like trying to hold a cloud

she’s fragile

and will easily slip away

she has the power to do so

and the knowledge to know

that sometimes we need rain

and other times we want snow

cloudy days have a purpose

she isn’t a possession

to be contained

boasted about

adorned or abused

like trying to prevent

a dandelion from releasing seeds

a leaf from changing colors

a drop of water from being wet

to love her is to accept

her powerful vulnerability

It doesn’t always have to be about the outcome, she explained. It’s about the adventure, the test, the act of trying to see if I can. To feel a little afraid and to do it anyway – to try knowing I may fail.
I don’t get it, he said.
I know, she replied, confirming what she already knew.

the leaves fall

the river stills

before it swells

 

and I never really knew you

because you never knew yourself

 

the buds appear

they have passion

they know who they are

And then,

her eyes could finally see

what her heart had always known

that she could grow

that he could not

and she had grown

and he had not

and so it is

neither right nor wrong

just truth

beautiful truth

It’s not that I’m not interested in you. It’s not that I’m not interested in all the events and activities. It’s not about being introverted or painfully shy – I’m some of the former and none of the latter. It’s not about being too busy with a calendar crammed with obligations that make me feel or seem important. It’s none of those things.

See, the thing is, I’ve got one of those honest-to-goodness loves that flows so deeply within me, one that is so alive and vibrant that it’s not just my mind that craves those moments but it is also my heart. To that love, I am dedicated and loyal, I am respectful and grateful because that love is like the air I breathe, the water I drink. You see, I am a writer, and part of me is always in that world breathing in and drinking in the feeling of freedom my love provides.

Writing is where I am happiest. I am comfortable and can be creative. I can write things that make me laugh and I can write things that make me cry. I often write words I’ve never spoken but somehow know the meaning. The words can awaken me at 3 am and I gladly sit up with pen and paper wondering what is surfacing. If the words are particularly loud, I’ll switch on my computer and write in the cover of darkness entertained and intrigued at the process unfolding on the screen in front of me.

It’s not that I don’t want to be with you but I love to be alone. I struggle to relate when people say they are lonely or can sit for hours streaming television shows. I can grow bored watching the best of movies because that call within me, like a tapping on a window to another world, is almost always there waiting for me. My solitude gives me the freedom to escape into a world of words and sentences – silly, serious, they’re all welcome. Sometimes the words rhyme, and sometimes they don’t.

I enjoy the things I participate in, love the places I visit, and cherish the people in my life. But if I am true to myself and honoring my highest, most authentic self, please understand that my freedom to escape, to create, to entertain, to dream…the call to write will always beckon me back and I will almost always answer.

 

Photo courtesy Aaron Burden/Unsplash

It’s okay to not know the answer to,

“Why?”

It’s okay if you don’t fit the collective suit and instead, fit your own. It’s the opposite of what the fashion industry refers to as, ‘Off the rack.’

For many of us, it’s likely the only thing that has ever actually fit – yet not on the favored rack that immediately fits like a glove, but rather something that was never actually intended to fit. Something beyond that. Beyond the rack, the thing that takes more effort to find.

I prefer those who don’t fit the proverbial suit. Perhaps those are the hearts too large to conform to the standard. The ones who aren’t so keen on what is expected.

I love the depth of people who live in the sacred space I now call home, surrounded by Mother Devine. When someone I don’t know particularly well recently learned I was about to embark on a trip and an experience that has called me for reasons I don’t understand, she shared a wisdom of words that helped it all make sense. This call to embark on this particular trip has rendered me a bit nervous, and unsure, yet curious about the growth that awaits. I was told:

We don’t know why we are called to places. But it takes courage to answer the call when it comes because those calls are rare and not meant for everyone. We don’t have to know the reason why the call came but those calls seldom go to those unwilling to answer. Maybe that part of the Earth needs acupuncture and maybe you’re the needle. Maybe you have the energy to heal part of that place, maybe it holds the energy to heal part of you. You don’t know and you don’t have to. You received the call and you answered.

