Too dry and sweet for my liking)

Rather, for me…

In a Sunday morning cup of coffee

Swirling amber peace

In a poet’s inspiration

Simple and pure and true

In my Life’s hand across the table

Fingertips lingering in the divide

In a brisk noon walk

Dry leaves whispering encouragement

In the journey of five hundred pages

Life, death, love and loss in each turn

In the dusk’s gentle solitude

The peace of a yawning day

In the music of friends

Toasting universal bonds

In heaven’s voice, humming to the stars

Promising the grace of a new Tomorrow

 

…is where God lives.

                                                                                                      October 19, 2017

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ESSENCE

essence

There’s a movie in which Gregory Peck is applying for a job at an ad agency. The boss (battling a midday hangover) with a dismissive wave of his hand, directs Peck to go in the next room and, in an hour, answer this question:

“What is the most significant thing about me?”

Our writers group recently took on that challenge. This was my swipe:

ESSENCE

The most significant thing about me?

Is not I, me or mine

But them, they, yours and theirs

I am defined, shaped, shaded and filled

by what I can do, should do, could do

For

the love I can give

the joy I can make

the life I can live

For

the sake of All

As God wanted

As God ordered

You ask, and I would gladly answer

But I’m not worthy of the question

The most significant thing about me,

Is not me at all

But is, rather, you

                                                                                                                         

                                                    September 21, 2017

 

WALKING

walk the talk

Love

Resist

Rise

Love

There’s a kind of courage that, ideally, everyone should have, yet, ideally, no one should need.

The kind that enables us to resist life’s many inequities, rise over its many hurdles, and to seek and find light and peace in all things, even our darkest sorrows.

That kind of courage is so rarely seen that it is the more powerful and beautiful for appearing at all.

Two of my best friends recently displayed such courage. In fact, they’ve been showing it for most of their married life, as a racially-mixed couple who adopted a racially-mixed son, whose biological parents were both drug addled.

Heartbreakingly – the cold cynic in me wants to say “predictably” – those drugs wormed their way into their 23-year-old son’s blood, brain and existence. This, though they raised him as far away from his biological parents’ circumstances as a life of suburban comfort, professional expertise, cultural nurturing and middle-class resources could take them.

No matter.

Their son – handsome, brilliant, clever, funny, talented — overdosed on fentanyl. The opioid reputed to be 50 times stronger than even heroin.

Like some weird, cosmic vacuum, their sadness on that chilly, March morning for the loss of their child literally sucked the air from their lungs when they found their son’s lifeless body in his car.

We could debate the evils of drugs, and his choice to use them. Fine. I agree. Drugs are bad, wrong, evil. Debate done.

We could dissect who knew, and who should have known, what could have been done and when, since their son lived in his parents’ home, and they tried to honor his young adulthood by respecting his privacy as much as possible in their shared space.

We could. Those are moralistic arguments, and (their insensitivity notwithstanding) fair questions. Indeed, in our pretend-Christian nation – “Judge not, lest ye be judged”, remember? – we like to make lots of room and time for moralizing.

Yet it is just as immoral to even think, much less raise those issues to fellow human beings in their grieving as some often do (and did), if just privately in whispered side conversations. Moralizing loses all its weight when staring into the beautiful face of a child gone too soon.

As a thousand, thousand shards of glass slice their hearts daily, hourly, minute-by-minute, second-by-second; as they apply fake smiles and gamely effect laughter when laughter is inconceivable; as they force feet forward along a daily path back toward “normalcy”, though nothing will ever again be “normal”; my dear friends continue to carry a private burden that I — most – cannot begin to imagine, much less understand. (Thank you, God, by whatever name you are called, for this immense blessing of ignorance.)

No one with a shred of soul would fault them for even an atom’s breath for simply curling up in the cocoon of their own hearts and subsisting off the perverse, pain-numbing energy of grief.

But not them.

Some, maybe.

Me, for sure.

Instead they took their hurt; their confusion; their anger; their emptiness; their brokenness; their loss; their ache; their whispering to themselves, “what did we do wrong?”; their screaming to God, “WHY?!”; their longing for an answer that they know – for they must know, if they have any hope of living again – that they won’t get until they can ask their son to his face.

