I don’t like to look back. Only forward. Perhaps one of the reasons why a sunny evening after a rainy day discombobulates me. A shiny-bright sky shouldn’t arrive when my exhausted body is ready to flop onto bed for a well-deserved rest. I like to consider where I am heading. Not where I have been. Can’t fix the past, only improve the future.
But last week, I became the custodian of a box of old letters. My brother who passed away had kept them through the years, and the kids and I discovered them only recently. My first surprise involved the sheer number. So many of the foreign students who boarded at my mom’s—Mrs. B’s—house had loyally written to her even after they had moved on with their lives. Our first renter, Yasushi Fujimoto, wrote from various places including the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Miramar, which my eldest daughter, a math-chem major, found rather interesting. As a kid, I could never have imagined that I would have a daughter who would grow up to become a scientist in her own right.
There is also the wedding invitation from Miss Ming Chu Hsu to Mr. Yaan Ming Jeffery Chan in Milwaukee not far from where we lived. There’s a thank you card from our Italian renter, Giuseppe, and his new wife, Laura, from their place in Glendale, WI. A sweet letter from Bing from his home in Wuhan, China.
Another letter, written by Bharat from Tanzania, apologizes profoundly for his delay in writing. I can’t imagine what could possibly be as important as writing a letter to us… He’d only had to fly across the globe to see his family. But he promises to return very soon, so his intentions were certainly honorable.
Chen wrote from California. Gustavo wrote from Caracas, Venezuela. There’s a wonderful catch-up with life’s goings-on from Awatif from the United Arab Emirates. A Christmas card from Bangladesh. A note from Said from Saudi Arabia…and that’s only a sample! Now, I’m wondering about those guys who didn’t send letters: Wael from Palestine and Bala from India. And so many more…
I have always considered myself blessed to have known so many people from such diverse walks of life. Not only did they come from different regions of the world, they spoke various languages and dialects, they ate fantastically spicy and exotic food. They practiced a variety of religions yet lived the same nobility of spirit. Hard working and determined, yet generous and understanding on so many levels. I don’t remember one cross word being spoken between the men during all those years.
I look back on my kid-tudes, and I’m ashamed that I wasn’t always as welcoming as I could have been. Being a child of a broken home, I wasn’t initially thrilled to have “my space” taken over by strangers. But those strangers became family in a way few other human beings have since matched.
In our international home, with usually between two to four students living with us at a time, I learned the impossible is possible. We humans can see beyond skin color, learn each other’s languages, discover new facets of God’s reality, and care so deeply about one other that even after thirty years, a yellowed scrap of paper can revive the flame of brotherly love. For, in fact, each of the men who stayed with us was my brother in the truest sense of the word.
Sadly, I have no connection with any of them now. I grew up, moved away, married, had kids, and became absorbed in forming my own little domestic universe. But as time marches relentlessly on, and family and friends pass away, my gaze turns inward. I discover that my heart is not frozen in ages past. Where ever those men have gone, my prayers and well-wishes go too.
Song sat at Teal’s bedside, her hands clasped and her head bowed. It was an old room, the remnant of the first prayer-house ever built on Helm. The teak wood window frames, baseboards, rafters, and furniture had ripened to a rich sheen, giving the space a comforting, ever-lasting feel.
Steepling her pale fingers under her chin, her gaze traveled over Teal. After cleansing the body and proper infusions with hypo-static thoughts, words, and actions in order to restore balance to the spirit, her attendants had left her to guard him in quiet prayer.
He lay still, quite naked to her eyes.
You won’t like that when you wake up.
After sucking in a bracing breath, she climbed to her feet and padded to the far wall. Though the temperature huddled close to the Bauchi comfort zone during the day, it often dropped below freezing at night. She selected a forest-green blanket from a colorful selection and carried it to the bed where she lay it gently over Teal.
With a groan, Teal opened his eyes to mere slits. “Song?”
She patted his hand, forcing a smile. “Yes. I’m here.”
Teal grimaced and licked his lips. “What—happened?”
“You collapsed.” Song perched on the edge of the padded chair and leaned forward. “Don’t worry. Cerulean is safe. He is with Sterling and the others on Earth, continuing their mission.”
