On the last Monday of October I drive to work in pre-dawn darkness as deep as midnight. Rounding bends on deserted backroads past unlit houses, gaping stubbled fields, hulking shapes of farm equipment, shadowed barns, patches of woods, when off in the distance, through silhouetted tree trunks—fire.
A bonfire. Tall flames, bright orange against the blackness, undulating skyward. Startling. So Halloween-esque. Hauntingly beautiful in its way except….I can’t tell what’s burning. Probably trash. The fire seems large for that, and before sunrise? I am too far away to see anything but the fire itself. I cannot see smoke or smell it. No screaming sirens. No alarms. Only silence, stillness…should I investigate to be sure? The road twists and turns, demanding my attention, and as I reach a tricky intersection where a few sets of headlights from opposite directions approach and pass, I realize: I’ve lost sight of the fire now. I am not sure of its location. Somewhere close by it’s burning, consuming, destroying, I hope nothing precious, nothing of value… and so I cross the intersection, praying it is controlled until extinguished.
On I drive in the darkness, shivering.
I think of anger.
Fire, anger. The contrast of being controlled, purifying, and righteous, or uncontrolled to the point of destroying, intentionally or not, what is precious, valued, and loved. Thinking of that fire throughout the day yesterday—there were no reports of damage—reminded me of a poem I wrote last week:
Why I Pray
In the absence of peace, I pray.
When my mind cannot fathom or even form questions, I pray.
When I am weary of injustice, of sifting truth and lies, when my inner well has run dry, I pray.
I pray for power beyond my own.
To overcome the red-hot dagger of fury, that I should not wield it, thereby scarring others and myself. To knit words of healing instead, one by one, like snowflakes falling to form a blanket of blessing, a holy hush.
Freeing myself by forgiving myself as well as others, feeling the weight drop away.
That quickening sense of awe, for even if I cannot call fire from Heaven (thankfully), I can move mountains of ice in my own heart.
Because, as long as I live, I will battle need, loss, and fear, trusting that love conquers all —its beating wings in my heart, forever my reason to pray again.
with thanks to Andy Schoenborn for the “Embrace your why” prompt and the mentor poem written by a student, shared on Ethical ELA’s Open Write last week.
and to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Writing Challenge, always encouraging “a world of reflective writers”—so needed.
The road is long With many a winding turn That leads us to who knows where Who knows where …
—”He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” B. Scott/B. Russell
I think this may be my favorite picture of you. For several reasons. I like to see you in such a peaceful setting, walking that country path beside lush green fields, under the blue summer sky. You were walking with a friend, so you weren’t alone. You told me that her puppy followed you—I still can’t believe that’s just a puppy; he’s massive!—and he got tired, so you picked him up and carried him the rest of the way.
That is why I love the photo so much. It captures the essence of who you are.
Quietly bearing your burdens, no matter how heavy. There have been many in these past few years. Ever how burdened you were, ever how twisted and dark the pathbecame, you kept on walking.
No one knows better than I what a long, long road it’s been, from the day you started college to now. Graduation being canceled, just when the end is in sight, feels like a coup de grâce.
It all started off on such a high note, didn’t it? Getting that phone call two weeks after you finished high school, a church looking for a music director. Your childhood dream. I still have your kindergarten “All About Me” book with the prompt ‘When I grow up, I want to be’ … where you drew yourself as a choir director in crayon.You attained it at seventeen, before your formal training even began.
That summer was glorious and brief.
That fall you started college and almost instantly the shadows came.
Your father‘s diagnosis of ocular melanoma, the loss of his eye, the weeks waiting for pathology to reveal no cancer cells had spread.Despite your new job and your courseload, you stepped up to help him readjust.
On the heels of his healing came Ma-Ma’s stroke, the beginning of her slow decline over the rest of that year. She knew how much you loved her. She treasured every minute with you; she savored every long phone call you made from the time you were little. She couldn’t keep from crying whenever you played the piano and sang—remember how she organized for you to come play at her nursing home, near the last?I will never forget her wet, shining face. She was inordinately proud of you. She loved you fiercely.
How grateful I am that you and your dad were there, holding her hands, when she died.
And so you bore her loss on top of an unexpected one.
I know you’re marking the date. Three years ago today, the accident that took your friend. Your little childhood playmate who sang with you in preschool choir, your high school band mate, the organizer of the Sunday-nights-at-Bojangles gatherings. As I write, I hear her pure, high voice echoing in the church to your harmony and piano accompaniment. Her going left all of us reeling—a swift, severe, deep cut to the heart, a knotty scar we’ll bear forever. And yet you play on. You still sing. You stand by her family in their remembrances, your presence the only comfort that’s in your power to give. She would be graduating, too, this spring … but no one is graduating this spring …
It’s one of the hardest things in life, losing people, and not only to death. People will come and go because they choose to, no matter how much we wish they’d stay. You endured this, too, with uncommon grace, never lashing out, just walking on with your invisible pain. I knew it was there. I could feel the weight of it.