I stood in awe of the words that not only resonated with me but also held wisdom that I someday want to hold. The rather random conversation enveloped me with a sense of acceptance of this tenacious call that I am answering without being able to adequately answer all the ‘why’ questions.

As I soon set out on a journey that few people seem to understand, including myself, I have retreated to the safety of my proverbial shell – at least for a moment as I prepare to respond to the call, embrace a world, and history, and an experience that knowing whatever happens, was meant to be.

Am I the needle? Am I the giver or the recipient? I don’t know. I don’t have to know. I may never know.

And that feeling of not knowing, of not having control, of complete uncertainty and total acceptance feels, to me, like

Strength and Freedom and ultimately,

Love.

~ ~ ~

Auschwitz photo courtesy of Alexey Soucho.

Terry Cycling featured me and my poem, The Mourning Ride, in their January newsletter. Click the link to read more.

CYCLING HAVEN: POWERFUL IMPACT OF THE RIDE.

Terry Peloton Logo

Here is the poem.

The Mourning Ride

Empty on the inside

While life was being lived all around me

Nothing felt like it fit

Including me

Words fell flat

Hugs didn’t land

Food had no taste

Life lost its flavor

My faith kept me upright

My bike helped me heal

The cadence

The pedals

The rhythm of my breath

The sounds of the gears

Miles of solitude

I let the tears fall from my heart

Exhaustion felt better than empty

The tears and the sweat

The crashes and the flats

The poems that started to surface

The cracks in my heart that started to mend

The light was still there

The smiles started to come when I would see a dog

or a flock of geese

or a momma deer with her fawn

Without thought I pedaled

From my darkness to the light

Hundreds of rides

Thousands of miles

Gallons of tears

And then one day the tears stopped

but I didn’t.

Since 2015, I have fed a Gratitude Jar with memories, cards, and expressions of appreciation. And at the end of each of those years, I have emptied it and read the hundreds of messages. Some neatly penned from home on the paper that sits by the jar, others hastily written on bits of paper while on holiday or writing trips. My jar is fed with goodness throughout the year and reading the messages has become a beautiful way to close out the year and welcome a new one.

Except for this year, I wasn’t convinced it would be enjoyable. The last week of the year had been challenging at best and I was concerned that I would welcome the new year with a heavy heart.

For months, I had driven by a lone horse in a field less than a mile from where I lived. Intuitively I was concerned that he had been neglected but I was unsure what I was seeing. As fall turned to winter and the temperatures dropped, I looked to see if he had hay. I tried to see if there were any signs of fresh water or a bucket that a caretaker would fill with grain. I never saw any sign of food, or love for that matter. When I noticed the horse was frequently lying on the frozen, snow-covered ground I felt sick to my stomach. Something was dreadfully wrong and I did not know what to do.

Finally, through the help of one friend, doors opened to a world of horse advocacy, rescue, and a Livestock Inspector. As we collectively learned more and as I increasingly came to the realization that I had spoken up too late, I struggled with a large dose of self-blame. Why hadn’t I spoken up sooner? And why was I the only person in my village who spoke up at all? It hurt me to see how easy it is for people to busy themselves away from looking or caring. It bothered me that people were surprised that I was upset about this situation – how could I not be? How could they not be? I was confused and frustrated with a culture that believes leaving a horse to starve to death is akin to “letting him live out his life.” Nothing made sense and it all hurt my heart.

Inherently sensitive and empathic, today I recognize my attributes for the strengths they are rather than the weaknesses I was raised to believe they were. As I sit writing this, the experience I’m about to share is painfully shocking yet ultimately a beautiful gift that I am still unwrapping and learning from.