They took it all, and decided to do something about it.

Courage.

My friends researched opioid addiction. Laws. Other stories of loss and destruction. Ways that they could maybe, possibly, with some small bit of luck and a lot of hard work, make a difference.

They found the “2017 Fed Up!  Rally for a Federal Response to the Opioid Epidemic” summit in Washington, D.C. in early September 2017

They packed their bags and their pain and their righteous indignation and – most important of all – their precious memories of their sweet baby, and got on a plane.

There, they listened to speakers at the National Press Club.

They networked with other victims and advocates.

They participated in a candlelight vigil and, the next day, they marched in front of the White House.

Then, nearly six months to the day after their shared heart temporarily stopped beating, they told their son’s story on national television.

They made sure to hold up his picture so that everyone – even the “holier-than-thou-ers” — could see that their agony had a name and a face with an easy, charming smile, now forever erased by drugs.

They held each other close, their mingled tears wetting each other’s cheeks. Loving, comforting, healing themselves, yes, but also those who watched and felt their own hearts shatter by association.

They resisted the criticism of the unfeeling, and the condemnations of those who would blame, deflect, refuse to acknowledge the truth of their anguish. The same anguish that any parent would suffer.

They rose above the deepest valleys of their own heartache.

And they demonstrated what it takes to truly “Walk the Talk.”

To set an example. Create a path where none existed. Take the harder road to show a way through a tangled thicket of injustice.

They turned their private despair into public action. With faith in a tomorrow their son won’t know, and determination to help give that tomorrow to someone else’s child.

And a courage born in love and borne by love – like all things good and worthy and true.

My Favorite Summer Vacation

summer vacation    Writers are readers — and thieves.

A truism about writing is, if you want to write like someone, then do it! Don’t just sit there complaining and daydreaming: “Oooh, I wish I could write just one sentence as tightly as Hemingway…If only I could write a poem as honest as Maya Angelou…Man, if I could write only one story as magical as Gabriel Garcia Marquez.”

Rather, write like your heroes write. Copy their style. Their tricks. Their voice. So that in the process, you can figure out who YOU are as a writer. 

So that someday, another writer, casting about for his or her own style, might say, “I wish I could write like____!”

I recently finished two books by Junot Diaz as part of my ongoing “Year of the Latino Writer.” One of them was his magnificent first novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”

In this book Diaz completely omitted all quotation marks from the dialogue. This little trick really forces the reader to pay very close attention to the story, or risk getting tangled in a literary thicket.

I was so intrigued with this approach that I decided to try it myself in a new short story:

MY FAVORITE SUMMER VACATION

A clanging chorus of telephones suddenly filled the Jordan Observer newsroom.

The acoustic eruption shattered the normal post-deadline, mid-afternoon peace and quiet. This time of day, the newsroom usually sat virtually empty. Reporters hit their beats, took lunch or stole home for a quick break before the night’s meetings, and bosses gathered to review the morning’s issue and plan for the next day.

Still, the noisy outbreak yielded a comforting note of reassurance for Metro Editor Marie Wallace, recalling the not-too-distant days when newspapers were the world’s first, last and best information outlets. Touching bases with regular contacts, snitches calling in tips, even readers complaining about the slant of this story or that. It was all music to the veteran newswoman’s ears. Not like this newfangled Internet nonsense with its instant gratification, thin-as-tissue-paper credibility — and digital silence. In a solid, professional, working newsroom like the one she’d occupied for 27 years, you knew when stuff was happening.

Well, she reassured herself for the thousandth time since the Observer had connected to the World Wide Web a year ago, readers will always want more than what the Internet can give. I doubt it’ll survive the decade…

Wallace’s reverie snapped when the main line on her own phone lit up. Hello?

Hey Marie…I mean, Ms. Wallace.

Willie, I keep telling you, Marie is fine. How are you doing out there today?

Ok, I guess, Willie said, sincerely trying to hide his frustration. I mean, not to sound ungrateful, you know, I am extremely grateful for the chance to work for the Observer and all, but you know, I was kinda hoping to do something a little more, I don’t know…meaningful?

