Reminiscences on Childhood in the Valley of the Moon:

(The Elementary Years)

VI.

While growing up in the Valley of the Moon could certainly be described as bucolic and in some ways paradisiacal, it was also a real life. So with the peace also came the tragedy; there was joy but there was also pain. Alongside our moments of discovery and growth, came times of sorrow and loss.

The neighborhoods where we lived, nestled at the base of those glorious golden rolling hills, were like an extended home for us. Dotted all across these neighborhoods lived our friends and their families. As kids, we biked or walked from house to house, entering as if they were our own, and we came to know each other’s parents and siblings almost as well as our own.  

I could name so many of the familiar faces on just my own street alone; and even more on the cross streets up the hill, and down the block from where my own house sat; not to mention the myriad more people who comprised our extended network of ‘family’ who lived on surrounding streets further afield. And folks didn’t move so often back then, so when a family settled into a home, they generally stayed there.

As a child, I grew accustomed to who lived where, and I suspected they had always lived there, and I came to expect that they would continue to live there forever. And apart from the occasional family who did in fact move away, my expectations were mostly satisfied, and I lived and grew up contentedly within this matrix of consistency and dependability.

But as we all know, nothing stays the same forever; and unfortunately, our extended neighborhood family was about to lose a vital and irreplaceable member.

It had been a warm day which was just drawing to a close, and twilight had begun to settle, as crickets chirped their signal that night was replacing the day. I had just gone to bed and was enjoying the soothing sound of the fan which I had in my room for use on warm evenings; and I snuggled down into my sheets, as the fan blew cool air across me.

I was in fifth, maybe sixth grade at the time; I think it was summer, so perhaps I was between the grades. It was a typical evening, apart from the sirens that we had heard earlier just down the street, and coming up Calistoga Road from the north and from the south. But even sirens weren’t all that unusual, so we didn’t think much about them. But it was strange when I heard a knock on the front-door downstairs at about 8:40 that evening, after I had just gone to bed. And I heard my mom answer the door, and I recognized male voices, but couldn’t discern who it was speaking at our door.

They spoke in hushed tones, and I couldn’t make out anything that was being said until their short visit came to a close; and as they left, they said more loudly, “We just thought you should know.” I recognized their voices now: it was Mr. Hedges and Mr. Zellmer from up the street. They were both family friends. But why would they come to tell us ‘something we should know’? What should we know that couldn’t wait, I wondered? So I got up from bed and went downstairs to find out what this strange visit was all about.

My mom was visibly rattled and emotional as I came down the stairs, which made my heart race uncomfortably. She looked sorrowfully at me and said, “Sam died…he was hit on his motorcycle.”

Sam Ray?! It didn’t seem possible. No, it couldn’t be possible. We hoped it hadn’t happened, but it had.

Sam was the third child of four, in the Ray family, our good friends who lived in the yellow stucco house, in the cul-de-sac just down the street. He was about nineteen years old, tall, good-looking, athletic, and good-natured. For kids my age, he was just about the greatest guy you could imagine. He was exactly the kind of person you’d want to be when you grew up; because everyone liked him, and he made a real difference when he was around.

He often played Frisbee-golf, with Greg Zellmer, and I remember when my friends and I would see them coming up the street, tossing their Frisbees at street-lights, car tires and whatever else they deemed the next ‘hole’, we all grew excited in anticipation of their arrival. It was like a celebrity sighting for us. They were cool, and they could throw those Frisbees so dang far. They were awesome!

But what was even better was Sam would actually play with us. He was already out of high-school, but he still gave us little kids his time; and he kicked a ball around with us, or he tossed the football, or whatever we wanted to do. One afternoon my good friend Scott Eitelgeorge and I had been playing badminton in my backyard and Sam stopped by. We challenged him to a game, and he played several games with us. As he left, we challenged him to a rematch, and he showed up again the next week and played with us again. That meant so much, he was just like a big brother to us.

Sam wasn’t just good with kids; I know everyone’s parents also liked him. He had a great sense of humor and loved to tease people. When he’d knock on your front door, you’d go to open the door and couldn’t, because Sam would be on the outside chuckling and holding the doorknob, and pulling outward against your efforts. He was the only person I ever knew who did that, and it became a trademark of his. Everyone knew that if someone came knocking, and if you couldn’t open the door, then it must be Sam on the other side, laughing and grinning.

What would our neighborhood be without him? It was difficult to imagine playing football on the street now, knowing we’d never see him tossing the Frisbee, or making his way up the street towards us again. And no more badminton rematches, and nobody to hold the door when we answered it. And so many other things too, that his absence would leave as holes in our hearts.