Seems we were due a respite, and if there was one, it was those few weeks of vacation last summer before your dad’s heart attack. You and I had just come home from walking when the officer arrived in the driveway to say your dad’s truck had run off the road and hit a tree, it might have been a medical event, maybe a seizure, no, he wasn’t sure what condition your father was in, EMS was working on him when he left, and did we have a way to get to the hospital? With your big brother too distraught to drive, you did it. Calmly, carefully, you drove us to the emergency room where the nurse met us at the door. You were beside me when she ushered us to the little room where the doctor met us to say your father had been resuscitated and was being prepped for heart surgery.
You were there with me that first night of sleeping on the waiting room chairs, not knowing what tomorrow would bring. You were there with me throughout that long week of his hospitalization, until your dad came home, battered, bruised, trying to recover his memory. You got his prescriptions so that I wouldn’t have to leave him … and when I took him back to the ER with chest pains a couple of weeks later, you met us there. Another hospital stay. Another heart surgery. Two more weeks of sleeping in the hospital. Do you remember the surreality of it all? How we felt like it would never end, like we were caught in the web of the wrong story, a movie with a terrible plot twist we didn’t see coming? How could this be?
Somehow you managed to keep your studies up, only leaving for your classes and your church services, making the music and leading the worship for others.
So here we are, at last. Your dad, recovered and restored … able to drive me back and forth to work with my broken foot … until this tiny pathogen bent on world domination closed the schools. Here you are, completing your final weeks of college online, being denied the walk to receive the reward of all your labors …it is unthinkable.
I think about the whole of your young adult life. How your road has been so long, with many a winding turn, through many a dark shadow. I watched how you went around, through, or over every obstacle on this arduous journey. You’ve endured what might have caused others to quit college, others who might have actually enjoyed their studies; I know you never loved the “game” of school and that for you it’s been a test of endurance, in itself. But the end is in sight—despite a pandemic. A plague. Who’d have ever believed, in our time …
You have come this far, bearing every heavy load. You’ve carried on. Often you, the baby of the family, carried the rest of us. You’ve fought internal battles for your own wellness more than anyone else knows; in this spiritual war, you’ve earned a Medal of Honor for exceptional valor. I know it and God knows it, Son. I stand in awe of your heart, full of love and mercy, so self-sacrificial, so willing to lighten others’ burdens as your own grew heavier. Like carrying a giant puppy during a long walk on a hot summer’s day, because it got tired.
That is why I love this picture. It is your story.
There are no words for how much I love you.
Keep walking, Son. Carry on.You are strong.
I am stronger because of you. Soon my foot will be well enough to walk with you again.
When we come through this present ominous shadow, college will be over, we’ll find ourselves in a whole new chapter in our lives, and we’ll celebrate all of it. Just a little farther along … I know that in your quiet way, you’ve already made your peace with it. I can almost hear you singing:
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun And I say it’s all right...
I don’t often get reader requests for posts here on my blog, but after sharing an exercise on writing about your past —”When you look back at your life, what do you see?”— a phrase about my childhood home stirred some curiosity and I promised to tell the story behind it.
So if you read Dust motes and asked about “Bullet in the living room rug, in the floor, if you know where to look,” today’s post is officially dedicated to you.
To recollect these details, I had to submerge a good while in Long Ago. When this event occurred I was around eight years old. That part’s blurry.
The rest, however, is all too vivid . . .
Mom lifts the curtain again but there’s only blackness beyond the picture window. I know by her sigh that the street is empty. No sign of Deb. She has never been this late before. She’s usually here before supper but tonight we had to go ahead and eat, hours ago. Baby Aimee—Deb’s baby—is fussy because she’s ready to go to bed and can’t settle. Mom holds her on one hip, says “Shhh, shhh, you’ll be going home to sleep soon.” Something icy glitters in my mother’s black eyes as she looks out of the window into the night.
Aimee’s eyes are almost as black as my mother’s. Big and round. They make me think of Looney Tunes characters when they’re sad, how their eyes go all huge and dark. Baby Aimee’s eyes always look like this, huge and dark, even when she’s standing in the playpen staring up at me in the daytime when I get home from school. She can stand without holding on now but isn’t really walking yet because she’s only one year old. She hangs onto my mother, her cheeks pink and watery, her big eyes shiny.
“Mama,” she cries over and over. “Mama.” And she buries her face in my mother’s shoulder.
I am sorry for Aimee because she’s little and doesn’t understand things yet. I am starting to feel sorry for Mom because it’s not easy to take care of someone else’s baby while they work all day and then don’t show up and you don’t know why . . .