Teal’s eyes widened, alarm filling them. “Where am I?”
“On Helm. Zuri helped me get you to my ship and we—”
“I must go back!” His voice wavering, he struggled to rise. “Now.”
Song laid her hand on his chest. She didn’t need to press. He had no strength to resist. “You may go back. In time. But not today. For now, you must rest.”
His jaw clenching Teal’s eyes narrowed in challenge. “And if I refuse?”
Unbidden tears filled Song’s eyes. “You will die.”
Teal stared at her, comprehension overwhelming his face. “But Cerulean…”
“He will learn. Just as you did. As your father did before you. We are allotted one lifetime. You can only live yours. Never your son’s.”
Teal’s gaze traveled to the ceiling and stopped, frozen.
Song glanced up. A spider dangled by a web from the beam above. Was it anyone she knew? Probably not. Likely just an honest spider looking for the day’s meal.
A tear trickled down Teal’s cheek. His face as still as carven stone.
Song stood, her long red dress sweeping over the flagstone floor. “Sterling must lead, and Cerulean will follow. They have much to teach each other.”
With almost imperceptible shake of his head, Teal continued to focus on the ceiling.
“Though I have never given birth in flesh and blood, I have mothered many. The hardest part of love is not holding a dear one close, it is letting them go.”
Song reached the doorway when she heard his raspy response.
Balloons have no business on the ground. It’s quite obvious why, and I shouldn’t have had to explain it to anyone, much less my nearest and dearest. But then, one has to explain everything these days, doesn’t one?
I had just lost a tooth. One I had been particularly fond of as it made chewing so much easier. It was a chilly spring afternoon, and I was at the college graduation party for my niece, Marley-May. A child saddled with such a legal title deserved my compassion, as well as monetary encouragement, so I generously supported my favorite niece through five years of college. It took her a year and a half to change her major six times. But once she settled on Art Therapy with a minor in Anxious Languages taught by a guy named Phil-something, she plowed right through.
Using every ounce of her hard-earned sensibility, Marley-May was dressed for the weather that morning in a skin tight, sleeveless dress and high heels. The spring thunderstorm held off until the last of the graduates made it across the stage. Then it swooped in for revenge.
I and sundry family, faculty, and community members scattered to our cars and made it to graduation ceremonies throughout town, gripping steering wheels and squinting into failing light.
My sister, Marley-May’s mom, Geraldine, had decorated the garage with streamers, balloons, and hung a huge, stenciled swag: CONGRADULATIONS, NOW GET A JOB!
Piled high with sandwiches, snacks, cakes, and drinks of all kinds, a standard plastic table dominated the oil stained, cement floor. An array of nails and screws piled up in old tin cans lining the shelving was a sight to behold. I had no idea that Geraldine’s husband, Sherman, was into recycling. I admired his organizational skills almost as much as I admired Geraldine’s dam-the-torpedoes approach to life’s challenges. Her husband’s projects among them.
Then, I took a bite of a caramel candy and promptly broke my tooth. But I couldn’t tell her that. So, I wrapped the piece in a matching “Congratulations, Now Get A Job” napkin and grinned through my discomfort.
“Having a good time?”
I glanced at my sister and grimaced. “Course. I love these get-togethers.”
She grimaced back. “Liar.”
“You know me too well.”
“I know that you made this day possible. Marley’s got a lead on a job, and her future looks bright. Thanks to you.”
I lifted my gaze beyond Geraldine’s left shoulder and watched my happy niece swigging back a soda with a half-eaten sandwich in the other hand. She chattered excitedly in a gathering of two other gals and a couple of interested, though not overly enthusiastic, young men. Did she have any idea how harsh the world would be? How dreams would be dashed? Aspirations squashed? The mighty burden of reality overload?
I shook my head. Of course not. She wouldn’t be smiling right now if she knew. Like a young bride going on her honeymoon, there’s no warning in the world to prepare a person for real sacrifice. That few care to notice. Even when it costs everything.
Geraldine patted my hand.
I met her gaze.
“You’ve done more than your fair share.”
“I did what needed to be done. Like what you did for Mom.”
“I just read her stories and relived my childhood as she slept in a chair.”