This kid is one big ball of ambition. I can’t blame him. He just wants to break his first big story, Marie thought, remembering her own days as a young reporter, when Drudgery often dulled the Dream. The routine footwork of a life in print could darken even the shiniest movie house vision of journalism. Cultivating sources. Scouring dozens of poorly-written press releases. Explaining to crackpots why the paper wouldn’t just print their latest UFO sighting. But most of all, just listening. Watching. Talking, Looking for dots to connect. Then connecting them before anyone else. The visceral thrill of a byline on a major story easily surpassed most sensations short of sex. (Sometimes, it was even better than sex, truth-be-told. Sex is fleeting, the recent divorcee thought, ruefully. Bylines live forever, if only in a file drawer.) Still, getting to the front page often required a lot of work. Hard, repetitive, mind-numbing, ambition-draining, spirit-crushing work.

I understand. I really do, Marie said, effecting her most maternal tone. Empathetic, supportive, but firm. Just what she always wanted from her own bosses. But you also understood what the job would be when we brought you on for this summer internship. I know you want to do great things, and who knows? Maybe after you graduate, we’ll hire you permanently and you’ll have lots of chances to really make a name for yourself. You’re a good reporter and writer, Willie. You have a bright future. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have chosen you for the position. You know we haven’t had an intern for many years. We couldn’t afford it, and the full-timers didn’t want to lose any work to anyone, much less some kid. I know that you are not just another college student. For now, though I need you to do what I need you to do. Which is?

Willie grumbled, not for the first time since he started the internship in late May at the end of his junior year. Yet here it was, the middle of August, and all he’d done was…Anything and everything that you ask me to do…and most especially anything and everything that the regular reporters don’t want to do.

They laughed together. Their shared commiseration and easy camaraderie would in time form the foundation of a friendship that would last beyond even the murder of their newspaper careers at the hands of the Internet. Right, Marie said. So, get to it, and get back here. Everyone is gone and I could use your help with these phones. Willie could hear the insistent ringing behind Marie’s voice – unusual for this time of day, Willie knew. And Willie, I can hear you rolling your eyes rolling over the phone…

But I hate these “Man on The Street” interviews. Asking people stupid questions and taking their pictures…

Hey, hold on just a minute there… I know it’s not the best assignment – which is why the full-timers are only too happy to give it to the summer intern, she thought – but it can’t be that bad. What’s today’s question?

“What was your favorite summer vacation, and why?”

Marie had to agree with her protegee about that one. But it was summer and news was slow. The idea was to generate easy copy. Ask people something that was likely to get a good quote – not too long, not too short. Snap a quick head shot for the next day’s paper, throw five on the Editorial page, and voila! A surefire, effective and cheap way to draw readers. Truism Number One About Journalism, Marie knew: Vanity always wins the day and the dollar (or, in the Observer’s case, the 35 cents.)

Alright, I see your point. How many more do you need?

Well, I talked to about twenty people so far…

Any good ones in there? Even in the two short months that she’d been his editor, she learned that getting information from Willie could be like extracting a sliver – a lot of painful digging. If he didn’t show so much promise…

I don’t know, I guess so, Willie finally offered. About what you’d expect. A lot of The summer I Spent with Grandma Before She Died, The Summer We Saw the Grand Canyon, The Summer I Learned How to Swim, The Summer I Puked Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream On My Sister, the Summer I Made Love For The First Time, blah, blah, blah. Actually, that last one was a pretty good story, but I suppose we can’t use it.

Um, no, probably not, Marie chuckled. Ok, so it sounds like you probably have enough, but try to get one more really good one just to be sure and then come back to the office and write it up.

But Mariiiieee!

Just one! And stop whining. It’s unattractive, she cajoled. I have to go now and pick up some of these calls.

Any idea what’s going on?

None. Although if I had to guess, I’d bet you lunch tomorrow that it has something to do with this morning’s story about the murder at the service station on the East Side. Did you see the paper yet?

Yes, I have it tucked under my arm. Willie had grown up with the Observer and was a devoted reader even before they started paying him for his work. The police gave a decent description of the guy from the security video before he killed the clerk and ran away. Sounds like a scary dude.