“Mom! What if something has happened to . . . “
She turns on me, her mouth a tight line under those icy-hot eyes. “Shh!” she nearly spits.
And I know, I know why.
Just then headlights shine through the window. Mom snatches back the curtain. Her body softens like a flower in a glass of water.
She squeezes past the playpen—it takes up the most of our living room floor space—and goes to open the front door.
I hear Deb’s laughter before I see her.
Someone is with her.
They come in.
Deb is short with shoulder-length reddish hair and glasses. She dresses in what teachers at my school call “mod.” Sometimes short skirts and boots or chunky shoes, sometimes vests and bell-bottoms. Deb smiles a lot but tonight she can’t stop laughing about something. Even when she says to Mom, “I am sorry it’s so late, had some car trouble…this is Ab. My boyfriend.”
Ab, standing partly behind Deb, is very tall. His face is thin and white, his hair black, curly, reaching past his shoulders. He’s wearing a long fur coat. I’ve never seen a man in a fur coat before. He nods to my mother when Deb introduces them but he says nothing.
Mom looks at me, hard. “Go to bed now.”
I know this really means “I’ve got things to say that you don’t need to hear” and so I head down the hall without a word—
—a flash of light, the loudest sound, thunder in the house, like a car hitting it, shaking it, rattling the windows—
—a scream, not sure whose, my mother’s or Deb’s—
I run the few steps back to the living room.
There’s a funny smell, something smoky.
Pieces of brown fur, hundreds of pieces, floating through the air.
Deb’s crying now, her screaming baby in her arms. Ab’s face is whiter than before. I stand, frozen, as my mother demands the gun he has in his pocket, or the pocket he had a minute ago, before he blew it to smithereens.
“HOW DARE YOU bring a gun into this house, around other people, around children! To stand here with your finger on the trigger…Give. It. To. Me. NOW.”
And Ab places the handgun in my mother’s open palm.
As her hand closes around it he hurries out of the door, away from her, back into the night.
After Deb and Ab were gone—and after she vacuumed up all the fur—Mom ran her fingers over the rug. She found the hole and the bullet lodged in the hardwood floor beneath. For as long as we lived in that house, I could find the bullet, too.
The house still stands, so as far as I know, the bullet remains there to this day.
I can’t recall what became of Deb and her beautiful baby, Aimee, or how quickly after the bullet they quit coming to our house. I changed their names in case they’re still alive out there, somewhere. I wonder if they are. And what their stories are. And if I could stand knowing.
I really wonder about Ab.
All I know is that my mother kept his gun a long time. I’m not sure she ever gave it back. Or where in the house she hid it. Somewhere far away from children…
I think a lot about the darkness of that night, of a baby’s big, frightened eyes, of being completely at the mercy of others and their choices, not just sweet baby Aimee, long, long ago when I was still a child…but my mother, who didn’t drive, who babysat for many years to make ends meet, who accommodated other people’s schedules and whims, who was dependent on others to go anywhere or get anything she needed. Some might say powerless.
But they didn’t see her take a gun away from a strange man who towered over her, a man who, as far as I know, never darkened our door again.
The moment reverberates in my mind still. Lodged deep, so deep in my memory, lying there all this time, covered by layers and layers of stuff …
During recent professional development sessions on “Coaching the Coach” at Ocracoke Island, the facilitator charged participants with finding a metaphor for coaching.
We were to take a photo. We would write to it.
There were no other parameters.
Ocracoke is a tiny place full of narrow, twisting roads, quaintness, legend, and mystery. It has around a thousand inhabitants. In tourist season one has to drive with extreme care as the streets become clogged with pedestrians, horses, bicyclists, golf carts, and cats (the island has a rampant feral cat population). The word island might as well be a synonym for enchantment or mystical; a sense of these hang in the air along with the salt. Sort of like expectancy.
When I first saw the grove of trees—predominantly live oaks—on the corner lot of a house converted to a bookstore, I thought: What a restful place. It has its own particular allure. While there are larger live oaks, individual, ancient giants, elsewhere on the island, these smaller trees grow together, toward one another. I read somewhere that live oaks focus their energy on growing out, not up; perhaps this is especially important in a place where ocean winds continually carve the landscape. These trees survive hurricanes. They flourish in salty places.
The early May afternoon was hot; the sun blazed overhead. I noted the profuse shade under the trees. They stand leaning inward, reaching to one another, as if intentionally collaborating to benefit all who enter their realm of existence. No one tree stands out. It’s a joint effort. I walked into their proffered coolness, this respite, this shelter, envisioning how their roots are deeply intertwined, that they draw collective strength in their mutuality. They are anchored together. That’s part of how they endure. A foundation from which to grow, branch out, and sustain their own lives and others’.
There is more, there is always more, to a metaphor, for it knows no parameters, either. It can keep on going and going, changing shape, developing new layers in new light. It’s supposed to, just like learning. Like life. I just choose to stop here.