“You also held her hand. That’s what mattered.”
Geraldine’s eyes filled with tears.
Sherman marched into the make-shift party grounds and boomed. “Hey, I got old family videos set up in the living room and there’s hot cocoa on the stove. Let’s take this party to new heights, shall we?”
Wide-eyed horror rippled over Marley’s face.
Geraldine stood and faced the crises with charming calm. “Family videos are for us older folks who have no plans tonight.” She sidled into the youth’s gathering and drew her daughter aside. They spoke, and Marley looked over.
My stomach sank. The obligatory thank you was heading my way, complete with the hunted look and swift backward glances, pleading for courage from her friends.
Marley stopped in front of me and wrung her hands, her shoulders thrust back, ready to do her duty. “Hey, Auntie, just wanted to thank you for everything. I never could have made it through college without your support.”
I nodded graciously. The sharp edge of my tooth cut my tongue. “Happy to help. ‘What good you can do, you should do,’ Mom always said.” I shrugged. “Besides, Joe left me more than I really needed. It was only right that I share.”
A perplexed expression squinted through Marley’s eyes. “Oh, the money was nice. But what I really mean was your—I don’t know—your being you. Always there. Someone who cared about me.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Mom and dad are great. But, you know, they don’t always understand.”
The combination of honest flattery and dishonest betrayal sliced through me.
Words fell from my lips before I could stop them. “No one understands us completely, Honey. Only bits and pieces. The parts that reflect what we know. The rest confuses the hell out of us. We just try not to get mean about it.”
A startled glimmer of understanding quivered over Marley’s face.
Then a high, laughing voice rose from the background, “Hey, Graduate, you coming?” One of the gals pointedly tapped her watch. Fun called. Best not be late.
Marley squeezed my hand and smiled, peering into my eyes as if to convey something no words could tell. Real gratitude?
I nodded in acceptance and let her go her way.
Geraldine swept the remnant of the party-goers inside while Sherman took charge of clearing the faded festive grounds.
I stood and swiped my wrapped tooth from beside my paper plate. I’ll get it fixed next week. Geraldine will fill me in on Sherman’s newest home-improvement project, and Marly will find a job, making a life somewhere, somehow.
A red balloon skittered out of my way as I stepped across the floor. I picked it up and carried it with me. For a while, at least, it could hang in honor on my kitchen wall.
It amazes me that we humans ever understand each other given our robust ability to mess with syntax, translations, and meaning.
Some years back, the kids and I visited my dad in Kansas. My youngest, only about five at the time, was very impressed by something my dad shared with her. I was clueless.
After we returned home and I was making bread in the kitchen, my little one climbed up on a stool, watched me for several minutes, inflating my ego no small sum. Me thinking that my exceptional ability to knead dough actually impressed her developing mind.
She looked at me and inquired, in that adorable way small children do, with big searching eyes, “We’re related to pastry-people, aren’t we, Mom?”
I stopped kneading. Flummoxed. My eyebrows must have spoken for me.
Her voice rose with her determined desire to be understood. “You know, Pastry People. Granddad said we’re related to PASTRY PEOPLE!”
Thank the Lord of Heaven that daughter number four wandered through the kitchen at that appointed moment in history. I stalled her with a well-aimed, albeit desperate attempt to clarify our ancestry. “Uh, do you know anything about…”
She stared at me, furrowed her brows, pursed her lips, then smiled as light dawned. “Oh, yes, Granddad did say something about us being related to the Danish.”
Danish. Pasty-people. Get it?
I forgive you if you’re slow on the uptake. It took me a moment.
I don’t know if my youngest has yet forgiven me for merely being related to some of the greatest sea-faring humans in history, Hans Christian Anderson, and kings and castles rather than pastry-people. Though the discoverers of butter cookies are relatable!
When I took my ancestry test last March and got the results in May, I discovered that Dad was pretty much on the mark. 61% Irish, 26% English and northwestern European, 6% Scottish, 4% Welsh, 3% Swedish, I’m a mixed lot to be sure.