You can say that again! Alright, well, I’ll see you soon. Marie hung up and pushed the first of several flashing buttons on her phone. Jordan Observer, Marie Wallace speaking…

Willie cradled the pay phone headset back in the receiver and heard his change drop into the phone’s belly. Another 25 cents wasted… He spun back toward the mall. The corridors seemed unusually full for a summer weekday afternoon. Was there a hot movie out that he had missed? Or just the lure of indoor air-conditioning on an especially-warm late summer day? A predictable assortment of teens skulked through the common areas and food court. Their backs curved as if their spines couldn’t support the extra weight of their heads, most sporting hooded sweatshirts despite the sweltering August heat. Idiots! This is why the world is going to hell in a handbasket Willie sniffed, forgetting – or ignoring – that he was only a year or two older than most of them. Gaggles of senior citizens did the orthopedic shuffle from store to store, killing time before the retirement home excursion bus picked them up. Many beelined to the chain buffet restaurant to use their elderly resident discount, get home and go to bed before 4 p.m. Willie had eaten there, too. The food wasn’t bad, and he agreed, the price was right. Still, the Depression-Era crowd irritated him. Squeezing every penny until it bled. Arguing over the “way things used to be”. Criticizing anything resembling change. He hadn’t been a professional reporter for very long, but Willie knew enough to know that he wasn’t going to get much insight or flair from either the skateboard crowd or the geriatrics. He kept scanning the mall mob for a potential fifth “Man on The Street.” Or a woman. Or a kid. Could be anyone, really. Just one, and then I can go…Minutes passed. Felt like hours. Then…there! Not too old, not too young. White male, mid-forties. Probably capable of stringing together a decent sentence or two, he considered. Always practicing his reporter skills, Willie further catalogued the man’s features as he ambled easily past the giant (fake) Sequoia that anchored the mall’s common area and headed toward him. Dark, short hair, stocky build, average height, and jeans and white tank top shirt. Finally, the man was close enough to talk to. Sir, I’m a reporter with the Jordan Observer and just wanted to ask you a quick question for tomorrow’s “Man on The Street” feature. Do you read the paper?

The man scanned Willie from shoes to face, like one of those hospital machines looking for tumors, then locked onto Willie’s eyes. Sure, I guess so, he replied casually, when there’s something in it worth reading. His lips crooked, more than a smirk but not quite a smile.

An odd twinge pinched Willie’s neck. Well, this won’t take but a minute. I’m going to ask you a short question, record your answer – Willie showed his tape recorder – and take your picture. If my editor likes your answer, we’ll run it in tomorrow’s paper. He remembered the tag line Marie told him to use with everyone he interviewed. Remember to buy the paper tomorrow so you can see yourself!

Oh, that shouldn’t be a problem, the man said.

Willie couldn’t stop staring. The man looked familiar, but how? Willie had lived in Jordan his whole life. Knew a lot of people. He didn’t know know this guy, but still…

What’s the question? I’m kind of short on time.

What? Oh. Right…The question is, what was your favorite summer vacation, and why? Wait, I’m sorry. Willie fumbled with his tape recorder before hitting the record button. First, what is your name?

My name? Bill. Bill Kelly.

Bill Kelly…Bill Kelly…common enough, easy to remember, but it doesn’t ring any bells. Thanks. Now, Mr. Kelly…

Willie stopped again. He couldn’t slip the eerie feeling that he somehow knew this stranger. I’m sorry, my brain is all over place today. Must be the heat!

Kelly offered a polite laugh, but pushed on. Like I said, I’m in a bit of a hurry.

Yes, sir. So, anyway, the question is, what was your favorite summer vacation and why?

Kelly paused only the scantest fraction of a second. As if the experience he recalled was so fresh that it barely qualified as a memory. Oh, that’s simple. It’s this summer. The summer of 1992. Yesterday, as a matter of fact.

Wow! Really? That’s amazing. And too easy, Willie thought, noticing that pinch again in his neck… Everyone else I’ve talked to has gone back to their childhood. Why is this summer so special?