I had driven by to voyeuristically see what was happening – would they release the horse to be rescued and saved? Were they trying to hide what was happening since they moved him as soon as they got word someone had spoken up? Would the horse have the happy ending I had been praying and pleading with the Universe for? And then as I sat in my car and pondered those questions and more, from my secret vantage point I watched the owner walk up to the suffering horse and shoot him in the head. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever witnessed. I don’t think I can ever unsee that act.

Yet, that now unseeable act, I realize was a gift from the Universe. Later, as my body began to calm down from the uncontrollable shaking and spasms that resulted from watching, I learned that the most humane way to end the life of a horse is exactly the way I had just witnessed. Had I not seen it happen, I would have likely been tormented for a long, long time by the unknown.

Up until that point, the entire day had been gray and overcast, a fitting match for how I felt. Yet within minutes of the horse’s death, I watched the winds magically change direction. The clouds lifted and hints of blue sky peaked through directly over the place where he had died. Perhaps it wasn’t the happy ending I had wanted but I also trusted that the Universe knew best and I believe she was showing me that it was over – no more gray, already within minutes there was light.

That night, before going to bed early and emotionally exhausted, I decided to draw a message card from a deck of Angel Cards. In this case, the picture on the card told me everything I needed to know. As soon as I saw the card I laughed and I cried and I felt relief. The horse who had died was not white like the one on the card, but it is only one of two cards in the deck that has a horse on it. The message was clear. It wasn’t the happy ending I had wanted but I had to accept that ultimately it was in fact a happy ending. The horse was released from suffering and I would go to bed that night knowing, despite the months of neglect, he had died in the best possible way because I had borne witness.

Days later, with thoughts of the horse and his transition on my mind, I built a beautiful fire in my chimenea and sat outside and emptied my years’ worth of gratitude. My heart wasn’t heavy as I had anticipated. I relished the memories and more than once laughed out loud.

I am working hard to forgive myself for not speaking up and out sooner, I have cried tears of regret and apologies and struggled with anger at anyone who can mistreat any living being. I have to accept that as we welcome 2023, there is at least one being who is no longer starving in a frozen field all alone. I have to accept, despite the fact that we couldn’t save him, that this was somehow a happy ending. My wish for the new year is that we all work a little bit harder to use our voices to create happier endings for those who need us most.

If you live in Taos County and have even the slightest concern that a horse or other livestock is being neglected or abused, do not hesitate to call Livestock Investigator, Ruben Baca, 575-770-1490. For anyone who lives elsewhere, call 911 and ask who to reach for possible livestock neglect and abuse. They are required by law to respond and they will.

Of all those moments and all those experiences and all those days, months, and years, I never remember a time when I was angry with Justin. I was often confused, frustrated, and convinced I had ruined him by saying or doing the wrong thing. I was angry at others and our higher-than-thou-keep-poor-people-in-their-place system with that whole ‘no kid left behind’ crap as kids were being left behind, and the school administrators with their demeaning attitudes and hateful, ignorant words about poor kids. The more I learned about our flawed, yet well-marketed system, I was angry at them. I was not angry at Justin.

Except for that one time.

I got angry at Justin. Frustration and confusion blended together – boiled actually. For a moment my anger had been redirected – away from the asinine system full of talking heads and toward Justin. I was upset with him yet I didn’t outwardly voice it. My anger was mine, not his. But, I recognized it was real and I knew it was valid. I owned the anger that had entered my mind space. I wanted to explode and yell at him, “how can you not care about this?” but of course, I didn’t. That would have been harmful. I had a young, mutable mind at my disposal. I wanted to do the right thing, but what?

I don’t know what compelled me to do what I did. I didn’t hesitate. I don’t know where the words came from but they came, and they came quickly, and I turned my anger into something I am deeply proud of. It may be the best thing I’ve ever done.

In his sophomore year of high school, Justin was making straight A’s and at times he was a bit cocky about it, which I loved. I didn’t encourage him to be a jerk but I supported his budding confidence. He had gone from a malnourished middle-school dropout to outperforming the rich kids who had every well-financed New England advantage.