I saw him one last time at the funeral home. It was an open casket, and as I entered his room I saw him laying peacefully. It was a confusing moment because he didn’t look like Sam, but I knew it was him. I searched his face for some detail I could relate with; and there were familiar features, though they were transformed now. His sandy-blond hair was as I had known it, and I was glad for that. But the most comforting detail, for me, were his fingernails, as odd as that may sound. He was a good mechanic, often working on his motorbike and other things like that, so when I noticed some grease still under a nail or two, that is when I felt I was still seeing the Sam I had known. It made me happy to see that grease, though I was heartbroken; and it was reassuring in a small way.

Months later, or perhaps it was a year, his mother let me into his bedroom to pick out a baseball hat. I picked out a red and white one and was glad to have something of his. I remember the inside band of the hat was stained with Sam’s sweat, and it struck me that this was really a part of him. Again, this may seem strange, but it was important to have a memento like that; it allowed me to feel closer to him, now that he was gone.

Often, as the years passed by, I wondered where Sam was exactly, and wondered if he could see me from heaven, or what he was thinking. I treated him like a guardian angel, communicating with him in my thoughts, though not spoken out loud. The thought that Sam might be watching me also made me consider, and reconsider, my actions when nobody was looking. So I’d have to say that Sam helped me to be a better person, even years after his passing.

~FS 

Reminiscences on Childhood in the Valley of the Moon: High School Years (Part 2)

When I look back on those years, growing up in the Valley of the Moon, I remember an undeniable sense of freedom. Our youthful explorations and adventures—as each of us reached out to discover ourselves within the context of our neighborhood, our school, and interpersonally within the society of our schoolmates—always seemed to be undergirded by a culture of acceptance. So that we were always safe, or it at least felt that way, as we expressed ourselves, and encountered one another. And our teachers and parents formed a benevolent backdrop that gave us quiet assurance that all would be okay, even when we faced our inevitable challenges and difficulties.  

Those were years of unfeigned generosity, as I remember them. Goodness was practiced with less self-consciousness than it is today, and ‘doing the right thing’ towards one another was simply woven into the fabric of our lives, and not something added later as an afterthought, or forgotten altogether. And differences of opinion back then might be met merely with a shrug of exasperation, a shaking of the head, and maybe a chuckle or two.

I think back to that time and wonder at the motives each of us had, and I also marvel at the wide range of purposes and desires, as we began to formulate our adult personalities. One of my friends from that time, Heidi Moore, had a deep sense of empathy for others and believed the best way to address the wrongs in our world was through the ballot box. For me, as a senior high student, the deepest I thought to wade into politics was running for office in student government, but this was done mainly for fun, for vanity, and for getting out of class. And even when I ventured out into the greater world beyond my school life, it was still for the same reasons. I travelled to South Africa in 1986, when the news about apartheid was at a fever-pitch around the world. And while I did genuinely care about the plight of the people there, and did honestly want to learn more about it first-hand, still, my main reasons for going there were for fun (adventure), for vanity (to be admired), and for getting out of class (I missed the first week of school).

Heidi introduced me to Doug Bosco one afternoon. It was in the foyer of the high-school auditorium during a large gathering. Doug was our local Congressman at the time and I believe he was running for re-election. I was blown away that she actually knew a Congressman, and I was completely gobsmacked that she was on a first name basis with him. How does a high-school student become close friends with a Congressman? I had no idea, but I was amazed at her. She actually was involved in something real and I admired that.

Later, she took me along to a celebration party at the Veteran’s Memorial to cheer Barbara Boxer, who had just been elected, or re-elected to Congress. I knew nothing about her, but liked the signs everyone was holding, which had the ‘x’ of her last name placed inside a box, as if it was a vote cast in her name—very clever I thought to myself. Even if I couldn’t get behind her politics and policies, I could at least cheer on her good sense in political marketing. So I cheered and had a good time, along with Heidi and the crowd that gathered to hear Barbara speak. But inside, I felt like a fish out of water. I truly admired Heidi and enjoyed sharing this with her, but I learned that I wasn’t made the same way. I discovered that for me, politics was fine as a way of getting out of class, but beyond that purpose, it was beyond me, and not really very interesting.