Because I killed someone for the first time.

Years later, after his newspaper career had died – or, perhaps more accurately, after the newspaper business had died under him like a lover who’d had a heart attack – Willie would pin this moment as the start of his life as a real journalist. The second when his eyes that, thirty minutes ago, rolled at the prospect of even one more insipid interview, slammed open in recognition. Heretofore unseen, dots as bright as a galaxy of burning suns now appeared. Dots daring to be connected. White male. Mid-forties. Stocky. Brown hair. Jeans. White tank top…up close, he also made out pinkish spots. Is that…blood?! The police description of the murderer from this morning’s paper!

Suddenly fired with the adrenalized cocktail of terror, ego and opportunity, Willie cautiously retreated one step. What did you say?

Calmly, Kelly repeated himself as if he’d shared nothing more than the temperature. I killed someone for the first time. And I liked it! No feeling quite like taking another person’s life, absorbing all that energy.

But…why…what…Everything he learned in three years of college journalism classes, the last few weeks of on-the-job training, all the coaching and support under Marie’s wing all clogged his brain. Stuck behind a tongue thick with confusion, unable (probably for the first time ever!) to form words. Never taking his eyes off Kelly, Willie finally spewed the most obvious question burbling in his mind: Then why are you walking around the mall?

Why not? Kelly said. His tone so smooth that not even the world’s best detective would suspect they were discussing anything more important than the score of the Cubs game. I like the mall. Lots of interesting people to look at, stores to visit, the air conditioning – boy, it’s hot out there, you know? Plus, haven’t you heard the phrase, “Hiding in plain sight?” Now he laughed, eyes dancing with the thrill of outsmarting everyone. And no one can stop me. Not you or the cops. Now put that in your stupid newspaper!

Kelly turned and ran toward the food court, crashing through the wall of meandering mall patrons. He disappeared down a corridor by the washrooms before Willie found his voice.

Hey! Hey! Stop that man! Willie screamed. Call security! Call the police! No one seemed to hear him, or make any effort to stop Kelly. Willie took three stumbling steps in Kelly’s direction. Stopped. Turned back. Pivoted again, unsure what to do. Who to call first. The police? The newspaper? He returned to the payphone, picked up the headset and dropped a quarter into the slot.

Joliet Observer, Marie Wallace answered in her usual smooth, professional voice. How can I help you?

Marie, it’s me, Willie.

Hey, are you on your way back? People are calling with tips and sightings of the suspect from the murder yesterday. I really need your help here. Did you get one more “Man On The Street?”

Willie paused. Slowed his breathing to offset his pounding heart. Confidence and excitement burned in his chest as words obediently lined up and formed sentences, and the sentences gathered into a story – his story — on the front page of his brain. At last he spoke.

Yes, Marie. Yes, I did…

 

 

 

 

The Great “What If”

question mark

Believing souls.

Hopeful hearts.

Questioning minds.

That is the essence of the human condition.

I am no different.

I spend a lot of time questioning, contemplating, studying, debating, discussing and dissecting the life around me – including (in fact, especially) the spiritual faith and religion that anchor my being.

Each month my writers group does a special assignment to help keep the literary juices flowing. Recently our challenge was to write something around the phrase/prompt “Five Minutes More.”

For me, the phrase speaks of regret. Disappointment. Longing. Frustration. Wondering what might have been?

As in, “What if I had five minutes more?”

In a larger sense, this conundrum has informed and defined all human history.

For example:

  • What if Hitler had died from his injuries as a soldier in World War I?
  • What if Abraham Lincoln had decided to appease the South rather than oppose its secession?
  • What if Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle had jammed?

And so on…

So, combining my “existential explorations” with our writing assignment, here is my take on perhaps the greatest “What If” of all:

THE GREAT WHAT IF

Let me be clear:

I never wanted to die for you.

Yet here I hang,

eternally nailed by your failings,

the weight of your confusion

piercing my spirit,

your lust for power dragging

my broken body through the streets of Time,

a prisoner forever to your odious politics.

Neither martyr nor mystic,

but a man –

flesh and spirit, just like you —

I never wanted to fix Yesterday, nor

change Tomorrow.