Justin’s assignment was to read a book and write a report on it which was nothing new. He was good at these. He loved to read and he wrote with a rawness that while seldom polished, was always compelling. Yet, he was treating this particular assignment about some random girl who lived and died decades ago as just an every-other-day thing he had to do. “I’ll get to it,” he told me. He wasn’t interested in it. He didn’t care about it. And something deep inside of me that I do not understand angered me to my core. He was treating this like Tom Sawyer. This wasn’t anything close to Tom Sawyer. This was Anne Frank.

It meant nothing to him and it meant everything to me.

I didn’t want to “sell” him on caring about this assignment. I wanted him to understand the history enough to care on his own. I wanted him to respect how easily humans can be manipulated to hate other humans. I wanted him to respect those awful possibilities. I wanted him to be brave enough to learn about this horrible history and to have an informed opinion. This was not just another book report.

Rather than pretend to be Martian Woman or encourage him to tick the boxes of the assignment I did something altogether different. For the first time in my life, I called a local Jewish temple. I talked to a Rabbi. I explained the situation. I expressed my concern. I don’t know what the Rabbi heard in my voice but he said he would help. The next day he called and gave me the name of an elderly couple who lived nearby. They were Holocaust survivors and they were willing to meet with Justin and me. In their home.

That weekend we pulled up in front of a well-maintained home in a modest blue-collar section of town. We walked up to the door and I rang the bell. The couple met us at the door and invited us into their tidy living room. It was quaint and the furniture, which somehow seemed small to me, was covered with dainty doilies. There was a crystal candy dish filled with hard candies. There was a crocheted Afghan folded neatly across the back of the sofa where Justin and I sat. The room was spotless.

I spoke first and thanked them for having us. There was a silence surrounding us but it wasn’t awkward – rather, it felt respectful, almost like we were in a museum or a place of worship. If the couple knew of my frustration and concern that Justin did not care about this assignment, they never showed it. I explained with pride in my voice that Justin was a great student who had an assignment and wanted to learn more. If I were a lawyer in a courtroom, it would have been a leading statement. I set the tone and Justin followed.

One of the first things the man did was roll up his sleeve and show us his tattoo. The one he received when he was in Auschwitz. He walked over to us and told us to touch it and all those years later, his voice broke as he explained what it felt like standing in the line, cold and hungry, Nazi soldiers yelling at him in a language he didn’t understand, waiting his turn to be labeled in their system. With tears in his eyes, he talked about being separated from his parents, “they were separated from me, they both went left and I was told to go right.” “What do you mean?,” Justin asked having not yet read a word of his assignment due in two days. “Son, the people in line who were told to go left were gassed in an incinerator. They died right away. I was about your age. I was the only one in my family who survived.” At that moment, I do not remember saying another word. The three of them talked. The tone was somber and serious yet at the same time, there was a lightness about it. There was a sense of success – after all, they had won, and Hitler had lost. The light within them transferred to Justin. It was hard to hear their story. All four of us cried, every one of us used the tissues sitting on the dust-free, shiny coffee table.

We spent a few hours and as we got up to leave, the boy I was raising who had walked into the house was not the same one who was walking out. He grew that day in front of my eyes. It was a little bit like watching one of those fast-motioned videos of a flower blossoming.

As we walked out, I approached the small, elderly woman and hugged her, and expressed my gratitude. She turned ever so slightly and whispered in my ear, “It takes a village.” They made a difference that day and we all felt it.

As I pulled away from the house Justin was quiet. I said nothing pretending to be solely focused on navigating the traffic-free side street. I wanted him to have time to think and absorb what we had just experienced. Something had changed within me too. I needed the quiet time too. I learned that day that humans can choose to fill themselves with hate or with love – it’s up to them. It’s up to us. As I turned onto the main road, continuing to act as though I was in downtown Manhattan merging into traffic that wasn’t there, Justin, who had not uttered a word since walking off their porch, said to me in almost in a whisper, “can we stop at CVS on the way home? I want to buy them a thank you card.” I nodded, tears of something rolling down my face – love, gratitude, success, awe – I wasn’t sure. I swallowed heavily and managed to say, “Of course, Kiddo, that’s a great idea,” without my voice breaking.