So while my friend Heidi was taking her first steps into the wider adult world, I plotted my next high-school prank. It was a good one. It wouldn’t get me out of class, since it would have to be done at night, but it was filled with adventure, and would be audacious enough to pleasantly feed my ego. It involved scaling the high school with ladders, avoiding the police while hiding on the school roof, then hanging an enormous banner over the central entrance to the school, tied off with our shoelaces (this detail wasn’t planned), and announcing to the world the eternal and solemn friendship of my closest friends. Here is how it all went down:

The idea was conceived as a tribute to friendship, to my closest friends, many of whom I had known since grade-school, as early as Kindergarten is some cases. I envisioned making a large banner (it turned out to be about 8′ high x 26′ long) by sewing bedsheets together, which I did one evening under the tutelage of my mother, and then painting boldly the name that we had dubbed our little clan (The Dreamers); and around this name I painted the nicknames of everyone in our group (although unfortunately I think I left a few out, some friend I turned out to be). Anticipating that the wind might blow the banner around once it was installed from the roof, I weighted the bottom of the banner by filling the fold in the sheets with rocks and sand.

But it was clear I couldn’t do this project alone; getting the banner up to the roof would be a difficult task. So I enlisted the help of Rob Coombs, one of The Dreamers; but our hope was to surprise the rest of the group when they came to school the following Monday morning, so for the moment it was a little secret between the two of us. Fortunately, my mother recognized that we might break our necks doing this alone, so she asked Gary to help us, and watch over us. Gary rented a room in our house while he attended the Junior College in town. He was also an avid and experienced mountain climber. He reconnoitered the buildings and developed the best plan to get us up on top.

Our high school is a beautiful structure built in the Collegiate Gothic style; with a prominent and grand entrance that I estimate is around 40 feet high, more or less. The night of our assault on the building, I felt a great deal of excitement and anticipation. Would we be able to pull it off? Could we get all the way up there, with the banner, then hang it, and get back down again? And if so, would it stay in place and surprise our friends, and the entire student body the next morning?

We pulled up at about 11pm and Gary parked his truck in a nearby parking lot, under the cover of massive Eucalyptus trees. We pulled a long extension ladder off the roof, and Gary put on a large backpack with the banner stuffed into it. Rob had the twine and rope (supposedly), or did I? Who knows, we didn’t think to ask each other.

At the northern end of the main building there is a covered breezeway that connects to the gymnasium. From the ground this little roof is only about 15′ high. We leaned the ladder against the side and quickly scaled up to our first perch. Gary pulled the ladder up behind us and we extended it as far as it could go. We then lifted it up against the main building towering above us, and realized we were in trouble. The top rung was easily 4′-5′ below the top edge of the building.

Keystone cops. That’s what we felt like. Or clowns in a circus. What could we do now? Gary decided the answer was to climb the ladder to its uppermost rung, and then slide his body up the brick façade. His plan was to hold onto the upper edge of the building with his arms, and stabilize the top of the ladder with his feet, then Rob and I could climb up the ladder, and scurry up his back, and over his shoulders and onto the roof. We all agreed this seemed like a great plan. In hindsight it now seems like a foolish plan; however, it worked!

I remember thinking to myself how crazy this was as I grabbed at Gary’s jacket and pulled myself up and over his shoulders and landed safely on the roof. Rob came up and over his shoulders next, and finally Gary let go of the ladder with his feet and pulled himself onto the roof. This was the moment of breathlessness, for as he pushed off from the ladder the force lifted it away from the wall, and for a second which seemed like an hour, we watched as the ladder hovered undecidedly in mid-air; shall it fall away to the ground, or return to the wall where we needed it? To our relief it came back and landed safely against the wall and stayed put. This was cause for celebration, and we congratulated one another as we made our way to the center of the building where we planned to install the banner.  

We made a pretty good team. We had made it onto the roof without too much trouble, we were now unfurling the banner and had it laid out in position, ready to tie to the building and then drape over the side. Everything was going well, until we were ready for the twine and rope. Didn’t you bring it?! I thought you did! I didn’t bring it, you were supposed to! I don’t have it, don’t you?! No! Crap!

Before we could think of a solution we heard cars coming down the circular driveway leading to the front of the school. I wonder who that is? We peered over the edge of the roof and saw two police cars stop in front of the main steps. Several officers got out and walked across the front of the building, shining flashlights into the shrubs. One made his way up to the north breezeway and shined his light through the colonnade, but not up onto the roof. We watched from above and breathed a sigh of relief when he returned to his car, having not seen our ladder further up the side of the building. They drove off and we congratulated one another yet again!

We agreed not to go back to the truck for the twine, so we decided to pull our shoelaces out and use those instead. Between us, we had six long laces, just enough to tie off the ends of the banner around the column ends that protruded up from the building façade beyond the roofline. Fortunately I had attached some twine to the banner at increments across its top when I had constructed it back at home, so these we also were able to use in some places. Once this was done we dropped the banner over the side and it unfurled perfectly. It was a beautiful sight to behold! The Dreamers now had a proper tribute and a great Monday morning surprise in store for them.