At an Irish pub with friends—back in my Chicago days—an Irish gentleman discussed ancestry with me and, when I shared my mixed heritage, his eyes rounded in something akin to horror. “You’re made up of people who hate each other, Love.” Add the fact that going generations back, we have mixed religious affiliations as well—heck, it is surprising love survived long enough to grow new lives. To say nothing of generations of lives.
It seems that everyone wants to be different these days. The irony is that we are different. Go back far enough, we all travel through the highways and byways of DNA history. And no one journeys unscathed. That’s what makes us the same. What unites us and makes us strong.
Nobility of character, depth of soul, worthiness as fellow human beings reflect both our shared human-kind but also the choices we make as individuals, including the stories we tell our kids and what’s put on the supper table.
So, though my daughter has to accept her nature as non-pastry-people, she does share our heritage as a chosen race—beings that our Creator willed into life. On a good day, we make bread and conversation, nourishing bodies and souls to journey on.
Robert sat back on the wooden library chair, pushed an award-winning thriller aside and stared down the packed double rows of books. Heavy weighted shelves topped with hardcover novels that couldn’t fit in their appointed place, lined the room. An oversized GREEK MYTHS illustrated cover stared at him from a shelf mounted on a pillar directly ahead. The back wall, plastered with paperback mysteries and romances, while the front entrance, dominated by newspapers and magazines, offered a neat but plentiful aurora to the room. A wooden rack sported an array of local t-shirts for sale, and community news splashed itself over a mounted bulletin board.
He chuckled. History behind, romance to the left, political figures to the right. Myths and legends directly ahead. I should be well educated or happily entertained, at least.
The heavy oak front door creaked as a patron entered. A middle-aged woman dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans bearing an armload of books lumbered to the front desk.
The librarian, an older woman with white hair and thin glasses, glanced up. She smiled in welcome.
Robert frowned. She didn’t smile when I entered.
A muted conversation ensued.
He really should pick out a couple of books, or get back to work, or deal with Beatrice’s issues…but the voices oozed with understanding friendship.
“You liked it?”
“Oh, yeah. Reminded me of the time I spent overseas with Carl, when we were just married, and he was stationed in Germany. I didn’t understand at the time—terribly ignorant when I was young.”
Rueful laugh. “Aren’t we all?”
A snort. “My granddaughter seems to know everything—certainly knows more about—” The throaty voice dropped to a subterranean level.
Robert tipped his head to peer between the wall of books. Yep. The librarian was nodding, even as she ran the wand over each book, then dropped it into a box.
Beatrice’s face rose in his mind as a knot tightened in his stomach, the pain in her eyes puzzling him.
“You don’t understand!”
What did he need to understand? He loved her, and she loved him, and they were married after all. What more did she want? They had a couple of kids and didn’t want more—at least not for a long while. Kelly and Roger were great, but even he could see how stressed Beatrice got with their schedules. He tried to help. But there was only so much he could do.
“It’s not that!”
He had tried to hug her into a better mood, but she wasn’t having it. Stiff as a board and just as unrelenting. Tears dripped down her face as she stared at the floor, slumped on the edge of the bed like some kind of broken toy.
Frustration filled him. Almost every night, it was the same routine. He approached, and she resisted. He cajoled until she either got mad or gave in.
“What’s the deal? I thought Fridays were good for you. Look, I’m a patient guy but even the best of men needs a little encouragement.”
She’d just stared. That baleful look spearing him with hopeless injury.
The librarian’s voice startled him. She stood at his right, peering at the thrillers he had shoved aside. “Anything I can help you with?”
Got anything on how to talk your wife into a romantic mood? he didn’t say. “Uh, just looking. Trying to figure out what I want. Thrillers just not cutting it for me.”
Sympathetic eyes stared into him.
Good Lord, how much do librarians know?
“If you want a suggestion?” It was the other woman, the patron with the heavy stack.
He shrugged, appearing open but not needy. Or so he hoped.
“Try Palmer’s series. Historical fiction starting in the middle-ages but with a phycological twist. Kind of thrilling, but he’s got depth, if you know what I mean.”
Robert glanced at the librarian for confirmation.
The white head nodded in agreement. “Oh, yes. Palmer is good. Real family drama without the typical social motifs. The gritty stuff of life but without antiquated solutions.”