I pulled into the CVS parking lot and Justin got out, “wait here, I want to go in by myself.” I sat in the car, trying not to cry yet eventually yanking napkins from the glovebox to dry my tears and blow my nose. I wanted to jump and shout and high-five the world but this wasn’t about me. I was witnessing seeds of knowledge blossoming into compassion in record time and clearly, that requires tissues or in my case, long-forgotten napkins shoved in a glovebox.

Justin mailed the couple a card and one to me too – the only piece of mail he ever sent me – words full of gratitude and of understanding. He devoured The Diary of Anne Frank not once, but twice that weekend. He received an A+ on his book report with acknowledgment from his teacher that it was the best in the class. The thing is, I didn’t care about the grade – I cared that Justin cared.

The first words Justin ever said to me were, “I don’t know.” Today, I sit remembering that experience – of intercepting the football that Justin had thrown in the air on that fateful 19-degree day, which eventually led to sitting face-to-face with two survivors of Hitler’s evil manifesto to ‘Make Germany Great Again’.

In a few months, I will be traveling to Eastern Europe to visit, honor, and pay homage to some of those concentration camps. I’ve asked myself why I am so compelled – called – to go when there are so many other fun, adventurous, easy, relaxing places to visit and my response is, “I don’t know.” I’m not the kid tossing the football in the air on a bitterly cold winter’s day, but my response is the same. “I don’t know.”

In time, we learned why Justin’s response to any question was, “I don’t know” and in time, I’ll learn why I’ve chosen to spend my birthday at the site of one of the most evil, destructive, inhumane places man has ever created. And, at the site where humanity ultimately survived. Love is stronger than hate. It has always been so and it will always be. We get to choose what we want: to be filled with hate or to be filled with love.

~ ~ ~

If I were to say to Justin, “If you can keep your head when all about you, are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” he would respond with the next line, “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too.”

We initially learned to recite the Rudyard Kipling classic for a school project but eventually, the poem became a bit of a secret code – a comfort code, almost like the words to a favorite song that feels good to sing out loud.

He had enlisted in the Army and wherever he was, his emails would end with the first part of one of the lines and my response would start with the line that followed.

Then husband and I had relocated to North Carolina, hoping, wishing, and praying I suppose that somehow a change in geography would magically erode whatever was wrong – a southern elixir of sorts. I had sold my business to an employee and orchestrated the move south – leaving the life we created in Maine behind. I embraced a once-familiar culture where men wore polo shirts, everyone ate hushpuppies, and confederate statues decorated public squares – whatever it took to fix him, us, and it, I was willing. Thing is, all the problems I had hoped we were moving away from somehow got packed in one of the bags – and despite trading the grays of Maine for the famous Carolina Blue sky, the problems were the same.

It was as if I had traded the blinders I had been wearing in Maine for a thicker, larger pair. Living in a house one-third the size of the one we had moved from so he could easily step in and ride on the coattails of a retiring financial advisor in the same firm – a fresh start with a successful path was laid in front of him. Meanwhile, I started working as a healthcare paralegal.

Justin had come for a visit, a stopover on his way to Ft. Hood, the large Army base in Texas. He was preparing to serve one more year of duty and then leave the Army and enroll in college. He was going to be a teacher and despite my resistance to all things military, the Army had, in some ways, been good for him. He had just bought a car, a bright blue Jetta, and he had grown into a confident young man with a job, a paycheck, and a big ol’ dream. He was ready to leave the service and excited about college.