Before descending I discovered two large steel covers that were hatches leading down into the building. In order to delay any meddling custodian, who might ruin our surprise by coming up early and taking the banner down, I slid several nails through the clasps of these hatch covers, to lock them from above. This done, we returned to our ladder. I must say that going down is more difficult than coming up. Gary was able to drop himself over the side and we watched his feet, and helped navigate him safely to the top of the ladder. But once this was done, neither Rob nor I were overly eager to climb out over Gary and down his back to the ladder below. But it had to be done, so we did it.

We made it down without another incident, and returned home gleefully. Mission accomplished! And the next morning didn’t disappoint. Our glorious banner declared the existence of The Dreamers to the world, and was a fitting tribute to the friends who I admired and loved.

~FS

Ruach HaKodesh

Sometimes, when I lay upon my bed, and it is night, as the dark enfolds me, I sense the cold approach of death, and I panic. Suddenly, my bed is far too small, my sheets too heavy, and it seems as though the walls of my room bear down upon me. The ceiling looms above, then collapses, like a dead weight upon my chest, and I sit up to catch my breath; but I cannot breathe. I yawn, in a desperate attempt to expand my lungs, but I cannot draw anything into them. They are like withered sacks, dusty and shrunken, and useless.

I pace the room, to shake loose the thoughts that scare me, so as to gather my wits, and put death far from me. But it is always there. Still. Waiting, and watching. Counting my breaths greedily and smiling menacingly (it seems), lurking somewhere in the shadows.  

“Death is natural,” I tell myself futilely. “Death is a transition, to a better place,” I argue. But I’ll have none of it. My arguments are hollow, unconvincing, and miss the point. “I don’t want to die!” And there it is—the foolishness of it is almost embarrassing. We all will die; so who am I to complain?!

In the silence of this darkness, where no one else is there—I am alone. And what is in there to meet me, but myself? And who is in there to greet me, but my future? And my moments tick on by, the moments of a far too short existence—far, too far along now—leading to an ending that is certain. But I am not alone, my friends. We are not…alone; though the darkness may be silent, and very quiet, as if there is nobody here but us.

The Breath of Life. In times like these, I call to the Holy Spirit. In my fear I pray for Life. And the Spirit of Life blows through me and comforts me, soothes my panic, and calms my labored breathing. Peace descends upon me. And gratefully, I can sleep without fear. Though death still watches over me, and I feel its presence as I always do, I no longer care. I have no new, rational answers for my fears, but instead, another’s presence fills me: Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit, my love and my hope—my source and my breath—my life, and my eternal life.

One such night, after fear had split me, and then the Spirit had repaired me, I lay in a deep sleep. (And here, now, I only write what I saw, making no claims upon veracity.) Perhaps it is best to consider the following as a fiction, and to enjoy it as a possibility, or a simple fantasy:

I saw my body as if it had cracked wide open, although it hadn’t, and I saw another body within my body—and yet it was somehow still my same body—and this other body was made of light and not of matter. It emerged, or rather lifted, perhaps floating, though not precisely that, and it was shaped as I have always been shaped, and so I recognized it as myself. The world too, our Earth, was as though cracked open, and blazing with heat and light, as if on fire, yet not consumed.

Rings of light, like rays and waves flowed outward, emanating from a center, and they pulsed. And I found my new body shimmering as it lifted through these rings of light. And there was light upon light—reddish, and blue, golden and white. And I saw other bodies, a few at first, but then more, as my body was raised up through the rings. Great multitudes of beings dwelling together, and greater multitudes still, as I passed even higher.

I saw thoughts, like lightning, carry beings along. Thoughts which we generally consider as loving, moved faster than light, connecting persons together in fountains of joy, and creating ripples like laughter among them. Unloving thoughts, such as accusations and negativity moved more slowly, though still with incredible speed here, and they seemed to dull the beings who had them, turning their light into an insipid reddish-brown, and isolating them.

The rings of light, when viewed another way, appeared as enormous plates of glass, stretching off beyond sight in all directions. And their surfaces rose and fell pleasantly, and people rode upon these plates like surfers. Everything had form but not as I had known before, not like matter. It was a world of diamond—seemingly, as though our carbon world had ignited and compressed, and then expanded, and all bonds were now made of light and crystal.