A groan rose inside Robert. “I got enough grit in my life. Thanks.”
A conspiratorial grin passed between the two women.
Burning heat rose in Robert’s cheeks, as if he just realized that he had forgotten to zipper his pants this morning. His left hand slowly inched onto his lap.
The librarian tried again. “Well, there’s always Susan Price Marks Siva. She’s got some fun escapism. Very global and internationally acclaimed.” Her brows scrunched—trying to remember or trying to discern? “Thrilling but educational.”
“You like biographies? There are some heart-stopping accounts on the shelf right behind myths and legends.” The helpful patron jogged aside and pulled a heavy volume from the shelf. “Life and lies of—”
The door creaked open, and the three-some froze. Caught blatantly chattering in the library.
Tentative padding steps. Then a small voice. “Hello?”
What a sweet sound. An image of an apple tree in springtime rose in Robert’s mind.
A blond head poked around the corner. A bright smile. The young woman stepped forward; a book lifted in her right hand. “I’m here to pay my debt to society.”
Duty calling, the librarian returned to the counter, leading the way to reparation for overdue books.
Helpful patron chimed in. “I mark the due dates on my calendar. Got fined twice before I thought to do it. Funny how I have to make mistakes a few times before I learn how to solve them. O, happy fault, maybe?”
Robert didn’t have a clue what the well-read woman was talking about. But as she turned and meandered to the fantasy section, he didn’t follow up.
With a sigh, he replaced the thrillers in their proper section and wandered toward the counter.
The pretty lady stood with one arm propped on her hip, her body tilted, like a mother used to carrying a baby and can’t get comfortable in a straight position.
“Dan’s watching them. You know how it is. He loves the procreation process and playing with ‘em when they’re young, but the follow-up’s a real chore.”
The librarian met Robert’s fixed stare as he stood one bookshelf away. Then she returned her gaze to the conversation at hand. “Growing up is hard. At every stage.” She tapped the book. “You want to return this or renew it?”
A quiet sigh. “Well, I just got into it, but I never know if I’ll get a chance to finish it. Between Dan and the kids, I get so tired, don’t have any time to let my mind roam. My soul is not my own.” She released a brittle, suck-it-up, chuckle. “But like you said—growing up is hard. Renew it, and I’ll try to squeeze in a bit of time.”
Stunned by the image of a captured, weary soul, Robert waited and then watched the young wife and mother saunter out the door. His gaze trailed after her as her blond head bobbed and then disappeared around the corner.
He marched forward and faced the librarian. “You have anything on ‘Oh happy fault?’”
Breaking into a grin, the librarian pointed to the religion and philosophy section. “Probably. We’ve got something for everyone. Just have to figure out what you want.”
A happy wife rang in Robert’s ears. He lifted his hand. “You know, I better get going. Thanks. But I think the book I need to read—is at home.”
He paced out the door and sauntered outside, a new story filling his mind.
Recently, I celebrated another year marked on the calendar of my life. I am also considering how best to focus my energy and enlighten my soul, so I look back on my previous accomplishments and peer ahead into exciting new projects.
In our vastly changing world, we still follow an ancient path, searching for God, our proper place in family and society, and the meaning of our lives. Today, we live in a global reality little imagined in the land of Ur, though—made in the image of God—our souls have always held limitless possibilities.
In my OldEarth Encounter series, our world is viewed from a close-up Earth-bound, historical perspective but also from a distant, alien viewpoint. In the truest meaning of “Catholic,” the stories revolve around universal themes.
OldEarth ARAM Encounter—Humanity’s search for the one true God.
OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Conflict between humanity’s need for God and our desire to be god.
OldEarth Neb Encounter—The price of chosen evil.
OldEarth Georgios Encounter—God as Father and Son and our personal reflection of those roles.
OldEarth Melchior Encounter—Marriage, parenthood, and the meaning of our Christian identity.
The first three books are currently available on Amazon, and the last two are near completion and will be available soon.