The Raleigh-Durham area where we were living, is a nexus for up-and-coming industries, research and technology, and both state and private colleges and universities. Durham was a particularly fun place to explore. Good restaurants, eclectic shops, and the home of Duke University. The lush campus with its combination of neo-Gothic and Georgian architecture was nothing less than stunning. As we walked the campus beneath old-growth trees and granite buildings Justin was clearly inspired. We joked that we felt smarter just for walking on the campus where some of the nation’s smartest students go to school.

That afternoon I was keenly aware of how the tables had turned. Me, feeling lost and ungrounded in a southern culture that wasn’t comfortable, and sensing that then husband seemed to be cracking at the seams yet still not knowing what was wrong or how to help and, Justin, confident and curious telling me how it wouldn’t be long before he would be walking to classes on a college campus.

“Do you think I could go to Duke?” he asked.

“If you can dream and not make dreams your master,” I replied, to which Justin immediately said, “If you can think and not make thoughts your aim,” he finished.

That particular day was one of my favorite days ever – the sunny afternoon walking the campus, sneaking into the stately Chapel, it felt like we were in Europe. “You know, we still haven’t gone to Ver-say-lees,” I said in the same way Martian Woman once pronounced it before Justin taught her to properly enunciate the Palace of Versailles. “Before you start college, we’re going to take you there just like we always said.” “I want to go to Normandy too,” he said, with a seriousness born from a young man who had already been to Afghanistan and would likely be returning.

A few days later, we stood in the gravel driveway of our small home as Justin was preparing to leave. I noticed on his front seat the notebook we had made a few years before, all the sticky notes with the inspirational and positive sayings now taped and sealed into plastic – the stickiness on the backs long gone. I held the notebook, remembering how those sticky notes had eventually covered all but a few inches of his bathroom mirror. I was proud of who he had become.

As Justin backed out of the driveway, then husband and I walked awkwardly alongside the car until he reached the road and put it in drive. He rolled down the windows, music already filling the interior. I leaned into the passenger side window and said one more goodbye. We stood in the road and watched the bright blue Jetta drive out of sight.

It would be the last time I saw Justin.

He was killed in Afghanistan a couple of months later. We were told it was “friendly fire,” but there is nothing remotely friendly about it.

His funeral was one of the worst experiences of my life. Other than the bagpipes – a sound that to this day, can still make me feel nauseated, I remember only fragments of conversations. I don’t remember where we stayed, who we saw, how long we were there, what we drove, or where we ate. I do remember boarding the plane to fly back to our new North Carolina home and having a full-fledged panic attack – the first I’d ever experienced. I thought I was going to die. There was not enough oxygen on the plane – grief had consumed every particle and I could not breathe.

Over the course of weeks and months and beyond, I learned about grief. I learned those seven steps of grief aren’t like steps at all – more like waves in the ocean, sometimes politely landing on shore, other times crashing down and disrupting every grain of thought-to-be-healed sand. Life changed – I gravitated toward volunteering, my Buddhist community, and my bike. I made the decision to apply to graduate school to earn a degree in social work. I figured I would likely never walk into the street and intercept a kid’s football again but it felt like the right thing to do. In every conceivable way, I moved in one direction and then husband moved in another.

It was many months later when I learned my financial advisor then husband had drained my once-healthy investment portfolio of every penny. While his IRA was safe and sound, there was nothing left in my name. He lost his license and his job shortly after as he apparently had moved on from my depleted accounts to start feeding off of others. One would think the blinders would have immediately been ripped off with the undisputable proof in front of me, yet it took nearly two more years of listening to more lies and promises before I finally summoned the courage to leave.

If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same… It’s just one line from the poem we recited hundreds of times but one that is difficult to achieve. Even though I understood the words, it would take more than a decade and a great deal of work for me to be able to come close to treating those two imposters just the same. In many ways, Justin had always been able to do that.

The End.

(But in all actuality, it was really The Beginning.)

~ ~ ~