I met a person there, whom I felt I knew, though I couldn’t recognize. And my heart burned with love and gratitude in his presence. A warm breeze encircled us as we spoke together, and my thoughts became pure and noble. With the wind, came great power, and I felt it strengthen me, with an ecstatic joy, and I felt my being expand immensely. All things were present and all things were now, as if everything that had ever been I could touch; and pure thought connected me to all things, and noble love connected me to all times.

And love was not a feeling, or an action, but a being. And my being was this love. Yes, all of our beings were simply love. But this love was not what we had previously known love to be, for here there was no absence of it anymore. How does one describe something, if it is everything? All light and life and substance—all were Love.

~FS

A Guy Named Spillane (St Patrick’s Day Limerick)

This guy named Spillane is uncouth,

though he claims to be telling the truth,

he writes lots of words

haven’t you heard

few of which offer up sooth.

Then there’s this other guy also Spillane,

who’s generally always to blame,

he thinks he’s so funny

but he can be a dummy

that’s what his wife sometimes claims.

Lastly, a guy named Spillane lives in town,

you’ve probably seen him around,

he could be a sage

but he’s prob’ly a knave

and most certainly simply a clown.

~FS

Save The Humans

Who of us hasn’t wept at the loss of a life? We shed tears when someone dies, as we realize that we will not see them anymore, in this life. We will never know them again, as we had once known them, and this makes us dreadfully sad. I have cried these tears for my mother, and my father, and my brother, and my step-father, and for several friends, and even for some people I never knew personally but whose lives impacted me nevertheless. I suspect you are the same; having cried for those you know, as well as those you didn’t.

Jesus wept. Even he was sad at the death of his dear friend Lazarus. Death is horrible, even if you are God himself. And while we strive to make peace with death—somehow—convincing ourselves (possibly) of the naturalness of it, or appreciating it as the end of suffering, and the hope of rest and peace from pain, still, if we are honest with ourselves, and aren’t trying to convince anyone that we are doing okay, we likely will admit that we hate death. There is no detente between the living and their death; and no lasting peace-deals in this world between death and those we love. It is our mortal enemy, it always has been and always will be, forevermore. Most of us would agree that this is true, if we are honest about it, I think.

However, there is one who makes a claim that turns the power of death on its head. This same Jesus—the Christ or messiah—the savior who came to mankind, came to us all as The Life. This is his claim: he says he is the way, the truth and the life. He is life itself! He came to destroy death and to give us life eternal. Well, if so, where is this life? And why is there still death all around us?! I don’t see this life, and death continues to torment us.

But isn’t it so that the truest things, the realist things in life, often don’t start out visibly, but are rather, like an invisible seed, germinating below the ground, and out of sight? These things are hidden for a time, until the time is right, and then they spring upon us almost as if by magic! Every living thing starts out this way. In fact, there is no grain, or fruit that we can eat, that didn’t begin invisibly; and yet our material lives depend upon these. Seemingly non-existent at their beginning and yet, in due time, they are the very bread of life, without which we cannot sustain ourselves.

The Life waits to burst forth! Growing and growing within us and within this fallen world, the Life exists in all His truth, glory and reality. And He has brought with him the Kingdom of Life—still only barely perceptible, even for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, but just waiting for the moment when the time will be ripe, when Life will finally triumph completely over death.

And then, what use for these tears we shed? Then, there will be no more tears. But for now, we still shed them, when death asserts its terrible power. Today, I cried, which I haven’t done in some time. Death is always terrible, but willful death—murder—is more terrible still. Someone spoke the word—infanticide—to me today. Abortion—and even after birth—of a person, a human person, for certain reasons. And aside from all the arguments about ‘rights’, and all the nuances that confound us, and the extenuating circumstances that perplex and paralyze us, and the euphemisms that obscure the simplicity of the act; my body wanted to cry. Before I let myself think, or consider the reasons, I just felt the sadness of the death of a living creature, a human being even, so small and tender—invisible really, so that we hardly believe it is real, or that he/she really exists. But he/she is alive, they are all, each of them, a life that is real. And since it is better to feel the pain of the truth, than it is to hide the truth and numb ourselves from it—I let myself cry for a while.

Like so many other things in this life that start out invisibly—like the food we base our own lives upon—these humans start out so small, unseen and unheard, and yet, in time they become forces to be reckoned with! They become human beings, each one of them, made in the image and likeness of God Himself. We weep at the death of our loved ones who we cannot save. Death overtakes us all, until Jesus Christ finally puts an end to death. But do we have to keep crying also for the deaths of those who could be saved, even now?!

Can’t we put an end to the murder of invisible humans who are just waiting for a little more time to burst forth into view?!

~FS

Every Moment A Gift

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, thank you.

For this moment~

which I breathe in deeply,

so gratefully!