The initial predictions were utter destruction by an epic monster.
Having suffered extensive damage from hurricanes in years past, central North Carolina fortified itself against Florence. I collected a small mountain of dry goods and canned vegetables—”hurricane stash”—that probably could have fed my family of four for two weeks without electricity. Since we’re on a well, we don’t have water when the power goes out; I even purchased powdered milk to mix with bottled water, for our cereal. Bottled water . . . that took several trips across three days. By 6:30 in the mornings, restocked grocery shelves were again picked clean. I finally scored a 36-count pack of Aquafina and turned to maneuver away from the throng in that aisle when a man, loading his own cart, said, “Here, you better take another.” He hefted a pack of water off the shelf and stacked it on top of the one in my cart. This gesture by a stranger stirred my heart.
At home, the dogs had plenty of food, we had batteries, all the laundry was done, one of the bathtubs was filled with water, the cars with gas. Our porch rocking chairs and the grill were secured in the shed. The television news ran nonstop. My family watched the slow, drawn-out approach of the monster, and although the sun was still shining, school was canceled in anticipation of the onslaught. My mind continually scrolled for every possible preparation. I even boiled the remainder of our eggs so they’d be usable if the power went out for days, as happened in the past.
I planned for everything.
Except my back going out.
It started on the day before Florence was to make landfall and grew steadily worse. I attributed it, at first, to the barometric pressure; I’d heard several people mention headaches and backaches. By the time the wind and rain arrived, however, the grip of pain was too intense for me to sit or walk anymore. Dosed with ibuprofen, I spent the duration of the storm — five days, all told— lying in bed with pillows under my knees.
Unable to do anything.
Except re-read the entire Harry Potter series.
Escapism at its best.
Different things strike me on each reading. This time, as the wind raged on the other side of the walls, as sideways rain whipped in voluminous sheets, slapping the windows with fury, as the encroaching darkness forced me to switch on my phone flashlight in order to see the words on the pages—Lumos!— I lay there contemplating the nobility of the characters, the way they banded together, helped one another, in the face of their own destructive, epic monster. How they found unrealized courage despite ever-increasing darkness. As I lay reading, immersed in Harry’s world, I caught distant snatches of the news from my own: on the TV in the living room, where my husband and sons tracked Florence’s path, meteorologists warned people that if their houses flooded to not seek refuge in their attics, because there’s no exit. Rescue personnel are not equipped to cut through houses to save people. Meaning that it’s safer to climb on the roof of one’s house than to be trapped.
For a second, everything went still: How could I do that? If it flooded here—never say never—how could I possibly climb to the roof? I can’t even move!
And then I read the words of Mad-Eye Moody to Harry as Harry was about to compete in the Tri-Wizard Tournament: Play to your strengths.
Harry doesn’t think he has any strengths—this is Book Four, he’s just fourteen —and he has no idea that the Tournament was designed solely to destroy him. Moody growls: Think now. What are you best at?
Lying flat on my back, at the mercy of my own body, helpless against the forces of nature, imagining a flood . . . what strength would I have, just now?
I thought of elderly people in this storm. Then of my Grannie, years ago, when her house caught fire in the dead of night on New Year’s Eve; how, after just having heart bypass surgery in the days when it was a new thing, she climbed out of her upstairs bedroom window onto the porch roof and survived.
Play to your strengths.
In Grannie’s case it was pure grit. As for me . . . well, a streak of that same determination and strong will (Grannie-grit) runs in my own veins, but I think my strength is rooted in something greater. If had to choose what’s deepest within me to tap, it’s hope.
I recently heard hope defined as not wishing, but knowing, trusting. No matter how severe the pain, I know I’d be able to climb to safety. Somehow. I trust my family would help me. Even in my weakened state, I’d find and give the last of my strength to help them, too. A strength that would come exactly when it was needed, not before.
On and on I read. Of Harry’s overcoming, of his concern for others, his willingness to give his own life in order to save them, even those he didn’t know personally . . . .
The darkness, the storms bring out the best in humanity, reminding us that we are, above all, here to help each other. Not to destroy.
—I will write about Severus Snape another day.
And storms, ever how violent, do not last forever.
It didn’t flood here, although our yard remained a bog for a while.
Now we have a plague of bloodthirsty mosquitoes to battle.
And my back pain has diminished, bit by bit, day by day. It remains a twinge, still causing me to be mindful. Strange thing, that. Being rendered powerless during the storm, unable to do anything but read. And endure.
But, in the end, powerless all depends on one’s own perspective.Reading is another great strength of mine, is it not? Didn’t it get me through the storm and the pain? That’s hardly powerless. Not to mention that in my tiny neighborhood, in the heart of a rural area where we frequently lose the power for no apparent reason at all . . . the lights blinked but never went out.