I only wanted you to

Love bigger.

Love better.

Love more.

Today.

One hand, one heart, one soul at a time.

Yes me, and God, of course,

because He is Me and I am Him

and You are Us.

But now, and now, and now,

two thousand times Now…

What has changed?

Nothing.

Except that my blood forever stains this tree.

Spikes once rusted from shame and infamy

now glisten, polished by the sands of

 Lore fired with the desert air of antiquity.

And heaven – as close as a whisper for those with ears to hear –

remains seventy times seven trillion miles away

So, I wonder…

What would have happened?

What might have changed?

What could be different?

What would have been?

If they had not dozed through the dusk?

If he had not severed a soldier’s ear?

If the Highest Holy had not

tempted, accepted – begged! – Fate?

If the Caesar on the scene

had not dipped his guilt-gilded fingers in the bowl?

If I had not gone to the garden, but

just prayed at home, for

five minutes more?

                                                                                    June 2017

 

On “Middle Age”

twisty road I recently published my third book, “The Edge of Middle — thoughts from the top of the hill.”  

These 25 poems, fictional stories and essays explore the twisty road to, and through, “middle age” from the view of a 50-something father and husband taking that trip.

However, “middle age” means something different to me…as I outline here in the Forward to the book:

This is not a book about “middle age”, per se.

After all, age is an artificial construct of time, determination and attitude. You know what they say – “You’re only as old as you feel”; “Age is just a date”; “Sixty is the new thirty”, etc.

Rather, these twenty-five poems, fiction stories and essays are reflections from and about the trip between early to later adulthood.

They’re ruminations about the many hard lessons that Life teaches – most of all that our choices, what we believe and how we behave earn both rewards and consequences; the battles fought for knowledge, happiness, serenity and stability – some lost, some won, some just survived; and the path we travel, not always smooth, but smoother, step by step.

(NOTE: I am not as dark or angry as some of these pieces might suggest – heaven forbid! Thankfully for everyone involved – especially me — most end on a redemptive note.)

Middle age is like being at the top of a favorite roller coaster. Having been here many times, we know what’s coming — the path, the twists, the turns, the loops. The “knowing” doesn’t always soothe the nervous stomach anticipating yet another lap around Life’s clackety, wooden track.

Still, the view from the peak of that first drop is breathtaking. The trip, exhilarating. The ride, over too fast. So, we try to enjoy it while we can and get back in line as quickly as possible. After all, you never know when the ride may close.

Youth gives us Fire. Age gives us Wisdom. Both are gifts. Vital, and linked.

As we move into middle age, we see both the past and future more clearly. Our achievements and failings. Our strengths and weaknesses. Our celebrations and disappointments.

We come to understand that we are not who we were, nor necessarily who we had hoped to be – but that there is still time.

We strive, armed with the understanding that comes with experience and (hopefully) growing maturity, to improve our own lives and the lives of those around us.

And we reaffirm the most important Life Lesson of all: that everything is better — if not always easier — with friendship, patience, humor, sympathy, empathy and love.

No matter what my daughters say, I am not “over the hill.” But I’m close enough to the top that I can see what’s on the other side.

And it doesn’t look too bad.

 

Here I Am

cross 

I kicked off this blog about a year ago with an Easter poem. So, I guess it’s tradition now…Happy and blessed Easter:

HERE I AM

I hear you

I know you have been calling me.

You search for my love.

Praying, looking, seeking

Asking me to return,

Show myself, hold your hand

But I don’t know what else to do.

I have come to you,

Yet you do not see me.

You refuse to answer

when I call out your name.

Hidden behind opaque clouds of

your boundless ego,

my voice cannot be heard

over the deafening

din of your vanity.

You’ll find me

Shut your eyes and look deep inside.

Hear only your heart.

Search your spirit’s mirror.

I am in the darkness

and light we all posses.

In each kiss dancing on your lips,

and every hungry mouth.

In each hand you caress

And every exposed palm,

mateless, unheld, reaching.

In each sparkling tear of joy

and every mournful cry.

In each spirited laugh,

and every painful plea

seeking love’s soothing balm.

Here I Am.