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, thank you.

For now~

which is filled with Your light,

and Your warmth!

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, thank you.

For this moment~

the wind blowing through the trees,

and the candle burning!

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, thank you.

For these gifts~

a sandwich to eat,

and water to drink!

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, thank you.

For this life~

every moment,

a gift!

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, thank you.

Come dwell with me,

Holy Spirit. 

Abide in me. 

I am but an empty husk, without your fruit.

~FS

An Immigrant’s Plea

If you are like me, you’ve spent the better part of a year now wearing a mask in most public places. And regardless of whether one agrees or not with the usefulness of a mask in fighting the spread of coronavirus, most of us have done so in order to be considerate of others, at the very least.

Personally, wearing a mask has led to headaches and muscle aches (for which I’ve even missed work as I recovered from these effects), so I’ve understood from early on in this pandemic, that there were going to be a host of extenuating circumstances—similar to mine—surrounding masks, which would never be discussed in any serious way, nor would allowances be given to us. We’d be asked to toe the line at any expense; and any objection would be cast as un-neighborly, selfish, and careless—perhaps even criminal.

Even so, we wanted to be good neighbors, so we put our misgivings (and difficulties) aside, and we went along with the protocols and mandates; and there have been many, many misgivings about the protocols employed to ‘supposedly’ rein in this virus. But still we’ve worn the masks, many of us even when we are alone (not certain why)!

Now we are nearly a year into this (mad) experiment, and many of us are growing mad about it. I try not to get angry, because it rarely helps anything. But I understand the feeling. And I was sitting by myself on the upper deck of the ferry recently. I sit up there in the breeze during my commute in order to keep to myself, and to go maskless. Officially, this isn’t allowed; we are mandated to wear masks in all public places, even outside, alone, on the ferry! But I’ve learned this year that breathing is more important to me, sometimes, than following the rules.

As I sat there reading, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, a ferry worker approaching me with her mask on, and I braced myself for a stern rebuke, or at least a reminder that it is mandated that I put my mask back on. I considered what I might say to her in my defense: perhaps a biological defense—that humans are made to exhale, we need to eliminate carbon dioxide and other waste products (this isn’t optional), and masking ourselves is detrimental to our health; or a sociological defense—that we are alienating ourselves from one another by hiding our faces, and this is unhealthy and detrimental to the fabric of our society; or a psychological defense—for those who feel trapped behind the mask, it increases anxiety and feelings of loneliness, depression and despair; or a spiritual defense—for those who don’t believe that the masks work (and there is plenty of real evidence for this [see Great Barrington Declaration] among other studies) what is the price for wearing them, and essentially lying against oneself for an entire year? To act contrary to one’s beliefs must be corrosive to the soul, I would think.

It is damaging to be a hypocrite against one’s own self, isn’t it? Even if it is done for a good cause, or with good intentions. And if we do this for too long, might we cause irreparable damage to our integrity? This is an honest question. To act in opposition to what we believe, even if done out of kindness for others, won’t this lead to a breakdown of the psyche, on some level? And then, if we no longer listen to our soul, will we eventually lose our ability to hear it? And if this happens, are we human any longer, or are we now merely automatons—robots and consumers, pure materialists doing only what we are told, and thinking only what we are told to think…

I considered these responses that I might make as the young woman came up and stood in front of me. I looked up at her expectantly, and she leaned forward conspiratorially, and pulled her mask down slightly just below her nose, and then said quietly while looking me straight in the eyes, “What are we going to do about these?” She pointed quickly to her mask.  

I was surprised. I hadn’t expected this from her. I smiled briefly and shrugged before she continued, “This is horrible. And they’ve increased the mandates. People are so angry about the masks, as they get on the ferry.”

“I’m so sorry,” I replied empathetically. “I understand how people feel, but they shouldn’t take it out on you. It isn’t your fault. You’re just doing your job. I know. But we need a break, we need a way out, don’t we?! I understand wearing a mask, if you are indoors in a confined space, or with the elderly. But in the fresh air? It’s too much, I think. They need to understand they are pushing people too far.”

She nodded agreement and then continued. “I am so sad. I came here from Ukraine. I escaped that, to come here, to be free. But now it is starting to happen here too. I’m so scared. I don’t want that.”

I voiced my support and asked her to tell me more about that. I recognized her accent now, and was interested in an immigrant’s perspective on our current situation. She seemed to consider the masks to be a symbol of a more widespread oppression occurring in our country, though she focused her concerns and fear on the mask mandate specifically, as if the masks were the clearest manifestation of our national illnesses.   