For the rest of April, I will take a break from creating new stories, My Road Goes Ever On reflections, and poems. I’ll start up again sometime in May. In the mean time, I am completing the work on the last two OldEarth books, reading my posts aloud for those who’d like to listen, (Just hit the Listen on Spotify button) and organizing my newest work:
My Road Goes Ever On II
Encounter—Science Fiction Short Stories II
It Might Have Been Short Stories II
I am also hoping to publish a collection of my poems at some point. Still have to come up with a name…
May our lives be blessed with God’s grace each day.
As a kid, I knew my mind. I honestly believed I had a mind. But as the world turns on its axis, seasons change, and all forms of world leadership, pundits, and professionals offer their expertise, speeding through high-tech revolving doors, I find that my mind isn’t always my own.
Pursuing academic excellence is a fantastic way to lose one’s mind. But don’t stop there. Try marriage, parenting, and—goodness knows—volunteer service does wonders for one’s “I don’t know what I was thinking” mindset.
School days taught me to think. To read different resources. To consider various points of view. I have a distinct memory of sitting in a comparative religions class in my Catholic high school wondering if the teacher believed in anything at all. Respect implied an open mind to every question. An honest consideration that the presented view could possibly be the right one. Then they send in the next contestant. And so, on it went. Historical perspectives. Religious tenants. Persecution complexes. Vapid voyeurism. Collections and chapters detailing human interactions—interior thoughts and earthly battlegrounds—all striving to touch the finger of God.
Marriage snaps the sinews of personhood, demanding a level of “us-ness” that no one can properly prepare for no matter what bride magazine one subscribes to. Right after impassioned vows charges the inner-scream-crisis between self and self-denial. Have a mind-full opinion? Certainly. But share cautiously.
Parenting starts with euphoria, travels through exhaustion, canters about introspection, chokes out, “I don’t know” well before the kids’ reach their teen years, and sits humbly on a kitchen chair while family and friends illuminate what they can’t possibly see.
Volunteer service offers a nice platform to rest wounded egos and tired minds. After all, what could possibly go wrong? Between serving in Chicago’s inner city, a barrio in the Philippines, various pro-life adventures, and community opportunities, I’ve discovered that mindfulness abounds in every situation. To serve with a mind is one thing. To serve with the heart—quite another.
I’ve often wondered, who needs to have a mind when there are so many to choose from? As for the heart, well, it breaks all too easily.
Last night, I received a call from a woman who is arranging her mother’s funeral, and she had questions about the burial details. As the secretary for the local cemetery, I answered what I could and directed her to other resources when necessary. This morning, a funeral home called with information concerning another burial this weekend. The name rings familiar though I don’t know the man who died. He was a friend of a friend, his passing a loss to many.
When I accepted this position last year, I had no idea of what I was getting into. The logistics seemed simple enough. How hard can it be to bury a body? Little did I know. Seriously. We humans have an absolute knack for confusing ourselves and losing our loved ones. From attempting to locate bodies in unmarked graves using witching sticks (Not my idea—but certainly an experience I won’t soon forget) to submitting accurate records to the state of Illinois, I have learned the value of various kinds of knowledge.
My predecessor helps me with the records and relations between folks. The who’s who and how to negotiate unexpected inquiries. How many bodies can be buried in a site? Two—if they are cremations. And, yes, sometimes people are buried in the wrong place, stones reflect broken family connections, and the rows aren’t always straight.
The grave digger offers his expertise—allowing me the security of double-checking my records and getting the facts, if not the lines, straight. No, bodies aren’t buried six feet under. Cremations can be hard to detect even a day later, and mounds over a full grave can linger for years.
In the end, literally and figuratively, I have discovered that though knowledge of the facts may be etched in stone and measured in records, it is the heartfelt memories that hold folks together—inside and out. The truest truth of a person isn’t detailed in words or numbers, it is shaped in lives. Those we know and those who know us through others, down through uncountable generations. DNA and the embodiment of the soul start a winding process that bends through dates, events, joys, and sorrows right into personhood.
The truth of who I am involves my mind, but it doesn’t end there. I am not what I think or who I know. More than tears, screams of frustration, cries of delight, or even laughter, I find myself concerned less with the content of my mind than the character of my heart. Or should I say characters… No man, woman, child, critter, or composition has left me untouched. I am chiseled and etched by the God who made me and the personalities of this world—now and forevermore.