“I left communism. It is horrible. I love this country, but it is changing. I’m so sad. I’m scared, I don’t want it to become like Ukraine. My family escaped through Italy years ago. We can’t go back now. We are considered ‘Enemies of the People’ in the Ukraine. I have to be careful if I Skype with my family in Ukraine. I would get them in trouble.”

It seemed she must have trusted me, perhaps since I wasn’t wearing a mask. It seemed she saw me as someone who she might confide in without fear. I didn’t ask her why she came up to me, but as we talked, she smiled, and she became more relaxed, and even pulled her mask down under her chin briefly as she spoke, “People don’t read enough here, they don’t know what they have. They don’t know communism. They don’t understand why we left it to come here. This country is free. But I’m so sad. I don’t know what is going to happen here. It seems like it is becoming like where we escaped from.”  

She then apologized for interrupting me, and I assured her I was glad she had. We then introduced ourselves, at the end of our conversation and just prior to her continuing with her work, and leaving me to my reading. We said our goodbyes, and each expressed our hope of another future conversation. As she left me, I pondered everything she had said, and I reconsidered the slogans and mottos we’ve been taught this past year about wearing the mask. And I recognized a new reason to remove my mask in public—for the sake of our immigrants.

Imagine losing everything to leave the country you love in order to live in freedom. Only to find that country willingly giving up those freedoms. This young Ukrainian was afraid, and I believe she came to me, in some small way, for hope and for inspiration; and for some assurances that this country won’t make the same mistakes of previous ones that fell into totalitarianism. We are told to wear masks for the sake of others, and I’m okay with that, to a point. Yes, let’s protect the elderly and those who are vulnerable. But for the rest of us we need to breathe freely again. It’s time; it is way past time, I think. If you can’t take the mask off for yourself, do it for an immigrant from a communist country.

~FS

The Threshold

I stood staring at the edifice before me, present and real, so close that I could practically touch it, but not truly within reach, just beyond my grasp. It rose up from the earth and towered into the night sky, with something like vertical boards—streaked in red—peeling, and revealing a natural wood beneath; and as it rose to the stars, its sides converged into a peek, like the topmost part of a roof. And I saw that this could be my home, and it had been made for me, and all I had to do was enter. Yet, I couldn’t.

There wasn’t a light inside, but there might have been. The windows were darkened now, but at some time—in the not so distant past—they had been ablaze. Golden light had streamed forth from within and cast the outer landscape in a joyous hue. The rocks, which were strewn here and there upon the footpath that led away from the edifice had been golden, and they rested comfortably in the soil.

What was this place, if not a symbol of my eternal abode? An icon of paradise, or the doorway to it; but also lowering upon me like a casket—leaning, and appearing to be falling onto me. Snuffing out hope; or kindling hope? Perhaps both snuffing and kindling—snuffing false hopes and kindling truer ones.

I was as much a child of the earth as anyone. Just like you are, I’m supposing. And I didn’t want to take that step too quickly, not quite yet, not too soon. Even if the door is open and all it takes is a bit of effort, to light the dark, and to answer the call. No, I still had pain to live, and anxieties called me to listen; there is suffering yet to be had in the guise of desire.

And ambitions, didn’t they still have a role to play—to draw me (and to quarter me)? I jest, or I just play with words for a brief moment. Torture, surely passions would torture me when they could, or I might torture myself were I not protected. If another light didn’t light the way, when my light went dim, I could surely fall, and bruise much more than just my knees. And were it not for that other light, I would be in darkness indeed!

And all of this is simply to say, not so artfully, that I am in need. This world piles on, and over us, and on and on, piling ever on; and we run, we run and try to hide, or try to find, that special peace: that is just around the corner, just over the hill, just beyond the horizon, or streaming from an icon. And all the while, God is watching, watching over us, and waiting, waiting for us.

That edifice—our home—it has a threshold, that we must step over—if we are to enter. What does it take, to take that step? Courage, determination, peace. They say that home is where the heart is. So shall we enter our home across the threshold of our heart? Will we find that glimmer of paradise here, and shining into the world to come?

~FS

Who Are You?

I was raised in a time and place—another world really—where we believed that every man and woman, and child even, was worthy and valuable, and each person possessed an inherent dignity by simple virtue of existing. It didn’t matter what color their skin, or what they believed, or where they came from. Admittedly, we didn’t all practice this perfectly, but it was what was taught and what we learned, and how we tried to live with one another; it was the noble goal of our lives, even when we failed to live it out.

In fact, we were taught—and we believed it—that everyone was made in the image and likeness of God. Imagine that! And though each of us failed to live up to that likeness, still, the essence of who we were was divine and filled with dignity. And armed with this belief it was near impossible to see another human being as a thing—an object—or to look down upon them for any reason.

However, this did not mean that we weren’t held to high standards of conduct, in all things; we were made in God’s image after all! So, certainly there were reasons to admonish, or suggest, or instruct one another—to guide—when one of us inevitably lost our way; as it happened to all of us from time to time. And this was an aspect of our love; upholding what was Godly in one another, and therefore most noble and pure within us, and also what is most essentially true about our being human.

But now I live in a new world—and in this time and place—God is being forgotten. And by extension, our awareness of human divinity is also fading away. Now, if one suggests that all people, regardless of race or religion or political affiliation, are created in God’s image and likeness, we might hear in response, “God who?!”

Instead, the people in this world have been taught, and they believe it: “I think, therefore I am! And therefore what I think I am—this is what I am!” What they are, is no longer dependent upon God, but simply upon what they think. More efficient, less complicated, remove the middleman; nobody is the boss of me any longer!

I had the strange experience to visit a place recently—I won’t mention exactly where—but a place populated by folks who had, from a very early age, all been taught that they were not at all the sum of their parts, but completely on the contrary, they were all taught to identify their entire personhood with a mere portion of themselves. They had complete freedom to choose what part they wanted to be, they could be their race, or their gender, or whatever they fancied; in fact, even if they wished to be something that had no relation to themselves at all, they were entitled to be that, if they had the compulsion and desire.

Oh, the freedom they all enjoyed! Whatever they thought they were, suddenly they became that thing! It was a magical place; though it seemed unreal, and in the end, it made me a little bit sad. They could be anything they wanted; but they never knew who they really were.

One group I met there was particularly fascinating to me. They had been raised, of course, like everyone else in this place, with the mantra, “What I think I am, this I am”, but this sect had also been taught from the very beginning: “You are what you eat!” Now to you and me, this is more of a figurative statement, but for them it was literal fact.  And so some believed themselves to be hamburgers, while others were certain that they were soda-pop, and nearly all of them believed, to various degrees, that they were French fries.

They clearly didn’t eat very well. But apart from their poor nutrition, I was concerned for their mental and emotional well-being. And, coming from the world that I did, I also cared deeply about their spiritual health; I could clearly see they were made in God’s image and likeness, even if they couldn’t see it. I wanted to help them see and believe they were more than simply what they ate. They were more than what they thought, or what they felt; and they were more than a mere small portion of themselves—even if they identify deeply with that part—even if they were taught, and believed and accepted, that their complex personhood could be reduced to a mere hamburger.  

So I tried to explain this to them, but you know, folks don’t like being told things. I was accused of hating them, since I didn’t accept what they thought they were. And if I couldn’t see that they were really French fries, then I was obviously a bigot, and I should work on myself, and maybe get my eyes checked. “But!” I protested, “You all can be, and are, so much more than merely what you eat…or simply what you think. Yes, you might be anything, but not in this way; this isn’t really freedom after all. You are an entire human being, a whole and unique part of this wide and grand human family; and this already means that you are something quite special and spectacular!”

And had it been a former time and place—the old world—they might have listened to me; but needless to say—in this world—they canceled me. And when I got back home again, I received an email from their lawyers, inviting me to learn more about people who think they are food. So that I might become a more loving and accepting person in the future.

~FS

Alone on Calvary

When I look death in the eyes, I hesitate to think, of you whom I’ve built my life upon. But then I wonder, where did you go—after you promised to protect me from this fate? How is it that I don’t perceive your presence?! But perhaps your still small voice—which my faith, if it were stronger—might perceive, would give me courage not to blink, as I consider this my death. And when I bring you to my mind, I remember, no, you never promised to protect us from this fate—but rather to save us afterwards.

You said this different word, with greater meaning; though somehow now, it’s still cold comfort with death staring me in the face. And I hear the clock is ticking—hear it tick—ticking away my time; and I wait, or I run (it makes no difference) until death comes for me. Then, I shall see you, won’t I see you? Then will I see you come for me?  To comfort me?!

Calvary was long ago—too long it seems, for me to know; but still I strain, to hear your still small voice. And I like to imagine you dressed in white, upon a mighty steed; and a battle cry—a thousand angels at your side—and all coming to rescue me! And if you’ll lead this holy cavalry; would you also come for me?!

Faith is such a fickle thing; it dances on the winds. Feel it slip between our fingers, as we grasp it with both hands. Or if we stretch our arms out wide, and hug the sky from side to side, faith still may not embrace us, though we try with all our might.

~FS